Obituary: Desmond Crawley
Tuesday 18 May 1993
FROM ADMINISTRATOR under the Raj to diplomat in the Commonwealth, from the sub-continent to West Africa, and, finally, from behind the Iron Curtain to the Vatican, Desmond Crawley's career put him in interesting places at interesting times. Add en route a spell in London involved in the beginning of the GATT, two years as Private Secretary to three Secretaries of State for Commonwealth Relations (Ismay, Salisbury and Swinton), with a posting to Washington to help explain Britain's new role in the Commonwealth. It was a diverse enough menu for anyone. Crawley worked through it with increasing professionalism, panache and relish.
With his father a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Marine Artillery, often abroad, Crawley came naturally to the idea of a career overseas. He was a King's Scholar at Ely, went on to read history at Queen's College, Oxford, and, after a further year in training for the Indian Civil Service, went out, green and still rather shy, to the Madras Presidency in 1939. But being thrown into independent responsibility steeled him - not least when it was his job as a sub-collector, over three days and nights, to comb the beaches by Chittacole for survivors and corpses washed ashore after Japanese naval air attacks on merchant ships in the Bay of Bengal. Indeed, as the years went on, he became, when he wished, a very formidable man to deal with - the more so because he could at times be disturbingly unconventional. After Bulgarian Army support for the Soviet occupation of Prague in 1968 his Austin Princess - known locally as the 'Rolls-Royski' - led a convoy of other Western ambassadors into Sofia in a very public boycott of an international trade fair, under the noses of Todor Zhivkov, the Bulgarian Prime Minister, and the entire Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party.
Crawley both matched and belied the stereotype of the British diplomat. He had presence and style, silver hair, imposing voice, charming smile (chilling to a bleak gaze when needed), the pipe, the glass of whisky - going back to those long hot evenings in south India. Yet he was the least pompous of men, the first to laugh at himself, and hugely unselfconscious.
In Sierra Leone, his first independent command, the Army Chief of Staff, hurrying to present condolences on the death of Sir Winston Churchill, but not having given advance notice, was courteously received by an imperturbable High Commissioner emerging from his routine siesta with the usual large towel round his middle.
Crawley's impish humour reinforced his professionalism and commitment to the promotion of British interests. Very different postings brought out his versatility. His directness and ready laugh won him respect and trust in Sierra Leone at a time when close relations with the ex-colonial power were suspect. Suspicion of quite another order and the frustrations of limited and largely formal official contacts brought him different challenges in Bulgaria, his first posting outside the Commonwealth. But his perseverance on commercial and consular issues and determination not to be pushed around, brought the tribute from Mr Popov, the Bulgarian Deputy Foreign Minister, that he was a 'very modern ambassador'. Perhaps Crawley's demarche against the treatment of long-haired British youths - intercepted at the border and told to cut their hair (nail-scissors were provided) or go to jail, had something to do with it. After his fierce protest, a smiling reminder that they both had teenage children, and that Popov had better get into action with the scissors himself, brought roars of laughter.
The diplomatic agility shown in Sofia led to Crawley's own road ending in Rome in 1970, as Minister to the Holy See. Here he showed particular deftness of touch. He arrived when Pope Paul VI was about to canonise 40 English Catholics martyred 400 years ago, and was later involved with issues of Second Vatican Council ecumenism, and Northern Ireland. Archbishop Benelli, with whom he dealt in the Curia, called him the ablest diplomat in the Vatican Corps.
He might also have called him the most courageous. Typically, Crawley shrugged off his narrow escape from an IRA bomb, set off at the window of his residence - 'il self-control inglese', the Roman papers called it.
Throughout his career, his wife Daphne, whom he married in Ootacamund in 1945, was a constant and loving support, elegant yet down-to- earth, gentle yet as tough-minded as he was. They matched each other in kindness and thoughtfulness to their friends, and particularly their staff, winning respect and affection wherever they were posted.
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