A parting shot – classicists would call it a Parthian shot – is an insult or cutting remark made at the moment of departure. Parthians were Asian horsemen who would fire arrows at their enemies during a retreat, or a fake retreat, which struck the Greeks and Romans they fought as rather ignoble. Parting Shots is not a book about war, but a book of cutting remarks – whole letters of them, in fact – penned by British Ambassadors at the moment they completed a post and were safe to reveal their true, sometimes disparaging, opinions about their hosts – and their employers. When the ambassador was at the very end of his career and leaving his final post, he had nothing to lose and could say what he really, really thought.
These letters were known as ‘valedictory despatches’ and were not, as you might have imagined, written to the hosts (which wouldn’t be very diplomatic!) but to the British Foreign Secretary and figures in the British Foreign Service. In theory, the dispatch was an honest and informal report on the state of the country as he (or occasionally she) left it, with some advice on how to deal with the country in the future. And it usually did contain those things, but often contained a lot more besides: like the ambassador’s insights into the national character; his long pent-up complaints about the country’s shortcomings; his musings on what had changed since he started the job; or, occasionally, bitter remonstrance about the direction that British diplomacy, British foreign policy, or even the British way of life was going. The tradition was brought to an end on 2006 by then Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, after the ‘Freedom of Information Act’ was passed allowing the public and the press access to previously confidential documents.
In 2009 the journalists Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson had the idea of using the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to some of the letters and making a programme about them – which became Radio 4’s Parting Shots. The show was successful and the book followed in 2010. Its success lay as much in its humour as in the historical importance of the letters. The descriptions of other peoples range from the complimentary (the Dutch are ‘splendid friends and Allies), to the insulting (‘the average Nicaraguan is one of the most dishonest, unreliable, violent and alcoholic of the Latin Americans) and the dismissive (‘the average modern Austrian only thinks of his schnitzel’). Some makes uncomfortable reading: while the generalisations about and criticisms of other peoples might not have been considered racist at the time they were written (some would be now), it is plain to see why the government might not have wanted them to be read by their subjects.The greatest rancor, however, is generally reserved for rivals and superiors back home. It’s not all carping, of course – there is a lot of affection in there, as well as some interesting insights into different countries and the diplomatic service itself.
And the writers are, on the whole, decent writers. Most ambassadors are Oxbridge educated with most of the old ones being the beneficiaries of a full classical education. The letters are filled with high-flown formal phrasing, and more rhetorical devices than you can throw an tetracolon climax at. If you’re looking to polish your formal writing style, this is a good place to start. Tomorrow we’ll look at some of the specific techniques in some of the letters, but to get you started here’s an example of one of the letters critical of the ambassador’s hosts. Notice the formal language and the vebal hedging (in italics) around the critical points:
In Uruguayans, efficiency may inspire respect but not emulation; and sometimes a perverse refusal to adapt their pace at all. Requests for assistance or advice do not necessarily imply a desire to accept the advice or use the assistance; the donor or adviser must be a first class salesman and may well have to start by explaining to his hosts why he has come, and persuading them of the need to do what they asked him to come for…
(Sir Keith Unwin, 1969)
Describe a group of people – or one person – in subtly worded criticisms. Like Sir Keith Unwin, try to use verbal hedging to soften your message.