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Brian Hitch

Energetic diplomat, musician and linguist

Brian Hitch was a brilliant and versatile musician and linguist, who was also a much-admired diplomat: I think that is putting things in the right order.

Brian Hitch, diplomat: born Wisbech, Cambridgeshire 2 June 1932; Third/Second Secretary, Tokyo 1955-61; staff, Foreign Office 1961-62; Second/First Secretary, Havana 1962-64; First Secretary, Athens 1965-68; First Secretary and Head of Chancery, Tokyo 1968-72; Assistant Head, Southern European Dept, FCO 1972-73; Deputy Head, later Head, Marine and Transport Dept, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 1973-75; Counsellor, Bonn 1975-77; Counsellor, Algiers 1977-80; CVO 1980; Consul-General, Munich 1980-84; Minister, Tokyo 1984-87; CMG 1985; High Commissioner to Malta 1988-91; Director, Diploma in European Studies, Oxford University 1991-96; Fellow, Rowley House (later Kellogg College), Oxford 1991-96 (Emeritus); married 1955 Margot Wooller (two daughters); died Oxford 3 August 2004.

Brian Hitch was a brilliant and versatile musician and linguist, who was also a much-admired diplomat: I think that is putting things in the right order.

His first posting on joining the Foreign Office in 1955 was to Japan, as Third Secretary/Language Student, where he was an enthusiastic member of the Tokyo Madrigal Society, and a sought-after organist and piano accompanist, as he was for the rest of his life.

Successive appointments - in Cuba, Greece, Tokyo again (as Head of Chancery), as Counsellor in Bonn and in Algiers, Consul-General in Munich, Minister in Tokyo and finally, in 1988-91, as High Commissioner to Malta - put him into a variety of situations and responsibilities, mainly political in their agenda. In all of them, his charm, energy, lack of pomposity, linguistic strengths and, not least, commitment to music, won him much admiration and many friends.

In every posting, he either knew the language already or made it his business to learn it quickly. Spanish, in Cuba, was "easy" (at least for Hitch); he acquired Greek within a few months, by staying with a family in Salonika; Bonn and Munich were no problem at all; each appointment in Japan simply refined his amazing skills. In Algiers, he already had French, but Arabic was a new and welcome challenge. Finally, on Malta, he at once decided to hire a private tutor in Maltese (something no diplomat previously had ever done), and was soon claimed to be the readiest pupil she had ever had.

But more than the love of language, music was Hitch's passion. In Cuba, despite the rocket crisis (with the resolution of which he was much concerned), some of his chamber music sessions went on until 2am. The period in Algiers was perhaps less fruitful than the others from this point of view, but the German postings were wonderfully exciting: Hitch's deep knowledge of German culture (language, literature, art and music) made him many friends, in every kind of cultural circle.

He was a man full of eagerness, energy, enjoyment and ebullience. From what used to be called "humble origins", he made his way through the world and through life with an infectious zest. He was born in Wisbech in 1932, the elder child and only son of a shoe-repairer and his wife. Passing the 11 plus, he went to Wisbech Grammar School, where he was soon spotted as an exceptional all-round talent, with special gifts in languages and in music. His teachers, and some of his teachers' wives, willingly gave him out-of-school encouragement in several practical ways. He became FRCO and LRAM while still at school, and won a scholarship in Modern Languages to Magdalene College, Cambridge.

The family story is that he first developed his passion for languages by overhearing some German strawberry-pickers when he was a small boy, and trying to get into conversation with them. He was also fascinated by the church hymn-book first lines in the original (German, Latin, Greek), which he tried to match with the translations.

Before he took up his Cambridge scholarship, Hitch spent 18 months of National Service, not very happily, as an RAF radar operator. But he enjoyed Cambridge. On going down, he passed first equal in the Foreign Office entrance examination, having already married Margot Wooller, daughter of a Sussex farmer, whom he had met on a sixth-form visit to France. Though she had not chosen the role, Margot managed to rise to all the demands of a diplomat's wife, including in distant days the need for elbow-length gloves.

On Malta, though Hitch was happy and effective in a place which some might regard as a backwater, in 1991 there came the chance of a new branching-out. His old colleague from Japan, Sir Sydney Giffard, was visiting, and told him there was a job going at Rowley House (now Kellogg College), at Oxford University - Director, Diploma in European Studies. Within a few days, Hitch secured this post, and for six years it proved to be a marvellous decision: he had much to do with attracting Japanese (and other Asian) mature students to the place.

After his retirement from this in 1996, Hitch continued to give great help to music groups, in Oxford and elsewhere. He installed an organ in his own house, and played it with panache. Musicians with whom he played have told me that he made them feel better musicians than they really were. He certainly made me feel cleverer and more knowledgeable than I really am - about Japan and the Japanese language, for instance.

Hitch was always an original, not a smooth FO type. He was glad to sign an anti-Iraq war letter, along with 50-odd other ex-diplomats: he was never an apparatchik.

But it isn't for his views that one remembers Brian Hitch: it is for his rich and invigorating appetite for life, language, music, which he communicated to so many people in many different parts of the world.

Anthony Thwaite