12th June 2023 Belgrade, Serbia
A Belgrade Diplomatic Fantasy
As a diplomat living or working in a historic building you find yourself thinking about the people who occupied the same physical and professional space before you. This is natural curiosity, interest in historic events and a wish to understand past relationships that underpin present day ones.
I hope the Financial Times will forgive me from borrowing their format to imagine meeting some of the people who walked in my Belgrade shoes, home or office before me. (It would be invidious to choose between recent predecessors, so I hope they will forgive me for not inviting them.)
Dinner would be served in my dining room at the British Ambassador’s Residence in leafy Dedinje, a wonderful large, light 1950s house with a beautiful leafy garden.
In chronological order my guests would be:
Colonel George Lloyd Hodges (1792-1862) – our first official diplomatic representative in Belgrade, he arrived here in 1837 and is supposed to have introduced balls (the dancing kind) and horse racing to the city. I hope he could launch the evening by recalling his journey across the Danube on an Austrian gunboat to pay his respects to the Ottoman pasha and onwards by carriage to meet the Serbian Prince.
Dr Elsie Inglis (1864-1917) – my predecessor named the Residence of the British Ambassador in Belgrade after this WW1 heroine who led the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, notably providing care for victims of the typhus epidemic. Her experience as one of Scotland’s first female medical practitioners and a campaigner for votes for women would make for intriguing conversation.
Lady Paget (1881-1958) – the wife of pre WWI Ambassador Sir Ralph Paget who himself returned to head a Red Cross mission, Dame Leila Paget has streets named after her in recognition of her humanitarian work during the Balkan and First World Wars, first nursing the sick and wounded, then running hospitals. I would also want to hear her stories of diplomatic life over a century ago
Sir Fitzroy MacLean (1911-1996) best known here as Churchill’s representative to Tito’s Partisans, but his books, which have travelled with me throughout my career, also describe his adventures as a junior diplomat in the Soviet Union. In later years he and his wife ran a hotel in the Scottish Highlands- he would be excellent company. He would I think be the first guest to remember our current Belgrade Embass,y built in the late 1920s.
Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) the famous author might well grumble about his time as a press officer in the Embassy but hopefully would also entertain fellow guests with his hilarious fictional story about one of the most catastrophic diplomatic dinners ever, held in Belgrade on a specially constructed raft on the River Danube
William Deakin (1913-2005) – a historian, who was parachuted into Montenegro during WWII and then served in the Embassy, before going on to be the founding principal of St Anthony’s College Oxford. He would bring intellectual weight and historical perspective to the discussion – and if we ran out of topics for conversation we could ask about his time as Churchill’s ‘literary assistant’.
Cicely Mayhew (nee Ludlam) (1924-2016) one of the UK’s first women diplomats served in Belgrade. As was the rule until the 1970s for women in HM Diplomatic Service she resigned upon marriage, but went on to write a biography of Tito. Comparing attitudes to her as a young woman diplomat in the late 1940s with my own 1980s experience would be fascinating.
John Julius Norwich (1929-2018), another young post war Belgrade diplomat. His parents, Duff and Lady Diana Cooper, were famously one of Britain’s most glamorous diplomatic couples (at the Paris Embassy). He would have views on our entertainment and hospitality, but would really be here in his own right as a distinguished author and popular broadcaster.
I hope two distinguished living guests who spent some time as ‘diplomatic children’ at the British Embassy Belgrade will not mind if I squeeze them in to give my historic guest list a cultural flavour. I am not sure how much they would remember Belgrade, but they are:
Elizabeth Wilson b. 1936 who studied the cello with Rostropovich and has written excellent musical biographies including of Shostakovich and her teacher Rostropovich.
Alexander Cresswell b. 1957, a distinguished watercolour artist who has travelled with HM The King and is known for his beautiful depictions of Windsor Castle before and after a devastating 1992 fire.
Dinner would be cooked by Claire, Lady MacDonald with the help of our Embassy staff. (Lady MacDonald’s cookery books have accompanied me on every posting, helping me feed guests since my first efforts at entertaining in an 8th floor Moscow flat in the late 1980s.)
We would eat kiln roast salmon, followed by roast venison, roast potatoes and vegetables, and the traditional Scottish pudding cranachan made with honey, oatmeal and Talisker whisky from the Isle of Skye. We would drink good English sparkling wine, with Serbian red wine, British beer or cider as alternatives, and home-made lemonade for those wanting or needing to moderate their alcohol consumption. All would be washed down with a cup of strong English tea Yorkshire Tea – and more Talisker.
It would be a musical evening. Whilst we were eating, musical Belgrade friends would serenade us. After dinner, Elizabeth, John Julius (he played the piano and was a regular guest on a televised musical quiz) and I could play some light music, with Colonel Hodges leading the dancing.
At the end of the evening Elizabeth and Alexander could stay overnight in their former home, travelling in the morning to the airport in the Embassy’s modern Range Rover. I’d like to imagine though the remaining guests being collected in the vintage ambassadorial ‘flag cars’ of their eras to return to their place in history.
This article first appeared in Serbian newsmagazine NEDELJNIK on 8 June 2023.