On the fringes with Elizabeth Stewart

On the fringes with Elizabeth Stewart, editor

A funny death
Good news for those who didn’t get the chance to hear the bizarre stories from the British diplomatic bag in The Spanish Ambassador’s Suitcase on Radio Four. The collection is now available as a book (Virago, RRP £16.99). The comical tales (or ‘funnies’ as they are known in Whitehall) – elegantly penned by British diplomats in exotic locations – unleashed a wave of nostalgia among former British diplomatic service personnel.

Most old sages agree that the ‘funny’ is peculiar to British diplomatic reporting. “Nobody else does it,” said one ex-ambassador. “Even the Americans play it straight. You only need to read Wikileaks to see that.”

They also mourn the death of the ‘funny’, an unhappy development for which some park the blame – in part at least – at Mr Assange’s door in the Ecuadorian Embassy. “Emails are badly written and they leak like sieves so there is no room for humour” sighed one ex-diplomat. “I blame the dreaded Twitter,” said another. “How can you possibly say anything sensible in 140 characters?”

Tweet ‘n sour
But 140 characters can do a fair bit of damage, as the British Ambassador to Chile recently discovered to his cost when he questioned the ‘manliness’ of Argentina’s football team in an accidental public tweet, souring the already prickly relations with Argentina. A cautionary tale for novice Tweeters.

Nevertheless Foreign Secretary William Hague has embraced Twitter and recently celebrated his 100,000th follower by meeting a select few followers in the real world.
Now the Foreign Secretary wants to train up a new generation of code breakers to hack into other people’s communications.

On that subject, diplomats may be curious to know that cyber-spying all started in the Embassy magazine building – formerly a Post Office Research Station where the Colossus, the world’s first programmable computer, was built to crack Nazi codes. Its intrepid inventor, Tommy Flowers, could never claim credit for it due to the Official Secrets Act but we thank him daily because without him, Embassy, as a digital magazine, would not exist.