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4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
Parting Shots
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on 5 July 2017
Great, exactly as described, many thanks
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on 9 November 2010
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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on 12 November 2010
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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on 28 January 2013
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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on 11 May 2011
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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on 26 January 2011
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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on 12 December 2014
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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on 27 August 2011
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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on 3 January 2011
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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on 20 September 2015
A collection of final reports from diplomatic heads of mission before they abandoned post, as you may say. Not meant for public consumption which means they are of more than usual interest. Perhaps the more recent ones are more relevant. Sadly, and very regrettably, valedictories are no longer written - another of those over-controlling measures put in place by New Labour, ably supported by certain FCO mandarins at the time. We can only hope that more will be released over the years. Overall, excellent reading.
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