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The Wandering Civil Servant of Stradivarius

From his Stradivari violin to vodka toasts and Russian nuclear waste, Desmond Cecil CMG offers some insights in what to expect from his diplomatic memoir

This is not a ‘conventional’ diplomatic memoir about political ‘revelations’, but a passionate account of the vie extraordinaire of a young professional violinist in Switzerland, a senior British diplomat around the world, a nuclear environmental expert in post-Soviet Russia, and pro bono work with arts charities around Europe.

Hearing Yehudi Menuhin play solo Bach and Bartók in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre in 1959 would prove an epiphany for the 17-year-old Desmond Cecil. Already an advanced oboe student of Joy Boughton, he decided there and then, against all the odds, to become a violinist. This autobiography tells the remarkable journey its author took in his quest to follow his passion to perform music – eventually with his own Stradivari violin.

Although a member of the historic Cecil family, the great-great-grandson of Victorian Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, he had a normal state-funded education with the other local children at local Oxford day schools, for which he was eternally grateful. He decided, after Chemistry and PPE at the Queen’s College, Oxford University, to move with his wife Ruth to Switzerland in 1965 for full-time violin study with the illustrious Max Rostal, staying there for five years as a professional violinist, playing with and leading various Swiss chamber orchestras.  He gives much detail on violin technique and repertoire, and his friendship with Rostal. Eventually realising he had started the violin too late to become a top soloist, and by then a fluent multi-linguist, he returned to the UK to join HM Diplomatic Service in 1970.

His initial diplomatic training was to polish up his Russian, studying with the Foreign Office’s top teacher, the formidable Countess Shuvalova, which resulted in him speaking with a ‘smart St Petersburg’ accent. After an aborted Moscow posting because of a visa war (which he describes in detail), he was first sent to Bonn as a junior diplomat albeit with fluent German, where he dealt directly with well-known German politicians. This was followed by a spell as UK Press Officer at the UN Geneva, handling the international press and visiting politicians, such as for the 1976 Rhodesia Conference. Later as Counsellor and Chargé d’Affaires in Vienna, when the Iron Curtain was collapsing, he was able to use his Russian language, visiting the Soviet Union in 1988 for discussions with the Soviet Foreign Ministry on Austrian EEC membership.  Back in the UK, after exotic short assignments such as in the war-torn Balkans, Castro’s Cuba and hostage-Beirut, he was promoted to Under-Secretary level, handling the Americas, North, Central and South. Paradoxically, despite the enormous importance of the North American relationships, dealing with South America was a new area for him, which had its own satisfactions. Two other pluses were the fact he had to learn ‘Latino’ (as opposed to ‘Spanish’) Spanish, which involved an absorbing three-week residential course in Quito, Ecuador, high up in the Andes, and surprise, surprise, the Caribbean regional conferences could coincide with Test Matches. He decided to take early retirement in 1995 while there was still time to look around for other opportunities, and he was appointed CMG by HM The Queen.

Throughout his diplomatic career, his violin was always a huge personal asset – allowing musical escape from ‘bureaucratic’ frustrations, but also opening diplomatic doors, often playing chamber music personally with local senior officials and politicians. To this day, he works closely with successive German Ambassadors in London, arranging joint cultural events – frequently supporting young musicians – which naturally has profound diplomatic as well as cultural benefits. With Ambassador Georg Boomgaarden he organised a Royal Festival Hall concert with Kurt Masur (a personal friend from their work together for the Leipzig Mendelssohn Foundation) in 2009 to celebrate 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall (Mauerfall), and similarly with Ambassador Peter Ammon in 2015 to celebrate 25 years since German reunification.

Post-Diplomatic Service in 1995 he was taken on by British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) as their Senior Adviser to coordinate their nuclear environmental clean-up initiatives in Russia. Making use again of his fluent Russian, he acted as ‘Russian political adviser’ to a Norwegian, Swedish, French, British consortium working together with the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy and Governors and Admirals of NW Russia, to address the nuclear waste challenges from the former Soviet nuclear submarines
which threatened the environment of the Barents Sea. This was an extraordinary ‘diplomatic’ moment, as Russia opened up after the Soviet days and before the later clamp-down. The Western consortium was welcomed into the former ‘secret cities’ of the Kola Peninsula and the huge Russian nuclear waste complex ‘Mayak’ beyond the Urals. Key friendships developed with senior Russian nuclear officials, which would have been quite impossible in the Soviet days – such as with the Deputy Minister of Atomic Energy Valeriy Lebedev who officially wrote:

Dear Desmond, We in Russia greatly value your contribution to our common work, which makes the world a safer place, environmentally cleaner and more stable……We all think with great pleasure of our meetings with you – a true partner, an interesting person and a wise interlocutor.

The only occasion when he actually played the violin in Russia was during a ‘VIP’ Moscow nuclear reception, when a professional string quartet from the Tchaikovsky Academy was performing. When the first violinist lady heard that he was also a violinist, she ‘dragged’ him to the first violin desk and thrust her violin at him. While normally he never mixes alcohol and violin playing, this was impossible on this occasion because of the numerous official vodka toasts beforehand. However, the music on the stand was a Mozart Divertimento with which he was fortunately familiar – so the improvised performance proceeded without mishap.

One of the Soviet officials whom he met during his first visit to Moscow in 1988 was Grigory Karasin, later Russian Ambassador in London. With Karasin, his predecessor Yuriy Fokin, and subsequent Russian Ambassadors Yury Fedotov and Aleksander Yakovenko he was able to arrange various cultural events at the Russian Embassy, which continue to this day, recent political developments notwithstanding.

After BNFL was disbanded by the UK government, in 2005 he was taken on by the French State civil nuclear company AREVA as their UK Representative, advising on nuclear new build and waste management, and joining the Board of the international consortium which managed the UK Sellafield site for a number of years. Needless to say, he became a strong advocate of nuclear power for security of supply and climate change reasons, and he explains in detail why he thought that some of the decisions of successive UK governments were short-sighted.

Throughout his subsequent, post-violinist diplomatic and nuclear careers, he has continued to play his violin – by now a genuine late Stradivari formally entitled the ‘Cecil’ (another story which he describes in detail) – with fellow professional and gifted amateur musicians, especially in chamber music and often in charity fund-raising concerts.

The memoir contains fascinating insights into the music, diplomatic and nuclear callings, anecdotes of some of the important European and British politicians of the past 40 years, and charming stories of the famous musicians he has known, such as Yehudi Menuhin, Max Rostal, Kurt Masur and others. It also describes in intimate detail some of his other interests, such as playing cricket around the world, downhill skiing in the Alps, Sherlock Holmes, chess and antiquarian travel books.

He continues to do a great deal to help aspiring young musicians and students, working pro bono with various boards and trusts, including the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Felix-Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Foundation Leipzig and its UK Friends charity, the Gstaad Menuhin Festival, Russian Arts Help, the Athenæum Club (where he chaired the Wine and General Committees and was appointed a trustee) and the Queen’s College Oxford – with a Distinguished Friend of Oxford University Award

The Wandering Civil Servant of Stradivarius by Desmond Cecil, CMG is published by Quartet Books. *The author is donating all royalties to arts charities, especially to support young musicians, who need all the help that they can get nowadays.


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