Last night I gave up fighting insomnia and reached for a good book to ride it out. To hand was a very good one indeed: Nancy Mitford’s “Don’t Tell Alfred.” This highly entertaining sequel to her earlier works “The Pursuit of Love,” and “Love in a Cold Climate” is set in the years after World War II. Quintessentially English Fanny Wincham’s life is turned upside down when her Oxford Don husband Alfred is suddenly appointed Great Britain’s Ambassador to France. Hilarious consequences almost immediately ensue.
Sensible and practical Fanny, transformed into Madame l’Ambassadrice, is confronted with a series of diplomatic near catastrophes. Her predecessor refuses to quit the Embassy, sets up a rival court in a small Annex and must be smoked out by Fanny’s Machiavellian Uncle Davy. Northey, Fanny’s emotionally immature but very attractive niece, is brought on as social secretary, and succeeds in complicating matters by driving every Frenchman she meets to distraction. Northey’s devotion to animals gets her into all manner of scrapes including a massively inconvenient mission to save a basket of lobsters destined for a State Dinner, driving them in the Embassy car to liberate them at the point where the Seine becomes tidal. In the nightclubs of Paris, Northey inadvertently leaks random facts about Fanny and Alfred to a hostile yellow journalist, who stitches it into a series of scandalous articles about life in the Embassy. Fanny’s four sons arrive in their turn to cause havoc and only her determination to avert disaster, with a little help from Alfred’s suave Deputy Head of Mission and kindly French friends keep Alfred blissfully unawares, international scandal at bay, and the ship of diplomacy afloat.
I thought I might send a copy over to the new US Ambassador to Russia Michael “McFaulty” McFaul (I’m pretty sure I’m the first to pen this nickname.) I imagine he is also having trouble sleeping (and if he isn’t – he should be) and possibly could use both a good laugh and a few pointers about how to get on in the Diplomatic Corps.
McFaulty, an “Orange Revolution” specialist has put just about every possible foot wrong since he arrived, and has continued to insert three or four into his mouth on a weekly basis. One might wonder if he’s confused the “RESET” function with the “CNTRL-ALT-DEL” combination – but since McFaulty actually came up with the RESET concept in the first place, this seems unlikely. He got off to a roaring start by holding a reception for NGO and opposition leaders about four minutes after he get off the plane, which is the kind of thing that really thrills the Kremlin crowd. He blogs and tweets, which is, of course, a national disgrace, since, as every John Le Carre reader knows, Ambassadors are meant to cable, not tweet. To complete the trifecta, McFaul went postal recently on TV to some cheap Anna Chapman lookalike who hounded him on his way to meet with his “old friend,” another politically irrelevant Russian opposition leader. In this cringe-making footage, which of course went viral, McFaulty got angry, and in heavily and unfortunately accented Russian accused the Russian media of hacking into his telephone and e-mail accounts. He called Russia “wild.” Oh dear: of course it is, but one can’t say it — in Russian to Russians in Russia. It makes one wonder how well McFaulty really knows Russia after all. He has like six PhDs, and one can imagine him playing with dun-colored Lego as an 8-year old, building a miniature replica of the US Embassy in Moscow and pretending to be the Ambassador, but how could he be so naïve as to think that it’s the journalists who are hacking into his e-mail accounts? Even Northey knows better. We might as well send Sarah Palin (who appears to be job hunting this week) over to do the job. She at least has seen Russia from her house.
A seasoned journalist friend and I were chatting about this today and she (far more sympathetic than I) suggested we get together a team and offer some media training. I’m not sure I’d go that far (not at tax time anyway, since I feel I’m so not getting my money’s worth with this hire) but a few bullet points seem in order…because, Gwadhelpus – and I just thought of this — it soon it will be July 4th. So here are a few tips for McFaulty:
- Get a haircut. A short one. No Russian will take you seriously with all that strawberry blond hair flopping about in your eyes. And while you are at it, get a well-cut suit and, please — get an overcoat. Standing around escalating the Cold War with some henna-haired journalist in your shirt sleeves for five whole minutes is just not dignified. Neither is that moment when the bearded opposition guy has to urge you to “come in…come in., you’ll catch a cold!”
- Use your office. You know…the dun colored one on the Garden Ring? The one you built with your Lego? All this ricocheting around town – of course they know where you are and what you are doing. Like Fanny and Alfred, you have a large and fully staffed Embassy and also a large, elegant, and fully-staff house in the Center of Moscow. Unlike them, you have Marines. Make the beards and weirds come to you for heaven sake.
- Just. Stop. Speaking. Russian. In. Public. Didn’t they cover this in “Ambassadorships for Dummies?” You may have six PhDs in Russian studies and dun-colored Lego, and be buddies with a lot of irrelevant has been politicos like Boris Nemstov, McFaulty, but your spoken Russian just isn’t cutting the mustard. No foreigner’s does. We sound just as ridiculous speaking Russian to them, as they do speaking English to us. We are Moose and Squirrel to them. Speak English, McFaulty. Particularly on camera. I myself never speak Russian if I can help it, and HRH (my “Horrible Russian Husband”) assures me my accent is not nearly as bad as yours. I find things move much faster that way.
- Stop blogging and for the love of God, stop tweeting. What can you be thinking? Look what it did to Medvedev.
- That guy Sergei Lavrov? The Russian Secretary of State? He is the real deal. Take a leaf from his book – he expresses outrage by the mere lift of one half of his eyebrow and shivers run all the way from Whitehall to Rosslyn.
- I get that we are supposed to promote democracy everywhere, even in places where they don’t want it, but I wonder if just a small part of your diplomatic brief should be devoted to averting World War III? Look up realpolotik on the Wikipedia machine.
- Read Nancy Mitford’s “Don’t Tell Alfred.” Seriously. At least, get your wife to.