From behind the embassy wall: The diaries of Sir Nicholas Henderson, distinguished British diplomat, are published this week, five years after they were suppressed by the Government. Read these extracts and wonder who was worried and why

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BETWEEN 1969 and 1982, as ambassador successively in Warsaw, Bonn, Paris and Washington, I kept a series of diaries chronicling not only the high affairs of state in which I was involved, but some of the pertinent and less pertinent minutiae of diplomatic life. I completed preparation of the diaries for publication in June 1989 and submitted them, as every public servant must, to the government of the day for authorisation. The response was an official embargo.

The authorities were not specific about what they objected to. I gained the impression that they were not focusing on anything in particular. They seemed to regard the whole text as just not the sort of thing that anyone who has been in my position should think of exposing to the light of day. I fully recognise the need for ministers to be able to deal freely with their colleagues and officials without fear that what they say in confidence is going to be revealed in a way that might embarrass them later in their conduct of public affairs. For this reason I refrained from committing to paper, and omitted from publication, a good deal of material about which I knew restraint had to be exercised. If you have been a public servant for any length of time you cannot be indifferent to the moral wheelclamp of Whitehall. In correspondence with officials, I stressed that in my diaries I had no intention of doing anything that would harm the Foreign Office, an institution to which I owe loyalty.

There was no question of the diaries revealing state secrets. The problem seemed to lie with the rules of confidentiality, as laid down in the report of the Radcliffe committee in 1975. These rules, intended to apply to ministers and officials alike, govern the disclosure of information within 15 years. I was still puzzled, though, as these restrictions are strictly defined and affect only disclosures relating either to confidential exchanges between ministers or to the views of, or official advice given to, the ministers of one government divulged to the ministers of another.

I decided to wait. April this year marked the passing of 15 years since my retirement from the Diplomatic Service upon leaving the embassy in Paris in 1979. My diaries up to that time no longer fell within the Radcliffe rules and I was free to publish. This was accepted by the authorities, but they still questioned the publication of the diaries relating to my time in Washington - 1979 to 1982. In fact, I was not technically an official then - having come out of retirement to take the post - and was thus in the same position as anyone else who had served the government in a non- official capacity. Many publications by non-officials had appeared recently that took scant account of the confidentiality rule. Anyway, I did not think that my text infringed that rule in any way.

Nonetheless, the authorities said that I must let them have my diaries relating to the Washington period. If agreement could not be reached, they said, the matter would have to be referred to the Prime Minister. Lady Thatcher and all recent ministerial authors had done that. I agreed to submit the final text, and did so last December. Since then, I have heard nothing further and can only presume that the original embargo no longer applies.

Now that my diaries are finally seeing the light of day, readers may perhaps feel let down when they fail to find such seismic revelations or indiscretions as the news of the embargo may have encouraged them to expect. I hope, however, that they will find much else to inform and entertain.

Sir Nicholas Henderson

Warsaw - 20 January, 1972.

Ping pong with the Chinese

WITH THE Warsaw winter diving into its second month, ping pong has come into its own. I decided to challenge the Chinese embassy to a match. Much publicity has been given lately to ping-pong diplomacy, to the readiness of the Chinese to make contact across the ping pong table when they appear reluctant to do so otherwise. Why not, I thought, combine business with pleasure and see whether the Chinese in Warsaw would be prepared to be more forthcoming?

At some national-day party - the stock-exchange for the marketing of diplomatic issues in Warsaw - I proposed a match to the Chinese ambassador. His reaction was to laugh unrestrainedly for several minutes. But I could not make out whether or not he accepted the challenge. I met him again a week or two later at the Chinese embassy, where he was giving a party to say goodbye. I renewed the proposal. He accepted but said that I would have to settle details with the charge after his departure.

I thereupon wrote to the charge suggesting a match in the embassy residence, on a certain Sunday at 5.30pm, three players each side. About a week later, a telephone message came through from the Chinese embassy accepting the date and saying that seven Chinese would be coming, the charge, Lei Yang, the third secretary, Pei Yuang Ying, two interpreters and three players, whose names, none of which appeared on the diplomatic list, were Len Aw Kay, Sen Tan Son and Wan Su Mee.

The embassy asked for the names of the British team and I sent a message back saying they would be as followed: Mr J N Henderson; Mr Ian Chalmers; A N Other. The last name struck me as particularly suitable for the occasion.

A few days later a further call came from the Chinese embassy: 'We have learnt that His Excellency Her Britannic Majesty's Ambassador is himself taking part in the event. We immediately realised that His Excellency could not be expected to play against common sportsmen. Our team has therefore been reconstructed as follows: the charge; the third secretary, Pei Yuang Ying, and Tzu Jung Szeng.'

In the last few days before the match we went in for intense ping pong training. We selected Pete Talbot as the third member of the team, partly because he had served in Peking and had picked up the Chinese manner of playing the game, including the way of holding the bat and serving with Oriental cunning. We thought it would give a more professional look. A number of other preparations were made. I purchased Chinese balls in place of the far-from-round Polish ones. I took up the carpet below the table. We tried to improve the lighting. We laid in plenty of China tea.

As the cars drove up to the door and a large group of Chinese piled out, I could not help wondering what the Polish security police must be making of the occasion. I could imagine some puzzled telephoning from one end of Warsaw to the other.

The charge and his retinue came smiling up our large staircase. They were all wearing the same tunics, buttoned up to the neck, and black shoes. They did not look like sportsmen of any kind, common or otherwise. I introduced my team. We offered tea and cakes with much subtle joking about it being Chinese, not Indian tea. Our guests smiled but I soon perceived that they smiled all the time. I explained how I thought we should organise the match: the order and number of games, etc. They smiled without demur. The struggle began.

In the first two encounters the Chinese made mincemeat of Ian and Pete. It was then my turn to play against the charge. He was evidently not much of an athlete and I won easily. He was very sporting about it, but said that he would not be playing any more. He frequently leant on the table with one arm, suggesting that he might be suffering from heart trouble. I offered him Pilsner beer. From then on we all abandoned the tea and drank beer. The match then went entirely the Chinese way . . . The overall result was a defeat of one to eight, a serious loss of face for us.

We all shook hands. The third secretary, who in his last game had been prevailed upon to remove his jacket, put it on again. The charge asked if we would accept a challenge to a return match in the Chinese embassy. They had a gymnasium where there were tables and space for volleyball. I accepted eagerly. 'Do most of you play every day?' I asked.

'Yes,' the charge said, with an even more expansive smile, one so pervasive and dominating that it seemed to hang at the top of the stairs long after the grim tunic with the Mao badge had disappeared.

Paris - 19 April, 1976.

In a gilded cage

RECENTLY, one beautiful spring morning, a budgerigar appeared at the window of my office. It sat on the balcony rail and gave every impression of wanting to come in, which was not surprising I suppose, given the fact that my office resembles a gilded cage - even more gaudy than anything he could have escaped from. I opened the window and in it flew, perching on the ornate cornice just below the multicoloured ceiling depicting Cupid and Psyche, Bacchus and Apollo and various other gods in varying states of nature.

I had forgotten all about the budgerigar when my secretary announced the arrival of an official diplomatic visitor, the ambassador of Mauritius. He was ushered into the room and I asked him to sit down on the blue satin settee. I offered him coffee and biscuits. We were chatting amicably, and even constructively, about the organisation of the Commonwealth Club in Paris when the budgerigar started to show interest. It began flying in circles around His Excellency's head. The ambassador, trained in the British tradition, remained inscrutable; and when the budgie started doing the loop-the-loop just in front of his eyes he merely blinked while continuing his expose of the kind of way he thought the Commonwealth lunches should be organised. I found it difficult to interrupt him by saying, for instance, that I was sorry but that I had just let a budgerigar in through the window. Besides, it seemed to me that he was getting used to it and it enabled him to show a truly Alec Guinness-like phlegm as the bird did a particularly tight turn round his ears.

The ambassador spoke about the importance of providing signed silver trays for all departing ambassadors, and, as the budgie showed its appreciation by a well-timed fly- past, it occurred to me that this representative from Mauritius might regard the presence of the bird at our meeting as simply a manifestation of traditional British eccentricity. Perhaps he assumed that I always had a budgerigar flying about in my office. I decided, therefore, to continue our meeting without making any reference to it and to see whether he continued to do likewise. He did.

However, as he was about to leave I turned the conversation to the flora and fauna of his native island. 'I suppose,' I said, 'you have birds like this flying about everywhere in Mauritius?'

'Well, not quite everywhere,' he replied.

Paris - 1 October, 1978.

Europe's outsiders: plus ca change

THE APPALLING impasse we have reached over British entry to Airbus Industrie could have been averted, I think, if the PM and Giscard had been on easy telephoning terms, such as those that run between Schmidt and Giscard. I don't think that it is mainly a language problem. The main handicap is the lack of confidence and sympathy. With Schmidt, Giscard feels that he is dealing with someone who does not have a large anti-European extremist wing of his political party always tugging at him. Callaghan can inspire trust more than did Wilson, but he always displays an unequivocally non-Continental attitude. He is too English, too involved with his own domestic affairs and too uninterested in unanchored political speculation, particularly about the future of Europe, to have much personal appeal to Giscard.

Partly as a result of this, but more because of our persistent economic weakness and refusal to have a coherent European policy or show any warm-heartedness towards Europe, Schmidt and Giscard are increasingly establishing a bilateral lead; and because of these same factors the other Community countries, which at one time looked to London to play a useful role in standing up to French nationalism and in serving as a counterweight to possible German assertiveness, no longer have much faith in us. Europe is going ahead without us. Giscard and Schmidt, for instance, are pressing on with the creation of a European Monetary System.

Following the Copenhagen meeting in the spring, a tripartite group

of experts that included the British was set up to work out details. We more or less pulled out of this before the next European Council meeting because Callaghan had doubts. He had been encouraged by the scepticism expressed by officials and bankers regarding the feasibility of the scheme so long as there continued to be such discrepancy in the performances of the different countries.

I have consistently told London that Giscard (and Schmidt) regarded the EMS primarily in political terms and would stick to it whatever the doubts and fears of the experts. Politicians in London and the Treasury have not wanted to hear this.

Then, as regards the Airbus, the French are saying, with some reason, that we must either buy some aircraft from the consortium, which would be an earnest of our interest in the project and indicate that in future we would not be tempted to favour an American producer under pressure from Rolls-Royce at the expense of the development of Airbus Industrie, or we must forsake our right to thwart the future development of the programme, eg by giving up a veto.

It is indicative that Schmidt has left it to the French entirely to play the hand over the Airbus entry negotiation. They are fed up, and say so frankly, with trying to pull our chestnuts out of the fire. They will accept whatever the French require. So much for our special relationship with Bonn.

Paris - 29 December, 1978.

Will diplomats become obsolete?

I HAVE not been so busy lately, which reflects, I think, the changing role of an embassy now that we are in the Eurpean Community. Officials in the various ministries do an increasing amount of work directly with their opposite numbers in the Community capitals. It is the same with ministers. Owen, as is his wont in speaking about the role of the officials serving him, has explained in public once again the limited part that he sees for diplomats abroad. Not long ago he said that he did not see any point in having an ambassador in Paris when all he had to do was to pick up the telephone and speak to the French foreign minister.

I think that there will inevitably be some reduction of embassy work as the Community develops. My own feeling is that officials tend to fly about and meet too often. I suggested that we officials in embassies could be used more often, and not simply for providing a car service. I do not think that this is happening, at any rate at the moment, because it is easier for someone in Whitehall to step into a plane and fly here than to sit down and draft a comprehensive brief for an official in an embassy to use.

Much of the work that has kept me busiest here this past year or so - Airbus Industrie negotiations, or industrial co-operation - has been at my own instigation. Nobody from London has suggested that I do anything in particular; on the contrary, I have had something of the impression from time to time that they think that I am doing too much back-seat driving and should pipe down a bit.

Washington - 12 December, 1981.

An unwise entertainment

AS A Christmas diversion I organised a competition in the Chancery - which, upon reflection, was highly irresponsible of me. I offered a case of good claret to whoever produced the best rendering of the Gettysburg Address in Al Haig's idiosyncratic and convoluted manner of speech, which had come to be widely referred to as Haigspeak. Several members devoted considerable gifts of parody to the task and I received some truly hilarious versions of Lincoln's speech.

It then dawned on me that I might have lit a dangerous fuse. What if the winner's version was leaked to the Washington Post - and published with the result that it became the talk of Washington? Al Haig would be bound to hear about it and might think that the British embassy, particularly the ambassador, could well devote their energy and talents to other less tactless pursuits. I decided that I would play the Red Queen and say that all had won and all would get prizes, a bottle each. But I added that as there was no single winner there would be no prize-giving and no circulation of the texts, all of which I consigned to oblivion. Fortunately, I do not think there was a leak.

'Mandarin. The Diaries of Nicholas Henderson' are published this week by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 20.

(Photographs omitted)

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