A Diplomatic Memoir part II. Nigel Thorpe, British Ambassador to Hungary on the ups and downs of his posting to Budapest, from his new book: "An Accidental Diplomat".
Photo: Were you there? Guests at Nigel Thorpe's somewhat illicit "big bash" Queen's Birthday Party in June, 2002
(Continued from part I, posted on 9th March)
It was from Budapest that I once again found myself in contact with the Queen. In 1999 the Hungarian president, Árpád Göncz, was invited to Britain on a state visit. I was to accompany him, with my then wife, throughout his visit. It was a very splendid affair. We stayed at Windsor Castle. There was a huge state dinner in Göncz’s honour, a visit to Scotland and much else. All very grand. I never got to talk to the monarch, of course—I was much too junior—but it was very special.
I later accompanied Göncz’s successor, Ferenc Mádl, to London on a working visit. This involved lunch at Buckingham Palace, just eight of us, I think. After the lunch, as we were leaving, the Queen said to me, ‘Mr Thorpe, where did we go wrong in Zimbabwe?’ What a question! She had of course read her brief and realised that I had been in Zimbabwe when she paid her state visit in 1991.
My answer, that we had misread Mugabe, was not a good one. I have often thought about it and I should have said that we failed to appreciate the injustice and anger at the way land had been distributed to white settlers in the former Rhodesia. Land was the crux of the problem. If I ever see her again I would like to explain this.
<But See Editorial Note below>
The Queen is a feature of the life of all ambassadors. Her birthday is our national day abroad and embassies and high commissions (in Commonwealth countries) celebrate the event with a large drinks party, called the Queen’s Birthday Party (QBP for short). The guest of honour is of course missing but the party is a splendid one and we always tried to make it the high point of our entertaining year.
In 2002, when the Queen celebrated her Golden Jubilee, I used the QBP to celebrate not just her birthday but the jubilee as well. In doing so I was, I recall, going somewhat against instructions, which were to play the occasion quietly. Instead I arranged a big bash, with two-thousand guests. Both the president and prime minister of Hungary came, which was not typical. The president looked around the garden at the assembled guests and said to me ‘The cream of Budapest society is here.’ And so it was.
That's the end of the excerpt from Nigel's text that we'll use here. I'll leave out the rest of the chapter on Budapest in order for readers to find out something new themselves if they purchase the book – and that includes the wonderful anecdote about embassy residence security and the garden shed :)
I will however bring up a story which Nigel doesn't mention, at least from what he has sent me of his text. He might not even like me mentioning this (it may well have been his idea originally) and I might lose some Hungarian friends to boot – but so be it, since I thought the project had become bizarre because of, frankly, arrogance and insensitivity on the part of those Hungarians who decided on this issue. (If I was told the story incorrectly, I am, of course, open to correction.)
Whatever, at some time in Nigel's sojourn here, many in the British community, probably supported by some anglophile Magyars, decided that Adam Clark, the designer of the Chain Bridge, deserved more recognition. So they banded together to create a fund to design and erect a statue to the Scotsman. They even arranged for a location, with, I was told, the assistance of real estate developer cum wheeler-dealer Sándor Demján. This was a spot just outside the then newly opened West End City Centre.
I believe the steering committee of this project originally had a draft design, but it turned out that in order to comply with Hungarian regulations any designs for statues meant for public viewing had to be subject to an open tender and the winner judged by some form of independent jury comprising locals.
As I understand it, this process went ahead, and the winning design chosen, a model of which was presented to a meeting in Buda meant to drum up further support for the project. It was weird. Not that the winning design was ugly, in fact I thought it, in and of itself, quite charming: but while this monument meant to commemorate Adam Clark depicted the Scottish engineer, tagging along with him were Count István Széchenyi, his wife and their family dog.
In other words, Clark, the individual meant to be honoured, was outnumbered three to one by other characters. I expect Clark had a good relationship with the count, but I mean, it's not that the Széchenyis (or at least the great man himself) are not given due credit in their homeland, they must have a few dozen statues and thousands of streets, squares and parks named after them across Hungary.
I found this absurd. Can you imagine if the Hungarian community in the UK sought to erect a statue to, say, Sándor Wekerle(the Hungarian prime minister who sought to replicate the progressive English model of creating liveable housing estate for ordinary workers in Hungary - this after a trip to the UK where he encountered the idea), and collected funding, only to have a jury of local English insist the statue also included, say, Prime Minister David Lloyd George, his wife and their family cat in the design?
At the meeting, which was my first involvement with the whole project, I was genuinely confused as to what was going on, and it was only afterwards that its contorted history was explained to me.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, I'm not sure), the project, though worthy in its original concept, seems to have failed to garner enough support and died an ignominious death – strangled in part, or so it seemed to me, by a nationalisti, narrow-minded, Hungarian jury unsympathetic to the original concept.
* Editorial note on Nigel's comment on President Mugabe and land distribution in Zimbabwe.
Nigel, as I remember it, the British government offered money to Zimbabwe to fund the purchase of white-owned farms as and when they came up for sale – this money was rarely, if ever, used for its proper purpose. Then, when Mugabe was facing re-election, he simply promised to redistribute white-owned farms if he was reelected. He subsequently was, and simply went about sequestering the farms, usually via his local strongmen. Not, of course, that the natives who had been working them benefited in the vast majority of cases, and Zimbabwe, which had been the bread basket of southern Africa, turned into a basket case itself.
Nigel's book is available on Amazon at what he says is the bargain-basement price of £7.99.