Sir Richard Faber

Diplomat and writer
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The Independent Online

Richard Stanley Faber, diplomat and writer: born London 6 December 1924; staff, Foreign Service (later Diplomatic Service) 1950-81, head of the Rhodesia Political Department, FCO 1967-69, counsellor, The Hague 1969-73, counsellor, Cairo 1973-75, Assistant Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 1975-77, ambassador to Algeria 1977-81; CMG 1977; KCVO 1980; Honorary Treasurer, Royal Society of Literature 1986-91; died Brighton, East Sussex 18 October 2007.

Richard Faber was a young man of outstanding talent who, in his own eyes at least, never fulfilled the expectations held for him. He was born in 1924, in a Kensington nursing home; his father was a prosperous brewer who was soon to leave the family firm to embark on a more hazardous career in publishing. After a few, by his own account, miserable years at the Dragon School in Oxford, Dick Faber won a scholarship to Westminster and embarked on a decade of glittering success. He was head of the school at Westminster, got a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, and emerged in due course, having spent a term as President of the Union, with a First in Greats and only narrowly missing a Fellowship at All Souls.

Meanwhile, between 1943 and 1946, he had fitted in three years in the Royal Navy, never seeing action but serving in South East Asia and taking part in the mercifully unopposed landing on the Malaysian coast, Operation Zipper.

His father hoped that he would join him as a publisher, thus incarnating the so-far mythical second Faber in what was now the highly successful house of Faber and Faber. Dick Faber played briefly with the idea, but in the end took the Foreign Office entrance examination and, having passed, decided to make diplomacy his career. As it happened, he spent 13 years in Arab countries or working on Arab affairs in London, but he avoided specialisation and served in Paris and Washington as well as The Hague and Abidjan.

His life as a diplomat would probably have been happier if he had had a wife to share it with, but he suffered from the well-known syndrome of believing that he could not possibly marry any woman who would be ready to marry him and various tentative forays towards matrimony were quickly aborted. He matured into a highly competent Foreign Service Officer, with a reputation for mild eccentricity and an occasional tendency to treat visiting dignitaries with a brusqueness which was not always appreciated.

His most interesting job was probably that of head of the Rhodesia Political Department – a task taken on at a time when the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Relations Department had only recently merged and the relationship between the two was still uneasy. Ian Smith had proclaimed a Unilateral Declaration of Independence in November 1965, Harold Wilson's talks with him aboard HMS Tiger had collapsed in December 1966, Faber took over the department in 1967.

His personal view was that the less we had to do with Rhodesia, the better it would be for everyone, and that our policy should aim towards rapid and total disengagement. Wilson would probably privately have agreed with him, but politically no British government could dare to wash its hands of Rhodesia and the situation did not notably evolve while Faber was in charge of the department.

His last post was that of ambassador in Algiers, a period marked by a royal visit, which meant that Faber in 1980 was dubbed KCVO to add to the CMG he had been awarded in 1977. He could have expected another post, but he was by now suffering from a debilitating kidney disease which was to plague him for the rest of his life, and when he missed being sent as ambassador to The Hague, a post after which he hankered, he opted for early retirement. "I was sorry for this," he wrote, "and perhaps sorrier for myself than I should have been."

The rest of his life, indeed the closing stages of his diplomatic career, were marked by this mildly lachrymose approach to life. He was an excellent companion with a wide range of interests, generous, tolerant, often amusing, but there was more than a touch of the Eeyore in his expectation of the worst and gloomy satisfaction when his forebodings were fulfilled.

By the time he retired, however, he was already established in a second career. His first book, Beaconsfield and Bolingbroke (1961), about Benjamin Disraeli (later the Earl of Beaconsfield) and Viscount Bolingbroke, was acclaimed as intelligent, perceptive and a significant contribution to the understanding of two complex personalities. In this it was typical of all his writing. "He has written several volumes of elegant style and much acumen," wrote Lord Blake. He never wrote a best-seller or aspired to do so but his books gave much pleasure to a band of discriminating readers.

His best-known work was probably French and English (1975), a thoughtful and entertaining study of national characteristics, but The Vision and the Need: late Victorian Imperial aims (1966) and Proper Station: class in Victorian fiction (1971) were both essential reading for anyone interested in 19th-century thought and society. They were also, however, books designed for a small and sadly diminishing readership; by the time he finished his autobiography, A Chain of Cities, in 2000 it was becoming increasingly hard to interest any commercial publisher in his writing.

After his retirement Faber led a nomadic life, moving from flat to flat at intervals of a year or two. This hobby – for so he admitted it had become – infuriated his friends, who could never remember where he lived and found the F section of their address books filling up with disconcerting speed, but seemed to give him satisfaction. Books, music, the crossword puzzle filled his time pleasantly enough, but for the last 25 years of his life he was never truly well and it became increasingly difficult to coax him up to London, let alone further afield. His death was a cause for sadness among his friends and relations, but came as no real surprise.

Philip Ziegler