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The Bridge Interviews

Mark Pellew

Mark Pellew

August 2019

This month’s interviewee spent his career in the diplomatic service, has sung and played in many musical ensembles and now contributes to the community in Taynton.


Mark Pellew’s father was a naval officer and the family has a long naval tradition – one of their ancestors was an admiral who fought in the Napoleonic Wars. Mark grew up in Hertfordshire and studied classics at Oxford.  He then applied to join the Foreign Office and, after getting through their rigorous selection process, started work in 1965.  “It hadn’t changed much in the previous 100 years. There were still messengers in tailcoats bringing buckets of coal for the open fires in every room. The method of induction was typically British. We just had two weeks’ induction, during which we were introduced to the senior members of the office and taught how to behave.”


His first Foreign Secretary was Michael Stewart.  The second was George Brown, who was famous for making gaffes.  “If you think Boris Johnson is an unguided missile, you should have seen this man.  We junior people rather liked him because he used to walk round the department and talk to us about what we were doing (which no other Foreign Secretary ever did).  But he had a terrible drink problem, and when drunk would abuse senior staff (and, sometimes, important foreigners) in a completely unacceptable way.”


Another minister was Lord Caradon.  “As the Labour Government’s Permanent Representative at the UN, he was given the rank of Minister of State, which meant that he needed a Private Secretary when in London – a task that fell to me.  He was a delightful man and a brilliant negotiator. He was, among other things, the principal author of the famous Security Council Resolution 242 calling for the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East – alas, still not fully implemented.”


The time soon came for Mark’s first posting abroad, which was to Singapore. “I was Third Secretary at the British High Commission.  Singapore turned out to be a brilliant first post.  Having only recently become fully independent from Malaysia, it was energetically building up new institutions and, unlike many ex-colonial territories, it retained an entirely open and friendly relationship with the former colonial power. (One of the new institutions, incidentally, was the Singapore National Orchestra – into which I was drafted as First Horn, for which I received a (small) salary.  So I was actually being paid by the Singapore Government as well as doing my day job in the British High Commission.)


“My job was particularly interesting after the Labour government announced in January 1968 that Britain was withdrawing from East of Suez (can you imagine the consternation at the military dinner parties?).  My role became essentially one of negotiating the handover of assets to Singapore, and the grand finale of my time there was a huge after-dark ceremony in 1969 to mark the handover of the British Naval Base to Sembawang Shipyard Ltd.


Mark met his wife Jill when they were both at Oxford and sang in the same choir.  Jill completed a PhD in history, and taught at various universities before becoming a university fundraiser.  She is currently an academic historian.  Their elder son, Adam, was born six weeks before they moved to Singapore and their other son, Dominic, was born there.  Adam is now a civil engineer and Dominic is a partner in a City law firm.


Their connection with the Cotswolds goes back to their time at Oxford when Mark and Jill stayed at cottages owned by family members.  They later had a home at Shilton for ten years and moved to Taynton 30 years ago.


“After Singapore, I had a short tour in 1969-70 as Second Secretary (Aid) in the Embassy in Saigon.  This was a fascinating opportunity to observe the American war in Vietnam at first hand.  Much of the country around the Saigon River delta was pockmarked with bomb craters. British aid to Vietnam was mainly in the form of a medical team.  My job was to look after them.  The more I saw of the war, the more relieved I felt that we were not directly involved (unlike, for example, the Australians, who sent troops).  At least we were doing something positive.”


He then returned to London. “I had two jobs from 1970-76 doing what British diplomacy was largely about at that time – fighting the Cold War against the Soviet Union and its allies.  My first job took me to a desk in London dealing with East-West trade. I used to go to Geneva each year for the annual assembly of the ECE (the UN’s Regional Economic Commission for Europe).  This was mostly a low-key affair – with lots of good eating and mountain- walking.


“After trade policy, I was moved to the Defence Department of the FCO to deal with strategic nuclear defence.  This was a fascinating – if rather terrifying – job, and certainly the most intellectually challenging that I ever had.  I was the only person in the FCO who knew (or was supposed to know) how to move Britain into a state of nuclear war. (I was the guardian of a ‘Government War Book’, which lived in a locked safe in my room.)  One of the more bizarre things I remember was sitting in a secret Cabinet Office committee solemnly working out the criteria by which the captains of our patrolling ballistic missile nuclear submarines would know whether the UK had been knocked out in a nuclear strike. One of the criteria we fixed on was that, if coded signals were no longer being transmitted from Command Headquarters at Northwood, the submarine commanders should listen out for whether The Archers was still being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Long Wave.”


Mark’s next move was to Rome in 1976 as First Secretary.  “Rome at that time was not an easy city to live in.  The Italian Communist Party was pushing hard to overtake the ruling Christian Democrats, and various extremist groups – particularly the left-wing Red Brigades – were exploiting the situation by causing violence on the streets.  In the square where we lived, opposite the French Embassy, we had tear gas more often than we did in downtown Saigon. The most horrific episode in my time in Rome was when the Red Brigades kidnapped and murdered the former Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, who had been the chief proponent of a ‘historic compromise’ between the Christian Democrats and the Communists.  His body was found in the back of a car a few hundred yards from our square.” In Rome Mark had his first encounter with Margaret Thatcher. “She came over as Leader of the Opposition in, I think, 1976.  I had to take her round a series of meetings with politicians and television interviews, during which I acted as her interpreter.  My chief memory of that occasion was the enormous amount of time that was spent doing her hair – and how fussy she was about the angle the TV cameras should take her from (‘my good side, not my bad side’).  I later did some more Italian interpreting for her after she became Prime Minister – including a memorable occasion when I was hooked up from our little cottage in Shilton in a three-way secure telephone conversation with Mrs T at No 10 and Emilio Colombo in the Palazzo Chigi in Rome.


“Later, I saw quite a bit of Mrs Thatcher when she came out to Washington in the 1980s.  It was true that she got on well with Reagan – because they shared the same political instincts.  But late at night, over a whisky and soda at the embassy, I heard her say some pretty rude things about Reagan, including calling him ‘a silly old goat’.  Mrs Thatcher sent me a nice letter after my barbershop group had sung some after-dinner songs to her and George Bush Snr at an embassy party.  She asked for the words of one of the songs, which began “I wandered today to the Hill, Maggie…”


For diplomats there is one thing even bigger than a Prime Ministerial visit and that is a visit by the Head of State.  “I was lucky enough to be involved in two visits by the Queen to Italy – in 1980, and 20 years later in 2000.  These visits take a huge amount of planning.  But the pay- off is that they create warm feelings and strengthen links in all sorts of intangible ways.  In 1980, I was in charge of the press and did the whole course around Italy with the royal party for a week.”  In 2000, Mark was appointed a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO), an award granted personally by the Queen for services to the monarchy.


During the Reagan years in the 1980s Mark served at the embassy in Washington as Counsellor for Congressional Relations. “My role was unusual as I was dealing with the Legislature – the Senate and House of Representatives – rather than the Executive branch.  I was effectively the licensed lobbyist on Capitol Hill on all matters concerning the British government.  These included defence, Northern Ireland, trade policy and other economic issues. “Northern Ireland was very tricky.  There are 45 million Americans of Irish descent and nearly all of them saw Britain as an occupying colonial power”. This was followed by a period as Head of the North America Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London.


In 1998 Mark was appointed as British Ambassador to the Holy See (the Vatican).  The photograph shows him presenting his credentials. “The job was not all about dressing up and flummery.  In fact, very far from it.  It was a highly political job, and many of the issues involved were subjects I had been working on for many years in my previous jobs in North America Department and Washington – for example Iraq, the Northern Ireland peace process, wars in former Yugoslavia and debt relief for the world’s poorest countries. So there was a lot of interesting work though I found that I was constantly being asked by outsiders what the Holy See was, and why did we need an ambassador there.” After retirement Mark worked for three years as chief executive of the Anglican Communion Office, the headquarters of the worldwide Anglican communion.  This stretched his diplomatic skills to the limit as he liaised between branches of the church who had very different views on controversial subjects.  He is currently chairman of the Friends of the Diocese in Europe which supports far- flung Anglican churches as far away as Russia.


He and Jill are also active with a charity called HOST.  This provides hospitality for international students studying here by welcoming them to stay for short periods with families, typically over Christmas, Easter and at weekends.  Many students have stayed with them in Taynton, and some of those remain friends.  “Most overseas students never get to visit a British home.  It gives us a great insight into their lives and they learn from us at the same time”.


Music has been a big part of Mark’s life.  In his time he has been conducted by eminent names including Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein, and conducted the Foreign Office Choir which he took on several tours abroad.  His barbershop group performed at two Burford Festivals and still has occasional outings.   He plays the horn in an orchestra in Oxford and sings in the Bach Choir in London.  He and Jill love their garden, which they opened in June along with others in Taynton.  “This is a special place to live.  It is such a pleasure to arrive home and see the cool, calm village, smell the air and see the garden.”  We don’t think he was just being diplomatic.

Mark Pellew
Mark Pellew
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