Obituary: Sir David Hunt

Avril Mollison
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:13

"ONE MAN in his time plays many parts", but few have played as many and so effectively as David Hunt. University don, diplomat, author, archaeologist, television celebrity and army officer: Hunt successfully filled all these roles. Witty and down to earth, his encyclopaedic memory and fast incisive thinking were notably demonstrated when he was confronted in public debate, in providing an impromptu speech, or in resolving an intractable problem.

He was born in 1913, the son of Canon Bernard Hunt. Precociously, at the age of three he learned to read and write. He was educated at St Lawrence College, Ramsgate, and Wadham College, Oxford. His Firsts in Mods and Greats pointed to a career in academia and in 1937, at the age of 24, he became a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.

The outbreak of the Second World War, however, changed everything. He joined the First Battalion of the Welsh Regiment and became an officer attached to Field Marshal Alexander's staff; Hunt was responsible for drafting the final despatches of Lord Alexander as Supreme Allied Commander. He served in the Middle East, the Balkans, North Africa and Italy. He rose to the rank of Colonel, was mentioned three times in despatches and awarded the US Bronze Star.

Hunt enjoyed his war service and seriously considered a career in the regular army. Already though, under the influence of Lord Alexander, he had made an application to join the diplomatic service. But a skiing accident resulted in a complicated compound fracture of his left leg. The wound turned septic and there was talk of amputation. Hunt reflected: "It would be awkward to be a one-legged diplomat but a one-legged soldier would find his career possibilities even more restricted". So, wistfully, he turned down the army offer in favour of that from the diplomatic service. In the event the wound was healed by the new magic of penicillin and the leg made stronger than ever by the insertion of a couple of stainless steel screws. By that time, though, "my course was set and I haven't regretted it. The diplomatic service has been good to me."

In 1950 he became Private Secretary to Clement Attlee, whom he found very amusing and extremely good company. With a change of government he became Private Secretary to Winston Churchill, who proved not so easy to serve but he stood up to the Prime Minister, and as a sounding board, but not a passive one, he assisted in the preparation of the PM's speeches.

In 1954 Hunt was posted to Pakistan as Deputy High Commissioner. Then, in 1960, as Under-Secretary of State in the Commonwealth Relations Office, he accompanied Harold Macmillan on his tour of Africa, where he drafted the memorable "Wind of Change" speech.

In 1962 he went as head of mission to Kampala, Uganda, the first of his four High Commissioner appointments. They proved to be far removed from the public image of diplomatic life as a quiet and dignified pursuit. In fact, Hunt became involved in the suppression of an army mutiny in Uganda.

To add to his stress, his wife, Pamela, whom he had married in 1948 and by whom he had had two sons, left him. Their marriage was dissolved in 1967 and Hunt was granted custody of the children. Later, while in Uganda, he met and married his second wife, the dynamic and glamorous Iro Myrianthousis, whose family had large trading interests in West Africa. She was a journalist in her own right, the editor of the Lagos Weekly. Her Greek connections revived his interest in the Greek classics.

Meanwhile, Hunt was appointed High Commissioner in Cyprus, then in a state of virtual civil war. With his fluent Greek - he spoke seven languages ("after the first two it's easy") - and his excellent rapport with the charismatic Cypriot leader Archbishop Makarios, he helped to stabilise Anglo-Cypriot relations. From Cyprus he returned to Africa, as High Commissioner in Lagos, Nigeria and, from that standpoint, regarding the unity of that nation as paramount, directly and through the Wilson government, steadfastly supported the Nigerian government led by General Gowon throughout the Biafran civil war. In so doing he suffered considerable obloquy from large sections of parliament and the press.

His last diplomatic appointment was as Ambassador to Brazil. Here, he and his wife were an extremely popular couple and despite the necessity always to be accompanied by bodyguards, because of the constant fear of kidnapping, managed to bring out Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev and the entire Royal Ballet. Later, he described Brazil as the best time of his life; so much so he wrote a book On the Spot: an ambassador remembers (1975) about this.

His retirement from diplomatic life, in 1973, was but the beginning of a new phase of activity for Hunt. Diversely, he was director of the Observer newspaper, chairman of the Governors of the Commonwealth Institute, President of the Institute of Hellenic Studies. He became a regular and disputatious book reviewer for the TLS and other papers and wrote books. A Don at War (1966) was an outstanding success. His love of military history was reflected in his drafting of the history of the Italian Campaign. He edited the Times Yearbook of World Affairs from 1978 until 1981. Together, he and his wife produced several lavishly illustrated historical books, the last of this series being Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus (1989) - this title, also, was that of the opera which the Hunts sponsored at the Festival Hall this summer.

Hunt had great presence and always looked the part, never more so than when in 1977 he entered the BBC TV competition Mastermind. With his prodigious memory he won and became a celebrity overnight. In 1987 he became Mastermind of Masterminds in its 10th anniversary contests. He modestly explained his winning as a matter of reading and keeping one's nerve.

A bon viveur, a peerless host, David Hunt enjoyed life. He loved his music, his roses, his claret and his dogs, Rio and Apollo, but, above all, he loved his wife, who brought him so much happiness throughout his second marriage. She survives him, together with his two sons.

David Wathen Stather Hunt, diplomat: born 25 September 1913; OBE 1943; Private Secretary to Clement Attlee 1950-51, to Winston Churchill 1951- 52; Deputy High Commissioner for the UK, Lahore 1954-56; Head of the Central African Department, Commonwealth Relations Office 1956-59, Assistant Under- Secretary of State 1959-60; CMG 1959, KCMG 1963; Deputy High Commissioner for the UK in Lagos, Federation of Nigeria 1960-62; High Commissioner in Uganda 1962-65, in Cyprus 1965-67, in Nigeria 1967-69; Ambassador to Brazil 1969-73; married 1948 Pamela Medawar (two sons), 1968 Iro Myrianthousis; died London 30 July 1998.

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