Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps Alistair Harrison CMG CVO offers a personal account of his experiences of leaving the Foreign Office and joining the Royal Household
Nothing is certain in life except death and taxes. But for diplomats there is one other virtual certainty – at some stage they will finally be posted back to their home country for the last time, probably on retirement from their foreign service. It happened to me and my family back in 2013.
Two years ago my wife Sarah wrote about our experience for Diplomat magazine under the title ‘The Folded Wing.’ I am now going to try to update our experiences, inevitably more prosaically than Sarah, who is a professional writer and graduate in English Literature.
Three years ago in August 2013, Sarah and I, with our three children – Tilly (then 13), Eliza and Ralph (both nearly 10) – landed in the UK from Iceland. We had just completed an amazing trip home from the Caribbean via New York, Canada and Iceland staying in everything from luxury hotels to camper vans. Our family home in Suffolk was vacant and ready to receive us, but our apartment in London had tenants with much of the lease still to run. I don’t think any of us were thinking particularly analytically, but if we had we would have summed up the challenges facing us as a family in terms of what was left of my career, Sarah’s desire to restart her career, and the education of our children; plus resettling in an unfamiliar country (Sarah and I had spent 16 of the last 18 years abroad), picking up friendships in the UK whilst maintaining those from overseas; and working out what to do with all the baggage we were bringing home, that seemed to be far more than would fit into our home and garage.
Fortunately, we had been able to make decisions about the children’s education in advance of our return. Tilly secured a place at a school in Norwich close to where we live, and has been very happy there. She is now in the process of applying for university, and will be taking her A-levels next year (with the results due one year today, as I write). After that, university, a successful career, and she will be able to keep us in style in our retirement. Dream on, she says. Eliza and Ralph were able to return to the good primary school in our village – coming back in the senior year having last been there in one of the junior classes. From there they have graduated to the local high school and are just about to enter year nine – how time flies! (By the way, for me one of the educational challenges is to understand the complex way in which you track your child through school, starting at year one and ending at year twelve or thirteen.) The old system of Upper Thirds, Removes and so on (not forgetting a Sixth Form that took three years in some cases) was so much more straightforward. Or perhaps not…
Sarah’s return to the workforce was a greater challenge. She is a marketing consultant by profession, and had trained by distance learning as a writer (her degree is in English). She had worked during our first three postings, concentrated on the children during our fourth in Zambia, and been unable to work for political reasons during our last posting. The Foreign Office kindly agreed for her to receive some career counselling by telephone before our return. The counsellor asked her where she would most like to work in all the world, and she replied “Snape Maltings.” (The Maltings is a place every diplomat should visit – 90 minutes or so from London in beautiful Suffolk, with a year round programme of music and the arts, centred on the best concert hall in the UK). Amazingly, Sarah last year read an advert for a job for which she was well suited, as Director of a small charity with its premises at Snape Maltings! Even for those who don’t believe in fate it was a striking coincidence. Sarah was duly appointed and has been running the charity now for over a year.
Sorting out my own future presented different challenges. Until a decade or so ago the Foreign Office retired all its diplomats at the age of 60, with almost no exceptions. So the most difficult career choice was made for you. But, returning from my seventh overseas posting in my late 50s, I found I had to make the difficult decision myself. The fact that the children’s education meant I would have had to go on an eighth posting without my family (we never wanted to go the boarding school route); the fact that most of my contemporaries seemed to have decided that around 60 was still a good age to move on; and the shortage of overseas jobs at my grade (I didn’t want to push paper in London forever) helped me decide to look around. Then I heard about the vacancy arising at St James’s Palace, applied for the job and was appointed to it. The marvellous opportunity to retire from the Foreign Office and still be a diplomat, to remain a servant of the Queen and to enjoy all the good things about diplomatic life whilst being with my family in the UK was too good to miss. So on 6 January 2014 I retired from the Foreign Service and on 7 January I joined the Royal Household.
Careers and education aren’t the only challenges. Living away from one’s own country for so long means that lots of things have changed in the interim. I couldn’t work out how to pay for the Evening Standard, but fortunately a colleague told me it was now free. Oyster Cards were a mystery (and the fact that one can’t buy them at a railway station still is!) For me in particular it took a while to work out where to live in London during the week, and getting the balance right between London and Suffolk is still a challenge. Then there are the family and friendship issues which, in my experience, are best taken as they come. One finds oneself catching up with old friends, some of whom like you have been abroad a lot, as we all adjust to second careers and so forth. Some friendships move on, and that may be no bad thing. And new friends appear on the horizon. Family relationships also change. Funnily enough, it is sometimes more difficult to spend an extended time with family when one is back home. My only sister lives in Scotland and I now see her for the occasional weekend whereas when we lived abroad she would visit us regularly for a week or two at a time.
Then there’s the baggage. Leaving the Caribbean with a fixed ceiling on what the Foreign Office would pay for (and draconian penalties for exceeding it) caused a certain amount of sorting out before we left. We sold the canoe we had bought (at only a slight loss) because we had no room for it. Some of the children’s bikes were given away. Unloading our baggage at home we found that some of it could go straight into the bin. And we rejoiced that we had decided to build a new double garage which would have been an excellent home for our cars if only we hadn’t had to fill it up with all the stuff we couldn’t find room for in the house. I suspect that sounds familiar.
So three years on Sarah and I have jobs we love, the children are enjoying their schools, and we feel quite settled between London and Suffolk (the tenants having moved out a year or so ago). We have survived, more than that. The only thing we’re still coming to terms with is the British weather…
Photograph by: www.aliona.com