Diplomatic hugs with Saddam

Bagpipes in Babylon
July 14, 2006

Glencairn Balfour Paul spent 40 years in the Arab world - as an infantry officer in the Second World War, as a district commissioner in the hallowed Sudan Political Service and as a diplomat, ending as ambassador in Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia. After retiring, he travelled with his second wife Jenny, often in search of indigo, on which she published a book. This odyssey reflects a life in accordance with Aldous Huxley's principle that no experience is complete until reduced to words.

Balfour Paul's first wife Marnie Ogilvy suffered from a spinal problem after falling from a horse on their honeymoon by the Blue Nile. This was compounded when she contracted polio in Jerusalem. She died after a third illness. (At her own insistence - it is not mentioned in the book - she would allow nobody to help her or even comment when she fell but would struggle up on her own. I can remember chatting with family and friends and having to ignore her struggle to rise from the ground.) The book begins with an elegant childhood in Scotland when Balfour Paul and his brothers developed a secret language called Lob. His adolescence showed a fascination for poetry, and much of his own poetry is included. At Oxford he fell in love with Lloyd-George's niece and later resisted the passion of a beautiful Italian girl being pursued "by a Neapolitan duke whom she detested". The war years saw him sent to a remote region of Abyssinia and Sudan, where another pretty lady appears, an Italian girl whom an amorous British officer had smuggled to Khartoum in a coffin-shaped box.

His beautiful description of the Kufra Oasis in Libya reveals his penchant for travel writing. He is modest. Faced with a bodkin as a proposed cure for his sinusitis in Libya during the war, he promptly fainted in front of the Sudanese other ranks. If he fainted so easily, "could I, I wondered, ever have gone over the top to face a German bayonet?" Nevertheless, before going to Sudan he was warned that, taking into account the danger of dying of drink, being speared by his cook or being bitten to death by rats, he was unlikely to live beyond 54.

As a diplomat in Beirut from 1960, he met figures such as Margot Fonteyn but curiously, in the light of Lebanon's bloody 1958 civil war, calls it "a politically dull little country where nothing ever happened".

In 1963, he and Marnie were giving a dinner party in Beirut for Kim Philby who had resigned from the Foreign Office because the CIA suspected him of spying. In Beirut, Philby was now a correspondent for The Observer. Four years earlier the two spies Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess had escaped to Moscow, and on the day of the Balfour Paul dinner Philby had been identified as the "Third Man" who had tipped them off. Philby's third wife, Eleanor, arrived at the dinner party alone, telling the Balfour Pauls that he would be late. In fact, he was on his way to a waiting Russian ship.

As acting political resident in the Gulf, Balfour Paul was involved in the forced abdication of Shakhbut, the ruler of Abu Dhabi. He had previously failed to persuade Saieed bin Taymur, the sultan of Muscat, to change traffic from left to right in his tiny state, the sultan saying to him reassuringly, "Never mind, Mr Balfour Paul. When you change, I will change." In 1969, Saddam Hussein hugged him and told him that the only thing he hated more than a Russian Communist was an Iraqi one.

Bagpipes in Babylon is a compulsive read and a very funny if rather long book, one of the last to describe the lives of British officers toiling in remote corners of the British Empire on the one hand and having a lot of fun on the other.

Trevor Mostyn's latest book on the Middle East is Egypt's Belle Époque: Cairo and the Age of the Hedonists .

Bagpipes in Babylon: A Lifetime in the Arab World and Beyond

Author - Glencairn Balfour Paul
Publisher - Tauris
Pages - 320
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 1 84511 151 6

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