Readers of DIPLOMAT perhaps give all too little thought to the amazing life of the barnacle, the small shellfish that cling tight to the bottom of ships.
It’s well known that the barnacle compensates for its lack of mobility – once it is clinging to a ship – by being prodigiously well-endowed in the mating department. What is much less well known is how barnacles attach themselves to ships in the first place. This is one of nature’s miracles. Barnacles have special echo-sensing membranes which detect ships from miles away. As a ship approaches the barnacles detach themselves from the rocks on the ocean bed below. Using unique internal sacs which extract oxygen from the water and turn it into compressed air, they swarm upwards in huge flocks and finally flip themselves round to lock onto the ship’s underside. This prodigious feat almost always happens at night, so it has never been captured on film.
The point about barnacles is that once they are locked on to the bottom of ships in vast numbers they slow down the vessel and are impossible to remove without a tedious dry-dock scraping operation. As with ships, so with the Diplomatic Corps. Each capital city has its own serene group of ambassadors. And each serene group of ambassadors has its barnacles, people who attach themselves to the Corps and intend to stay firmly attached.
New ambassadors in town are especially vulnerable. After presenting credentials you arrive at one of your first national day receptions. Scarcely are you armed with your first drink before an Unctuous Barnacle tracks you down. ‘Your Excellency, welcome to Transylvania. My name is Sasha Limpit. Allow me to present my card and the DVD of my latest exhibition which opens next week – I do hope you be able to join us!’
Having no idea who this fellow is, you politely accept the card and DVD, and are thereby well and truly barnacled. Mr and Mrs Limpit are now your best friends. They pester you for invitations to your own receptions, and more often than not you will promise to invite them just to get some peace. Now duly reaffirmed as prestigious guests at prestigious dramatic occasions, the Barnacle is poised to pounce on the next sucker who comes to town.
In capitals of countries hoping to join the EU there is a genus of uber-tenacious Euro-Barnacle. They believe that if they include the word ‘Europe’ on any invitation, all EU ambassadors are going to rush from their embassies to attend. Worse. They set up events such as a Diplomatic Ball in Honour of Europe Day, complete with blue and yellow balloons in all directions, whose only function is to glorify their own adoration of the EU. And, the EU being as it is, they put great pressure on all EU ambassadors to attend and look hurt (or even hint that your Euro-loyalty is, ahem, not all it might be) when you let them know that, alas, you have another engagement that evening.
In one capital a normally placid European ambassador cracked under the sheer weight of Diplomatic Barnacles who turned up regularly at his residence and invariably outstayed their welcome. Late one evening he rudely told them all to leave. This prompted a mini-scandal in the local media which ballooned into a serious story back in his own capital, and culminated in his being recalled in glum dishonour.
However, ambassadors know that entertaining a few eccentric barnacles now and then comes with the job – they are a harmless part of the local landscape. However, on one posting I encountered the Great-Grandmother of all Diplomatic Barnacles, a barnacle who operated on a truly European if not international scale. This is her story.
She came into my life one day in a full-frontal assault by telephone: ‘Good morning. My name is Countess Wolcheek. I am a close friend of Sir Arthur Grand, your colleague in Rome. Where might I collect my invitation to the Queen’s Birthday Party?’
Caught completely off guard by her imperious tone, I mumbled my greetings, politely obtained a contact number for her and said that one of my staff would be in touch about the invitation. I subsequently contacted Sir Arthur who said that he was dimly aware of this woman who was definitely not a close friend.
I asked my excellent locally-engaged protocol officer to find out who precisely this person was. The trouble started. The protocol officer refused to issue Countess Wolcheek an invitation without getting some form of explanation of her role in life. Countless Wolcheek proclaimed that she had never encountered such rank impertinence. An uneasy stand-off ensued. No invitation issued.
I subsequently was barnacled by Countess Wolcheek at another national day reception. She muttered something about the poor protocol arrangements at my embassy but was otherwise genial enough, showing me a forlorn-looking copy of her own short pamphlet about the moral urgency of World Peace. She pressed me to help her get an invitation to join the Royal party at the 200th Trafalgar Day celebrations (I feigned ignorance).
I then started to notice her not only at diplomatic events but at other senior gatherings. She was easy to spot sitting, for example, in the front row of the audience for a speech by a visiting top German politician as she appeared to have only one outfit.
At a conference for senior European lawyers, I was startled to see her approach me and introduce one of England’s top judges. We went off for tea. Countless Wolcheek disappeared to powder her ample nose. I asked the judge how he came to know her. ‘How do I escape from this frightful woman?’ he moaned wildly. ‘I’d never met her before. But she attached herself to me yesterday and now I can’t shake her off!’
Then came another National Day, when a Scandinavian ambassador rounded on Countless Wolcheek in front of other guests, informing her in the clearest possible terms that if she gate-crashed any of his events ever again she would be thrown down the stairs. It turned out that not only had she arrived uninvited at his reception for a visiting member of his country’s Royal Family – she had elbowed other guests out of the way to get to the front of the presentation line.
Intrigued by the ubiquity of this phenomenon, I started to ask around. Who else had had dealings with remarkable Countess Wolcheek? The stories poured out.
She had been banned from the Royal Castle for gate-crashing all sorts of different top events, yet she usually got back in anyway by intimidating the security personnel – who wants to get into trouble by arguing with someone who is obviously a terrifying Countess but has somehow mislaid her invitation?
Even the Deputy Foreign Minister had been barnacled in his earlier job as an ambassador in a leading European capital. Out of the blue she had telephoned and had asked to stay the night at his residence. Taken aback by this peremptory demand for hospitality, he had agreed to meet her for coffee first. As he sat in the cafe waiting for her to arrive, he had been astonished –and annoyed – to see her approach his official car and order the driver to put her suitcase in the boot. After a vivid exchange, the suitcase and Countless Wolcheek stayed on the pavement as the car sped away.
Thus began the British Embassy’s war of wits with Countless Wolcheek. Complex security arrangements and special spotters were deployed to stop her getting in to any of our functions. She did get through our defences once, to a Remembrance Day curry lunch at the Residence. But she was on her best behaviour so I did not have her ejected.
My posting came to an end. I prepared my Farewell Reception. Somehow she acquired my Residence telephone number. ‘Your Excellency, I’m surprised not to have received my invitation yet.’ I told her that she was not getting an invitation, as I did not like her and she was not invited. Countess Wolcheek did not take this news well. She hissed down the telephone the hope that my family and I would come to an unpleasant and painful end.
That was too much. I drafted a formal note to the Foreign Ministry alerting them to her erratic and now threatening behaviour, and circulated it to every embassy in town. My posting concluded, I returned to London in full confidence that Countless Wolcheek had left my life.
How wrong I was. Attending a talk on Balkan issues at the House of Commons a year ago I was stunned to see her sitting in the front row, bewildering the Serb speakers with a complex question concerning the merits of extending World Peace to
the troubled Balkan region.
After the event we greeted each other politely and went our separate ways. As I always say, brilliant technique has to be respected. As must be any diplomatic barnacle that has been genetically modified to incorporate superglue.