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42 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The best from the brightest and the best
The legend goes that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (and its various previous incarnations) attracts the brightest and the best. Reading this it's hard to disagree and you can add that the service also attracts those with a great deal of wit, a trenchant outlook and a sense of service that could do with being exhibited by a lot more people in modern Britain...
Published on 9 Nov. 2010 by S.M. Gidley

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3.0 out of 5 stars Good Selection
It was my fault that the book didn't live up to my expectations. I was expecting a much lighter read as the only chance I get to read is in the evening but this is more complex than anticipated. Having said that, it's a good book that gives an interesting overview of diplomatic life's trials and tribulations, and I would recommend it on that basis.
Published on 27 Feb. 2013 by SG


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42 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The best from the brightest and the best, 9 Nov. 2010
By 
S.M. Gidley (Sidmouth, Devon, UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Parting Shots (Hardcover)
The legend goes that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (and its various previous incarnations) attracts the brightest and the best. Reading this it's hard to disagree and you can add that the service also attracts those with a great deal of wit, a trenchant outlook and a sense of service that could do with being exhibited by a lot more people in modern Britain.

This book contains diplomats' letters written as they left a posting or retired from the service, known in the trade as valedictory despatches. These were acquired by Parris and Bryson through the Freedom of Information Act (explained in the book) and it is partly due to this that valedictory despatches are now a dying tradition. This is a great pity; these letters, as well as sometimes being hilarious and shot through with the frustrations of dealing with foreign bureaucracy and bizarre habits, also offer a contemporary front row seat to world events in sensitive areas of the world.

Letters from across the globe came back to Whitehall via the diplomatic bag system and, perhaps unsurprisingly it is the letters from South American backwaters and corners of Africa and Asia that are of greater interest from those of the top postings in Washington, Paris and Bonn/Berlin. It is those despatches which do most to dispel the myths of a life of washing down Ferrero Rocher with champagne and replace it with the idea of rat-infested offices in Vietnam and no hot water in Nicaragua.

I am sure that there could quite easily be another volume of these letters (I'd bet ones from the nineteenth century would be fascinating) and I hope that there will be.
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32 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An interesting - and often funny- insight into British diplomacy, 12 Nov. 2010
This review is from: Parting Shots (Hardcover)
This book stems from a rewarding radio series.The authors used the Freedom of Information Act to access some of the valedictory messages sent by British Ambassadors back to the Foreign Secretary as they left their posts - and in some cases as they went into retirement. It was a tradition that they let their hair down and did not hold back on their views of the host country. The results are revealing, funny and even hilarious. Some date back to the 1960s and refer to a vanished world where, for example, "our man in Dubai" wielded huge power over the "natives", settling disputes, hearing petitions and freeing slaves. Many are rueful accounts of lives that were not always full of the glamour associated with British Embassies abroad.

Matthew Parris' commentary is well-informed [he was briefly a diplomat himself] and as amusing and readable as the journalism he has won so many plaudits for. Some passages are "laugh out loud" and the book tempts one to collar someone and read some choice piece out to them. {Guilty !!]

Sadly one Foreign Secretary decreed that the tradition should end - there was the risk that some unflattering passages would be leaked and offend those described. So a debt of gratitude to the compilers for ensuring some at least see the light of day.

I promptly ordered two more copies as ideal Christmas presents.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Illuminating but sad - a must read, 26 Jan. 2011
This review is from: Parting Shots (Hardcover)
This "mini-leaks" is a must have for any student of British late 20th century history. Seen through the eyes of some brilliant, or at least opinionated, men (and one woman) and edited with affection and wit, you can track through personal accounts the sad decline in Britain's influence and in the fun of the FCO. One is left hoping that another twenty volumes are to follow - or at least an annual review of the best valedictories released form the archives that year.
Particularly good for those with short attention spans or reading slots - a pick up/put down format ideal for plane journeys etc
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More interesting (and entertaining) than you might think, 28 Jan. 2013
By 
T. D. Welsh (Basingstoke, Hampshire UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Parting Shots (Paperback)
At first glance, you might think that a book of British ambassadors' valedictory dispatches would be of little interest to anyone except a student of politics or a member of the Diplomatic Service. That would be far from the truth, as witness the fact that Viking and Penguin - two very hard-headed, experienced publishing houses - chose to invest in it. (After it had been successfully broadcast as a BBC Radio series in 2009). It's not so much Matthew Parris' fluent, amusing prose as his and Andrew Bryson's selection of the dispatches themselves. It wasn't an easy task, what with the unpredictable sensitivities of the Civil Service and the uneven effectiveness of the Freedom of Information Act. Many of the choicest and most promising dispatches arrived with large sections (or just a few critical words) blacked out with marker pen. But quite a lot of delightful material got through - one departing ambassador describing his erstwhile hosts as "possibly the only people to have made no use of the wheel", while another trumps him with "it is extremely difficult for them to keep working or even to stay awake". Typically of this book, however, the latter judgment is immediately explained by the prevalence of chronic malnutrition. Whether entirely justified by the facts, or possibly reflecting the fair-mindedness of the average British diplomat, almost all of them find both good and bad in the people of the countries to which they are posted.

An interesting remark gleaned from a Polish newspaper about 1970 reads "Just as bad work is not a bad mark against anyone, so to carry out a job well does not earn a good mark. Promotion and dismissal are decided according to other criteria". But is this syndrome entirely limited to communist states, one wonders? Likewise with the opinion, "Laws are written for underlings, not for their bosses," attributed to Count Benkendorf, chief of the Russian secret police in the 1830s and still, apparently, typical of Soviet officials in the 1960s. From China to Nicaragua, from Uruguay to Finland, and from Canada to Vietnam, the considered judgments and remarkable experiences come flooding in. The Soviet bloc and the Arab world each gets a chapter of its own, entitled respectively "Cold Warriors" and "The Camel Corps".

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book, however, is the chapter "Friendly Fire" in which are collected views of Britain from abroad - as Robert Burns memorably put it, "the pow'r to see oursels as others see us". The centrepiece of this chapter is Sir Nicholas Henderson's valedictory from Paris, dated March 1979, under the heading "How poor and unproud the British have become". We also learn that it's not all elegant banquets and receptions, in luxurious surroundings with copious staff in attendance. One ambassador to Norway mentioned, quite matter-of-factly, that when visitors put their shoes out to be polished overnight, he was the one who collected and cleaned them! No local staff could be hired to do such work. There are also frequent mentions of the cynical way in which the government took advantage of the unpaid services of ambassadors' wives, who often worked at least as hard as their husbands without any official pay or allowances.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Parting Shots? Definitely on target, 11 May 2011
By 
This review is from: Parting Shots (Hardcover)
Parting Shots is a collection of the valedictory letters sent by ambassadors to the Foreign Secretary upon the completion of a posting. They had licence to provide (occasionally) forthright views on the country they were posted, but often used them to make broader political points. The assembled letters are often witty, often unintentionally funny, and succeeds as a diverting and interesting volume.

Parris and Bryson provide an interesting overview of the work of ambassadors and the role and history of valedictories, and the appendix describes how the research was carried out using the Freedom of Information Act. These sections are both insightful and interesting, and the authors also provide commentary ahead of some of the despatches to place the commentaries about different countries as well as the careers of the diplomats in context, although they occasionally demonstrate a lack of charity with regard to the predictive powers of politicians, Peter Jay being a notable example.

However, it is the valedictories themselves where the real delight lies. Often incisive, they frequently provide a window into the cultures of different countries, and sometimes serve as a reminder of how much the world has changed over the past forty years. The despatches from the last outposts of Empire are especially illuminating. They occasionally descend into caricature and it is often tempting to view their comments through the more politically-correct lenses that we have adopted as a society. They often complain bitterly about the Foreign & Commonwealth Office as an institution, whilst acknowledging the hardships that their career has bought to their spouses in many circumstances.

Overall this is an amusing but interesting volume, worthy of investigation for people with a passing interest in politics and also the world around them.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A selection of fine writing and astute commentary, 7 Aug. 2011
This review is from: Parting Shots (Hardcover)
I enjoyed this volume of diplomatic despatches and especially the additional commentary in parenthesis from editors Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson. While some letters reveal their authors to be slightly pompous and inclined toward self-justification, you can't really fault their eloquence with a pen. The most significant and insightful letters are from the more legendary Ambassadors of the last 40 years like Nicholas Henderson, Anthony Parsons, David Hannay, Peter Jay and David Gore-Booth (his valedictory was smothered in vinegar and served up as a farewell raspberry to his boss Robin Cook). Others are slightly personal epistles dealing with everything from changes in conditions of service, indiscretions about host regimes and at times rather subjective, self-opinionated advice for Ministers about righting the wrongs of the world, for example Ivor Roberts' humorous polemic against the (New Labour inspired) culture of measurement obsessed management and its incompatibility with the complexities of modern diplomacy, cheekily entitled "Bxxl Sxxt Bingo". I particularly enjoyed the candid descriptions of national characteristics and although these observations were recorded decades ago, some still hold a great deal of validity today. Like the High Commissioner to Pakistan who wrote in 1979 "Pakistanis are not only short of real friends in the world but also proud and touchy, a pretty awful combination". Or the High Commissioner to Nigeria who wrote in 1969 "Africans as a whole are not only averse to cutting off their nose to spite their face; they regard the operation as a triumph of cosmetic surgery". Or the Ambassador to Libya who once wrote "I hope there will be a better future for Libya than a perpetuation of Qadhafi's rule. He is too egocentric and erratic ever to make a benevolent dictator". That was written in 1974! Another example of the longevities and complexities that bedevil international affairs is provided by the analysis from our man in Jordan in 1975 who closed his letter with some advice about the Palestine question "...the world would do well to encourage a greater precision in the use of language. Arabs are worse than most people at linguistic flatulence, at not bothering to define their terms". And then he quotes Lewis Carroll's conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice: "when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less".
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5.0 out of 5 stars diplomats, 12 Dec. 2014
By 
This review is from: Parting Shots (Paperback)
This is an interesting book relating to some of valedictory dispatches sent to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office during the period 1970-2006.Prior to the Freedom of Information Act these dispatches did not see the light of day but can still be restricted on the following grounds. a)predjudice to national security b)affects formation of government policy and c)protection of advice.
The book is divided into 2 dealing with in part 1 by geography and in part 2 by subject.There are many clever,acidic and pointless but are all very worth reading.
The secondary author - Andrew Bryson-should have his name on the front cover in the same type size as the primary author in fact Bryson should be the primary author as the book was his idea and he did all the research
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4.0 out of 5 stars close to the mark, 27 Aug. 2011
This review is from: Parting Shots (Paperback)
I have worked in the foreign affairs field, and can confirm that the tone and details of diplomatic life ring true; some of the missives are overwritten and pompous, and several deal in broad ethnic stereotypes -- locals who are relentlessly inefficient, drunken, self-centred, or cruel -- but some is welcome candour, now forbidden by PC codes

as a Canadian, I found the outgoing UK ambassador's (1984) reflections on Ottawa quite bracing, and am glad he did not pull his punches; like the Australians portrayed elsewhere in the book, we are deemed too touchy about our national standing while being pretty slack in our economic and cultural life

a second volume would probably be too much, unless there are some hidden bombshells in the UK archives
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Goodbyes to all that, 3 Jan. 2011
By 
D. LAMBERT (Kent, England) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
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This review is from: Parting Shots (Hardcover)
This is an anthology of departing British ambassadors' perceptive, funny, and near-libellous observations on the countries they served in, with tips for the British Government on how to handle Johnny Foreigner better.

Released under the Freedom of Information Act, the most politically sensitive of these ambassadorial valedictories come minus redactions. Uncensored versions of these would have been even more entertaining, but there's plenty here to enjoy.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, 5 Dec. 2010
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This review is from: Parting Shots (Hardcover)
Obviously, the Americans are not the only ones to record negative comments on politicians and politics abroad. British diplomats, however, tend to have the upper hand linguistically. The despatches collected in this book not only make fascinating reading, they are a stylistic delight. My only regret is the fact that there are no recent despatches.
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Parting Shots
Parting Shots by Matthew Parris (Paperback - 2 Jun. 2011)
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