FIRST-HAND Is British Embassy life an outdated extravagance? Susan Crosland points out it serves a purpose
WHEN MY husband became Foreign Secretary in 1976, he was not particularly happy with his appointment. He was quite recalcitrant with the Foreign Office, wondering whether there was any point in meeting all the Ambassadors before he had time to mug up on all their countries. The first time we went to the British Embassy in Tokyo, where the entire diplomatic compound was extremely visible, he wondered how necessary it was. However, after the bumpy start, he felt happier when he had got on top of the job.

I first went with him to the British Embassy in Paris, before he was Foreign Secretary in the early Seventies. There the opulence was so conspicuous - the French like that sort of thing - that it took my breath away, every corridoor lined with ornate furniture, elaborately carved mirrors and so on. But I don't remember reacting to it in a puritanical way so much as with amusement. Although I didn't hanker to live in such a place, I didn't come out of it purple faced with rage at the grandeur.

The national showcase I came to know best was the British Embassy in Washington DC. Designed by Lutyens, who was the last great English country house architect, it stands within its grounds in stately symmetry with brick walls and white columns. I entered the front door to find a great, soaring hall with the famous double staircase leading to the reception rooms and the Ambassadors' beloved wood-panelled library. The suite we were staying in was enormous, like a large, elegant, prime suite in a very grand country house.

Although there were untold numbers of bureaucrats somewhere in the offices, I didn't encounter them. The embassy seemed more like a beautifully-run, stately home with servants visible only when there was something useful to be done, rather than standing about making little bobs.

Naturally there was also a sense of formality and hierarchy, with the Ambassador as the big white chief. But because the British have a genius for making an official home seem personal, the public rooms are decorated to disguise their real purpose, which is business.

Of course you don't need such a large residence as the Washington Embassy, but for heavens' sake, surely they could convert a few of the bedrooms to other purposes rather than tearing down a splendid piece of British architecture?

My most dramatic - and unfortunate - moment at that embassy was when the Queen made a state visit to celebrate the two hundreth anniversary of Britain's defeat by the Americans. Every type of elegant razzmatazz was at the dinner for President Gerald Ford: the Stourbridge goblets, Georgian silver, gold plate, the whole shebang.

There I was two seats away from the Queen, ravenous after a tight-scheduled onerous day, about to embark on an exquisite five-course meal. I took two mouthfuls of soup and thought it the most disgusting soup I had ever tasted. Then I realised that this was because I was about to faint and began to drink goblets of water hoping to stave it off. I must have turned pale, for the Queen's footman appeared at my shoulder bearing a large bottle "When her Majesty is unwell, she sometimes finds that Malvern water helps." I then distinguished myself by fainting and breaking my jaw, ending up in the President's suite in Bethesda Hospital. The poor old Queen's and President's doctors got blood on their cuffs and missed most of their dinner too.

People get irritated by the idea of embassy parties to celebrate occasions like the Queen's birthday. But what these situations represent is an opportunity for politicians, industrialists, journalists, the military and visiting dignitaries to network with ease.

Obviously the ex-pats who reside in a foreign country have to be asked too, and during one party one ex-pat resident suffering from folie de grandeur clearly thought herself to be above the whole situation. She became so drunk and so very objectionable that in the end it required careful assistance from various people, including a General, to get her home.

Just the thought of the Foreign Office as an idea gets up many people's noses - those crisp accents, the in-jokes of those who come out of the same stable (in other words straight from university), the sense they convey of preferring company who will share their cultural interests. But to my mind two key issues are often confused. The Foreign Office is supposed to be about foreign policy, but in reality its principal purpose now is to stimulate British trade. So today you have to decide whether trade requires a glamorous national showcase or not.

lInterview by Katie Sampson. `The Magnates', by Susan Crosland, will be Penguin's lead fiction title for August.