Noel Marshall: Diplomat and yachtsman

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Noel Marshall was a career diplomat and an exceptional yachtsman. He was born with a badly deformed foot, and the leg had to be amputated below the knee. He never allowed this handicap to constrain his enjoyment of dancing, skiing, and above all of the sea.

Marshall was born in 1934 in London. His father, Dr Hedley Marshall, was a distinguished City Treasurer of Coventry for 20 years, and a keen music critic. Noël, who greatly admired him, was educated at Leighton Park, the Quaker School in Reading, and spent a year at Lawrenceville School, New Jersey, as an English-Speaking Union exchange scholar. He read economics and law at St John's College, Cambridge, and was President of the Cambridge Union in 1957. It was at school and university that he developed his skills as a compiler and performer of comic sketches. His dry wit was invaluable at his more remote diplomatic postings, where the local idea of entertainment was sometimes rather glum.

He joined the Foreign Service on leaving university and served in Prague, Moscow, Pakistan, Ulan Bator, the British mission to the European Community (as it was then called), and the disarmament delegation in Geneva. He was awarded a CMG in 1986. He returned to Moscow as deputy head of the embassy in 1986 during the exciting years of Gorbachev's perestroika. He retired in 1993 as ambassador to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

Marshall was a precise and rather old-fashioned diplomat, punctilious, reliable in judgement, an exceptionally kind and thoughtful colleague. His time in Eastern Europe left him fascinated with the Slav world. But although he was no Cold Warrior, he was always sceptical about the potential for real change in Russia. Like President Reagan, he believed in the motto "Doveryai, no proveryai" – show trust, but check first – though his pronunciation was, of course, better than the President's.

Marshall's seamanship was outstanding. He was adventurous but never rash. He never berated even the most incompetent member of his crew, and he was calm and encouraging even in the worst of weather. For years he had crewed for friends, but once retired he bought his own boat. He named her Sadko, after the legendary Russian voyager, and began a circumnavigation of the globe which lasted from 1994 to 1997 and took him through the Panama Canal to the islands of the Pacific, Japan and the remoter parts of north-east Russia.

He could not always arrange a crew for these distant places, and he sailed for many thousands of miles by himself. For this voyage he received awards from all the main cruising associations: the Challenge Cup from the Royal Cruising Club, the Rose Medal of the Ocean Cruising Club and the Lacey Trophy of the Cruising Association. On his return, Marshall had Sadko II built to his personal requirements, and took her on her maiden voyage in 2003 to Archangel in the wake of Richard Chancellor, who 450 years earlier had been the first Englishman to sail to Russia.

In 2006/7 he made his last voyage, to the Antarctic Peninsula and to Elephant Island, where James Wordie, former Master of St John's, Marshall's Cambridge college, had spent the winter of 1916 as the geologist on Shackleton's epic expedition. Marshall had prepared a plaque to mark the event but the strict provisions of the Antarctic Treaty prevented him from leaving it there. He took a ceremonial photograph instead and brought the original back to be erected in St John's. It was on the way home that he began to feel the first symptoms of cancer. For this voyage of a lifetime, as he called it, he won the RCC Challenge Cup for a second time.

Perhaps because of his disability, there was an air of austere melancholy about him. His stoical view of life did not depend on religion, though it doubtless owed something to his Quaker schooling. He was reserved in his friendships: few people got to know him really well. He had many devoted women friends, and we who were fond of him hoped that he might eventually get married and settle down.

He never did. But he found a ready-made family in the shape of his schoolfriend Robert Maxwell, his wife, their children and relations. When he was in England he lived in a neighbouring cottage, and it was they who were with him in his final months. Characteristically, he had fought his illness long enough to put his affairs in order, and then died as he had lived, a man of the utmost courage, fortitude and integrity.

Rodric Braithwaite and Robert Maxwell

Noël Hedley Marshall, diplomat and yachtsman: born London 26 November 1934; entered Foreign Service 1957; staff, Foreign Office 1961-63, 1970-74, Head of North America Department 1982-85; Second (later First) Secretary, Moscow 1963-65; First Secretary (Economic), Karachi 1966-67; First Secretary (Economic), Rawalpindi 1967-70; First Secretary (later Counsellor) Press, Office of UK Permanent Representative to European Communities, Brussels 1974-77; Counsellor, UK Delegation to Committee on Disarmament, Geneva 1978-81; CMG 1986; UK Permanent Representative to Council of Europe 1990-93; died 16 August 2008.