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Ambassador Gets the Bird

Adam Bernstein

Nicholas Henderson, who died March 16 in London, was a British ambassador in high-profile assignments from 1969 to 1982: Warsaw, Bonn, Paris and ultimately Washington. He may be best-remembered for his instrumental role in steering the U.S. to support the British military operation that regained control of the Falkland Islands from Argentina.

In retirement he wrote amusing memoirs about his Foreign Office career. They included stories about a drunken day of ping-pong diplomacy with his counterparts at the Chinese embassy in Warsaw, and his offering while posted in Washington of a case of good claret to anyone who capably re-wrote the Gettysburg Address in the manner of Secretary of State Al Haig's "idiosyncratic and convoluted manner of speech."

Here, in full, is his account of a bird that landed on his perch at the embassy in Paris one spring day in 1976:

Recently, one beautiful spring morning, a budgerigar appeared at the window of my office. It sat on the balcony rail and gave every impression of wanting to come in, which was not surprising I suppose, given the fact that my office resembles a gilded cage - even more gaudy than anything he could have escaped from. I opened the window and in it flew, perching on the ornate cornice just below the multicoloured ceiling depicting Cupid and Psyche, Bacchus and Apollo and various other gods in varying states of nature.

I had forgotten all about the budgerigar when my secretary announced the arrival of an official diplomatic visitor, the ambassador of Mauritius. He was ushered into the room and I asked him to sit down on the blue satin settee. I offered him coffee and biscuits. We were chatting amicably, and even constructively, about the organisation of the Commonwealth Club in Paris when the budgerigar started to show interest. It began flying in circles around His Excellency's head. The ambassador, trained in the British tradition, remained inscrutable; and when the budgie started doing the loop-the-loop just in front of his eyes he merely blinked while continuing his expose of the kind of way he thought the Commonwealth lunches should be organised. I found it difficult to interrupt him by saying, for instance, that I was sorry but that I had just let a budgerigar in through the window. Besides, it seemed to me that he was getting used to it and it enabled him to show a truly Alec Guinness-like phlegm as the bird did a particularly tight turn round his ears.

The ambassador spoke about the importance of providing signed silver trays for all departing ambassadors, and, as the budgie showed its appreciation by a well-timed fly- past, it occurred to me that this representative from Mauritius might regard the presence of the bird at our meeting as simply a manifestation of traditional British eccentricity. Perhaps he assumed that I always had a budgerigar flying about in my office. I decided, therefore, to continue our meeting without making any reference to it and to see whether he continued to do likewise. He did.

However, as he was about to leave I turned the conversation to the flora and fauna of his native island. ''I suppose,'' I said, ''you have birds like this flying about everywhere in Mauritius?''

''Well, not quite everywhere,'' he replied.

By Adam Bernstein |  March 17, 2009; 12:33 PM ET  | Category:  Adam Bernstein
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This is for Adam Bernstein who wrote the obituary on Nicholas Henderson, the British Diplomat. I sent it to a retired British ambassador who runs the British Diplomatic Oral History Programme at Churchill College, Cambridge. He replied
"The Henderson obituary just goes to show what a super newspaper the Washington Post is! An excellent obituary of someone from an earlier age." I thought you might want to know you are appreciated.


Posted by: stukennedy | March 18, 2009 10:00 AM

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