BOOK REVIEW / Memories of clockwork mice and mangy lions: 'Dealing with Dictators' - Frank Roberts: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 25 pounds

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The Independent Online
DIPLOMATIC memoirs come in two main categories: those by heavyweight former ambassadors who have been on the 'inner circuit' of Whitehall, Washington, Paris and Moscow; and those, often more entertaining, by the lesser lights of the outer circuit. A classic of the first genre was The Ruling Few by Sir David Kelly, ex-Moscow; of the second, A Pattern of Islands by Sir Arthur Grimble, Governor of the Windward Islands.

Sir Frank Roberts, formerly ambassador to Yugoslavia, Nato, the Soviet Union and West Germany, is not the only recently retired diplomat to have put his memoirs on the market. He is joined by Sir Denis Greenhill (More by Accident, Wilton, pounds 16.95), sometime No 2 in Washington, never an ambassador but eventually head of the Foreign Office; and Arthur Kellas, (Down to Earth, Pentland, pounds 10), an Arabist and typical outer circuit man, a High Commissioner in Tanzania.

Frank Roberts, sometimes known when he was in Bonn as 'the clockwork mouse' on account of his diminutive stature and inexhaustible energy, had the high-flyer's knack of being in the right place at the right moment. He was in London at the time of the infamous Munich agreement and during much of the Second World War: interpreting between Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill was among his duties. He was in Yalta with Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin; private secretary to Ernie Bevin when the future of post-war Germany was being haggled over; and in Moscow in the Khrushchev era and the Cuban missile crisis. His book includes fresh and lively insights into the difficulties of dealing with the Polish government-in-exile in London after the Russians, whom they hated, had become our allies; and into diplomatic life in Moscow immediately after the war and in the early Sixties. Diplomats generally have a strong line in anecdotes, and Roberts has plenty. We see Khrushchev, for instance, apologising for likening Britain to a mangy lion that has lost its teeth and tail, then pretending he was a Russian bear and picking up Britain's protesting ambassador in his arms before sending for drinks and asking to be forgiven.

Occasionally one glimpses the steely callousness of which officials are capable. On hearing an anecdote about the Indonesian President Ahmed Sukarno in Moscow, Roberts says: 'Indonesia, however, was a great disappointment to the Russians . . . having had a lot of American aid, they got rid of their Communists, rather roughly, and moved out of the Soviet orbit.' This is an odd way to refer to the butchering of several hundred thousand innocent Indonesians.

Denis Greenhill is a very different type, from a very different background. Roberts was born in Argentina, where his father was opening up what would become Unilever in South America; and he glittered at Rugby and Oxford. Greenhill came from a suburban Essex background, and became a graduate trainee with the London North Eastern Railway, which taught him much about his fellow men - as did four war years in the Royal Engineers as a quartermaster.

Service in Egypt - coincidentally, both he and Roberts met their future wives in wartime Cairo - helped secure Greenhill a position in the Foreign Office's new Middle East department in 1945. But his first foreign posting, to Bulgaria in the grips of winter and Stalinism, could scarcely have been grimmer. Any faintly pro-Western Bulgarian contact or friend was liable to be shot. Fortunately, he was expelled after 18 months on a trumped-up charge of espionage, proceeding to Washington on the first of two postings there.

Compared with Roberts's brisk style, Greenhill's tends to be flat, even banal, but his book is genuine and full of good stories, especially from his final period as head of the Foreign Office. Golda Meir, we learn, sensed a shift of sympathy away from Israel and announced in her Brooklyn accent at the start of a meeting with Edward Heath shortly after he became Prime Minister: 'Mr Prime Minister, Israel lives in a bad neighbourhood and we ain't gonna move'.

Unlike both Roberts and Greenhill, Arthur Kellas is a true writer. His memoirs concern not his later diplomatic career but his five years as a paratroop officer in Britain, North Africa and Greece. Rarely can the frustrations of fighting-fit men waiting for action have been so well described, or indeed the confusion of armed encounter. Kellas filled his diaries with the humour of his men and the delights of tumbling with local girls. With luck he will not deny us an account of his diplomatic days.