The life of John Grigor Taylor, as told to his partner Sophia Lambert 2004-2006, with extracts from his letters to his parents






On his 91st birthday







Birth in India and early visits to the UK


Early childhood in Nasirabad


Education in England: prep school


At public school: Cheltenham 1935-39


The war - Cheltenham and Cambridge 1939-41


Call up and the journey out to India 1941


Officer Training School at Mhow 1941-42


Staff officer in Bombay 1942


Staff officer in Delhi 1943


Bengal and the India-Burma border 1943-44


Back to Blighty and Cambridge Part 2 1945-47


High Commission in Delhi 1947-50


Back to Europe and The Hague 1950-53


Foreign Office 1953-55


Burma 1956-58


Back to the UK and Paris 1958-60


Foreign Office: 1961-64 and New York 1964-68


Back in Delhi 1968-69 and Sussex University 1970


Washington 1971-74


Geneva  1974-77


South Africa 1978-80 and trips to India

Retirement 1981-201


Appendix 2 John (Jack) McLeod Grigor Taylor







Birth in India and early visits to UK

   John Grigor Taylor was born on 25 November 1921 at a military maternity hospital in Ahmednagar, some 300 miles east of Bombay, where his father, a Major in the Indian Army, was stationed.


    John (always known as Jack) McLeod Grigor Taylor was then 37 and his wife, Dora Ducé, was 28. She was a schoolteacher who had met Jack when she had come out to India to visit her sister Madge, who was then married to an engineer working in India. Dora and Jack were married in early 1921 in Poona (now Pune).


    John was their only child and the three of them formed a loving family for the rest of Jack and Dora’s lives. After John’s birth, Jack wrote to his own mother:


It all seems so wonderful. I don’t feel that I will fully realise the presence of our John until Dora and he come back to the bungalow from hospital. He really is an absolute gem. I’ve already seen one or two babies of about the same age in the hospital (quite an epidemic!) and they don’t compare. … As for Dora, she is in the seventh heaven of happiness and looks it all over. … Oh! He is capital and I shall be glad when I get him into the house, to just sit and watch him whenever I come in. …


On Thursday 24th, ominous symptoms began to quietly assert themselves and I drove Dora to the hospital at 3 p.m. – not without a little insistence, for she hated leaving home altho’ glad of it after. That night the labour commenced in fits and starts and the little boy came into the world at noon 25th November.


I was away at work at 11 a.m., four miles away, when I received a chit from the Doctor to say that “things had started” and Dora ought to be a mother in a few hours, and hinting that I should keep away until the evening, when the birth was expected.


Some local horse races (the first for 10 years) were on that afternoon. I started off for them at 2 p.m. and, bulging with curiosity en route, decided to “drop in” and secretly ascertain how things were going. Left the trap outside and tip-toed into the room. Imagine my surprise when Dora, from behind a screen, hearing my footsteps, looked round from the bed and said “Look, Jack”, pointing to the little darling at her side. Two hours old, he knew his Daddy at once, came rushing in to my arms (ahem!) and I nursed him to sleep for half an hour. Then on to the Races – the middle of them. Everyone seemed genuinely delighted with the news (this is not my imagination – you see, they all love Dora so much) and I beamed more and more as the afternoon wore on.


   The following year, the family returned to the UK on home leave, which normally happened every fourth year for the Services in India, and stayed several months. They seem to have stayed at least part of the time with John’s aunt Madge at Abbey Gate Cottage at the entrance of the ruined Beaulieu Abbey. This was next to Palace House, the seat of Lord Montagu, one of Madge’s many admirers, who had lent her the cottage. Photographs show that Jack Taylor and family visited Madge and Dora’s mother, Lilian Ducé, at 56 Aberdeen Road in Highbury, London. They almost certainly also went to Bakewell, where Jack’s sister Dorothy and his mother (usually known as Granny Grigor but more properly Margaret (Maggie) Taylor) were living.


John with his grandmother Lilian Ducé in Islington




   Back in India, Jack was posted to the North West Frontier, in what were the dying years of the Great Game. Jack was engaged on operations, so Dora and John stayed at Dera Ismail Khan, a fortress in the North West Frontier Province at a safe distance from the wilder tribal territory. John’s earliest Indian memory is of the battlements of the fortress.


John with his ayah, probably Dera Ismail Khan, c. 1923





   In 1925 or 1926, the family went back for another home leave, again staying with Madge at Beaulieu and visiting Jack’s family in Bakewell and Dora’s in London. John can just remember this UK visit. Two women in particular made an impression on him. The first, “Auntie Pearl”, Lady Armstrong, the wife of the then head of the Royal Automobile Club; had a hoarse voice and four chows with blue tongues. The second was Lady Troubridge, a prolific writer of romantic novels. On meeting John, she said: “so you’ve just come back from India, John; what was it like?” – to which John replied in a very Indian accent: “very cold” (they had presumably come back during the winter when it can be quite cold in North India). “Oh”, Lady Troubridge said, “it has been much belied”.  Lady Troubridge was the sister-in-law of Una Troubridge, the lover of the lesbian novelist Radclyffe Hall. John remembered a story about Una Troubridge’s son Vincent pointing out Radclyffe Hall in a restaurant and saying to his companion: “you see that chap over there? She’s my uncle”.


    Another memory of this trip was hearing wireless through loudspeakers (as opposed to earphones) for the first time, a matter of amazement for both John and his mother. It was also about this time that a regular air service was established between the UK and India, so that letters took only a few days to arrive rather than three to four weeks. John was, however, disappointed by birdsong. He had read about it in children’s books and imagined that the birds in England sang real songs with voices and tunes. He asked his mother if he could go and listen to the birds singing and was taken into the garden where the birds were chirruping, only to ask “when are they going to start singing?”


Early childhood in Nasirabad

   Jack’s regiment was the Rajputana Rifles (or Raj Rif). From 1926 to 1929, Jack was posted to Nasirabad, about nine miles from Ajmer in Rajputana (as Rajasthan was then called). John retained vivid and happy memories of the family’s time there.


   Nasirabad served as the “cantonment” for Ajmer, i.e. the base for the troops responsible for the maintenance of local order (cantonments were often located some few miles outside the town they were protecting).  The other role of those in the Cantonment was to keep an eye on the semi-independent princely states which surrounded it. There were normally also a battalion (700 men) of British infantry and a battery (300) of British gunners in the cantonment. In addition, it was the depot for the Rajputana Rifles – i.e. where the archives and other possessions of the regiment were kept and where new recruits were first brought and trained. The five regular battalions of the Raj Rif, known by their numbers 1 to 5, were stationed all over Asia as part of the imperial system of keeping order and defending frontiers. Each battalion kept an officer to represent its interests at the depot. Jack was from 2 Raj Rif and was also deputy Commandant of the depot. The father of John’s life-long friend John ffrench represented 4 Raj Rif. The recruits came from rural areas of Rajputana and the Punjab and arrived looking lean and hungry for their 6-12 month induction training; with good nourishment they put on weight so rapidly that Jack said it was like watching a speeded up film.


   The family lived in a largish white-washed bungalow made of muttee, a mixture of mud and straw, with a thatched roof. A ceiling cloth was suspended under the roof to catch insects and snakes – John remembers seeing signs of them wriggling above the cloth.


      At first, there were no telephones, electricity or refrigeration, and all the water was brought in tin cans or animal skins by a bhishti, a water-carrier (like Gunga Din). Fans (punkas) were operated during the hot weather by a man pulling a string from outside the room (when electricity arrived, during the course of their time there, John remembers his mother explaining that the punka-wala would no longer be needed, but John remembers with nostalgia the slow rhythm of the fans pulled by human power as much more agreeable than the steady hum of the electric fans.) When the hot weather began, “hot weather precautions” were taken: “chicks” or bamboo screens were drawn down over all the windows and “khus khus tatties” – screens made of dried foliage - were installed. Water was frequently flung over the tatties and its evaporation created a welcome cool draught.


John with his mother. Note the warlike toy





   John had first an ayah (an Indian nanny) and then a male bearer to look after him – he thinks his mother replaced the ayah so as not to have a rival female influence over him. The bearer, Jagarnath, was gentle and respectful, and reproachful where a European nanny would have been angry – “oh no, John Sahib, you must not do that” instead of “how dare you!”  His mother still played a hands-on role in his care, bathing him in a tin bath (which he liked), putting him to bed etc. He played a lot in the garden of the bungalow, where he had a small flower-bed in which he used to plant things. He remembered with nostalgia to the end of his life the smell of newly watered hot Indian earth.


   Much of the garden, however, was a battlefield for his toy soldiers, of which he had some 60 or 70. He acquired more when he went back to school in England, spending 1/6d (7½ p) out of his 2/6d weekly pocket money on a box of eight each week, building up a collection of some 700. These sort of lead soldiers now command high prices; unfortunately, at some point they were put in the care of a friend who disposed of them, allegedly for patriotic wartime purposes, much to John’s chagrin. To make up the numbers in Nasirabad days, John used to collect chips of wood from the sawmills in Kashmir, his “woodens”, which he would pretend were also soldiers – they would often be made to play the enemy. Jack’s Indian orderly, who had served like Jack in Mesopotamia during the First World War, dug a system of mini-trenches for John’s soldiers, and also made tents from brown paper weighed down with pebbles in which the soldiers slept, and “barbed wire” out of string and twigs.

John playing miniature military games







     Whenever John went outside, he had to wear a topi, even in the cold season – the received wisdom was that something disastrous would happen to a European child if its head was exposed for more than few moments to the Indian sun.


   John remembers his father arriving back in the evening, a creaking and attractively leather-smelling giant in his high leather boots, uniform with Sam Browne belt, often a sword (if he had been on parade) and sometimes a pistol. John loved the huge male presence of his father, representing a quite different and wider world from the soft and cuddly one of the bungalow. Jack would sometimes sit down, put up his legs, take out his pistol and take pot-shots at tins on the veranda, letting John help pull the trigger. John greatly enjoyed this. Occasionally Jack would bring his horse up to the bungalow as well and try to lead it into the sitting-room to tease Dora (the horse was called Wallaby and was a “Waler” from New South Wales, as Australian horses were thought better able to resist the diseases of India than British-bred ones). Jack also used to encourage John to feed the horse – something John never particularly enjoyed, not being at all horsy, although he adopted the animal talk that he later used towards dogs from his father’s converse with his horse.

John on his father's charger




    John remembers his father as always busy, either at work or at play – Jack was an excellent sportsman, keen on and skilled at shooting, riding, polo, hockey and pig-sticking (the dangerous sport of hunting wild boar on horseback and spearing them). Jack often played these sports with his soldiers, from whose company he clearly derived much happiness. Although many of his attitudes were imperialist, even racist by our standards, he dearly loved his Indian soldiers and often encouraged John to come and meet them and listen to their tales (communication was almost entirely in Hindustani).

This photo has a caption by John’s father:

 “A great soldier & soldier son, Nasirabad 1928”





   The bungalow was one of a dozen in the cantonment occupied by officers and senior civilians, some of them Indians (the doctor, for instance, was an Indian). John and his ayah or bearer would often go for walks along “The Mall”, the main street of bungalows, to the maidan, a plain on the edge of the cantonment which merged into open country. The maidan included an air-strip and a golf course. The latter was just sun-baked earth and burnt grass indistinguishable from the rest of the maidan apart from the greens, which were known as “browns” and made of specially smoothed and watered brown sand.


    The church and the British military hospital were within the cantonment; John remembers that the ledges on the back of the pews on which prayer-books are rested had wedges cut out of them as a prop for each soldier’s to rifle in, because ever since the Indian Mutiny, 80 years earlier, when the British were taken by surprise unarmed during a church service, it was routine for soldiers to take their weapons into church with them.  The War Memorial for Raj Rif troops killed in the First World War was also in the Cantonment and one of John’s early memories was of the ceremony for its (rather belated) unveiling in January 1927 – marked by a huge parade, commanded by John’s father, to which all battalions sent contingents. To one side of the parade grounds were the lines, the rows of huts occupied by the troops. On New Year’s Day, another great parade took place on the maidan, of which the high-light for John was the Rifles firing in sequence, some thousand men one after another, making a noise that he likened to that of tearing cloth.


   The Cantonment also included “the Club”, which had a tiny green lawn kept carefully watered. The children were taken to play at the Club by their ayahs or bearers, who would squat on their haunches watching their charges play games such as tiddly-winks and snakes-and-ladders. The parents would sit around surveying the scene while sipping their lime squashes or gin and tonics. The children were also allowed to go, suitably accompanied, to a shop in Nasirabad town run by a Parsee called Framjee where they could buy “approved” sweets in proper wrappers. John remembers that, in contrast to India after Independence, many of the goods in the shop were British branded ones (Kia-Ora orange squash, Bryant and May matches, Marmite etc) –  a concomitant of empire.


   Cows in the regimental dairy provided milk and very thin butter. Meat – probably buffalo – was dark and boring. Eggs were miniscule; the chickens, albeit scrawny, were a popular item. But the best food was the game that Jack bagged on shooting expeditions every weekend – goose, duck, snipe, quail, partridge, jungle fowl (the ancestor of our chickens) and sandgrouse. Jack used to come back and lay out the contents of his bag in a row and explain to John what each bird was. He remembers snipe as being particularly delicious. There was a good supply of fruit, and the Indian cooks really excelled at every type of pudding, especially complicated affairs with spun sugar. John also remembers his mother cooking meringues by placing them on the inside of the lid of a big square biscuit tin and putting it out in the sun on the kitchen steps – perhaps with another tin lid attached to the wall at an angle to reflect even more sun onto the meringues. When electricity arrived in the late 20s, refrigerated trains became a possibility, and John remembers the delights of tasting “real English butter”, as well as such delicacies as kippers and bacon.


   In about May, John and his mother would go up to Kashmir for two to three months to escape the hot weather. Apart from working women – doctors, nurses, missionaries – and a few intrepid young wives, all the European women and children used to go up the hills for the summer, to one of some eight or ten hill stations used also by the troops along the 2,000 miles of the foothills of the Himalayas, from Dharamsala in the west to Darjeeling in the east.  Kashmir was considered the premier station and most expensive, so Jack was pampering his family by sending them there. He would normally take a week’s leave to take them there (which took three days by train and then car). They would go first to Srinagar where they stayed on a houseboat from which John would swim with water-wings in the Dal Lake; and then on to Gulmarg, higher up in the hills, where they would stay at Nedou’s hotel (destroyed in one of the Indo-Pakistan wars).

Shikara on Dal Lake 1920s

   For John, Gulmarg was an enormous treat. He would ride on little ponies or “tats”, about the size of a Shetland pony, led by a syce or groom – usually a little boy of six or seven, barely older than him. He would play in the little rills tumbling down from the mountains, making boats and dams. There were also lots of children’s parties with paper hats and games. For most of the families the hill stations gave them a much wider choice of (European) acquaintance than in their normal station, as families came from all over India, so there was an intense social life. John also remembers the wonderful fruit: every week it seemed that there was something new – apricots, nectarines, paw-paws.


   John grew up speaking Hindustani to the servants and to his father’s men and English to his parents and the other Europeans, in his early years with an Indian accent.  By way of education, John went with three or four other English children to classes with Mrs ffrench, who had been a governess before her marriage. At one point, a Christian Anglo-Indian (ie mixed race) girl appears to have given the children religious knowledge lessons, as his mother recalled that, during the trip to England in 1926, John saw a religious picture and said:


“Oh look, there’s Jesus”


Religion had not been much in evidence in Jack and Dora’s household, and Dora, intrigued, asked him who Jesus was.


“Jesus is a very important man who kills you if you are naughty”.


   His mother, also a teacher by training, helped teach him to read and write – he can recall suddenly realising he could read by himself at the age of five while looking at The House on Pooh Corner. He used to read squatting on his haunches Indian style, his cheek pressed against his knee and the book open on the ground in front of him. Since none of the women who taught seemed to be any good at arithmetic, however, it did not figure prominently on his curriculum.





Education in England - prep school


   When John was eight, his mother took him back to England to go to school there. John ffrench went with his mother at the same time, and from then on the two boys tended to go or be taken everywhere together, with their respective mothers and their families in England taking it turns to look after them. So John ffrench became the nearest to a brother that John ever had.


   John and Dora travelled back on the SS Cracovia of the Lloyd Triestino line. Dora greatly preferred this free and easy Italian company to the prim and stuffy P & O which was the great imperial British shipping company.  On P & O, as soon as the ship sailed, the passengers would be dragged out of their cabins to the usually cold and draughty boat deck for lifeboat drill, whereas the Italians did not bother. When, about a week into the three week trip, there had been no boat drill, Dora asked one of the ship’s officers when it would be. He was dismissive, saying to her amusement:


 “But if the big boat sinks, what good will the little boats be?”


   At one point, John and his mother were invited onto the bridge, where the captain suggested that John press one of the buttons. It turned out to be the foghorn – again it would have been unimaginable for a P & O captain to allow a child to try the foghorn, however good the weather. And one of the high points of the trip back was when the ship passed an Italian destroyer in the Suez Canal and the latter fired a salute (this was in the days of Italian imperial ambitions).  During the voyage, Dora decided that John should grow out of his “woodens” and surreptitiously threw them overboard, for which he ever afterwards mockingly reproached her as a lesson in betrayal.


   When they got to England, Dora took John on the usual round of visits to the family, and then left John in the care of Mrs ffrench, who had taken a house in Prince’s Risborough. John always regretted that his parents tended not to take their own house, but to share (no doubt partly for financial reasons as money was always tight). He felt strongly the need of somewhere which was seen as his home and where he would be the host and child in charge when other children visited.


   Mrs ffrench put the two boys for two terms into a small school in Prince’s Risborough which took boys and girls, but the boys only up to the age of eight. The two Johns were deliberately made to board to prepare them for the rigours of the proper boarding Preparatory School for which they were destined, even though Mrs ffrench’s house was only a few hundred yards away. John remembers enjoying Woodlands, especially the girls who used to mother him (and he decided that when he was grown up he would marry a particularly nice girl some years older than him). On his first day, another boy called John Marshall came up to him and asked John whether he would be his chum. John agreed. John Marshall’s father was a vicar who suffered from back problems and he would pay his son 2d a week to massage his back. The 2d (about 1p) was spent on buying a chocolate wafer biscuit, and the chumship’s sole manifestation, as far as John could remember was the weekly presentation to him of half the chocolate wafer. John was unable to reciprocate, not having the financial wherewithal to do so.


    John’s other memory was of singing sessions, gathered round the teacher at the piano to sing popular songs, a session that was normally followed by tea and biscuits John enjoyed these sessions and, having a remarkable musical memory, could still remember the songs into old age. On one occasion, the teacher asked if the children wanted to continue the session “after tea and biscuits”. They all chorused “yes, please” except John, who – more out of a sense of non-conformity than anything else – said sotto voce “no, thank you”. To his embarrassment the teacher heard and asked why he did not want to continue. He quickly said that he did really want to go on, thus establishing a life-long pattern of – in his own words - being a rebel but not a martyr.


   In the autumn of 1930 the two Johns moved to Dorset House Prep School, where they stayed for the next five years. All new boys were put automatically in the bottom class to begin with, regardless of age. Within two or three days, John had impressed enough, despite his lack of formal education, to be elevated two forms. It took John ffrench rather longer.


    It is not clear why their parents chose this particular school in Littlehampton, Sussex, typical of many at the period – owned and run by the headmaster, Mr Munro (whose father had founded the school) and with some 40-60 boys (the numbers fluctuated, presumably with the state of the economy), many with parents in India. The headmaster and his wife were in their 60s, and he tended to impress parents as an amusing old Scottish savant, while she appeared kind and motherly. Little did they know. Within a term of the boys joining the school, she was killed in a car accident and thereafter Mr Munro’s previously largely latent homosexual urges manifested themselves. He would invite boys into his room for sex lessons and fiddle with them to make a point. That is as far as it got with John, but he had no doubt it went further with boys who responded in any way. All the boys knew of and disliked these activities and used to discuss how to avoid them (there were some unfortunate victims whom he positively pursued). But in those innocent days they had no idea what it was about, and whether it was a normal part of school education, so nothing was ever mentioned to parents.


    The situation was probably saved by the deputy headmaster, Mr Sims, who seems to have become aware of what was happening and, about half-way through the stay of the two Johns, persuaded the headmaster (perhaps with a strong element of pressure) to sell him the school. Sims, although less likeable in the eyes of parents, was efficient and recruited two enthusiastic young masters, just down from Oxbridge, which improved the school no end.


  Above all, however, John found himself part of a dominant clique of some four or five exceptionally congenial, alert and intelligent boys, mostly with Indian connections, and that is what really made the school a happy place for him, even while Munro was still in charge. They read, talked and invented ingenious games, and for John it was an intellectually and artistically stimulating place that Cheltenham - with the disciplines and pressures of a big school - never was. Together with the leader of this band of boys, David Butler (who was killed in the war), John founded a successful school newspaper called “Ye Moan” which boys had to pay to read, the normal currency being cigarette cards. John heard that “Ye Moan” survived and thrived after his departure.. At the end of his time at Dorset House, John managed to get an exhibition to Cheltenham, worth £60 a year, roughly the fees for one term.


  Like many schools of that period, it did have its sadistic aspects. John remembers one occasion when one poor boy, who had been condemned by the sixth form (the justice administering body) for being “uppity”, was made to run the gauntlet of all the boys in the school, who hit him with gym-shoes as he passed between them. John was deeply uneasy about this, and alone of all the boys refused to participate, remaining at his desk throughout, and expressing sympathy to the victim afterwards.


  During the holidays, the two boys used to stay with Madge, who had by this time moved to Colgrims, a house on the Solent that she had purchased and enlarged with a modern extension designed by two young (and later highly influential) architects, Amyas Connell and Basil Ward (sadly the house no longer exists).






    John’s mother, unusually among parents based in India and probably at considerable expense, used to make a point of coming over at least once a year, but John did not see his father once during the five years he was at Dorset House, although Jack wrote lively weekly letters (which he continued doing to the end of his life). Dora would normally arrive for Christmas and stay often until June or July, leaving Jack behind in India (much of the time on active service on the North-West frontier). When she was there, the boys led an organised and happy life with regular walks, outings and meals. But when they were alone with Madge, they were left to their own devices, and felt a sense of loneliness. John remembers playing endless games of soldiers, with battles lasting four or five days. The boys also made tree houses and gorse houses and went for long cycle rides along the then quiet country roads – they used for instance arrange to meet a boy living 30 miles away at the half-way point between their homes for a picnic.

John with his mother c.1935

Press-ups with Jack (foreground) after he returned from India



At public school - Cheltenham 1935-40


  In 1935, John went to Cheltenham, a public school with a strong military tradition. It had been his father’s school and was also that attended by his three Brooke-Taylor cousins John, Mike and David. For the boys, the House that they were in, and its Housemaster, were all-important. John, like his cousins, was in Christowe, presided over by Wilfred King, a middle-aged bachelor, a survivor from the First World War in which he was badly wounded and awarded the Military Cross. He was the embodiment of clean-living,

dedicated church-going puritanism, with limited awareness of contemporary pressures and issues. The house adapted to his image. He had a private income and – whereas traditionally housemasters counted on making money out of their tenure - King actually spent his income on the boys, who were as a result the best fed in the school, with food bordering on the luxurious for those days.


  Otherwise, the living conditions were austere, with bare concrete stairs and no heating in the dormitories (in which the boys slept in cubicles). Every morning the boys were made to strip off in public for hot showers (while the hot water lasted) in the communal wash-house, but otherwise all washing was in cold water. Every hour of the day was regimented (including on Saturdays), with gobbled meals being fitted in briefly between lessons, two prayer sessions a day, organised sports and two hours prep from 7 to 9 pm after supper. There was a lot of beating, both by the housemaster, often at the request of form masters, and by prefects if boys had violated house rules. During John’s time there, however, the tide was turning against beating, and it was beginning to taper off; and John managed to emerge without once being beaten, although when he was head of house he was reluctantly involved in beating one boy for a particularly flagrant abuse.


  John was an active member of the debating society and was on its committee. Generally, however, the level of intellectual interest was low. Only two other boys in John’s group were intellectually talented and one became his best friend (he also was killed in the Second World War). John remembers one period during which the Philistine atmosphere in Christowe was notably lightened. This was when there was a polio scare and all boys were isolated in their houses for two weeks, unable to attend lessons (as these were normally held in the main school buildings). The individual houses were left to make their own arrangements and the Christowe housemaster encouraged the boys to form a committee to organise lessons. It was summer and the weather was good, so the boys used to sit in the garden while the senior ones taught the more junior. John was by this time in the sixth form, and he helped to supervise Greek, Latin, English and French. This taste of unregimented learning was much enjoyed by all, and there was a perceptible awakening of interest in things of the mind. Normally, the spirit of the house was very much based on sport and the boys were not used to talking to each other about other subjects (not least because boys sharing a house did not necessarily go to the same lessons). Quite a few boys had exams coming up, however, and even the less intellectual were keen not to fall behind and participated keenly in the lessons. The contact of boys with boys, with the brighter ones helping the less bright and the older the younger (something normally discouraged to avoid unhealthy relationships) seems to have led  - even if only temporarily - to an unusual commitment to work with even the some of the heartiest boys showing an interest in poetry and composition.  


   John enjoyed Corps, being interested in all things military, and rapidly got promotion. However, sports were the be-all and end-all (rugby in winter and cricket in summer), and being good at them was considered far more praiseworthy than intellectual prowess. John disliked organised sports, but fortunately found that at the age of 15 he could opt during the summer for rowing instead of cricket. He enjoyed rowing (which involved a bus ride to Tewkesbury), and was also good at it (he was in the school’s 1st IV), thus saving his reputation as a sportsman. But generally he greatly resented the time given to sports. Cheltenham was surrounded by the beautiful Cotswold country which he longed to be out in, as for him the countryside was what England was all about, and he felt thoroughly frustrated at the hours boys were compelled to spend on sports, for example for the whole of summer Saturday afternoons from 2 to 6 pm, leaving only Sunday for bicycle rides to the country.

John second from left. Three of the five boys on this boat were killed in the war.

  John passed his school certificate (the equivalent of GCSEs) within a year of arriving at Cheltenham and, because it was what bright boys were supposed to do, was put onto classics, which he did for the rest of his time there. Classics – and above all the endless composition of Greek and Latin prose and verse that they then consisted of  - was not his forte, and he felt he did less well than if he might have, had he been allowed to do  something he liked such as history or modern languages.


   As for the holidays, John’s father retired from the Indian Army on reaching the age of 50 (the normal retiring age) at about the time that John went to Cheltenham. His parents returned the UK, staying first with Madge at Colgrims and with other relations and then in a rented house in Pinner, where his father trained for a second career as a golf course manager. So John was able to spend his holidays from Cheltenham with his parents. John ffrench, whose father was younger and still serving in India, often joined them (his parents had sent him to another public school, Blundells).

John with his parents outside Colgrims

  John did not dislike Cheltenham, but nor did he particularly enjoy it. He felt that the main things that it had given him were a determination to take some exercise every day and an ability to get on quickly and without fuss with the everyday processes of life.


The war - Cheltenham and Cambridge

   In 1938, when Germany annexed Czechoslovak Sudetenland and war seemed imminent, Cheltenham prepared to put itself on a war footing by setting the boys to build trenches, as seen in the photograph below. The Munich Agreement then supervened. The Second World War finally broke out on 3 September 1939, about three weeks before the autumn term at Cheltenham was due to begin. Many of the older boys left early to join the armed forces. The parents of the others received a letter to say that the War Office had requisitioned the buildings at Cheltenham and that the school was being evacuated to Shrewsbury, to share the facilities of the public school there. So the next two terms the boys boxed and coxed with their peers at Shrewsbury, the Shrewsbury boys having lessons in the morning and games in the afternoon and the Cheltenham boys doing their lessons in the morning and their games in the afternoon.

Digging trenches in 1938


   As there was not enough dormitory space, the Cheltenham boys were billeted on local families. John, along with two others (including his great friend Tony Townsend-Rose) stayed with an elderly childless couple, the “Sandfords of the Isle” (after land that they owned in an oxbow of the Severn and to distinguish them from another branch of the Sandford family) in a country house about three miles outside Shrewsbury. The boys bicycled in each day, often through the frozen snow as 1939/40 was an exceptionally cold winter.


    Despite the cold, the boys much enjoyed their time at Shrewsbury. The Shrewsbury boys were friendly, and the Sandfords lived in some style, with maids and a semi-formal dinner. They were kind to the boys, but lived in a world of their own. This was the time of the “phony war” when very little was happening, and the boys used to talk cynically about the war lasting 20 years and about the Germans being so much more efficient that they would be bound to beat us (this was a deliberate tease of the adults). This distressed the Sandfords, who told the boys that they need not fear as Britain had a secret weapon. The boys looked bemused, and the Sandfords, after glancing at each other and saying “shall we tell them?” took them out on to the terrace and pointed to Venus, which had recently appeared in the evening sky. They explained that it was an artificial star that would defeat German weapons. It was quite clear that they really believed this. At that time the authorities were putting about all sorts of stories about secret weapons and super-human facilities (like pilots being trained to have cat’s eyes), so belief in an artificial star was not totally daft. But the more worldly-wise boys were naturally incredulous, although they politely withheld expressing their incredulity until they were out of the hearing of their hosts.


   By the 1940 summer term, the War Office decided that it did not need Cheltenham after all, and the boys returned there. This was John’s final term. In the summer holidays, as part of the war effort, John joined a party of boys from Christowe on a farm on the Cotswolds to work as agricultural labourers in the place of the men who had been called up. Their chief work was to get in the harvest, stacking the sheaves of corn into stooks to dry in the sun and wind, and then loading them onto horse-drawn wagons to be to be taken to where the corn-ricks were built (in the days before combine harvesters, corn was stored in ricks for several months before being threshed). John also looked after the pigs, feeding them and cleaning out their stalls. He grew very fond of them, and to the end of his days could not pass a pig without trying to scratch its back.  A bevy of mothers and daughters organised the camp where the boys stayed, cooking meals etc. The presence of the daughters added greatly to the pleasures of that phony war summer, and John took particularly to the sister of his friend Tony Townsend-Rose.


Dora watching boys stacking corn at Tally-Ho farm, 1940





   All the boys knew that they would be called up shortly for war service, although during the phony war period the Army was not taking that many people and the normal call-up age was 19 or more. For younger people like John on the brink of going to university, there was an arrangement whereby the Army agreed to defer call-up if possible for at least two university terms if the person concerned signed on and took the oath – ie undertaking that they would come as soon as called up – before they went to university.  John had already registered himself at Cheltenham as wanting to join the Indian Army, and now took the oath before going up to Cambridge, where he managed to stay for six months, the equivalent of a full academic year, before being called up.


John at Cambridge c.1940





   John went up to Christ’s College Cambridge in the autumn of 1940 to read economics, which he chose as a complete contrast to classics.  He went to Christ’s on the advice of his form master, an old Christ’s man; and his mother, who had ascertained that Christ’s was a college where many of the students were poor and John would not be despised for his lack of money. Even at Christ’s, he found he had less than most other undergraduates, as his parents could afford no more than £10 a term spending money. His father had joined the RAF as a squadron leader in an administrative capacity at the approach to war, so with his pension and additional RAF pay, he had around £1,000 a year, not bad for the period. But he was not a good manager of money and a lot seems to have gone on betting on horses. Indeed, it is unclear how his parents could have afforded to keep John at Cambridge the full three years if the war had not supervened.


   £10 a term was sufficient to pay for no more than two or three beers a week, and John became proficient at economising. He made a resolution which lasted until late in his life never to buy newspapers (which could be read in the library) or coffee after meals. He quite often cut dinner in Hall (which cost 1/6d), and sometimes literally went hungry. His friends told him later that they were really quite worried about him. Nevertheless, he greatly enjoyed Cambridge and does not remember feeling left out because of lack of cash. He loved being among old and beautiful buildings; the freedom of an undergraduate after the discipline at school; and the many lectures outside his subject that he could attend by figures such as Bertrand Russell (on philosophy) and Cecil Day Lewis (on poetry). The Spanish Civil War – an event that had polarised politics in Britain - had recently ended and John was left-wing in his views. He joined the Cambridge University Socialist Society, a communist front organisation. The possibility of an invasion was very real at that stage and John and his friends would discuss taking to the hills as guerrillas if the Germans came. He was also a member of the Home Guard and would patrol outside Cambridge to spot low-flying aircraft, although none ever came close enough to him to shoot. His parents were by then living close by (his father was the RAF movements officer for East Anglia), and his mother used to come over regularly for tea.


   Cambridge still had college servants or “gyps”, mostly old soldiers, veterans of the First World War, as all the able-bodied younger men had been called up. The gyp on John’s staircase used to wake him in the morning with remarks such as “they’ve dropped another of them insanitary [i.e. incendiary] bombs last night”. He told John that if one peed in the trenches it stirred up the mustard gas and “gets you in the privates”. The gyps were supposed to do all sorts of odd-jobs for the undergraduates, but did the minimum necessary unless well tipped, which John could not afford to do.


   John was going out with his first serious girlfriend at this time, Claire Townsend-Rose. He told his parents that he had been genuinely in love with her and it was a long time before he felt the same about anybody else. But the relationship did not survive the long wartime separation, although John continued to have fond memories of her. Her brother Tony, John’s old Cheltenham friend, became an engineer who joined the Railway Inspectorate, and remained a life-long friend of John. His son Richard was one of John’s many god-children.






Call-up 1941 

   John had been accepted for an Officer Cadet Training Unit in India on the strength of his OTC training at Cheltenham and at Cambridge, where he had also served in the Home Guard. However, it was always uncertain when convoys to India would leave, so when he was first called up in the summer of 1941, he and his fellow would-be Indian Army officers were enlisted in the Royal Scots and mustered for training at a depot at Aldershot. They were private soldiers, but wore a piece of white cloth under their shoulder badges to show that they had been accepted for officer training. There were some 200 of them, including a few Indian boys who happened to be living in Britain at the outbreak of war. About 90% were from Public Schools.  John made some of his lifelong friends in those six weeks.

John after enlistment with his aunt Madge in Red Cross uniform.





   The young men were allowed out at weekends and it was during one of those weekends that John almost got a lift from Queen Victoria’s youngest son, the Duke of Connaught, as he often recalled later. He and two others were offered a lift by a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. The other two took the lift but John was going in another direction. In the back of the car was a very old man, and the chauffeur said “make sure you give him a smart salute when you leave, as he is a Field Marshal”. This was the Duke of Connaught. He was born in 1850, and his godfather was the Duke of Wellington who died in 1852, so for John he represented an impressive link with the past.


   Before their final leave prior to embarkation, the old Scottish Sergeant-Major in charge of them (whom they all thought a dear man) a homily about the need to be back on time:


 “Gentlemen, as we are in times of war, the full penalties of military law apply. If you are even a minute late, you will be guilty of Desertion in the Face of the Enemy, the penalty for which is death by shooting. As we have only one weapon available, my personal revolver, I shall be obliged to carry out this uncongenial duty myself.  Spare me the pains, gentlemen, spare me the pains. Enjoy your leave. Dismiss”.


   A bit of a ceremony was always made of embarkation, and they all marched from Aldershot to the station in their smartest kit lead by a band and pipers, while by-standers – including John’s mother – lined the route to watch. Their destination was supposed to be a deadly secret, but they had all been issued with sun helmets that had to be carried attached to their packs, giving a pretty fair clue. They boarded the train at 3 pm, and remained on it for some 24 hours, with no idea at all of where it was going. There was a lot of shunting and shuffling, punctuated by the thumps and bangs of occasional air-raids as they went round the edge of towns. At one point in the middle of the night, they recognised Newcastle. Finally they arrived, rather to their surprise, in Gourock, near Glasgow, and were marched to lighters, moored on the Clyde which ferried them to the SS Strathallan, a luxury P & O liner that had been commandeered and converted into a troopship.

Cadets marching off to war in India






Extract from letter from John to his parents


OCTU, Aldershot, 5 July 1941

Time at last for another scrawl.  It’s Saturday afternoon and the rest of the day is mostly free. I am lying in a top bunk in the barrack room in my shirtsleeves eating NAAFI chocolate and feeling very pleased with life. I may say now (in order to prepare you for future shocks) that one’s attitude to army life, in the ranks in particular, varies considerably. It seems inevitable that there are times when you are fairly “browned off” and fed up with the whole show, and the chief bugbear of the Private’s life can be summed up comprehensibly in the expressive word “bullshit”. This is alluded to by the officers (at least in the presence of [other] ranks) as “discipline” and includes every sort of red tape and what appears to the ranks as aggravating attention to unnecessary detail, which is shortly contradicted. On the whole, however, one can laughingly grouse at these annoyances and soon forget them.


Last night, I spent about two hours chatting alone with a Sergeant and a Private (seven years’ service) in the Scots Guards and they both summed up all the grievances of their past service by saying they would jump at the opportunity of having it over again – in spite of the “bullshit”, which is rife in the Guards, of course. …

Anyhow, to get back to the world of fact, everything is fine and I feel very fit. Half the unit has gone on leave, so everything is free from the usual congestion. There are only four men in the barrack room out of about 28. We have been issued with everything now and are well on the way to complete soldierdom. The kit is of very good quality, considering everything issued – toothbrush, razor, black towels, underpants, tropical kit, topees – in fact everything that the ordinary soldier possesses, minus one suit of B.O. [body armour] My boots are taking some breaking in. I’ve burnt, honed, spit and polished them for about 3-4 hours and a dull shine is beginning to appear. My guardsman friend said he had a bad pair which didn’t develop a full shine for three years! As you know, we wear Balmoral bonnets with white OCTU band and white shoulder-flashes. A friend who has gone on leave up to Glasgie and is “verra Scots” is getting me a walking our Glengarrie if he can.


Nearly all our work so far has been drill under Guards Sergeants.  P.T. under a very good Army P.T. instructor who makes the whole thing like a game, and one or two very good general lectures on India, Security etc. …






Journey out to India 1941

  The SS Strathallan carried several thousand soldiers, most of whom were cockney Gunners going out to Singapore to serve with the British Army there (less than half probably survived the war). The total living-space was less than that of a tennis court for the 200 cadets in John’s group who were on the lowest deck, beneath the waterline. The deck was open-plan. Tables, each taking about a dozen men, took up most of the floor space, and there were showers and latrines at one end. The men could either sleep on the tables (or the floor), or on hammocks slung above the tables (John’s choice). The only light was from dim electric bulbs. John thinks that there may have been a deliberate decision to put the future officer cadets in the worst accommodation, to give them a sharp taste of how ordinary soldiers lived.


   The first week aboard was spent sitting in the Clyde waiting for the convoy to be mustered. There were often air raids (this was the period of heavy German bombardment). One of the episodes of John’s army career most reminiscent of the “carry on” films was the “short arm” inspection that took place on deck while they were waiting in the Clyde. A doctor came on board to inspect them for venereal disease, and an officer lined up all the men in two rows on deck, facing the sea. The officer himself stood in front of them with his back to the sea and barked out an order to them to drop their pants. There was some murmuring among the men and one or two voices began tentatively “Sir...” The officer, furious, shouted “silence” and the men did as they were told. Behind him a launch was passing with a naval officer and four Wrens, who waved appreciatively at the sight, whereupon the men dissolved into laughter and their officer at last turned round, apologising “sorry, men, pants up.”


   The voyage to India took six weeks. The convoy was a fine sight: about a dozen liners, some huge, managed by up to four or five destroyers, working like sheep-dogs around the big ships. The time was mostly taken up with a mixture of PT, weapons training and Hindustani lessons.  The men also took it in turns to do lookout duty either for enemy submarines or for aircraft. John and a friend were allocated to an anti-aircraft turret, a small steel box with a gun, built on stilts some 15 feet above the deck and reached by an iron ladder. It was at the stern, which took a lot of the ship’s movement, and both John and his friend were as sick as dogs.  They once spotted a German reconnaissance aircraft several miles off, obviously shadowing them. This was often the prelude to attack, but that convoy was lucky and was not attacked, whereas the convoys before and after both had ships sunk (and the Strathallan herself was torpedoed off North Africa a couple of years later). The convoy started out by heading North and one night in the Denmark Straights, between Iceland and Greenland, John and his friend saw the Aurora Borealis. At first they debated whether it was an enemy manifestation - perhaps aircraft using searchlights - that they should report, but then luckily realised what it was and did not make fools of themselves.


   Life below deck was quite a shock to the system for these eighteen or nineteen-year-olds from relatively protected backgrounds, but John remembers it as a tough but jolly time. The men were allowed out only on one deck, reached by climbing numerous flights of steps. However, they would sometimes sneak out at night and use the swimming pool; John remembers their bodies in the pool glowing with phosphorus, and also watching the phosphorescent flying fish alongside the ship. Their duties included orderly duty – scrubbing and cleaning and also washing up. Every soldier was issued with his personal tin plate, knife, fork and spoon. They pooled these and collected them together in a bucket of water at the end of each meal to be washed up by the two men doing orderly duty for that table. The water in the buckets was pretty murky, and on two separate occasions at John’s table the cutlery was thrown out to sea by mistake with the dirty water. As there were no replacements, for the final two weeks of the journey the men at that table were obliged to eat with shoe-horns, scissors, combs, nail-files or anything else that they could find. Porridge was a particular challenge.


   The convoy twice touched at port en route. The first stop was in Freetown in Sierra Leone where the men, to their frustration, were not allowed to disembark. John remembers the inhabitants coming up the ship in canoes shouting jolly obscenities such as “I fucked Queen Victoria” and selling bananas.  The next stop was Cape Town for three or four days, where the men were at last allowed off the ship. They were given a little lecture about not going to District 6 (a famously tough area) where they might be knifed; and remembering to use French letters (probably unnecessary; for that was an innocent age and the vast majority had no sexual experience and were far too terrified to experiment with strange girls in Cape Town). Then, tremendously excited, they flooded ashore. In the event, the women who accosted them turned out to be highly respectable middle-aged or elderly ladies in cars from Cape Town’s white community, who charitably took them back to their houses for meals and much needed baths. The family that John was with wrote afterwards to his mother and they stayed in touch for many years.





Extracts from John’s letters about the journey out

On board H.M.T. -----------, 1 August 1941.

John has scribbled out some words in this letter that he thought would not pass the censor.

… It is illegal to keep a diary on board ship owing to the rather odd censorship regulations. Thus, if possible, I intend to write to you at odd times during the voyage and post it all, subject to censorship, at X, our first stop.


Much water has sizzled by the sides since I wrote the previous page. Life has been very full and at times quite exciting – the really monotonous part probably lies ahead. My first note from on board, if it got through anywhere near intact, must have appeared rather depressing. It really was one of the most shattering disappointments I have incurred to see our living quarters after viewing the fine exterior of the ship. At first one felt a sort of mild claustrophobia, which at times made you feel frantic with desperation at being cooped up below the water-line, a hundred men in a room (perhaps twice the size of the Gonville dining-room), with a scull-cracking roof, all equipment hopelessly jumbled and partially lost – incredible inefficiency all round. Above decks, the officers’ quarters with magnificent decks, bars, clean table linen daily, 4-course breakfast, 6-course dinner.

It was a good experience as it really made you feel what it must be like to be an East End slum child looking at West End revelry. Conditions, however, gradually improved. Familiarity bred contempt [five words scribbled out]. We were moved to a deck above the water-line with much more space. Soon, the really excellent canteen opened – as much chocolate as wanted, crates of lovely oranges, apples and biscuits, all products of the Union of South Africa. In fact, nearly everything we live on has been imported, and it is rather comforting to think we are taking nothing out of the country.


Our situation in port was simply glorious – no more can be said for security’s sake, but we were all very impatient to sail. One rather amusing incident happened in port. A large party of us were paraded on deck preparatory to undertaking a medical once-over. We were stripped to the waist and the sergeant shouted, “Come on, down with your pants. The ladies on shore (which was some way off) haven’t got telescopes”. We promptly obeyed and stood in solemn silence, paraded in the buff, as our batty adjutant (who practises yoga) calls it. Next, chugging gently past the ship, glides a large private launch with three women lying on the deck! Hoots, cheers and catcalls from masses of troops dancing up and down in the nude. Everyone was howling with laughter, including the crew of the launch. It was a frightfully amusing situation, especially as the man piloting the launch, looking very much like papa, very non-plussed, sped off at full speed.


12 August 1941 [same letter]

… It really amazes me how adaptable we mortals are over such a short space of time. It was as though I had been brought up to life on a trooper. Squash – four square inches for personal belongings – horrible unwashed bustle in the mornings (reveille at 6.0) – food not at all bad – fatigues (mess orderly) , scrubbing, polishing, scraping for half the morning in an atmosphere in which the sweat stands out on you and trickles down even when you are sitting still. Then the officers down from the West End [3 words deleted or censored], it seems.  They all shout different things at you and talk about the honour of having the Captain’s cake [sic] for the cleanest mess deck, while you are yearning for your first glimpse of daylight on deck and your first visit to the latrines. However, once over it, all fades quickly and you are making the most of a really pleasant piece of existence, lying cushioned on the deck on your “Mae West” life-jacket with the lovely clean breeze sweeping you. Probably sucking a superb orange or apple – and gazing out at all the interesting censorable things going on in the convoy, or the uncensorable things like the incredibly blue sea producing in some manner, which will always be miraculous to me, a dazzling white bubbling line of foam.


Yes, there have been some very memorable and unique moments, even living in such human, almost sub-human, conditions. When we first sailed in the twilight, the coast of Britain slipping away in a kaleidoscope of every type of beautiful scenery, rugged mountains, fresh sweet tidy fields, white sandy beaches. Then the lone watches of 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. – bitterly cold sometimes with the fog swirling around, the louring forms of the ships and – night of nights – the Aurora and the glow of the midnight sun. “Look”, said John Stagg, my gun-mate, “A search-light beam in the sky!” But it flickered and went – and then the whole sky was rippling with beams and bars and flashes of dazzling light which shaded sometimes to a green or blue tint. “By Jove, John”, again pointing to the horizon, “a heavenly host of angels!” And then up above for a minute a broad, magnificent V hung – what an omen!


Once we clambered clumsily up to our turret, shrinking from the gale, but now we can stick our hammocks on deck and it is simply glorious. We lean over the rails and watch the phosphorous wake, before climbing into our cosy hammocks. Also we now have a tropical sunset at 7.30 – the sea all red and gold and silver and the edges of the western clouds flaming neon ribbons. Then at 8 o’clock, much to our surprise, we go on deck to find it so dark that you have to feel your way.


These are the better moments, but life seems much smoother now. Sleeping on deck is a great boon. We seem to get quite a lot of spare time to lie on the deck during the day between parades, but little time for serious reading. One either washes, sleeps, learns a little Urdu [these last words were partially scribbled out] or just lies. Space is fairly scarce even on deck and cries of those engaged on “housey-housey” [bingo] re-echo through the deck. Kit is fairly satisfactory. They have raped our suitcases from us into a hold, but we can get at them. There is nothing to buy except food – the only drink available is a poor [word scribbled out] beer, 4d. a bottle and the most expensive drink on the boat. Gin and It 3½d. a glass, for officers only, and ditto with every other kind of drink. ... However, under the exigencies of a troop deck full of moribund cadets, permission was given for us to obtain a pick-me-up through the platoon sergeants. John Stagg and myself took advantage of this and had a blissful strong brandy and ginger ale before flopping into our hammocks. After that we felt all right. …



Mhow, 20 October 1941

… Cape Town – a magnificent interlude – in a rather trying ordeal. I sent you some silk stockings from there by the way, Mummy, in one of the few moments I had to draw breath. We got four days in. I was mess orderly the day we put in and there was a heavy sea running – almost as bad as the early days in the North Atlantic. However, it was a poor day and the far-famed approach to Table Bay was largely lost in mist. In an interval of [being] mess orderly, I got up on deck to empty a refuse pail and saw the vast bank of mountain suddenly tower out of the mist, looking very dull, grey and blank. The next I saw was when I went up after we had docked, just before lunch. The deck was covered with troops and the sun had broken through. I climbed onto a hatch and peered over the heads to see this great square rugged mountain with a sharp conical offspring on one side – Lion’s Head – and a bright smokeless town clinging round the water’s edge.


Of course we’d all had lectures on where to go and where not to, and on the general geography of the peninsula and were all eagerly picking out spots. In the last few days we had bullshit (!) as far as conditions had allowed and managed to make ourselves fairly spick and span. Now, would we get ashore today? Everyone was speculating. A large gunner edged up and confided that he was the C.O.’s orderly and we would get leave from 14.00 to 29.59 hours.


He was right.  We got our two pounds pay in Cape currency and pushed down the gangway onto LAND – after five weeks. We all capered. It was a lovely spring-like day. I was with John Stagg and Peter Wickham. A vast column of khaki and blue streamed towards the dock gates.  As we got out, sort of W.V.S. women issued us with maps and guides. We took ourselves straight to the main Adderley Street and just gaped at the lovely American cars, the shops full of food, fruit and every kind of food, the negroes and the white women! We had gaped for about 10 seconds when a rather withered elderly lady came up to us and asked in a slightly Dutch accent if we would like to have tea with her.  We said yes, thank you very much, and we were led to the most magnificent restaurant in the town, the Del Monico, with a band, a roof made like an artificial canopy of stars – and carpets and chairs with backs. We were just overwhelmed. We had a super tea and then the old girl (her name was Mrs Knox, widow of an Irishman, last war) made us promise to meet her the next day immediately we got ashore, about two, and go for a drive. Peter had to go back to the ship on guard duty, so John and I strolled up Adderley Street to gape at the lights, which were just beginning.


Again we were drifting off and just deciding to have a colossal binge somewhere, when a car glided up (the universal large shiny American type) and a middle-aged woman asked if we would like to come to supper. We hopped in and were introduced to two very pleasant women – Miss Godleston [?], woman secretary of the R.A.C. in South Africa – she had met Sir Frank Armstrong [head of the R.A.C.] – and Miss Vos, schoolteacher, Dutch extraction. Both were frightfully nice, and although both were about 30 had a very good idea about how to entertain boys of our age. We drove first up to the Vos house in one of the upper suburbs – Oranjezicht – just at the base of the mountain above the town.

Then we drove out of the town along a mountain road which carried us all round the bay to a spot called Constantine [mistake for Constantia] Nek about 20 miles away. It was simply superb – incredibly lovely, with the lovely bright beams of the car sweeping the mountain woods and veldt, and yawning away beneath us a magnificent gallery of lights, , neon signs on small sky-scrapers, ships outlined, necklaces of street lights climbing hills! At the Nek (a saddle between mountains) was a roadhouse where we had an enormous mixed grill and ices.


We still hadn’t got over our black-out complex, so you can imagine how breath-taking was the effect of the light streaming out over the valley and on the mountain side. Well, I could just pile on this stuff about the natural and artificial beauties of the Cape, but to sum it up, in normal times, the scenery and grandeur, the cleanliness and efficiency, the food and the kindness would have impressed us; after five weeks of boat and a couple of years of rations and black-out…….! Besides, I am using up my statutory eight sides of paper and this is a very expensive letter, so I must summarise. After Constantia Nek, we went to the oldest house in the colony, Steinberg, which belonged to Miss Godleston’s married sister – 1682, with stoops and things, and we drank Dutch liqueurs.


Well, we “did” every possible thing on the Cape peninsula. Were driven dozens of miles. Had the largest and most enjoyable lunch of my life in the crack restaurant with Peter, John and Colin [Mayhew]. Met all sorts of interesting people. Went up Table Mountain and saw the most glorious and overwhelming view that I shall probably ever see in my life at sunset.


And so after the most crowded four days – again probably of my life – back to the long dragging days of mess orderly, sitting on deck chewing biscuits, singing, gazing out to sea, sleeping, a lot of P.T and Urdu. Every day, however, brought us nearer destination “V”. At last we put into Bombay on a Sunday morning, disembarked straight onto a native troop train for – to our surprise and consternation – Mhow. The train was from 6 p.m. to 3 p.m. the next day – congested hell which we now accepted as the day’s work and enjoyed the journey enormously, for whatever else, we were on India and land.

We pulled into Mhow, full of apprehension, not knowing the first thing about the place, and were half afraid we would be bundled into barracks once more. Well, now we’re here with a month’s training behind us and fully settled in. There was a first fine careless rapture when we saw our mess room and ante-room; when we could taste cool iced drinks again; be waited upon by uniformed bearers the whole time; eat with knives and forks; sleep between sheets; have hot baths – and generally speaking be treated as gentlemen.


Then the real life of the school. The O.T.S. [Officer Training School] Mhow has the reputation of being of the hardest and most efficient O.T.S. in India. The drill standard and general bullshit in which the school excels exceeds that of the Guards and Sandhurst, as ex-officers of both institutions testify. We arise at 5.30. An hour’s drill and an hour’s P.T. before breakfast. Then continuously on the go until about 4, with half an hour for lunch and 20 minutes for breakfast. Compulsory exercise in the evening and often night ops. Bed never before 10 with one hour’s prep in no night ops nights. I am in “B” Company, as you see. We have about 115 men, several from India. The other half of our draft, going for RIASC [Royal Indian Army Service Corps] and cavalry are formed into “F” company. Six Companies in the school. Part of Colonel ffrench’s draft form “C” Company. The other Companies are all Indians or Anglo-Indians. Some very good fellows. Must stop now. Life’s on the whole settled and pleasant. …






Officer Training School at Mhow 1941-42

   The men were given lectures on board ship about life in India (which was to John a pretty distant memory), but nothing really prepared them for the shouting, heaving masses of Bombay when they arrived there in September 1941. John’s other memory of Bombay was the way that everything was lit up at night (the Japanese had not yet entered the war so India was not under attack) in contrast to the blackout that had been darkening Britain at night to confuse the German bombers.


   The men were given no time in Bombay; they disembarked with their huge packs straight on to trains alongside the ship. There followed a hard 15-hour journey – no concession was made to the fact that they were officers-in-waiting, and they travelled in the same trains as were used for transporting the Indian troops, with rough army meals, hard wooden seats and little protection from the cold as they ascended into the hills. Late at night they arrived at Mhow, a small central Indian town (near Indore in Madhya Pradesh) where there had been an Indian Army garrison before the war, now transformed into an Officer Training School. They were accommodated either in ancient barracks or temporary huts. After the ship and the train, they were amazed at the luxury, two men to a room with sheets and mosquito nets. The toilets were thunderboxes – commodes with buckets underneath – and a sweeper (an “untouchable” servant who did all the menial tasks) was summoned to empty the buckets after use. This was to be their home for the next six months.

John (on the left) 36 hours after arriving in India

Photo taken by John of  his fellow cadets





   John enjoyed Mhow chiefly because of the easy camaraderie among the men. Everyone was jolly and companionable. They may have been frustrated by the lack of sex, but obscene jokes and cheap booze made up for a lot, and John made several of his life-long friends there (he was known as “Grigor” and those who knew him then call him that for the rest of their lives). The training consisted of the predictable lectures and lessons on map-reading, strategy, weapons etc. The instructing officers were both European and Indian. In their spare time, the men used to go off on bicycles to the surrounding country with a picnic; John remembers in particular a waterfall about five or six miles away where they would swim.

Serrgeant Taylor (second left) with fellow cadets at Mhow





    At Christmas, he was invited along with three others to the home of one of the cadets, Lexie Walford, whose father was a judge in Lucknow, a sophisticated, largely Moslem city in North India. They had only a week’s leave and four of the seven days were spent on the train journey there and back, but for John it was well worth it. The Judge was the best sort of servant of the Raj, literate and liberal, with many Indian friends with whom the Walford family mixed socially on an equal basis. As a result, during his short stay John met a good cross-section of the educated Indian elite of Lucknow, from politicians to poets; and he also visited some of the old buildings of the city and began to acquire a taste for Indian art and architecture.




Extracts from John’s letters from Mhow




Continuation of letter of 20 October 1941 (see above)

At last we put into Bombay on a Sunday morning, disembarked straight onto a native troop train for – to our surprise and consternation – Mhow. The train was from 6 p.m. to 3 p.m. the next day – congested hell which we now accepted as the day’s work and enjoyed the journey enormously, for whatever else, we were on India and land.

We pulled into Mhow, full of apprehension, not knowing the first thing about the place, and were half afraid we would be bundled into barracks once more. Well, now we’re here with a month’s training behind us and fully settled in. There was a first fine careless rapture when we saw our mess room and ante-room; when we could taste cool iced drinks again; be waited upon by uniformed bearers the whole time; eat with knives and forks; sleep between sheets; have hot baths – and generally speaking be treated as gentlemen.


Then the real life of the school. The O.T.S. [Officer Training School] Mhow has the reputation of being of the hardest and most efficient O.T.S. in India. The drill standard and general bullshit in which the school excels exceeds that of the Guards and Sandhurst, as ex-officers of both institutions testify. We arise at 5.30. An hour’s drill and an hour’s P.T. before breakfast. Then continuously on the go until about 4, with half an hour for lunch and 20 minutes for breakfast. Compulsory exercise in the evening and often night ops. Bed never before 10 with one hour’s prep in no night ops nights. I am in “B” Company, as you see. We have about 115 men, several from India. The other half of our draft, going for RIASC [Royal Indian Army Service Corps] and cavalry are formed into “F” company. Six Companies in the school. Part of Colonel ffrench’s draft form “C” Company. The other Companies are all Indians or Anglo-Indians. Some very good fellows. Must stop now. Life’s on the whole settled and pleasant. …



Mhow, 9 November 1941

… Well, what haven’t I told you about? An awful lot, but it is hard to know where to begin as usual. A catalogue of facts will have to serve the purpose. I am very fit – weigh 11 stone 9 lbs, which is five more than on enlistment. Alternate and normal waves of constipation and diarrhoea, rather like a trade cycle (at the present moment I am midway between boom and bust and therefore “thik and achcha” [OK and good]). They are common to most and also very mild. I had one serious bout soon after I arrived which hovered on the verge of dysentery, but was only indisposed for a week. I shared this attack with about half the company – I think it was India’s welcome. Peter Wickham retired to hospital with dysentery proper for three weeks. Poor old Colin [Mayhew] has had two goes of malaria already – first time in India, too, but he’s fit now. Otherwise I have been on tip-top form – my next worst ailment being an ant-bite on the left elbow which I received while out on night trench-digging, i.e. dozing on my back on the maidan [open space near the barracks] – a habit which many of our night operations here cultivate.


Perhaps I ought to harp back and give you my first impressions of India. I have just written a footling essay on the subject in which I adequately buttered up the Indian Army and got B+; others wrote good literature but the truth and got C-.


It was hot, although I believe the rains had passed over Bombay. Not as hot as we had had it, though. Very calm. As the new, rather depleted convoy approached India, little fishing boats appeared. I was, as always seemed to happen when approaching port, below deck swabbing up some filth or other, and my first impressions of Mother India were through a crack though a supposedly blacked-out porthole in the reeking galley. Bombay was lovely to look at, and that’s as much as we experienced of it.


We docked and spent hours standing or sitting on deck, while the old Strathallan disgorged thousands of troops on to the quay. We were the last unit to get off and during our last hour on board invaded the officers’ mess and sat in chairs for the first time in ages and drank iced drinks. Then our turn came towards evening. We shuffled about the quay in odd queues and great howling and yelling masses of coolies descended upon us, much to our delight, and relieved us of our sea-kit. We were both intrigued and entranced by the happy-go-lucky, noisy, Indian (as per novels Hindoo Holiday and E.M. Forster) way everything happened.


Eventually we moved off a few hundred yards to a siding where we found a very dirty train. More noise and quite a lot of considerateness on the part of the authorities – cigarettes (which I swapped – I still hold out), tea and buns issued, also blankets. A party of us drifted along the quay to where our old escorting cruiser was moored. It seems so long ago now. Much to our delight, we were invited on board and were shown many of the secrets of the ship in a half-hour before a shrill whistle recalled us to our train. It was the first warship I have been aboard and I was very impressed. Also similar reaction, as with everyone, to the spirit and work of the Navy all through. A nice bit of depth-charging and many other manoeuvres carried out in the course of the voyage.


Back to train. Tearful farewells and wild cheering as we steamed out of the station, leaving all our old officers, some of whom were real cards. Then we passed slowly through the squalid suburbs of Bombay in the dusk. Great amusement at the mass of Indians, all of whom looked very cheery and grinned and waved to us in return. Cries of “Tuck your shirt in” and “Go and put your clothes on” from some Signals who were with us.  Great amusement at the notice “Lavatories – Indian style”.  Then night. Dirty, excited and dog-tired, we wrapped ourselves up in a blanket, squashed onto wooden shelves provided and went straight to sleep. Dawn. 5 a.m. Change at Khandwa. We struggled out onto the platform with our baggage, the quintessence of scruffiness, unwashed in our salt water scrubbed K.D. [khaki drill uniform] – and had breakfast – bread, tea, meat and bananas.


Then, into another train. We passed through fairly open country – bit of scrub – a few buffaloes and palm trees, and all surprisingly green and not very un-English. Of course it was just after the rains. Then over a vast river on a trembling viaduct and into hill country.  Up and up to about 1500 [feet]. Up a glorious valley like Dovedale – our first monkeys – and lunch at a place called Kalakund.  Then on to an open plateau towards large white-washed barracks – MHOW. Nearly two months from door to door and to the hour.

This must be all for the present. This letter will cost another fortune, although it doesn’t matter now as I have received my first pay.


… I share a room with J.H. Stagg, Esq.  Our room is above the mess. The curriculum of the school is, as I have already mentioned, I believe, rather unsatisfactory. … By a stroke of false judgement on the part of my platoon, I was elected Commander of the Company. On the strength of this, I have been honoured in the first batch of promotions (which are effected with toadying and lucky number) and made a Lt/Cpl for a month (temp. rank). I’ll send you a photo of my stripe later.



Mhow, 23 November 1941

…The days seem to fly by so incredibly quickly. I might have been at Mhow a life-time, yet it seems I have hardly had time to draw breath between Sunday and Sunday. It is now Sunday evening and most people are out at the pictures. With our mess kit we carry canes and wear a forage cap of khaki serge, which matches very ill with the rest of the kit, so the general effect is a cross between an A/C 2 [Aircrafttsman 2nd Class] and a West Point cadet. I am rather tired, so it is difficult to write anything coherent. This seems the right context for giving you a schedule of our working day here, which I don’t think I have done hitherto.


5.30: Reveille (this means get up as opposed to Wilbers [probably the barracks where John stayed in Aldershot] and the Strathallan, where you could ignore reveille for half an hour). Wash, shave, dress etc.


6.30: Parade (usually drill. Wear numbers on our chests for all parades and the slightest movement will probably result in number taken and extra parade on our two free evenings).


7.45: Double up to gym and engage in the most strenuous P.T. I’ve ever met, for about an hour. Also boxing, unarmed combat, running thrown in.


9.45: Back to change for breakfast, which is gobbled down in 15-20 minutes.


9.20: On Parade again until


10.35: Four periods, either split up into different lessons: weapons training, car engines and driving, map reading, gas, fieldcraft, tactics etc.; or else the whole morning on a scheme.


1.45-2.15: Lunch


2.15-4.0: two periods Urdu, lectures or extra drill. Games are supposed to be compulsory, so I usually play a fairly agreeable game of squash or tennis between 4.30 and 6.0.


Then bath and sometimes another lecture at 6.30 or perhaps a parade for a night operation


Dinner usually 8-9, the only leisurely meal. Afterwards, 9-9.45 quiet period and some sort of study.


Off to supper now with Geoffrey Sims.



Monday afternoon [24 November], 4.15.

A very satisfactory supper in “F” Mess with Geoffrey and John Skinner, who are both Armoured Corps candidates. A full but fairly easy morning. Two lectures before breakfast, one by the Commandant on the job of the staff. It sounded very pleasant and lucrative, and they are picking out E.C.O. [Emergency Commissioned Officers] from the units to send them to Quetta for a staff course. Unfortunately, I should think my hand-writing would debar me from good chances. However, who knows? It may be an idea.  …



25 November 1941

And now it’s after lunch on my birthday [his 20th] and it has been a pretty poor sort of day and looks like ending up as one too – lectures all the afternoon, very soporific and almost impossible to keep awake. And then at 4.45 an extra drill and pukka inspection for the Drill Competition, which is on Thursday 27th. This is a hell of a bore, as our platoon is rather bum and I am Acting Platoon Commander and will get the rocket if we lose.


Last night we had a practice scheme on recce patrols. We crawled along old nullahs [dry riverbeds] in patrol formation, making a hell of a row and gave the Sepoy [Indian infantry Private] fatigue man a grand time popping off blanks at us. It was a bright moonlit night and we were half-way across a polo ground when a Verey light went up and illuminated us all. We flopped on the ground but felt very foolish with our enormous bottoms looking up on the perfectly flat ground. The Sepoys thought it was a colossal joke.


I got your birthday telegram on the 24th, which brightened things up, and also one from the ffrenches. Bit of a contrast with last year’s birthday. I shall be thinking of you and me and Daddy eating that food in my room which you got from the K-P [unknown reference] as I go on my extra drill parade. Then we went to the Arts afterwards, do you remember, and saw the ballet.


We’re fixed up for Christmas, which ought to be good fun. An awfully nice fellow called Walford who was at King’s (a Classic) has invited us up to spend our Christmas week’s leave at Lucknow with his family. His father is a lawyer and both the parents are very nice, according to some of the other chaps who’ve met them. Six of us are going altogether, the other chaps being me, John Stagg, Peter Wickham, Wontner-Smith and a chap called Turner. Unfortunately old Colin Mayhew had not been invited and we felt a bit worried about him until this afternoon. At our first lecture, the Commandant came in and said that he had just had a message from the Governor of Bombay, offering to put up 100 cadets at the Taj Hotel and Government House for two chips [rupees] a day and to get one-third rail fare to Bombay. Terribly decent of them, isn’t it? So old Coin is fixed up, luckily. We’re all terribly excited about the prospect of our leave. We are taking Eadu, our bearer, with us. He’s the best bearer in the Company except for occasional alcoholic lapses.



7 o’clock evening

Togged up in mess kit and feeling completely unbrowned-off and tip-top and really birthdayish. A pleasant siesta was had by all at this afternoon’s lectures, which were shorter than usual, and after our good news about leave to Bombay with H.E. [His Excellency]. Then it was discovered that “F” Company had pinched the parade ground, so we had a short parade without rifles instead of our full extra drill. I out the Platoon through their paces and they reacted quite promisingly.  Then a quick set of singles with John and a bath. The munshi [teacher] has failed to turn up for our evening Urdu, so I’ve a nice peaceful hour before dinner to finish off this chat to you. I can now look with complacency upon last year’s birthday and make a very favourable comparison. Also, I’ve just had a birthday wire from Auntie Madge – give her my love. Also, the 8th Indian Division has just reached a point 250 miles south-east of Benghazi – I wonder in what light you will read that remark! Ironic or a good omen. [Illegible words], then Patalpari. This is a spot about 2½ miles from Mhow.  We ride out there occasionally on Sundays along the railway line and inevitably get a puncture. It is a glorious valley with a rather mild 100 ft. waterfall and a pool and a rocky river. Rather like Dovedale without the sandwich wrappers.  We weren’t very accustomed to bathing in India, so the first time I was skinned alive by the sun and John got slight sunstroke.



Mhow, 27 November 1941

This is just before going onto parade for our Drill Competition.


I am sitting in my vest and pants before changing into what will probably be the smartest turn-out of my life. I am rather nervous as it is a terribly important event and we have lost the most important man in the platoon. He is the chap who whispers our timing for the arms drill and he went and sprained his ankle last night.


We came third out of six platoons (two Companies), which is very satisfactory. The placing of the respective platoons(our three were 1st, 3rd and 6th) made it that our company, “B”, won the competition, which was also agreeable in that we all loathe the Company Commander of “F” Company, our sister Company, although he holds no direct dealings with us. A great big brute of a man, rather fat, who loves Spartanic training and bullying his Company, although he takes no share in it himself – i.e. he makes them double up hills on schemes while he carefully rests at the bottom, and takes a violent sadistic pleasure in making his cadets smash each other up. [Illegible passage about their own Commander.] John and I have a special grudge against the other fellow, because he ran us in for not taking off our topis to him in the bazaar, when he passed us in his car, and John did not even know the man by sight as it was our first Sunday here.


Sunday 30 November [same letter]

Weekend again and I have got the job of Company Orderly Sergeant for next week, which means among other nuisances that I shan’t get to bed before about 11 p.m. every night, as I have to attend a ruddy staff parade. …


It is great fun to think that you can picture our surroundings. Peter Wickham’s father, who is a parson of 65 who has never left England, and a delightful man to judge from photos – rather like Mr Chips – writes “I have just looked up Mhow in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, on receiving your telegram. It says that the climate is sultry and cholera not infrequent”!!

Flicks are our chief relaxation here. I don’t smoke still and drink in great moderation, with only an occasional sherry or chota peg [a single measure of spirits, probably whisky].  The exception was after the Company won the drill, but I will tell you the full story of that diverting evening when I have more time, …  I have also seen a film in Hindustani in a very good Indian cinema, called “Shandi”, which I believe means marriage, doesn’t it? [This is no doubt a mistake for shadi, which does indeed mean marriage.] We could only understand odd words and phrases, but the story was quite easy to follow, and there was a large number of courteous and enthusiastic interpreters in the shape of other Indian cadets there. We were the only Europeans there, and as it was the night of [illegible] there were a lot of drunk Mahommedans downstairs who had periodic rows. It [the film] was most amusing and intriguing. The standard of photography and production was first rate and the music and singing were enchanting. …


Oh yes, I passed my military driving test and drove 40 miles in convoy in a truck the other day. I ended up with a thick layer of dust. .. Our training is getting more interesting now, as we are on to more tactics. I also actually understood something about a car engine. …



Mhow, 10 January 1942

… One rather amusing story that comes out well as a sequel to what I have already told you about our back inspection just before Christmas.


You know, as I said, that we all suspected that our backs were being examined for evidence of wounds after a case of rape in the bazaar. Well, anyhow, we heard nothing definite except that there were odd cases of assault occurring. Just before we went off on our Christmas leave, we had a concert. It was a very good show and went on from 9-1 a.m. … I went straight back to bed before the finale so as to get as much sleep as possible. I had just got into my pyjamas and climbed into bed when there were general shoutings and runnings about outside and, most odd, cries of “No. 6 Platoon on parade”. I thought, “ah, only some semi-intoxicated youth”, but soon John came clattering into the room, switched on the light and said “Come on, we’ve just got to get on parade, I don’t know why. Drummond’s there (our R.O.S.B C.S.M. [King’s Own Scottish Borderers Command Sergeant-Major]) and he doesn’t look unusually tight.” I cursed hard, but notwithstanding felt that I should go and see what it was about and shoved some mufti [civilian dress] on over my pyjamas and went out to the parade-ground. Drummond was there and also major Purcell and Sgt Dove, two of our officers, and they said that all the platoon had got to be turned out, so with a bit of difficulty we managed to persuade the others that it wasn’t a joke and got them out on parade.


All sorts of ideas ran through my mind, the most potent and obvious being that there had been trouble in the bazaar and we were being called out on internal security work. However, when assembled and I reported us all on parade, Dove gathered us round and explained the whole thing.  This odd character, who had been disturbing women, had turned homicidal and badly smashed up one woman. The police couldn’t or were afraid to get hold of him. He was very strong and agile and had broken through a cordon. He was dark and probably Anglo-Indian. Also probably in some service. He operated on Wednesday nights after parties and crept around bungalows etc., often peering through windows without attacking. As this might well have been his operational evening, we were to picket the whole area of Mhow (the British Companies and the Signals) and challenge any passers-by. It was all most eerie with the jackals and hyenas howling out of the night as we four moved off to our bridge near the School. As usual, however, it was all gloriously anti-climactic and uneventful.


It got damned cold and we huddled together in a ditch to keep warm. Eventually, the whole lot of us went off to bed at about 5 o’clock and got off the next morning’s parade, which was fairly satisfactory. Odd moments of fun were obtained when unsuspecting members of the Dhar State Platoon wandered up to the School over our bridge to go on guard. Torches were flashed upon them, “Halt” was called out in a peremptory voice by me and large bodies armed with lathis [heavy bamboo canes] loomed out of the ditch upon them. Their already knock knees knocked a bit more, and they looked as though they thought their throats were going to be cut.


Now, next in chronological order comes our Christmas leave. I obviously can’t tell you all about it in this letter, but I’ll attempt a rapid sketch.  We were allowed to leave here on Saturday 20th December at 12.50 and got off post breakfast parades. Almost half the British cadets were going off to Bombay, but not till the next day. We were all excited and also a bit apprehensive as we had no idea what sort of place we were going to, or what sort of time we’d have. We went off duty to Mhow station in a fleet of tongas [two-wheeled horse-drawn vehicles] with an enormous pile of luggage with Eadu [their bearer] on top and all of us of course festooned with marigolds etc. The tonga in which Peter Wickham and I were riding collapsed and precipitated us out of the stern. However, we reached the station on time and unscathed.


Mhow to Khandwa, six of us in a small but comfortable compartment. Glorious hilly country and over the Narbada [now Narmada river]. At Khandwa the trouble began. The bloody fools of O.T.S. authorities, who had pushed us off on this train, didn’t realise that we would have to wait from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. for our train at Khandwa, a fourth-rate station. Ronny Walford, however, tongue (he has his Higher Urdu) and brains of the party, discovered a train which was passing through in about half an hour from Allahabad. We thought that, although this took us a couple of hundred miles extra, it was better to spend a night on the train than hanging around on a platform, and so we plumped for this plan. We had some bacon and eggs and secured a five-berth compartment for the six of us, rolled ourselves up in our bedding and sped off rather apprehensively into the blue.


The night was relatively uneventful. A strange Anglo-Indian figure appeared mysteriously out of the night and very obligingly asked if we would like something to eat at Itarsi [a junction station]. We gratefully ordered bacon and eggs and tea. The meal appeared just as mysteriously at Itarsi and we thought it was just another piece of G.I.P. [Great India Peninsular railway] service until a chap appeared with a bill at the next station. We were rather afraid of ticket collectors as we had had a bit of a tiff with one at Khandwa who didn’t like the idea of our going a couple of hundred miles on our tickets. This we combatted thus: at the approach of a collector, our party, swathed in blankets, pushed their heads out of the window and said in chee-chee [Anglo-Indian] accents “shush-h, The Pandit [Master] is asleep”! Meanwhile I snored rather pompously on my back in a corner bunk.


Another minor scare occurred at Jubbulpore. An official appeared at the window and told us that the carriage was going to Delhi. We on the contrary affirmed that it wasn’t, and all was well except for a plaintive voice in the next compartment which said that it wanted to go to Delhi.  Anyhow, we slept well after that, just about coming to near Allahabad, which we reached at a quarter to ten, famished for breakfast.


I must just tell you of the tantalising behaviour of Eadu. At every station before Allahabad, he popped out and asked if we wanted anything. We said tea. He wandered off and always reappeared just as the train was drawing out, and said with an apologetic grin “No tea, sahib”, or “No cups, sahib”, bearing off to his own compartment a large brass jar of tea.


At Allahabad we had a good breakfast in company with another very pleasant Indian cadet who had been to Eton and Trinity and who had a pilot brother in England in Bomber Command. Then we fought our way onto another train going to Cawnpore which was crowded with people running out of Calcutta. That part of the journey was pretty poor. I was pushed into a compartment with John Stagg. There was the most frightful oik of a Captain in the artillery (ex-banker from Madras) who talked the most incredible nonsense about India, to which I listened politely and earned a glass of beer. The only tolerable member of the carriage was a Sikh C.S.M. [sergeant-major] of the Indian Army Ordnance Corps on leave from Singapore.


At Cawnpore we had lunch and changed for Lucknow. There all was very pleasant. We crossed the Ganges and the Jumna and had two travelling companions, very nice Indian gents, one of whom had an amusing small dog. We eventually arrived at Lucknow two hours before we could have done if we had travelled the other way. …


I do hope rationing isn’t any worse. I am going to send you a meagre food parcel every month, which I don’t expect will be much use, but it’s nice sending it. I feel terrifically rich at present, as I always seem to have a lot of money about me and have still got Rs. 360 in the Bank, most of which you sent me. It is lovely having your letters – when they appear! – and I wander off into long trains of thought about England, as I do when I’m writing to you – although I have no illusions about missing the English winter! …



Mhow, 15 February 1942

… Some rather momentous news has come through – about me! Apparently I am in for the Movement Control job – have heard nothing from Intelligence and the only other chap, one R. Strump, braw Scotsman, has heard from his father, who rang up G.H.Q. (these fathers!) that we should be off on 1st March to our course in Bombay, commissioned, attached to some infantry regiment. …


I’m afraid that Daddy will be a bit disappointed that I haven’t gone into the Regiment [Raj Rif] – I may end up there yet. It is I suppose a “cushy job” with less chance of extermination than in the infantry, in spite of the fact that one is more or less guaranteed to go overseas. … [The war] is going to be long, but I think Russia, assisted by us and the USA (in the very long run) will win. India may well go if Singapore falls as I see it. (I hope this is over-looked by the censor.) Anyhow, the Jap fleet will play merry hell in the Indian Ocean, so I write as much as possible in this letter as the others may have a rougher passage. Of course I suppose there is a large potential fifth column here, as in Malaya, and as for equipment, aircraft, etc. – Zeus Olympus!


If I had to die, I shouldn’t mind so much for India. I feel we owe them a little blood. On with the Russians, but the whole thing is rather futile, and the nearer castration [the alleged fate of those taken prisoner by the Japanese] in the Japanese Eastern jungle comes, the greater my desire to return whole! So you see! That I felt was rather like an important interview, and I’m glad I’ve got it off my chest. Please don’t wrangle about it and make deductions about deterioration of character due to Cambridge etc. It is just a bit of browned-offishness and cynicism which will dissipate with the morrow. I shall never regard this as a barren patch in my life, I hope, in spite of many frustrations and tediousnesses, because it has all been good experience and, above all, I’ve had some damn fine times with a lot of very good chaps.


My Urdu, as I think I told you, is progressing well, and I think I could have managed the last exam, had I taken it. As it was, I did well on a private test set for the Company. Our present munshi is a very competent and intelligent old man. The only difficulty is that I find it hard to look at him without laughing, he looks so comical. He wears a fez, is very small, wears a long frock coat and a fan-beard and a knobbly stick. I subsided completely the other day and was quite weak with giggles for half a period. I asked him on purpose if there were any onomatopoeae in Urdu and he gave several illustrations of verbs (which of course I’ve forgotten) which meant to roll, to boil, etc., in each case bubbling and bouncing up and down in his chair.  Peter Wickham had a similar experience with his munshi, who is precise and tall and thin, and talks like Baedeker, e.g.


“I am going to Lucknow”


“Ah yes, Lucknow is one of the most beautiful and ancient cities of Uttar Pradesh. There you find many fine buildings; palaces and tombs; and noble and inspiring works of architecture. In the Zoo you may also beguile yourself a leisured hour. There you will find tigers, bears, cheetahs and the Australian pheasant. …”


The other day he said: “I am much enamoured of English literature”, giving a shatteringly varied catalogue of authors, including Marie Stopes and Ruskin. “I like especially Tolstoi’s Lorna Doone”. …


Definite news has come through from Delhi at last about my job. The Adjutant sent for Strump and myself to see him. We dashed off to the Office and he told us with a rather pleased expression that we’d be glad to know that our appointment was confirmed and that we would be leaving for our course in Bombay. My immediate question was: “To what regiment have I been posted, Sir?” He didn’t know and told us to go and look at the day’s routine orders which were just being printed in the next room. We rushed in and stood expectantly by the machine, which was in the throes of parturition, until, with an extra large clang, it delivered the first copy of the day’s orders, moist and new. We seized it dramatically and saw:


O-C 174 J. G. Taylor……………………….10/6 Rajputana Rifles

O-C 173 R. S. Strump………………………10/14 Hyderabad Regiment


I was elated. He was inordinately depressed as he had originally applied for the Gurkhas. So I will be wearing the old uniform after all. I had a period of misgiving when I thought that Daddy might think it was a bit of a blot on the pulton’s [regiment’s] escutcheon to be in Movement Control. Still, there it is, and I’m attached to the same regiment as Colin Mayhew. …

 Today a letter came to Major Purcell, our midget Company Commander, from Bowes, one of the first trio from her to Movement Control, and “Purcie” handed it to us. Bowes said that when they arrived they were given a couple of days to get equipped. They then did a fortnight of class work, followed by a fortnight’s practical work around Bombay docks. This occasionally meant 15 hours without a meal!  … It was neither an office nor a “cushy” job. Rapid handling of many men, a cool head and much patience. He was very satisfied with it. … Well, it looks as though it suits me. When you get this, I may be anywhere from Batavia to the Caucasus. Only wish it might be Southampton Docks!!, and “Purcie” handed it to us. Bowes said that when they arrived they were given a couple of days to get equipped. They then did a fortnight of class work, followed by a fortnight’s practical work around Bombay docks. This occasionally meant 15 hours without a meal!  … It was neither an office nor a “cushy” job. Rapid handling of many men, a cool head and much patience. He was very satisfied with it. … Well, it looks as though it suits me. When you get this, I may be anywhere from Batavia to the Caucasus. Only wish it might be Southampton Docks!!


Staff officer in Bombay 1942

   After completing the six-month course at Mhow, John was posted to Army HQ in Bombay as a “Movement Control” officer, doing a range of organisational jobs chiefly to do with getting large numbers of soldiers from one place to another – off ships and up country in trains etc. Only a few months later, however, he was struck down by mastoiditis, in those days a serious condition requiring a couple of months in hospital. After leaving hospital, he was graded temporarily as unfit for active service, before resuming his career as a staff officer.


   He did see some action while in Bombay, although not of the sort that he had anticipated. When Gandhi was imprisoned in August 1942, there were uprisings all over India, including in Bombay, and John was sent with a company of Indian troops “in aid of the civil power” to help quell the uprising in Bombay. For John this was a nasty and unpleasant business, not least as he had by this time developed considerable sympathy for the Indian nationalist movement. All was organised, however, with great attention to legal niceties. A magistrate had to be present and to “read the Riot Act” – standing in the back of a lorry he spoke to the rioters (who were burning buildings and throwing stones) through a megaphone requiring them under the Act (or rather the Indian equivalent) to disperse on pain of military action. When they did not desist, the troops could fire, but not indiscriminately; the officer had to indicate a specific target. John selected some men on a roof and his troops fired, killing he thinks one. The others dispersed rapidly and the affair was soon over. In a letter home on 5 September, John reported:


All quiet on the riot front now; a few mishaps down our way – one being a sergeant train escorter injured on the bottom by a brickbat! The local police have done damn well and deserve a big shabash [bravo], which they don’t seem to be getting. To break up a lethal mob with a lathi [baton] for 20 chips [rupees] a month must take some doing, especially when some of their colleagues have been burnt alive with kerosene.


John was both fascinated and repelled by Bombay. The young cadets had not seen a European woman since they arrived in India and were raring for female company. John had a few mild romantic entanglements in Bombay, but he found many of the European women there shallow and promiscuous. This caused a certain cynicism towards the other sex. As John commented in a letter home on 4 November 1942,


The whole question [of women] presents a pretty insoluble problem. This, of course, being written in cold blood, hardly gives an atmosphere, but you know as well, if not better, than I the effect of living in Bombay, if not any Eastern station, on the morals. It was Charles Bartholomew [friend from Mhow], I think, who suggested that the approaches to Bombay Harbour should be decorated with an enormous phallus, à la Statue of Liberty! Very appropriate. Colin Mayhew’s suggested solution, good, I feel, but impracticable, is a kept Anglo-Indian or Burmese in the jungle. Colin and Lexy Walford and one or two others from Mhow whom I’ve met since possess the same bewildered attitude to it all.   To us, obviously enough, the brothel is unacceptable (I say this because once again you might not be sure on this point, and again because it is not the case with three fifths of our former fellow cadets).







Extracts from John’s letters from Bombay

On board train, 50 miles from Bombay, 1 March 1942

“Our revels are now ended”. I am on a hot small first class compartment dressed in slacks, a bush shirt, black shoes and socks, black lanyard, black pips and 6 R R [Raj Rif] on my shoulders – Second Lieutenant J.G. Taylor. I left Mhow at 8 p.m. yesterday. It is now 1 p.m. and I had about one hour’s sleep last night with four hours on Khandwa platform 12.30-4.30. it is getting really hot now, and everything is about white with dust as you well know. Nevertheless, I am still sufficiently full of life to try and write to you while bumping along at 50 m.p.h. …


What lies ahead? I’ve no idea. At present everything is going fine, companions very congenial. [There follows a description of the five – mostly Indian – newly minted officers with whom he is travelling.]


Bombay, 3 March 1942 [continuation of same letter]

… This is written in the Taj [the main luxury hotel], where we are living in the most preposterous luxury. We reported on Sunday evening and were given two days’ leave in which to settle down. We were directed to a hotel – the Grand – in which we were told we had to sleep three in a room – a shocking cheerless place for 11 rupees per diem!! Rufus Strump [one of his travelling companions] and I went straight round to the Taj, which he seemed pretty keen on, and got rooms for 11 a day – lovely big room, magnificent beds, super bathroom attached, telephone etc.


It really is the most magnificent place, and seems undreamt of luxury. It isn’t, however, really my cup of tea, but it is quite amusing to stay here for a month and, if I can’t afford it, I can always move out. The others have got a room for three of them, nicer and larger, actually, and Belvalkar [another of his travelling companions] lives out with his wife at home. …


Jesudian [a Sinhalese] seems even pleasanter as time passes. He is a graduate in the University Economics College here, which is in joint control with the L.S.E. We fixed up a date to go to the Breach Candy [Club], which was bust by unforeseen circumstances, as I shall relate, but it would have been embarrassing if he had not been so tactful and charming. During lunch, he apologised and said he had discovered he was unable to go because the colour bar was still in force, which he thought had been suspended during the War! And this still stands while the only people who can keep them in the leisure and security necessary to bathe their rotten bodies in Breach Candy are the Indians, on whose loyalty now everything depends.



Taj Hotel, Bombay, 15 March 1942

… Excuse the change of ink, but my pen’s lost, which is a hell of a bore. I’m steadily losing all my old possessions out here, wallet, watch, pencil and pen all being pinched at various times. I think I shall take up travelling in the nude as a precaution. A week has elapsed since I started this. … It has been a rather an unsatisfactory week. One mad rush after women most of the time with the inevitable percentage of failure [John complained that during the whole time at Mhow they never saw a woman]. I’ve got hold of quite a pleasant girl – Joyce Galbraith – with whom I cart around with quite a lot, which means a lot of worry. I think she is very attached to me, which is going to be rather a nuisance when I go, which will be soon. I met another extremely nice girl called Philippa, whom I was rather struck by, but whom I am not cultivating in deference to Joyce’s feelings. Her father’s a bishop at home and she used to live at Cheltenham. …  The girls I have met here … are all spoilt, stuck-up and promiscuous.


Let us discuss other things. The whole subject sickens me, although it is uppermost in Bombay. I am getting pretty fed up with the place, as you can guess. The climate makes me feel “das annas” [10 annas – from the expression “10 annas in the rupee” or below par, there being 16 annas in the rupee] and everything is artificial. The food is magnificent, but I am usually living above my income here, which always makes me uncomfortable. Your R.100 which has just come makes everything O.K.  I hope to be able to repay it soon.


25 March 1942 [same letter]

… I haven’t told you the most important news of all. We were down at the docks starting on the practical training for our overseas work [they were expecting to be sent with the Indian Army to a war theatre outside of India] when a phone message came through from Major Wormsley, our instructor, requesting us to report back to the office at once. He had just got a wire from H.Q., it appeared, diverting us from our overseas jobs, and we were to proceed immediately to jobs in India. The Major tried to console us by saying that we would be almost certain of a speedy Captaincy, but we are a bit browned off.


So at the present moment the situation is fluid. We don’t know where we’re going, except that it is somewhere between Kashmir and Cape Cormorin as opposed to anywhere from Beirut to the Australian Bight! I naturally can’t give many details of what we’ve learnt, for reasons of security, but up to the time when we were switched over to Indian stuff, which of course is choc-a-bloc with pre-war red tape, it was really interesting stuff. …


It sometimes seems quite unbelievable, when I sit in the Taj and look around at the dancing and gaiety, and think of where I was a year ago and what’s going on simultaneously in Burma on our very borders. We dance usually on Fridays and Saturdays here. The floor is packed, so it is not really dancing. [In the Taj] we are perpetually bumping into people we know [there follows a description of the many friends encountered as they pass through Bombay]. …



Bombay, April or May 1942 (undated as first part of letter missing)

… My next delightful pick-up [not in Bombay, but somewhere that he was visiting, possibly Poona] was an officer I met in the mess, 2nd Lieutenant Rabi Roy [John used a pseudonym in his letter lest it be read by the censor].  He was a small Bengali who had chucked a good civil job and enlisted in the Engineers at the outbreak of war; had had one year in Iraq, including the Syria show, and been sent back here on a course. The ice was broken in a terrific wrangle we had with a Gunner subaltern called Broxup (of Winchester town) just out from home. First it was a technical discussion about war material out here. Then Broxup casually asked “What will happen if the Cripps Mission fails?” [The Cripps Mission was an unsuccessful attempt by the British Government to get full support from the Indian nationalist leaders for the war effort.]  Rabi said calmly: “It means the complete end of what little interest the Indian holds in the war.” Broxup, who was really keen to learn, talked about the old arguments of Indians fighting each other, and Rabi was really amusing and virulent (without being bitter) over the whole Indian question. He spoke of course about the complete economic strangulation of the country by the British (Mr Walford’s line too) and when Broxup said something like “Come, come, you know the non-martial races would be rapidly overwhelmed by the martial”, he really exploded. “Non-martial!! My God! The Bengalis have murdered more British officials than any other race!! Because we can think, the British have used us as the greatest experiment in disarmament the world has ever seen!  We have been completely disarmed for one hundred years. Until I joined the army, I had never ever seen a shotgun!”


We argued until 1.15 a.m. and wandered across the courtyard, still bickering. Every now and again. He would punctuate his discussion with a furtive glance around – “You are the first Englishmen to whom I have said all this. I shall be cashiered on the spot if anyone hears me.” He was nevertheless most charming over it all, and I made a great friend of him. I even shared his razor, as I was sharing Rufe’s and he had gone off.


A visit to the Club and another jolly evening rounded off a pleasant visit. The Club presented the spectacle (common only to the outposts of Empire, I suppose, and therefore entertainingly novel to me) of what in England would definitely be shelved spinsters, being awfully skittish and jolly and flirtatious with swarms of officers.


Back to Bombay. … Just after we got here, a fresh convoy came in with another batch of Royal Scots cadets. Rufe and I saw a couple of rather nervous youths wander into the Taj, dazed with rapture, so we did the fairy godfather – gave them a much needed bath in our room and drinks and supper. They were very bucked. Decent blokes. Dyer (grandson of the General, father in the Punjabis) and Greiff. They were destined for Bangalore.


And now to the comparatively murky present. After six weeks at the Taj, I moved here, just before Rufe and Manuel went off to the North to take over their sections. I had a very good letter from Manuel Jesudian today to say that he has now got the rank of Captain and had pulled off a relatively exciting job. I was pretty green. When I got to the Depot, I found these two chaps from Mhow and moved into their digs. I now share with one of them, and everything except for him is very rosy. He is an unprepossessing creature and, although quite harmless, I cannot bring myself to like him at all. This dislike is almost more irritating to me than its object, in that I cannot place a finger upon the qualities that incur it. Do you know the feeling? It strikes me particularly because I can usually rub along with most people. Rufus Strump, contrary to expectations, proved to be one of the most charming and considerate of people to live with. As I say – apart from [this chap] (do not infer that our relations are in any way strained as yet) – life is very happy. He has the redeeming feature, by the way, of liking very light classical music (John ffrench’s taste almost identically). Again with completely irrational cattiness I find myself tending to mentally pooh-pooh all this light stuff and wish the boy would play something more solid!!


We really have about as nice a room as one could wish for in Bombay – own bathroom, book-case for my 30-40 books, facing the sea, cool, and a delightful verandah which curls round two sides of the building. Food is good. I get some of the most exquisite moments on the verandah, both at dawn and dusk (I really am appreciating a little more of my own company after all these months). Now, for instance (9.15 p.m.), perfect peace, gentle breeze. The sea is a deep, quiet blue-black, reflecting an occasional faint moon-beam; a few bright stars, the wide circular sweep of black mainland round the bay with a few lights twinkling from Malabar Hill opposite. Beneath me, the broad, firm, clean lines of Marine Drive, its neat hedgerows and white concrete, illuminated occasionally by smart, purring cars. For the heart of a sprawling city of 1 ½ million inhabitants, it must be almost unique. …


To continue with amenities. At the bottom of the seven-storey concrete block is a very nice dairy-café, where I have been able to get some of the first real milk I’ve had out here – creamy and cool – and very good chocolate cakes at 1 anna each!! Just behind us is a vast cricket stadium with club attached. It has also a very nice pool. By virtue of being an officer in H.M. forces, I can become an hon. Member, and most nights we go and swim there. Tonight I screwed up courage to dive off the top board! How I wish Peter Wickham or Peter Magee were with me! Then I could share my revelry in the types I see there. I gather it is a smart Indian club and I haven’t seen another European there except for three swarthy Greek sailors. I find the people fascinatingly intriguing – so much more than the rather Bank Holiday conventional crowd at Beach Candy. … I am now on chatty terms with a lad of about 16 who is either lazy or a Sikh (facial hirsutity), and a most exciting suave man whom I suspect of being a film-star. … I have similar diverting moments when I take my post-dinner stroll along the wide promenade that skirts the sea on Marine Drive. It seethes with an enormous, incredibly diverse, crowd of promenaders, all talking nineteen to the dozen, from the poorest coolies to the wealthiest Parsi families.


It is of course tricky to talk of my work, as so much of what it is concerned with is “most secret”. So far it has not really got going and it all seems really too simple – not a proper job for control, whereas I am needed much more elsewhere. However, I’ve no real grouse, am very happy in what work I have, and  get immense satisfaction out of being my own master in what is my first responsible post in life. …


Points from your last letter – your letter, Daddy. Mhow turned out to be nearly as slack as [the training camp at] Bangalore in the last few months, without the compensation of outside social activities. Nevertheless, no regrets, couldn’t have been a finer crowd of chaps. Drill: yes, we as officer cadets wasted far too much time on it at first, but with regard to drill as a whole and discipline, [the fall of] Singapore to my mind is the supreme justification for it and [shows] how a force without discipline just falls to pieces. This is a story that I suppose you’ll only know after the war, only don’t mention it to Granny Grigor’s countrymen [she was Australian and the Australian troops in Singapore were blamed by some for the defeat].


No, the British and Indian companies were severely segregated at Mhow and this led to a lot of ill-treatment and resentment which I’m sure would have been alleviated if they had worked us more together. Rufe is a typical example. When he first saw that we were going down to Bombay on our M.C. [motor-cycle] course with four Indians, he was thoroughly revolted by the prospect. Now, however, Manuel Jesudian is one of his greatest friends and he is amicable towards or amused by the others. …


Did I tell you I took the Urdu exam at Colaba? The written paper was an absolute b-----, everyone agreed… . The oral, however, was greatly assisted by the fact that the old Major who conducted the exam seemed almost more keen to get me through it than I was myself, e.g.


Major: “Zamin par mahino se kicher hi kicher hai [the ground has for many months been covered by lots of slush] – what does that mean?”


Me: “Er – er – um…”


Major: “come on, you must know. Zamin – gr-gr…”


Me: “oh yes, sir, “on the ground”, but I don’t know the other words – “mahino”, for instance”.


Major: “Ask the Subhedar”


Me: “Subhedar sahib, is lafz ka matlab kia?” [what is the meaning of the word?]


Subedar: “That means so and so, Sahib.”


Me (to Major): it means so and so, Sir”


Major: “That’s right, you’ve got the drift of that all right.” !!



Bombay, 2 June 1942 (when John was convalescing from his mastoid operation)

… [Colin Mayhew] has got three weeks’ leave here and is just frittering away his time waiting for me to come out [of hospital]. I have managed to get round to see him most afternoons, but of course that only means sitting in the Taj or on the lawn of the Yacht Club. You will probably be pleased to hear that I still have a strong predilection for the meals of tea and breakfast.  It’s a standing joke in the hospital now. I usually wade through about five other chaps’ teas who don’t want it. Also, if I go out, I find I am rather hard pressed. Colin doesn’t eat tea, so first of all I wade through his at the Taj, so as to feel that we are getting his money’s worth off his bill. Then, we wander round to the Yacht Club and I order two more there and eat them both. They have a very good brand of chocolate cake! ...







Staff Officer in Delhi 1943


   It is clear that John was natural staff officer material, and at the end of 1942 he was promoted to Staff Captain and posted to GHQ India in Delhi, a much more highly paid post where he managed to save enough money to put himself through the rest of his degree course in Cambridge after the war. He was still in Movement Control, but it was a much busier job in a section with a much wider area of responsibility, controlling the movement of all personnel East of Suez. The GHQ was an enormous place, where officers alone ran into several thousands. Old friends from Mhow or Bombay were constantly passing through and there was a busy if somewhat incestuous social life among the military. He met many officers who had known his very popular father. John, in his early twenties, still felt pretty insecure socially and he commented in a letter to his parents on 17 January 1943 that “curiously enough, the worst part of the whole business is the opening formula “Jack Taylor’s boy”, because I know I couldn’t make myself one-tenth as likeable and pleasant as you, Daddy, however long I tried.”

John as a newly promoted captain, a typically retouched Indian studio portrait





    Although John generally enjoyed Delhi, he sometimes felt frustrated and did not make any really good friends there (unlike at Mhow and in Bombay). In particular, he found it difficult to meet any interesting women, a source of constant complaint.


    John seems to have been one of the relatively few British officers who socialised with his Indian officer colleagues. It was here that he got to know Fateh Shinde, a Mahratta officer who became a life-long friend. Indian girls, on the other hand, were closely guarded and remained out of reach except in rare cases, the prejudice against mixed marriages being still extremely strong.


    He enjoyed his work but after seven or eight months he began to have a conscience about not participating in the war proper, and managed to get himself transferred back to the Raj Rif depot, accepting a lower rank and a considerable cut in pay to do so. His parents, and his mother in particular, were extremely distressed that he was leaving a nice safe staff job for active service, and John suspected at one point that his father tried to use his influence to persuade the authorities to keep him away from the front line.


John (left) with Indian troops







Extracts from John’s letters from Delhi




Bombay, 26 July 1942 (describing some of John’s first impressions of Delhi which he had just visited)

… I began to wonder where I would stay the night. I went along to the Railway Transport Officer’s office expecting to be pushed into a tent somewhere. There were only a few recent sergeants around. I asked where I could be put up. One said “Well, would you like to be put up with General Wavell?” I said “Is this a Movement Control leg-pull?” But it was quite genuine. There were six beds for officers passing through in the C.-in-C.’ house. I took a taxi out (another five miles) and was deposited outside a wing of a large modern building, roughly the size of my old block at Christs. It was of course dark now. A lot of very attentive bearers showed me into a nice room with a good bed. I just flopped straight into it and went to sleep. Waking up was like being somewhere like Selters again [unknown reference]. French windows opened onto a lovely wide expanse of thick green grass with firs and other European-looking trees dotted about. There was a pukka bathroom with a flush-closet. It was Shanks, I noticed. As I sat on it in luxury, I ruminated. One meets Shanks WCs all over the world.  They represent fine British workmanship and are obviously widely exported. How many campaigns have been won or lost, how many dynasties divided on a Shanks? Timoshenko [Soviet General], Hitler, Wavell – they probably all plot out their day seated in after breakfast luxury on a Shanks.


I had an extremely good breakfast and everything was looked after by the bearers most efficiently. The old head khitmagar [waiter] was a particularly nice old chap. I tried to chat with him over breakfast, which was served on the verandah. …


A tonga drove me down to the station from the C.-in-C.’s house. New Delhi – or rather the public buildings – looked very imposing in the morning sun. Very fine, very impressive, particularly when one thought of all this work in terms of coolie hours – hundreds and hundreds of them pottering around with their primitive tools – and the scores of contractors involved. Nothing in Bombay can touch any of it. It is one of the few solid, large-scale works that the British have achieved out here, worthy of intrinsic merit. And yet one wonders, even here, whether they haven’t begun at the wrong end. In the same tonga ride, I passed the lofty, ample spaciousness of these public buildings and the tiny, squalid, crammed and filthy streets of Old Delhi. A fine Government House as a figurehead is a good idea. But why a fine post office and bank and police station – and in the middle of a war a  Broadcasting House – when there are no new cheap flats or even public drainage. I was very glad to have seen it. …



Rawalpindi and Murree [on leave and staying with Colin Mayhew in Rawalpindi], 21 December 1942

… It’s rather difficult for me to write a coherent letter, I’m so excited with my news [of the posting to Delhi] and so elated with life in general. I ought to start right back at the beginning of the month and go over my leave. Well, that is fairly easily dispensed with for the present because, as is usual with Colin, I have done nothing and had a lovely time doing it. Going to bed under piles of blankets; getting up at 9.30 (still pretty nippy); good breakfast; Colin off to office; I read the good news in the papers; walk or bike down to the bazaar; potter round; read all the books in the bookshops; walk home (usually about 12.15 then); Colin comes home; break and fool about; throw things at each other and at the bearer, who loves it and thinks we are both jongley pagali sahibs [wild and crazy masters]; lunch; Colin to office; I read or stroll or bike somewhere; to Club at quarter to four; enormous tea; squash; home; bath; change (dressing gown and corduroys if we aren’t going out again); roaring fire; chota peg; dinner; break, fight, read until 10 or 11; bed.


I drive him out for a hike on Sundays and, as he’s getting inordinately lazy, we usually fold up about two miles away in Topi Park, where we laze, gazing at nila, nila asmon [blue, blue sky] or Himalayas (kitne khubsarat) [how beautiful]! We did one very good 8-10 miles hike one Sunday, over rough country, big nullahs [dry river beds], cliffs etc., until Colin struck and said he wanted to go home. After that I got my diarrhoea, which saved him from undue exertion, except that I must say I would rather have diarrhoea with Colin than with anybody else out here. He was very maternal and attentive.


Then, once fit again, I thought I would try Murree [a local mountain resort town], and beetled off to catch the Royal Mail Bus this morning in rather a flap, sans, of course, bearer and also sans bedding. Well, something went wrong over the bandobast [arrangements] for the bus, and I was pretty furious and had to go up by car, for which I paid RS 15 and two BORs [British Other Ranks] who were going too paid 10 each! I was pretty fed up and cold and not feeling absolutely 16 annas – about 15:2 pice actually! I felt a wee bit car-sick on the way up. You know what the road’s like with its hairpins and a can of petrol sitting under me.


[Later, back in Rawalpindi] No more time to finish this as have got to fly to catch Delhi train. …



John’s letters from Delhi in 1943 are generally shorter and less informative than his ones from Mhow and Bombay, partly because of the stricter censorship and partly because he restricted himself to using small air letter forms that did not have much room for text. His letters chiefly gossiped about people and parties he had been to and discussed books and records he had acquired and films he had been to, punctuated by accounts of the death of one of his contemporaries in battle. Only a few extracts are quoted here.



Delhi, 14 March 1943

… Life pads on. I get more and more inhibited in inverse proportion to the time I spend here, and people seem pretty futile the more one knows them. Sorry, Daddy! After the way you blimped the barber who grumbled about the Tunisian Campaign, I felt that I shall get short shrift. Yes I know I grouse a lot to you and quite honestly it doesn’t mean much now as I’m settled down. But it keeps the mind alive! …


Speaking without exaggeration, a new officer in a station has a ghost of a chance of meeting any English girls unless he previously knows a family. Officers don’t go to decent dances unless they know people beforehand. Here they had a “Strangers’ Dance” the other night. All the “naice” girls were collected and driven to the good place in town and it was thrown open to any officer. I went. About 80 girls – as many as I have ever seen in one place – and 150 men. Felt very foolish at first and had a couple of glasses of Dutch courage. Then I brightened up and had quite a good time. It was run entirely on “excuse me” dances and Paul Jones [a dance that involves frequent changes of partner]. Unfortunately, I got stuck with Brigadier Nicholls’ daughter, a vast galumph of a woman who I was amazed to discover was only 17. Gallantry and timidity rather bound me to her, as no one else wanted to dance with her. However, I danced with Felicity Wavell once [daughter of the C.-in-C.], who has a face like the last day of Pompeii. I was saddled with Foreign Minister for Nepal’s wife for one round. Elderly female Gurk (not being vulgar – literally), whom I bowed back to her place. Duty demanded a dance with La Kirchner [Pam Kirchner, a girl whom he had met earlier], who as usual talked effectively about nothing for two minutes and was then pounced on by a boy-friend. She has the demeanour of a society vamp of 30. Very pretty facially indeed, but utterly useless. Also danced with Elizabeth Ogilvie, a girl I should like to know, but how? Small and quite intelligent and pretty. Three sisters. Father is Secretary to the Government. …



Delhi, 20 March 1943

… Life’s great sensation at present is my new gramophone. I’ve bought – guess what? – Op.61, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Fifth Symphony – both yesterday. Came straight home with Angus Duguid [a newly met friend of his age whose father was “something in Indian National Airways”] and we spread a rug on the lawn and played it till 1 a.m. One of the most exquisite of all my experiences. I really felt as though I was in a Seventh Heaven. Unfortunately, the evening was marred by the Fifth. Curiously enough, the gramophone couldn’t take the low reverberating notes at all and tended to get stuck. It made us feel slightly sick after the other. However, the nice chaps in the gramophone shop have promised to put it right. Angus is going in for Indian music too and we spent a whole evening on Holi day in a Hindu shop, playing the records and chatting with three very nice young graduates (B.Sc’s).


Angus is going through a very remarkable experience. I say “going through”, though I don’t know if it is transitory. He is a very straightforward bloke, although extremely artistically sensitive underneath. He is completely in love with a Mussulman girl of 16 whom he met about a month ago. She is supposed to be in semi-purdah, but the parents (civil servants) made an exception in his case because he brought news of their sons. These were two lads in his Company in Iraq whom he was very fond of – [illegible]. He looked up their parents (there are five sons in all in the Army!) as he was in Delhi, and met Akhtari, whom he never knew existed before. Says that he has never seen anything approaching such beauty. Could hardly speak for the first hour!  She cannot speak a word of English. Isn’t it a remarkable case? He is an extraordinarily nice chap, but too sane to do anything hasty like marry her on the spot, although he is thinking seriously of it after the war. I imagine, however, this sort of marriage would be fraught with the most frightful difficulties, n’est-ce pas?


Work at office becomes more absorbing, but increasingly heavy. I have decided it would be a Good Thing if I were to become a Good Staff Officer, so have been trying much harder lately. Even so, make several silly mistakes, which are dangerous in this sort of work as they are immediately translated into reality, and a very large number of people want to know the reason why. Three essentials of a good S.O. are, I’ve decided: (1) Knowing job – takes at least six months [John had been there less than three months]; (2) Never sitting on any job more than one day; (3) Following up odd jobs right through to the end, just to ensure that someone else doesn’t shelve them. All quite simple, but I’m still 80% from perfection yet!!


The news of the new offensive on the Mareth line [in Tunisia] is just coming in and looks very good. I sincerely hope we’re in a position to pull off a second front in Europe this summer. We want to clear up that show because we’ll need all the troops we can get before we can do much at this end. …



Delhi, 20 December 1943

… I remitted the sum of £37.5.0 to Mummy’s account on 17 December, which should get home in about a month. Will you please bung it into National Savings Certificates? From now onwards, I propose to remit Rs.100 (about £7.6s) on the eighth of each month starting from 1 January 1944. I should be quite a rich man by the time we have beaten the Japs.

I spoke to Bucharest the other morning (or the equivalent distance) on a secret line while deputising for [a senior officer – because of the censorship John did not name the real place he was talking to]. There was quite a male voice choir – it was a four-cornered conversation with two participants at each end. Quite an unique and exciting experience, I feel. [A very early example of a secure conference call.] …



Delhi, 29 December 1943

… I have done the biggest job that I have yet tackled, and worked at it like a slave, feeling for once that if I did my stuff I might really bring the end of the war nearer. Arthur Ritchie, my stooge, and I worked on one day from 8.30 am to 3 a.m., at our desks without a break. We took the stuff home at night and continued in the drawing-room with our maps and books spread out. After three hours’ sleep, I was up again. We finished the job [presumably a major troop movement] in time, but the flap is still on and I am getting damned browned off at the way I and other conscientious ECO [Emergency Coordinating Officer] 3rd grade staff officers slave out our guts night after night, right through the hot weather, and other blokes say in “I” [Intelligence] Directorate are grossly over-staffed and push off at 5 p.m. …

Hardly a happy letter. Yet I have had the best time here in a year – Colin Mayhew [who had been on the front] has been posted up here to the T.B. [Temporary Base] and we have had an evening out together.  It is an absolute tonic having him at hand again; the best stroke of luck in months.


I had a night or two drinking with the “chaps”, which about summed up my Xmas festivities. Got very tight on Xmas Eve, and a very good party on the whole – five men and one woman whom we all kissed in turn – usual sort of show for India!


Have bought Beethoven’s 1st Symphony. Colin is of course overjoyed at my records. He is full of many interesting facts and anecdotes about life in the Indian Army today – some things hopelessly pitiful in this, our fourth year of war; others encouraging.  He enjoyed his jungle life immensely. …



GHQ Delhi, 22 February 1944

… At an unspecified date in the past, I managed to wrangle a couple of days down in Bombay on duty. Had a very pleasant and interesting time indeed, although I was only there for 48 hours. I watched a movement I had arranged at this end. I out-Daddied Daddy in my conversations with casuals and spoke to an Italian prisoner of war, a sailor, a Command Sergeant Major from the “Desert Rats” [7th  Armoured Division which fought in the North African campaign], numerous British Other Ranks, sepoys [Indian infantrymen], odd Indians, families etc. etc. I also met a very sweet girl indeed, whom I shall probably not meet again. The weather was glorious, warm enough for KD [khaki drill, warm weather army dress], but a delightful breeze and everything was simply heavenly. It was one of the best trips I have ever had. Even financially, I did the whole thing on my Travelling and Daily allowance. …


I had a lovely room at a new hotel and lunch at the Yacht Club with Lt-Colonel Bartholomew RIASC, the Embarkation AQMG [Assistant Quartermaster General] – everything was tickety-boo; great grousings about leave from Indian Army; no whisper yet of leave; forgotten army; soldiering without thanks or financial gain etc. etc., especially from ex-British Other Ranks who have had 7 or 8 years and were commissioned forcibly into the Indian Army while their pals are now home. Very bad luck and apparently nothing is going to be done about it except for the very bad cases. I honestly don’t mind it personally and would be quite ready to soldier on for another three years overseas, but feel that something ought definitely to be laid down for us. Most important for morale. …



Bengal and the India-Burma border 1943-44

  After training courses at the Delhi Cantonment, John was first to Bengal on the staff of the General in charge of land forces on the India-Burma border, behind the front line.


   It was an unhealthy part of the country, and John was unlucky in contracting dengue fever, both benign and malign tertiary malaria and both bacillary and amoebic dysentery. So he found himself back in hospital, and like many others continued to be plagued by ill-health and stays in hospital for much of the rest of his war service in India. After some months in hospital in Bengal, he recovered enough to be sent on liaison jobs to army posts on the Burmese border, for example to Cox’s Bazaar just over the Burma border. John’s General followed Bernard Montgomery’s system of using young officers to maintain the liaison between the front-line and the HQ, and John’s job was to carry messages between the two, assess the morale of the troops on the front line (a job for which he was thought to be competent as he spoke good Hindustani), and make reports back to HQ.

John with fellow officers in Bengal, 1944





   John’s health problems persisted, however, and the doctors could not rid him of his chronic amoebic dysentery. In the spring of 1945, it was finally decided to invalid him out of the Army. He recorded in a letter to his parents how he heard snatches of conversations by the board that was to decide his fate:


which seemed to range from “Category B, I think” (which means fit to continue with a unit in India) to “Definitely E” (discharge from the Army) and my heart alternatively sank and soared. Eventually, one turned to me and said quietly, ”Well, we agree with the provisions of your previous board and we feel that as far as the Indian Army is concerned you should be graded E. Of course, this does not mean you will be E for the British Army”. I was a bit taken aback with the severity of this and said I was keen to keep the chance of serving with my regiment if I should rapidly recover at home. They deliberated further and then gave the present verdict of six months’ leave in the UK, which is apparently the only alternative for Indian Army officers.


John (right) with other hospitalised officers





    By the end of the six months the war was over, so a return to India did not arise. John always regretted that his health kept him away from so much of the action, and has all his life felt a sense of guilt that he survived when many of his good friends did not.


The Indian Army

   Although racism was endemic in British India, on the whole there was little among the officers in the Indian Army during the war. About a third of new officers were by 1944 Indian, and some had already seen service in the Middle East, so were more experienced than young officers just out from England. There was complete mixing between the Indians and Europeans, with Indians commanding Europeans and vice versa, and everybody getting on with their allotted job. However, there were still elements of segregation. John was critical of the fact that the Europeans and Indians were put into separate Companies in the Mhow Officers Training Camp, giving them little chance to get to know each other. He also said that the pre-war regimental officers only tended to befriend the very grand Indians. While he was in Delhi, John made good friends with many of the Indian officers, including his lifelong friend Fateh Shinde. 


   John, like many but not all of the officers, made considerable efforts to get to know the men under his command.  As an officer, he had to hold a “durbar” each morning at which his men could bring complaints to him and at which he dealt with disciplinary offences (the most frequent one was returning late from leave).  He also used to visit his men in their quarters to chat them up, and soon discovered that the best topics of conversation were farming (e.g. how the crops were doing; whether sheep or goats were best in their area); the price of things; food (e.g. the season when the mangoes were most delicious); and films – the young officers went to see the latest Indian films just so as to be able to discuss them with their men. John’s Hindustani (which he had largely had to relearn on returning to India for war service) became fluent, and he began to pick up certain patois. The men were a mixed lot – of the four companies in the regiment, one was Punjabi Muslim; one Rajput; and two Rajasthani Jat (i.e.non-Rajput Hindus from villages in Rajasthan).


   John had already before arriving in India been influenced by his mother to be sympathetic towards Indian nationalism, and he became more so after his experiences in the army. He found himself one of a group of left-wing young officers who supported Indian independence and the Congress Party. John could well have been in trouble if some of the nationalist literature in his possession or his attendance at Congress Party meetings had been discovered by authority, and his support had perforce to be discreet (and, as he said, there was a war to win first).




Extracts from John’s letters from the training centre and Bengal




Raj Rif Training Centre, Delhi Cantonment, 10 April 1944

Well, here I am at long last. I wrote to you a few days ago about it being in the air [his transfer to training for active service], but the final decision came quite suddenly. Actually, I have been fighting for this for some months, but they were very sticky about letting me go from the old madhouse. I think I gave them a good impression, which was a good thing, and I did actually put in quite a lot of work at times. Alan Martin [senior officer] actually said that I would have got his job by February if other plans had gone right, but would have collected it anyhow sometime this year. However, we all agreed that he could put it where the monkey put the nuts! Anyhow, I’ve had a colossally hectic time here, where I shall be for two or three months, I expect. Personally, everything has been very pleasant. I’ve stepped into a good bhaibandi [camaraderie], Colin’s legacy – [Derek] Rushworth, the good man I’ve told you about, and Walker, the young lad like me in many ways. There is also Fateh Singh Shinde, a young Mahratta whom I’ve taken a very strong liking to, and Beant Singh, “Sardarji” [a polite name for a Sikh] as we call him, a lump of a Sikh who was a great personal friend of Colin’s. …


I think that the weather is beginning to be bloody, but everyone says I look five times as fit already. Working like hell in the blazing sun. Have done a driving cadre over some rocky hills; a few assault courses with the jawan [a junior Indian soldier, probably in attendance on them], and am shortly to go on a map-reading cadre. At present am on a wonderful Wagon cadre with about 60 NCOs. There are two other officers (Indian ex-Viceroy Commissioned Officers) and a nice old Jemadar [sergeant] in the squad. Our instructor is a first class havildar (PM) [Provost Marshall, i.e. military police] who bollocks us all alike. The whole show is of course in Urdu – a bit much at first, but I’m getting the hang of it quickly. Life is just colossal.



Delhi Cantonment, 27 April 1944

… firstly, it is very hot, so excuse for lack of clarity of expression, but I am still enjoying life a lot – certainly far more than for very many months. I got a couple of airgraphs from Ronny with a lot of really wretched stuff about trying to get an adjutancy in the centre – as if I gave up a good cushy staff appointment for that! … The only thing I do beg is that you don’t use your influence to try and persuade Colonel Ridley to any such end. If you have already done so, I would be grateful if you would recant. I say this because about nine days ago I was detailed as a relief for John’s lot to move at short notice. After the first really amazing sense of surprise, I was very pleased indeed. I would have gone with Fateh Singh Shinde, whom I like better than anyone else here. Ridley happened to be away for a short tour. When he came back, without a word of explanation or apology, I was taken off the draft. Fortunately, I had just not sold all my stuff – bike, gramophone etc. Anyhow, it was the most shattering anti-climax I have ever had to suffer and it serves to enhance the limitations of this dump, where I do NOT intend to remain more than a very few months. I hope Ridley did not act on your instructions.


Well, let’s forget it now entirely, as I have now readjusted myself OK. The only thing I do wish you would realise is that I consider myself and yourselves quite unimportant in our personal reactions to any course of action, however risky, I may undertake, and if I hesitated for your sake, I should be just as guilty of cowardice as you are in exhorting an individual to stay at home while the only worthwhile race pours out its blood on our battlefields. …



Delhi Cantonment, 15 May 1944

… [Colonel] Ridley eyes me with a certain amount of suspicion, I feel, as all regimental officers do if anyone associates with Indian officers as if they might be Europeans. The exceptions are of course if the Indian officers dance, drink, talk dirt and have been to Europe. They are accepted.


Beant Singh and Fateh Singh Shinde are two of the nicest people I have ever met in completely different ways. Beant is a short, stocky Sikh aged 24, very intelligent, but definitely a Punjabi man of the soil, as he says. Kind, straightforward, with a kindly twinkle in the depths of his eyes, behind his beard and his gravity.  His father Butta Singh was on the Round Table Conference [a series of meetings organised by the British Government in 1930-32 to consider the future constitution of India]. Fateh was born within a few months of me at Ahmednagar, is a Mahratta who lives in the Deccan Heights near Poona, big, handsome, westernized, yet intelligent enough to recognize true values.


Both have been fairly consistently insulted and shelved by most regimental officers for 18 months. Both are respected by their men, are tough and have received QIs [recommendations for instructor status] on every course they have been on. There is an absolutely immovable prejudice against them in this army, which is why the better ones have too much self-respect to join. …



Saugor (central Indian town in the plains where he was doing a course preparatory to moving to the front line), 13 June 1944

I been and gone and done it at last and caught malaria. Have been feeling pretty bloody on and off for the last fortnight or so with headaches and bones aching. Anyhow stuck it out for the bayonet and rifle exams, both on one morning, and, feeling pretty groggy, fell out. Old Hockey, the senior chap I our squad, persuaded me to take my temperature. It was 102°, so I thought I had better clock into the hospital. B-T [benign tertian] malaria and quite a strong concentration, the female doctor said, although I feel relatively fit and am weathering it well. … Needless to say, this is a damned nuisance as far as the course goes as I had completed three weeks, which is half, now wasted. …



Mussoorie (a hill station where he was taking leave to recover from his bout of malaria), 4 September 1944

… This place is supposed to be the hot spot of the hills, but is grossly over-rated. Have hardly seen half a dozen English girls under, say, 30 in the whole place. Also very few Anglo-Indians, pretty or otherwise.  The only redeeming feature is a lot of extremely beautiful purdah-less Indian girls, but they are wisely guarded by their menfolk. Quite a few really frightful old hag-bags of memsahibs. A good 50 years old, peroxide golden hair etc., etc. The only one I excuse is the elderly Frenchwoman (fighting!) Madame André, who resides here in the most staid of the hotels. She is the biggest brothel-owner in Bombay and is worth thousands. Apparently she is a very kind and generous woman who is on the Bombay War Fund Committee and has given lots to charity, etc. Sean Regaly [unidentified] said she lent him 2,000 chips [rupees] once at a party!  At any rate, I excuse her golden locks and carmine lipstick, because she’s just been brought up like that.


The other nice feature about this hotel is the two score or so of babies, white and brown – really delightful to see children again. I have a particular pair of girlfriends aged three years and three months respectively. Two little Sikh girls. The elder can talk a little of her madri gaban [mother tongue], but junior just gurgles internationally. …



Delhi Cantonment 15 September 1944

Back in sleepy old Delhi Cantonment after 2 or 3 days walking 10 miles and climbing Ben Nevis – well, climbing 4,500 feet anyway. My last week in Mussoorie was very nice indeed and I enjoyed my rather lazy time a lot. The weather was fine, the sun was glorious (hottest day temperature about 70°, less than the minimum temperature here!), I ate like a horse and had the occasional hike like the one I mentioned above. …


Met one or two quite nice chaps up there, all on leave from the 14th Army [fighting the Japanese in Burma under General Slim] and also ran into young Smyly [Bill Smyly, a heroic figure whom John  saw a lot of after they were both retired in London] who was in my platoon at Wilburs [in Aldershot after call-up for war service in 1941] and Mhow, and who has been in both Wingate* shows – a most unusual record, as most people became casualties to malaria, jaundice and dysentery, if not Japs, and participation in a 2nd show is voluntary.


Had the glorious walks I mentioned above. Down the back of the mountain, away from the Charleville [hotel where they were staying]  - a 4,500 foot drop in 5 miles – with the most lovely panoramas of the hills the whole way. The cloud swept the snow peaks 70 miles away in the bright blue distance; and nearer a great valley of 2,000 foot hills covered with low scrub and moving cloud patterns. As our path wound down into the valley, the grass became more lush and all sorts of wild flowers appeared amongst the grass and rocks. There were big deciduous trees and the whole effect was that of being back amongst lush English summer vegetation.


As we got down to 2,000 feet, the jungle got thicker and sub-tropical (I even picked a large leech off my boot!) and we drew near to our ultimate objective, the Kempty Falls, a small but crystal clear waterfall bouncing down the mountainside in 70 foot drops and stopping every now and again for a rest in large clear bubbling rocky pools. Shepherd, the other bloke, and I then had a very refreshing bathe in “nood” and clambered around the rocks like 2-year-olds.


The sun dipped away from the deep valley at about 5.30, so we were forced to face the task of the arduous climb up. We did this in 2 ½ hours and arrived back at the Charleville in good time for one of the most memorable hot baths and enormous dinners that I have ever had! …


*“Wingate shows” is a reference to the famous Chindit special operations units which made expeditions in the Burmese jungle to cut a railway line and to harass the Japanese. On one of these, Bill Smyly got separated from the others and trekked alone hundreds of miles through the jungle before reaching a British outpost.



“A Special Train”, 23 September 1944

A wonderful morning. Here I sit in a two-berth compartment at 0800 in lovely cool air – slightly clouded sky and rolling miles of deep green wooded hills, broken by patches of lush grass and pools. Have just seen three peafowl. Also saw some small hiran [deer] and yesterday a proud hathi [elephant] standing on top of a stony hillock, waving her trunk at my cheering men. “My men?” – over 600 of them as of the day before yesterday a.m. Just before I left, I was appointed O.C. [Officer Commanding] Train – not only a well-disciplined draft of four score men [from the Raj Rif], but a whole mixed bag from other Regiments, the worst being [Royal] Indian Artillery – an unruly hotch-potch of all castes and creeds. 


So far – and we reach our destination at noon – it has been a most successful journey. Together with the very able help of four other subalterns and half a dozen VCOs we have restrained the worst tendencies of the Indian troops on the move to appear suddenly in dhoti and coloured pyjama jacket; to pee out of the carriage window; to throw their garbage at stray coolies. My VCOs, all fairly junior jemadars, are a very good crowd indeed. Fortunately I detailed a P.M. [military policeman] …  to help control the Indian Artillery draft, and did he lick them into shape!


25 September. Draft handed over complete and I leave at dawn tomorrow for Ajmer [the Raj Rif Depot or HQ] to interview the Chief Recruiting officer over my Rajputana tour [John was being sent on a recruiting mission]. This entails a long, cross-country journey which, if as comfortable as the last, should be very agreeable, especially without the constant responsibility that one of the 600 lads might break his neck at any moment by falling out of the train. My route takes me through Itarsi, Khandwa, Mhow – which it will be amusing to see again – and I hope Nasirabad!


This is a delightful spot to me, a visitor, who doesn’t have to tear himself to pieces tearing round the countryside. The country is the nearest approach to English scenery that I have yet seen out here, and the climate is just right now. Hot sun, blue sky, fresh breezes, and a nippy night that demands more than the one sheet I have with me. An excellent band met us at our destination station, where the battalion had arranged a good hot meal for the lads after their two days of hard meal biscuits.  Then a lovely drive of 20 miles to this big camp – a very nostalgic drive because with half-closed eyes I could imagine myself going through the Sussex weald. The camp is on wide, rolling grasslands. Yesterday, however, I went out a further 20 miles to the jungle camp. Drove in a jeep along a worsening road over similarly open country until the road dipped over a crest revealing hundreds of miles of thick forest spread out on to the blue horizon away below us. We dropped down to this and a further five miles brought us by way of “jeepable” tracks to the jungle camp. Here I met Fateh Singh Shinde and several others again. …



Delhi Cantonment, 29 September 1944

… I left the camp on Tuesday morning (after having seen Fateh Singh and everybody I wanted to) with my little bugler orderly Mohammed Abid, a very nice kid. We took the “Jungle Express” to Amla – a small toy train on a 2ft 6in gauge, used for coal in peacetime, once again through beautiful green hills and fields glistening with early morning dew. Then by devious means to Khandwa, where we got onto the metre gauge. This was just like peacetime – no troops travelling, a compartment to myself, and complete with electric light-bulbs, usually pilfered on the main lines. I awoke in the dawn at the small station of Patalpani near Mhow, where we used to go and bathe in Mhow near the waterfall. Then good old Mhow again, and all the familiar hills and baghs [literally large gardens] amongst which we used to “scheme” [do military exercises]. Lunch at Ratlam. Then later bed, scheduled to pass through Nasirabad at 0600, where I was determined to get out and have a look. Abid poked his nervously grinning little face in my window at Ajmer station, apologising for having also overslept. Left my kit at the station and went along to the Recruiting Office where I saw Major Reed, the D.R.O. Rajputana (who remembered you, Daddy). … Fixed my business very satisfactorily about the recruiting tour and was asked to play volley-ball with the Colonel and his clerks at 0600 and to have dinner with them.


I asked the Adjutant how far away Nasirabad was, and he said: “Oh, want to go there? Take our truck!” I took the truck at 2 p.m. and drove out there with another Indian officer who was inspecting ammunitions, trying to memorise the hill features and route. I could definitely recall the hills, the scrub and the road cuttings. Arrived at Nasirabad in the heat of the afternoon, could not at first recall the Ajmer side but suddenly recognised the Church (where I can’t recollect going except with the ffrenches occasionally). Reaching the Mall and the Club with the gardens opposite, I went particularly to see two small lawns I remembered. One in the gardens where I used to play “cannibals” while you played tennis, the other behind the club where I used to eat gram and listen to [illegible name]. I got the officers’ bungalow, first on the left, but could not place ours exactly, although I knew it was somewhere on the right, about the middle. … I got the Mess OK and Colonel Forbes’ bungalow. … Salaamed the Yad Ghar [War Memorial], kept in very good condition, went to look at Franji’s shop, looked inside the Club, which was fast asleep, and then the driver got a fit of retching and fever, so I drove all the way back. A grand dinner and Scotch whisky with Colonel Hamlyn [Commanding Regimental officer] to wind up. …



Delhi Cantonment, 15 October 1944

… Yes, it’s not surprising to hear of apathy about the Jap war, Daddy, from you. Have heard much from other sources on the same theme. It’s high time that this Command was taken over and cleaned up, with a view to preparing it for future operations. Incidentally, our men have fought very gallantly in Burma and Assam, but we’ll get nowhere at this rate with all this corruption and maladministration behind the lines. The Auk [General Auchinleck, Commander in Chief of the Indian Army] is not a big enough man, and Mountbatten [recently appointed to a new South-East Asia Command] hasn’t touched India. The morale of India as a whole we have read enough about and won’t treat of this most controversial subject here. But the lot of the British Other Ranks is not controversial to any party – and it is a constant and crying shame how they are chucked around the country like so much dirt, badly paid, fed, housed, looked after – and left to rot it out for five years. …


Long after this comes the grievance of the officers, the 15,000 NCOs being a forgotten bunch. So far nothing on pay or demob and still five-year tours which means of course nothing doing yet. Personally, the latter does not worry me (when I am fit), but it is a very dangerous policy and morale in our Army is definitely much lower than it might be. Of our disenfranchisement, I have spoken. Couldn’t you add your voices to the mass and badger some M.P. about all of this? …



Delhi Cantonment, 30 October 1944

Another good fixture was a really 1st class lecture by General Slim, General Officer Commanding 14th Army, on the Burma operation 43-44 – which, as he said, probably gave the best bird’s eye view of the whole show in detail. Very well delivered, with plenty of humour and vigour and excellent maps. Very few people at home realise the load that some of these forward divisions have carried. One battalion lost 25 BO’s [?British Officers]  killed in one series of engagements! This apart from the strain on the health of the individuals concerned, of which I see manifestations every day. Anyhow, Slim was heartily cheered at the end of it. He thanked India Command. Some deserved it, many didn’t. …


Next function was wedding of Hastings Tarrant, the other O.C. [Mhow] contemporary of mine here, to the daughter of Vicar of Delhi Cantonment. Quite amusing wedding at local church, with most of local society present, followed by a reception in [?]Brigade House garden. I had one drink which made me feel, pretty dizzy, so I assumed that I must be getting out of practice. However, it wasn’t soon before I realised it must be a very insidious mixture, because the most dignified and decorous people were getting quite tiddly. Most amusing were Major Fry, a very grave old boy, who was as skittish as a two-year-old, giggling away with his Subhedar-Major, normally a severe-looking old Rajput. Also a young rifleman who was helping to serve and whom some chaps rather cruelly led up the garden path. However, he too was very funny, his pagri [turban] at a rakish angle, trying to look well-behaved and so puzzled by the things his legs were doing. All quite jolly as an occasional break. …



Delhi Cantonment, 5 November 1944

… Tommy Lemon, my Company Commander, goes off on leave shortly, so I take over the Company, which I don’t view with so much apprehension now that I am getting hold of the various rules, regulations and customs on which a training company is run. It’s curious how sometimes one cycles back from the lines chuckling with glee to yourself and thinking “bless all their dear, stupid, loveable hearts” and, at other times, “blast their souls, the nincompoops” [most of the recruits were uneducated peasants]. I wonder if you found that too, Daddy? This morning, for instance, somehow it was all very pleasant. I checked some of their kits and documents – the ones who will shortly become full riflemen and go off to the training division – and I chatted with them and tried to explain their pay and clothing difficulties, and they all seemed so helpful and grateful. Then I wandered through the lines until I saw a large milling crowd of chaps round a table. I had a very amusing twenty minutes watching an auction of some retiring VCO’s kit, being conducted by Jemadar Chirinji Lal, who was a clerk with the 2nd Battalion in your day. Again, so nice, because one or two of them, recruits and NCOs, came up quite spontaneously and chatted with me, explaining what it was all about. …






Back to Blighty and Cambridge Part 2 1945-47

   John returned to Britain on a ship with medical facilities full of others in a similar position. He remembers arriving in Glasgow on 19 April 1945 and unseasonably late snow falling on 20 April – the first he had seen for four years. He was put in hospital near Norwich for further treatment, and finally emerged in the summer. His parents were sharing the house near Cambridge of another couple (Sir George Frankau, a surgeon at St George’s Hospital, and his wife, a psychiatrist) – it being a common arrangement during the war for people with large houses to have others as paying guests. His father still had his RAF job and his mother had got a job as secretary to the Headmaster of the Perse School in Cambridge. John joined them in the Frankau house, hoping to go back to Cambridge as soon as possible. But technically he was still in the Army, on the off-chance that he might become well enough to be of use. So he spent the rest of the year studying at home, finally being released from the Army (with an invalidity pension of £45 a year) in time to go up to Cambridge for the second term of the academic year.


   This time, the Government provided a grant of £600 a year, so John was better off – although after his college fees had been paid he had only just enough to live on. He remembers the first term as particularly hard and suffering frequently from the cold (it was one of the coldest winters on record). He had some £1,000 of savings from his war service, but as this represented his only capital he was determined to eat into it as little as possible. However, it did allow him the odd luxury such as a skiing holiday in Switzerland with the University Ski Club.


   Before the war, extra-curricular activities at Cambridge had been fairly restricted as the spare time of so many undergraduates was taken up with the Home Guard and similar duties. But now there was an explosion of clubs (everything from the Cambridge University New Testament Society or CUNTS to the Railway Society), debates, dances and other social activities. John participated fairly fully in many of these (although not the two mentioned above) and became college secretary of the Labour Club. He took up again with several of his Indian army friends from Mhow who had also emerged from the Army and returned to University; and joined the hot competition for the relatively few girls available. It was also at Cambridge that he met his life-long friend Jagat Mehta from Udaipur, who like John became a diplomat and rose to be head of the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Above all, he remembers tremendous discussions with his friends on politics, economics and a host of other subjects ranging from Freud and the Bloomsbury Group to the Spanish Civil War, still a hot topic in politico-intellectual circles even though it had been over for some eight years.

John (left) at Cambridge with his then girlfriend Belinda Gardner

May Ball 1947 (John on the right)




   It was pretty difficult to travel abroad in those early post-war days. Partly in order to do so, John signed on as an ordinary seaman with a merchant shipping company in the long vacation at the end of his first two terms, and joined a freighter for its two month voyage to North Africa and back. He remembers the work being a bit like the Army; not terribly hard but boring (endless hours chipping rust off the funnel, for instance). But the voyage earned him a discharge certificate, with Good Conduct, enabling him for the rest of his life to claim nautical experience.


   In the summer of 1947, after his finals (John obtained a 2:1 degree in Economics despite having done in all only two years and two terms with a gap in the middle for the war), John and two other new economics graduates went off for a two month holiday in Scandinavia. They went in the car of one of them, James Priestman, whose father was head of a family engineering business, and so was reasonably well off. It was a 1929 Austin 7, seating only two people, and John at 6 foot was the smallest of the three, so they took it in turns to sit on the spare wheel with legs dangling over the back.

The Austin 7




    They went to Denmark, Sweden and Norway in turn, which meant driving alternately on the left and right (left, right, left, right, left) as in those days Sweden like the UK drove on the left. They travelled round - slowly as their little car did not go fast - staying in hostels or cheap hotels, and generally had a wonderful time. They fell in on the way with various similar groups of Oxbridge graduates doing the same thing, and also looked up various people to whom they had been given introductions. At that period after the war, the British were still seen as some kind of super-heroes by the inhabitants of the recently liberated continental countries, and they were welcomed accordingly, frequently being invited to people’s houses. Added to this, the weather was marvellous (1947 was a wonderful summer throughout Europe). John recalls staying in villages and going to the local village dances on wooden platforms in the open air beneath the pine trees; and bathing in fjords.

John bathing




   The young men themselves, fresh from the war and university, felt that the world lay at their feet and they could do whatever they wanted. All their war training was that obstacles should not stop them, and John recalls that the nearest he came to yobbery was when they arrived to see Stockholm Town Hall and, finding it closed, decided to go in anyway by pushing open a window.  On a lighter note, he remembers going to the seaside resort of Saltjöbaden near Stockholm where there was a men’s enclosure and a women’s enclosure separated – as they discovered later – by a nudist enclosure. John and another Cambridge friend whom they had met on the way were bathing in the sea and drifted inadvertently in front of the nudist enclosure. The friend – who was very myopic and had left his glasses on shore – suddenly pointed out to John what appeared to him a lot of people wearing strange pink clothes. John (who had his back to the shore) turned round, saw his friend peering myopically at all these naked people and laughed so much that he came close to drowning.


   In Norway, they stayed part of the time with cousins of James Priestman, whose mother was Norwegian. They first spent a week in the large family house in Stavanger, and then went with the family up to their summer cabin in the mountains (which was no more than a hut with bunks round the side). They had first to cross the fjord on which Stavanger sits by boat, and then make a four hour hike up the mountain, carrying most of the food they needed in huge packs. Apart from the food they brought with them and some milk and cream collected from a farm on the way, their diet consisted of trout fished from the mountain streams and berries collected from around the cabin. John remembers a jolly time with the family, including the two daughters whose already good English they tried to improve as some sort of quid pro quo for the hospitality they were receiving. John, who was a good-looking young man, remembers cutting out James Priestman with one of the daughters on whom James was keen (although she was only playing with both of them, having a far more serious boyfriend back in Stavanger who was the son of a rich tycoon).


With friends




   Scandinavia appeared to John to be an idyllic society. He loved the open air life of that glorious summer; the food was abundant (this was still a time of food rationing in the UK); and the people marvellously friendly and hospitable. He was attracted too by the egalitarianism and lack of social distinctions. All Norwegians, whatever their background, went to the same state schools and remained on terms of easy equality with their ex-schoolfriends even after their paths had diverged. John remembers being impressed by the natural way that the daughter of the house with the rich boyfriend greeted the petrol pump attendant who had been at school with her, with none of the slight condescension that would have characterised a similar encounter in the UK. Although it was presumably there in the background, none of the stiffness and convention that is the subject of Ibsen’s plays was apparent to the young men on that visit, and John felt tempted to stay on for ever.



Making mustard: autumn 1947


    Back in England, however, his mother was writing to him urging him to come back and begin the serious matter of finding a job. He had already put in various job applications when still up at Cambridge and on his return he was offered jobs by three firms. The first two, Booth’s China and Coats Paints, made clear that they wanted to send him to Calcutta to their local offices there, for a career in India with the prospect of rising to be their chief local representative. While he did not rule out returning to work in India, John was clear that he did not want to go to Calcutta. It was an area of blinding poverty, and Bengalis had a reputation of some hostility to members of the Raj. So he joined Reckitts and Colman as one of half a dozen management trainees (although he discovered later that they too had been hoping to send him to Calcutta). He spent a month in their Norwich plant where the foodstuffs were made (including Colman’s mustard and Robinson’s barley water) and a month in Hull, which was the centre of their chemical and pharmaceutical operation, and where he discovered that “Reckitts blue”, a powder used by housewives to make their washing whiter, was also added as a whitening agent to white sugar; and that Steradent for cleaning false teeth had the same chemical composition as Harpic for cleaning loos.


    He had also applied while at Cambridge for the Foreign Office and done the “country house” exam (two days staying at a country house so that both the intellects and the behaviour of the would-be diplomats could be inspected). After he had done two months with Reckitts and Colman, the Foreign Office offered him a place, which he took like a shot. He had been greatly disappointed by the aimlessness of his “training” at Reckitts and Colman. No attempt was made to teach the trainees accountancy or management practices. The training had consisted chiefly of being sent round to various plants and laboratories to look at the various manufacturing and testing processes, which after a while became excruciatingly boring. He also felt that there was an unwelcome degree of nepotism. Two of the other trainees were sons of Board members, on first name turns with everybody important in the firm, and he felt that they would tend always to be given preference. The Foreign Office, on the other hand, represented equal opportunities and being given responsibility to take serious decisions.







High Commission in Delhi 1947-50 

   John joined the Foreign Office in January 1948 and was promptly sent off to the newly established High Commission in Delhi as a junior diplomat. He flew out there, the first time that he had been on a commercial airliner.


He wrote a long letter to his parents (who had also never taken a long flight) describing the journey in detail. Aircraft in those days were very noisy and cotton wool was handed round by the steward so that the passengers could stuff their ears. They made five stops en route to refuel (Bordeaux, Casablanca, Cairo, Basra and Karachi).  At each stop the passengers were bussed off to a local restaurant for a meal, and in Cairo they were taken to a hotel for a wash and an hour’s rest. John wrote that at Basra he tried to picture his father roughing it during the First World War and noted that he was now in the real East:


Fly-netting on the doors, and the dear old distinctive smell of piss and the lavatory. I began to feel quite homesick in reverse, if you see what I mean, and excited.


At Karachi the passengers were accommodated for the night in a hotel. John commented:


I got a real thrill from talking Urdu to the bearers. I remarked to the BOAC [airline] man that I was simply itching to get out of my tweed jacket and into K.D. [khaki drill] again, to which he replied: “You’ll be itching all night when they come back from their first visit to the dhobi [washerman].



    India was a somewhat crazy posting in view of his health record, and his dysentery did indeed return, necessitating another spell in hospital, where he also picked up malaria again and hepatitis. But he nevertheless packed a lot into the posting.


   British India had been given independence in the previous August as two separate states: the present day India and the new Moslem state of Pakistan in the North (comprising both the present Pakistan and what is now Bangladesh). The partition into two states (strongly opposed by most Indians) gave rise to major inter-communal killings by both Hindus and Moslems, which were only just tailing off when John arrived back in India, so it was an unsettled time. Earl Mountbatten, who had superintended the move to Partition and Independence, was still in Delhi as Viceroy, and was at that time accepted by India as Governor-General for a few months as  the Raj was still disengaging – for instance the Commanders-in-Chief of the Armed Forces were British, as were some of the senior civil servants. Delhi superficially seemed still to be a town of the Raj, immaculately kept with none of the dirt and untidiness of today. There were however several huge refugee camps to house the Hindus who had fled from Punjab and East Bengal when it became part of Pakistan.


   The new High Commission was trying to find a role for itself, not helped by an infirm High Commissioner and the fact that many of the staff came either from the India Office in London, so they did not know much about abroad; or from the Indian Civil Service (ICS), the elite core of Britons who used to run India, who now had to transform themselves into diplomatic representatives with no powers. At this time the High Commissions came under the newly created Commonwealth Relations Office in London which was feeling its way.


   There was administrative chaos and the High Commission put John into a very basic brick hut. When the then Chief Clerk (head of administration in the Foreign Office) came on an inspection visit, he took one look at it and declared it unfit as a home for a British diplomat, threatening to fly John home if the High Commission did not find something better. For the rest of his time in Delhi, therefore, they paid for him to be a paying guest in comfort with a British expatriate family, first that of the representative of one of the British companies active in India and then with John Christie, a highly distinguished ex-ICS man. He had been Wavell’s and Mountbatten’s private secretary and on retirement had been asked to run the Chamber of Commerce representing British firms in India; a shrewd choice as he was on good terms with many important Indians, despite the fact that he had been responsible for imprisoning some of them during the days of British rule.


   John was first allocated to what amounted to the consular section, dealing with the enormous number of problems generated for British nationals in India by the change of status – sorting out pensions, evacuating people caught up in the violence etc. Another major piece of work was checking the documents of some 10,000 Anglo-Indians (people of mixed race) who claimed UK citizenship (for which they needed a father or grandfather who was a UK citizen) and wanted to move to the UK, for which they were given ‘assisted passage’ – i.e. a loan (almost all the loans made were repaid).


   The section tried to set up a network of British expatriates throughout India to act as unofficial correspondents or honorary consuls. One whom John recruited was Jack Gibson, then a schoolteacher at the Doon School (the premier Indian boarding school modelled on an English public school) and later as headmaster of Mayo College in Ajmer, the second school to Doon in terms of prestige. Jack recounted in his memoirs how John had airily assured him that there would be almost nothing to do, perhaps no more than a couple of letters a year. Thirty years later, he mockingly reproached John who was visiting him by indicating some eight feet of files that he had accumulated from the cases he had dealt with.


   John was also sent on a trip up to Kashmir to sort out consular problems there. This trip had a whiff of danger about it, as it was only a few months after an invasion by Pakistani-financed tribesmen. They had been repulsed by the Indian Army at the outskirts to Srinagar, but only after fierce fighting and not before they had massacred a group of Europeans, including nuns, in what became known as the Baramulla massacre. John wrote a long account of his trip up to Srinagar to his parents.


   Although John enjoyed the many challenges of this consular work (and it was hard work), he felt that it was not the diplomacy that he had joined the FO to do, and managed to get himself transferred to the section of the High Commission dealing with Indian external policy, where his boss was Ralph Selby. Ralph (who ended his career as Ambassador to Norway) and his wife Julianna remained friends of John until their death. Other long-term friends whom John first got to know at that time were Robert Tesh (John’s opposite number in the Indian internal policy section of the High Commission) and Jean Bowker, who married Tesh while they were in Delhi with John as their best man; and Rae Britten who took over from Bobby Tesh. All subsequently asked John to be godfather to one of their children (Cynthia Selby, Gillian Tesh and Nicky Britten).


   John also associated with his many Indian friends. Jagat Mehta, now married, was in the Indian Foreign Ministry, and John used to go on holiday with the Mehtas. Several of John’s old Indian Army acquaintances were also in or near Delhi, and he made a number of new friends, with one of whom he used to go to Gandhi’s prayer meetings, although he was not at the one at which Gandhi was assassinated.  The meetings took place at Birla House near the High Commission (Birla was the Indian industrialist who had financed Gandhi), with some 300 people sitting on the floor, or on the grass of the lawn. There were chants and hymns and then an address by Gandhi on the general theme of peace. As it was winter, Gandhi was in a heavy woollen pullover rather than just his trademark loin-cloth. John remembered him as a “magical old man”.


   At the time of Gandhi’s assassination, John was in the Chandni Chowk bazaar area in Old Delhi enjoying a Punjabi roast with an Indian friend. Every other restaurant and stall used to have a radio playing, and so everybody heard the announcement of the murder by ‘an unknown assassin’ over the radio. If the assassin had been a Muslim, it would certainly have led to a renewal of the killings of Muslims by Hindus (and reprisal killings of Hindus) that had accompanied partition. Chandni Chowk was a Muslim area, and John remembers that following the announcement, there were moments of unnatural silence; then began the sinister clack-clack of stall-holders closing their shutters, bunkering down against possible riots. John’s Indian friend was obviously alarmed and promptly said that they must get back to the better-policed and more orderly New Delhi. In fact, within a couple of hours it was announced that the assassin was a Hindu fanatic and the risk of troubles receded, but for John it was a disturbing reminder of the fragility of the trust between the races.


   Gandhi’s funeral took place a few days later and John saw his body being carried on a bullock cart through New Delhi. Jawarhalal Nehru, the Prime Minister, and the Mountbattens accompanied the cart in open cars. Some two million people had crowded into Delhi and the streets were sodden with people, many clinging to the trees. There was absolute silence apart from the occasional emotional cry of ‘Mahatma Gandhi-ji ki jai’ (victory to Gandhi) and sometimes ‘Pandit Nehru’ and ‘Mountbatten-sahib ki jai’.  John remembers the lancers with their pennants riding alongside the bullock cart and trying desperately to push a way through the crowds to let the distinguished mourners through. 

Gandhi’s funeral procession passing the High Commission

   John made a point of getting out of Delhi as much as possible. He used to cycle out in the evening to a village near Delhi where he would chat to the villagers, recapturing the pleasure that he used to have talking to the men of the regiment in his Indian Army days. He also used to stay in Simla with the family of Jagat Mehta’s wife, and once took himself off alone for a three day bicycle trip in the foothills of the Himalayas along the un-metalled Hindustan-Tibet road, carrying all his bedding and staying in Dak bungalows (the fairly basic rest-houses provided for Government servants on official business, but generally open to respectable travellers – and Europeans in those days were ipso facto respectable). The way was chiefly through pine forests, and very hilly, up and down 2-3,000 feet at a time. Every so often he would get a glimpse of the eternal snows like painted wallpaper above the horizon. On one descent, a large snake lay across the road. John decided that his brakes were not good enough to ensure that he would stop in time, so he put his feet on the handlebars and just rode over the snake, to his relief without its becoming entangled in the wheels.


Relaxing in Simla

Taking a tonga in Simla





   Socially, in Delhi it was a glittering time with the British and Indian elites mixing on a basis of heart-warming equality. The newly emancipated Indians were revelling in Independence and were keen to show no ill-feeling (some ill-feeling did come later when the younger hard men of the nationalist movement took over from the old leaders still steeped in the traditions of the Raj).  It was also a time when members of the High Commission made real attempts to get to know as many Indians as possible, socialising largely with Indians. John found a marked contrast when he returned in the 1970s, when much of the High Commission’s social life revolved round entertaining other diplomats and the junior staff of the High Commission itself (considered necessary for morale purposes).


   Young and unimportant though he was, John found himself thoroughly involved in Delhi high society, partly perhaps because he was appreciated for having a greater knowledge of things Indian than most of the Europeans. He was invited both to parties at Government House where he found himself a dancing partner of Pamela Mountbatten; and to parties given by Indian leaders such as one at the house of the new Prime Minister, Jawarhalal Nehru. Nehru was asked whether it was true that he stood on his head as part of his yogic regime. He replied that certainly it was true and proceeded to demonstrate, whereupon the ‘Nehru cap’ that he always wore fell off, revealing for the first time, even to his own circle, that he was completely bald.

This extraordinary photograph taken by John shows a gathering

in the High Commissioner's bedroom trying out Indian drums.

From left: High Commissioner's daughter or ward; Philip Zeigler (colleague);

the Nawab of Pataudi; and High Commissioner Archibald Nye.


   It was during this posting in India that John failed to win a fortune at the races and decided to forswear gambling. On a trip to Madras on business, he stayed with a young couple from the British Deputy High Commission who invited him to go to the races with them. He agreed with a sense of guilt, as it had been drummed into him from childhood that there was a hereditary gambling weakness in the male members of the Grigor Taylor family. His host and hostess explained that the thing to do was to buy one ticket between the three of them in the triple Tote, which had been paying out huge sums (of the order £10,000 in terms of early 2000s prices) to any ticket-holder predicting the three winners of three selected races. John was invited to pick the horse for the first race, which he did after a brief study of the form of the starters, and was gratified when his horse won. He was of course then invited to pick the horse for the next race and once again it cantered in leading the field. His hostess threw her arms round him and gave him a smacking kiss, while his host wrung him warmly by the hand in the custom of those days. The same procedure was followed for the third race, and sure enough John’s selected horse entered the straight neck and neck with another at the head of the field and duly won by a head. By this time his hostess was having mild hysterics and his host was jumping up and down with excitement beside him. Within minutes, however, there came an announcement over the loudspeaker to say that due to a strike of Tote personnel, not everybody had been able to get their bets on for the last race, so the winnings would be based on the results of the first two races. So John and his friends ended up not with the promised fortune but only with a sum that gave them each the equivalent of some £400 in early 2000s prices – still not bad.


   As John was leaving the next day, he went to the bazaar on a shopping spree, spending all his winnings on presents for his hosts’ children and a much needed bespoke new suit for himself – it being India, delivery was promised in 12 hours. The tailor was as good as his word and John donned his new suit for his flight back to Delhi. A little way into the flight, he realised that there was an inexplicable and unhappy tightness about the armpits and the crutch. Despite subsequent attempts to have it altered, the suit never fitted and John took this as a warning to him from his gambling ancestors for daring to gamble, and from that day on he avoided any form of gambling – except much later in life when he defied his ancestors and tried Premium Bonds, winning only tiny prizes.



Extracts from letters from Delhi (1948-50)


New Delhi, 9 January 1948

Well! First letter from Indian soil and it is bound to be pretty confused as my head’s still revolving from the rapid journey. I really can’t believe it – 30 hours to Karachi, and the last time it took me 70 days.



New Delhi, 10 January 1948

… [On arrival at Delhi] I was met by a clerk from the office and driven to North Delhi where I was told I had been found accommodation (very difficult to get and expensive) at No. 6 Aurangzeb Road, which used to be an officers’ hotel, where I spent the first few nights of my Delhi career, nearly exactly five years ago to a week. On arrival at the Hostel, which is now run by the Government of India with Congress flag flying, the Sikh clerk said he had no news of my booking. “But”, expostulated the British clerk, “we fixed it up on the phone – No. 28”. No. 28 was empty all night but the clerk still looked vague and apologetically obstinate. I was back in India, all right! Having met this scene, at a rough guess, 400 times before, I went into action. Told the British chap, who was getting a bit rude (justifiably), to buzz off. Then went to work on the Sikh. I stuck to English, was polite, asked about the weather, his family, discovered that he was a refugee – then suggested that I should dump my luggage “for the time being”.  “All right, Sir, you can be leaving it. You are taking room subject to confirmation.” But I don’t suppose it would have been so smooth in the hot weather. …



New Delhi, 18 January 1948

… Well, now to life here. It has been absolutely excellent. Promises to be really perfect when I get settled in. At the moment I am deputising for Edward Willan, a young ex-ICS chap who leaves for the UK tomorrow to take his “country house” exam [part of the Foreign Office entry exam]. They all have to go through this, even those with 10 or 15 years’ service, before they can get a pukkah transfer to the Foreign Service. …


The work seems very bitty and is labelled as “Internal General”. A lot of individual cases and an odd bit of personal interview, which is about as much as I can say. … No. 6 Albuquerque Road [the address of the High Commission] is slap opposite Birla house, where Ganghi-ji now lives. I intend to give you a separate travelogue of my excursions into Birla House on the last night of the fast [this, if written, has not survived], but tension runs fairly high most of the time, and there are usually a few deputations across the street shouting “Hindu-Muslim zinderbad” [Long live Hindu-Muslim friendship] and occasionally “Gandhi murdabad” [Down with Gandhi], which usually produces a small riot. There has been nothing too bloody in New Delhi for some weeks, but during the last trouble in September, there were some pretty horrible killings.


The Willans, who asked me out to dinner, told me a rather good story about their old Muslim bearer. He was very old and doddery, and used to potter off every morning to fetch the dog’s meat. One day he came back empty-handed and, when reproached, said: “I am sorry, Memsahib, but they killed the butcher before I got there. I was just too late.” “Who?” “The Sikhs. I got there and there was a large crowd cutting the Muslims to pieces. A very old Sikh turned round to me and said ‘Hey, aren’t you a Muslim? I ought to kill you, but you are an old man and I am an old man, so what’s the use? Buzz off quickly before the others notice you!’”


Most of the Europeans’ houses were jammed to capacity with refugees. Shone [High Commissioner] and Selby sat up all night with two pistols and twelve rounds to protect the 80-odd Muslims and families crammed onto the verandah.


Gandhi’s fast [in favour of good communal relations] has had an amazing effect. Things are much easier now and Muslims can walk about by day with impunity. However, there is a hot-headed minority who are headed by more irresponsible men who are still clamouring for war, although much more discreetly than before. …


I have been gradually meeting people, so that what was a bit of a vacuum promises to become rather over-crowded. In fact, when my cards are printed and distributed by the office, I will get asked to all those do’s that go on all the time, which will become a bit of an effort. However, it should be amusing at first.


In one way, I am not sure I want to move out of this hostel. It is sniffy, but easy-going. The food is not good, but I reckon I can make up diet deficiencies when I go out. At the moment, although I’m in the usual brick hut as small as your bedroom at Vectis [Isle of Wight], I am absolutely revelling in the attentions of old Ganga Ram, my bearer. He has been in regimental service since before ’14 and of course regrets the old days. Everything is absolutely ship-shape, and shoe leather quite unrecognisable in its brilliance. I shall have to make a real effort when I get home again! The adjoining huts, which form three sides of a square, are filled mostly with Indians and partly by Quakers of the Friends Ambulance Unit that has done very good work in the Punjab.


I find I can chat quite freely with all and sundry and, as far as following Urdu goes, I surprise myself! I can follow the drift of Jawaharlal Nehru’s and Gandhi’s speeches quite easily. Indians as a whole seem to be remarkably friendly, and in spite of what happened, fully satisfied with the change. It has come about too suddenly for anyone to comprehend. There seems to be a fairly authoritative impression that India had absolutely no intention of accepting Dominion status until Mountbatten rushed them into it [between 1947 and 1950, India was a Dominion within the British Empire (Commonwealth from 1949)]. I feel that if only we can avoid war between the two Dominions, and they remain within the Empire for the next two years, a really great future may be ahead of them to, of course, our advantage and I believe the advantage of the whole world. …



New Delhi, 24 January 1948

… Today I churned through my work with great skill and speed – we knock off at 12.30 on Saturdays. It was a magnificent day. The really cold snap has passed and the air is like wine – a world of blue shadows and gold moonlight. Before breakfast I walked across to Looli’s Park and climbed to the roof of Looli’s tomb, an old 15th century tomb. Although it is pre-Mughal, I think, and they had not yet got round to constructing domes like this [drawing of onion dome] but only like this [drawing of straight-sided dome], it is very lovely, the sun making the blue tiles inside the dome with their beautiful Arabic letters gleam like turquoise. The foreground was the park, covered with dew and dazzling early morning sun. Lovely green trees and grass, with some cheery green parakeets rudely squawking. …


[After tea] I thought I would pay a visit to Humayun’s tomb, one of the loveliest here, and lying about three miles out. There is a full moon, so I set out at about six, after dark. Arrived, having cycled through the howling jackals along a deserted road, to hear a loud hubbub ahead. Then stopped by a Mahratta sentry and asked for pass. Explanation was that the tomb had become a refugee camp.


After a lot of friendly back-chat, they almost insisted that I went in. Entering the outer courtyard which encloses a park of about 10 acres round the tomb, I was confronted by a mess of tents, scrambling babies, guttering butties [small oil lamps], shouting char-wallahs [tea-sellers] and semi-darkness teeming with humanity – particularly in the raw. Over all smiled the really lovely dome of Humayun, gleaming in the moonlight. I strolled around, rather self-consciously, but ignored completely by the crowd until a rather better-dressed chap with a woolly Mussulman Astrakhan hat on came up to me. I talked English at first as I was a bit chary of the news getting round to any Government of India official that an Urdu-speaking Englishman was nosing around, but as he hardly spoke any we soon got speaking in Urdu.  He took me up to the top of the tomb and we surveyed the crowd – 8,808 of them, he said, all Muslim refugees from the Delhi area waiting to go to Pakistan. He himself was a soldier in a GPT [General Purposes Transport] Company in Hyderabad (Deccan) on a month’s leave, trying to contact his relations in Pindi. Couldn’t get any further than here. Expressed the opinion that the whole business was a put-up job by Nehru and Jinnah. He had Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs in his unit and they all got on all right.


Another chap came up. He had been a policeman in Delhi. Thirty of his friends are in Delhi jail for opening fire on a mob under orders (so he said, of course). The remainder of the Muslim force had fled to here. He was all for war. “Two swords cannot sit in one scabbard.”  He said that he trusted Gandhi and Nehru, but not Patel [leading figure in the Congress party] or the Sikhs. A few days before, a prominent Congressman had exhorted them to return to their houses in Delhi. Some went. One returned the same day. Two Sikhs had hit him over the head and taken his ring off his finger.


So I have cycled back full of thought and appetite. The latter satiated, I now give the former full rein. Enclosed by the way is a little coloured trinket which may do much to show how the face of Imperial Delhi has changed.  It was pinned onto my lapel by a little Sikh refugee boy who asked for an anna in Connaught Circus. It is Subhas Chandra Bose, whose memory is now revered as a national hero – the chap who formed the Indian National Army [to fight with the Japanese against the British]. …



New Delhi 3 February 1948

… I may say that Gandhi’s death has affected me and most people of any race as much as any other event I have known. It seems ridiculous to be sentimental about it, but as I thought of the good old man on Saturday and his calm fatherly kindness and saw all the Indians around looking as though they had really lost a father – “Bapu” [father] as they called him – I found my eyes getting watery. People who had laughed and joked about “the old man” or even “the old fool” the week before now with grey downcast faces – dazed by the suddenness of his disappearance from our world – my genial Sikh friend, my critical Mahratta communist. These things were in their way more moving than the funeral itself. It is about impossible to describe this, which was, in a different way, quite awe-inspiring. If you know New Delhi, it would be still London to visualise. The wide boulevards and horizon-wide lawns with their vast, useless, imposing memorials, peopled for 15 years by a handful of sahib-log [ruling class people] and servants, occasionally “thronged” by an official crowd of a few thousands, were alive and packed with a crowd of near a three-quarters of a million. For India, it was an amazingly orderly crowd. Hysteria grew slightly as the body passed and Congress cheer-leaders whipped up the crowd with “Bolo Mahatma Ganghi-ji ki” [praise be to Mahatma Gandhi]  – and “JAI !!!” [Victory] from several thousand throats – but apart from this the thousands waited in quiet dignity. This sort of attitude is again a complete development of the old man’s teaching.


The political repercussions have yet to be felt. Rioting has already started against the  Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Maharabha, both militant Hindu bodies. Nehru is now particularly alone in the Cabinet in the resolute opposition to war, but the old man’s death may have affected the others, particularly the fire-eating Patel who used to be a leader of the war faction, but who was the last man to talk to Gandhi-ji alive. The next few days will be critical.



New Delhi, 9 February 1948

… [My visiting cards] have just come back from the printers.  I hope that they will be issued soon enough for me to be invited to the Ceylon representative’s “do” to celebrate the Independence of Ceylon. Until these cards are printed and distributed by the Office one does not get invited to any of these functions. So far I have actually been invited to the Mountbattens’ next “At Home”, but this has now been cancelled because of the death hartal [general strike following the death of Gandhi]. The only shortcoming of the official Indian tamashas [celebrations] is that they are all “dry”. Although the proposed Prohibition law has not yet been introduced, it is official policy to practise tee-totalism, which amounts to not being able to stand your guests drinks. However, as the Diplomatic Corps get liquor tax-free, a bottle of English gin costs about five rupees, whereas the tomato juice cocktails which are served at the official Indian receptions cost them quite as much, if not more. …


[I was reminded recently of] two incidents in my life when I felt that you had failed to believe me. One was when you came across a letter you had written me at school which I had re-sealed in its own envelope. I had done it on an idle whim as the envelope was practically undamaged after I’d opened it.  But I never felt that you really believed that I had opened it and read it!


The other occasion was a much earlier one of which I was reminded the other day while lying in bed, gazing at the white-washed ceiling. When I was at Nasirabad, I had an air-gun with which I used to propel pellets through the ceiling cloth. Having been rebuked about this and ceased the practice, I noticed a fresh set of holes, which must have been caused either by an insect or by one of the servants using the gun surreptitiously. Consequently, I pointed out their existence to Mummy in order to forestall an accusation, and rigorously remarked that they might have been caused by an air-gun. I well remember the look of not altogether complete acceptance of my story on Mummy’s face!



New Delhi, 21 February 1948

… I am leaving next week for 10 days to go to Jaipur-Ajmer-Sodapur-Bundi-Kotah-Jaipur-home. Duties are to contact as many British as possible and list their particulars etc. … I also intend to fit in a call on the Messroom in Nasirabad.  … The other great piece of luck is old Shinde [Fateh Shinde, his old Army friend from the War] suddenly turning up here unexpectedly, having had my letter forwarded to his home. He is now a Regular and is Staff Captain of his Brigade which includes Napiers [regiment], not far from here. We went out to the Centre, which is now very dead. Only about eight officers and one Brigadier Cheeseman. Chottu, the old mess bearer, presented his usual effusive smiles and salaams to me and particularly to you. He was in the Mess at Nasirabad, probably only a chokra [boy servant] then. Life is absolutely brimming with joy.



Probably written from Delhi after his return from his trip, 10-16 March 1948

Here beginneth the report of J.G. Taylor. … The paper I have used I have collected en route to give local colour [the letter is written on three separate sheets of note paper, headed The Guest House Jaipur; State Hotel Jodhpur; and The Principal, Mayo College, Ajmer].


After feverish last minute preparations, I set off on the first leg of my journey, to Jaipur on the morning of Thursday the 26th, early enough to see the few remaining sahib-log of Delhi exercising themselves, their dogs and their horses before breakfast. After admiring the birds – peacocks, parrots etc. – that were hopping around the car in the early morning sun, I took over the wheel.


An interesting drive of 250 miles which was quite uneventful. Every half hour or so I changed places with Ram Chandra, the taciturn but efficient driver, and we ate a few biscuits. After winding through a range of jagged hills near Alwar, we came out into the semi-desert county of North Jaipur. Frequent strings of camels and bullocks which fortunately were startled sufficiently by our approach to remove themselves from the narrow metalled strip of road to the side, so that we could continue without losing speed. The track is just wide enough for one vehicle, so that if one has to move onto the loose sand that flanks it the speed drops from a steady 50 down to 15.


One of the first noticeable things after crossing the Jaipur boundary was the intermingling of Hindus and Muslims. Although Alwar State was the scene of some of the bloodiest massacres of Muslims, Jaipur has been almost without incident. This is due to the vigilance and impartiality of the powers in the state. Alwar himself [the maharaja], who is a youngster, has recently been “detained” by the Government and prevented from entering his state. This was because the situation had become so out-of-hand.

Pressing on to Jaipur, we arrived at an old walled city with a large palace-cum-fort surmounting it. “this is Jaipur,” said Ram Chandra. It didn’t seem very familiar from photos and, when having entered through the narrow archway and after a few hundred yards passed out into open country, I felt like the old Shell advert “That’s Jaipur that was”. However, Ram Chandra, having summoned a local with his usual curios form of request “Eh, bhai sahib” (Hey, Sir brother!), we discovered that this was Amber, the old capital, and that Jaipur was a couple of miles on. Like so many Indian states, it had shed its previous capitals because of the constantly shifting sources of water. Jaipur itself was really lovely. The old city, which dates mainly from the 17th century, I believe, was one of the earliest examples of town planning, so it is transsected by wide streets. The new areas, which are almost as extensive as New Delhi, are beautifully laid out and luxuriantly planted.


After the inevitable amount of casting about, we found the state guest house and drew up dirty but not too tired at 3 p.m. Greeted by Ryman, an ex-regular soldier, professional soccer player (Portsmouth) and generally a good type who was running the Guest House, and discovered that we were to be State Guests – this due to a contact between John Shattock, one of our staff, ex-Indian Civil Service, and on old colleague, Sir V.T. Krishnamachari, now P.M. of the State. …


(Continued on 17 March 1948)


I was told by Ryman just after I had arrived that the polo was due to start at 4.30 and would I care to go. It was the final of the States Kotah cup and all the survivors [of the princely states] who still play the game were there. Abhay Singh [Maharaja] of Jodhpur, Hanwant [son of Abhay], Jaipur himself, etc. The polo ground consisted of an enormous area of faultless green English turf, which looked pleasantly incongruous against the dry curtain of jagged brown Rajputana hills which surround Jaipur. A state car was put at my disposal and I spent the rest of the evening carrying out my very convivial duty of scenting out Europeans. … I had time for very little sight-seeing beyond driving through the colourful, clean and well-laid out bazaars.


The people seemed pretty contented and loyal to the regime in spite of the usual large influx of Hindu and Sikh refugees from Punjab and Sind. Tremendous amount of bowing and scraping goes on. It seems vaguely incongruous to see the well-dressed gatherings at the polo ground with their American suits and cars still employing the rugger-tackle greeting when they encounter someone of the Royal Blood. Here, the form seems to be that the tacklee (i.e. the royal One) has to intercept the descending hands of the tackler before they reach the knee. A very tricky and agile operation. I couldn’t help wondering whether say Jaipur himself failed to catch the wrists of his Prime Minister suppliant, this latter rather distinguished-looking ICS [Indian Civil Service] Indian would really prostrate himself on the Turf. Another rather alarming manifestation of loyalty was when my State driver saw one of the ADCs pursuing him in another car. He quitted the wheel with both hands to perform a double “Ram ram” salutation. Nerve-wracking.


I went round with the Rymans to Abhay Singh’s on the second night. I met Abhay in the war. He was ADC to [General Sir George] Gifford, is about 45, an Indian Army regular, a nice chap and a bastard if you see what I mean. His father was the ruler of Jodhpur who lived faithfully with his mother for about 25 years, but omitted to marry her out of respect for his first dead wife. Abhay’s wife’s dead and he has three large children. The boys were away at the Chiefs’ College in Ajmer, but the youngest, a very pretty little girl of 16, called curiously Jill, was there. She was just off to Switzerland to be finished.

When we had been there about 20 minutes, there was a stir at the door and the Suri’s great-great (to the power of infinity) grandson walked in – H.H. [His Highness].  He seemed a nice sort of King and quite kingly. I definitely felt the aura of sunshine. I believe that he was chosen from a rather remote branch of the line to succeed the Suri dynasty’s line, but he is certainly a good choice [the 16th century Suri dynasty preceded the Moghuls]. Aged about 35, good-looking, very shrewd, fairly charming and very fit from his polo, notwithstanding slight signs of late nights around the eyes. …



Bundi, 3 March 1948 [this letter was written from Bundi, whereas the account above seems to have been written partly after his return to Delhi)

I am now in Bundi State, very exhausted after ceaseless travelling in the old office Wolseley 12, but have had a really good time notwithstanding.


Stayed a couple of nights with McCanlis [headmaster of Mayo College] in Ajmer and had a day’s shooting out beyond Nasirabad on the Neemuch road. I’ll tell you all about it in detail, but it was great fun. I bagged five duck, which was quite pleasing – two with one barrel! The shikari [professional guide or hunter] remembered all the Raj Rif officers and his father had a chitty [reference] from Daddy! …


These parts seem quite cut off from the outside world. This guest house – quite tiny – is the last word in comfort, but a panther removed three donkeys from the garden a week ago.



New Delhi, 16 March 1948

… Did I tell you about the inauguration of an office Riding Club? I am the President or Chairman or whatever the figurehead is called, and am being put through my paces on our one and only horse (so far) by a clerk who is an ex-Major in the Rifles Brigade – a regular too, although an ex-ranker. We have several ex-officers in the rather anomalous situation of being junior not only to me but alas to some of the female executive officers. Anyhow, I have avoided mishap so far and derived much enjoyment and stiffness. O’Collins, my instructor, keeps telling me to make him canter, to which I reply “he won’t”. I feel rather like Lexy [Walford, old army friend] when the ski instructor told him that he would find it easier if he waxed his skis, to which he replied “But that would obviously make me go faster. My main preoccupation is to go slower!” …



New Delhi, 17 March 1948

I have secured myself a place in the sun on our spacious verandah. Heavenly. About three feet away at the top of the steps are two baby Chinese orange trees. The oranges are nearly ripe and fully grown – none bigger than a large marble. Birds are clucking – sorry, cheeping – and flying in and out of the bamboo verandah chinks over my head. Above and around is the speckled blue sky, washed and scrubbed by the recent rains, with a few lazy, graceful kites wheeling round, almost too high to see.  And then the usual miscellaneous noises. Chickens, goats, a few children, a high-pitched bazaar voice berating its husband. Above all cruises the plane from England. …


The flowers have to be seen to be believed.  Quite improbable. Massed everywhere in their slashes of colour, throwing out solid waves of scent to catch you as you cycle down the street.



New Delhi, 25 March 1948

I got back from Agra this afternoon … I have had a grand two days but am jolly glad to be back. This place is getting just like home, but I fear a move is in the offing. I can hardly keep away from work, it is all so interesting nowadays and I am itching to knock off my official impressions of my tour to Agra.


On Tuesday the 30th, I start off again on my trip to Mussoorie and Dehra Dun. Life is really marvellous – so perfect that I feel a bump must be coming soon. No one has a right to be so comfortable and contented in these lean and harassed days. Peter May [with whom he was temporarily lodging] makes an excellent dig mate, Ambrose [Peter’s servant] goes from strength to strength of Jeeves-like efficiency, and my circle of acquaintanceship with pleasant and interesting people expands. Activities last week included a moonlight picnic at Feroz Shah Kotla’s tomb which was given by Anne Layard, old Layard, our Counsellor’s daughter. The party was more or less organised by her boss who is Frank Hodgkinson!! [Presumably a connection of John Hodgkinson, John’s aunt Madge’s third husband.] He was doing some temporary job connected with films out here and was pretty taken aback when I explained who I was. …



Wheler Club, Meerut, Uttar Pradesh 5 April 1948.

I have been up to Mussoorie for two nights, where I shivered in hailstorms and felt dizzy with height; and pretty effectively hotted up in my drives across the plains from Meerut to Saharanpur. Altogether, I am really pleased to be heading back to the steady heat of Delhi.


Mussoorie was thoroughly depressing apart from the magnificent views. There was absolutely nothing to recommend the place. It was smelly and dirty. There were no Europeans under 60; nothing to drink (it’s gone dry); and a legacy of depression from the violent communal disturbances in October when all the Muslims were pushed out. Dehra Dun was better, although a bit grim. Meerut was pleasant. I spent a night here coming through and there is a very sumptuous club here with excellent food. They are trying hard to get Indians to join but they simply won’t take to club life in general at all [this changed later and the club is still going strong]. A great pity. The Army, which is of course still very anglicised, has to go much more carefully as their pay (the officers) has been cut by about a third.






There has been almost no trouble here, due to the efficiency of the local administration and, unlike most places I have visited, the cantonment maintains an attractive and well-kept appearance.



This place is probably unique in that its European population has remained largely static since the transfer of power. The thirty-odd Europeans are nearly all members of the Imperial Tobacco Company’s factory. There had been communal rioting in the area but the civil power had handled the situation well. Europeans to whom I spoke said that local Indians, both official and private, had become much more friendly since 15 August [Independence day].


The manager of the tobacco factory was exercised over future living conditions for Europeans in Saharanpur and other similar large desolate places. Beef had already disappeared from the menu. If alcohol followed due to prohibition, British businessmen would not be prepared to work in India, to the detriment of the UK’s invisible export balance.


Dehra Dun and Mussoorie

This area has deteriorated considerably. The Muslim population has fled or been exterminated and the place is overcrowded with refugees. The Sikh community are asserting themselves vigorously both in Dehra and in Mussoorie and are incurring the dislike not only of the Europeans but also of the Hindu community.


There is a very large Anglo-Indian [mixed race] and Domiciled European [born in India of European parents] community in this area. I found the same situation pertained here as in the other places I visited.  The upper class Europeans all stated that they had had nothing but enhanced civility and friendliness from the Indian population since 15 August. Those people who occupy more subordinate posts, however, constantly refer to insults and slights that they have received from servants and Indian students. This may be due to the fact that this social level mingles more completely with Indians in its daily life. A more probable explanation, I believe, is that these A.I.s and D.E.s still hold views on society which were current in Kipling’s day. Aggressively imperialist and violently colour-conscious, they have found it hard to modify their attitude since 15 August and merit therefore the inevitable rebuffs. I heard for the first time the word “niggers” used of Indians by poor class domiciled Europeans in Mussoorie. Many individuals seem very upset by the cases of assault on Europeans in Calcutta on Holi day.



New Delhi, 11 April 1948

The doors are shut to keep out that wave of heat which would engulf me if I went out onto the verandah. The room is in penumbra. The punkah churns round slowly. My back stings where I cooked it too long by the Club pool this morning. The last post-prandial tastes of our magnificent curry are subsiding into a steady internal demand for tea, and I’m really incredibly happy and satisfied with this idle and cloud-cuckoo life. When I sit back and contemplate the suddenness with which I have found myself in this most perfect of careers, I wonder why it had fallen to me, of all lucky people, to have yet another wave of luck.


Well, the work is perfect. Masses to do. I have just my 20-page tour report on the Dehra Dun – Mussoorie trip and will have to go in early to catch up with my other chores. The Office has been completely reorganised and some signs of a clear pattern are gradually emerging after months of growth on an ad hoc basis. We are being split into three Divisions with a Counsellor in charge of each. I am in the Consular one. … I don’t know whether I will hold onto my job, but it is extremely interesting and good training. …

And now for the last of two momentous days. On return from Meerut, I found a card of some age asking me “to a small party at Government House given by Patricia Brabourne and Pamela Mountbatten [Mountbatten’s two daughters]. Remember the epithet “small”. I rang up the ADC immediately and said I would come and expedited the arrival of my new white D.J. and black alpaca pants.


John and Elizabeth Hopper, who are both extremely nice (aged 19 and 17 respectively, but being rather precociously brought up look 25 and 21), said they would shepherd me, so I went to their house at 9.15 sharp. We were picked up by “Betty Jo Atkins” (!!) in her enormous American car. She is aged 17, looks 19 and is the daughter of one of the American First Secretaries. Round and blonde and talks like an American film comedienne. Very nice.


Drove to Government House back entrance, where there were several cars, floodlights and a sprinkling of well-armed police lurking in the shadows. Went through the gate into a scene of the most breath-taking beauty. A large open pool with fountains playing on it, a wide lawn with a canvas dance floor, the Royal Indian Navy band in the background and the most heavenly flower-beds and blossoming bougainvillea, gladioli, jacaranda and other coloured creepers floodlit or studded with coloured lights.


About 150 guests (“small party”), including a frightened contingent of Indian girls from Lady Hardinge College, of which Her Excellency is Patroness. All the Government House staff are a very pleasant crowd – two young Indian ADCs, Gaekwar of Baroda and another Prince they called Rudi, Jim Scott, a Guardee, John Lascelles, ditto, and various other bodies. We were lined up in due course and, in an air of hushed expectancy, two smartly dressed ADCs marched smartly through the garden gate, succeeded by Their Exes. The official handshake and then the party began.


I must just mention again the splendour of the scene. If one had seen it in a Hollywood film, one would have said “How improbable!” After all the bowing and curtsying were over, the dance began. I got Jim Scott to introduce me to some of the Indian girls and did my stuff there. Then I began to enjoy myself with others. There were only about a dozen European girls present. One was Princesse Yolande de Ligne, who is the daughter of the Belgian Ambassador. Her appearance lives up to her romantic name and she is very beautiful with her dark hair, grey eyes and dazzling smile. A bit dumb withal. Another female I took to be one of the cockney telephone girls of Government House. After a bit I discovered she was Alison Mackay, daughter of the Australian High Commissioner Sir Iven Mackay. We then had a series of Paul Jones, in which their Exes joined with great gusto. I danced with Pamela Mountbatten, who has a nice but not lovely face and is rather pleasantly quiet compared to her elder sister Patricia Brabourne, who is as glamorous as her mother must have been in youth. (Is this getting rather like the Tatler? Sorry!)


The atmosphere was getting considerably more easy when I got a severe jolt. Jim Scott sidled up to me and said “Will you dance with Her Ex?” Fortunately it was a foxtrot and I marched up to the “Royal” group and made my bow. In spite of acute internal panic, it went off rather well. Conversation rattled along nineteen to the dozen and we discussed various matters such as the badness of some of Lutyens’ architecture. When it was over, I escorted her back to her chair and, as no-one else was there and small-talked until, just when I began to think that something had gone awry, His Ex came up with another “victim” for the next dance.


A good dinner on the lawn. Soon after twelve, Their Exes disappeared looking as though they had enjoyed themselves, and the Exes’ daughters (who, incidentally, have to curtsy to the parents more punctiliously than anyone else) and the guests really got down to it.  About 1 o’clock, a bathe was suggested, so some of us trotted off, changed and slipped into the adjoining pool. It was absolutely heavenly. The water was warmer than the air and I paddled about for three-quarters of an hour. Lying on one’s back, one could see the stars staring out of the black sky while the coloured fountains played as a framework.

Some of us thought we would take the ADCs down a peg. John Hopper chased one round and he slipped and was limping a bit for the rest of the evening. He had broken his ankle. Drastic! Then more dancing and a second bathe and round about 3 a.m. a move to go. “What about some breakfast?” said the hostesses. So we sat down and had bacon and eggs. Tasted absolutely marvellous. J. Jefferson Jones III (he really calls himself this), an aristocratic U.S. second secretary with sandy eyebrows and a southern drawl, drove me home and I tumbled into bed at 4 a.m.


The next night the Hoppers gave a party, which was also super. Only about 20 people this time – all the nicer ones of the night before. We had supper in their lovely garden, which was illuminated with Diwali lights, and then drove to Merida’s* [well-known Indian restaurant] in Old Delhi, where we danced till 1.30 a.m. …


* Derek Rushworth, John’s old friend and fellow officer from his wartime stint in Delhi, recalled that during the war he and John instituted a regular Saturday evening meal in an Indian restaurant. To begin with, the lorry taking the men used to go to Delmonico (also well-known and basically serving western food), but Derek and John started going to Merida's, for purely Indian food in the company of half a dozen Indian officers from the regiment.



New Delhi 15 April 1948

… I feel as fit as I can remember being and am positively looking forward to the hot weather as one looks forward to a test of endurance when you are confident in your own strength and eager to test it. Incidentally, I had a test or two when I had slight tummy upsets over the past six months and the quack says that I am absolutely clear of the old thing: I am no more likely to get anything than the next man, except by fussing over it. Psychological in fact.  If fact he was dead right, as I know.  However (as no doubt Daddy does), when someone tells me that I have a purely mental ailment, I feel like turning round, passing wind, and saying “Don’t worry, old boy, no smell. Purely a psychological fart”. [this passage has a yellow line along the margin and there is a note to say that the rude joke is for his father to read out]. …


Thank you very much for the photographs of the various babes – they all look remarkably similar and well-nourished. I scatter them round my room among my wooden and ivory animals and firmly disclaim paternity when, as usually happens, the men after a party tramp through my room to use the WC.


Parties continue apace – large and small. Amongst the former was a reception given by the Burmese to welcome their new Ambassador, Sir Raung Gyee.  They seem a jolly if feckless race and put themselves out to give us a good time. One could not, however, avoid the ironical thought that the basis of the whisky and sandwiches was good honest sterling, wrung from the long-suffering British tax-payer – you, Sir and Madam!


These parties nearly all run to type. Often held on the Club lawns or on the lawns of a house in this weather, there are usually two or three hundred people. Everyone wears evening dress even if they begin at 7 p.m., and the scene is usually fairly gay with coloured lights setting off the saris, dresses and uniforms. I now know enough people to make it a matter of prior concern not to get buttonholed for too long by the bores, although remembering Harold Nicolson’s advice I usually allow these people a quota of my time. On the whole, one talks rather a lot of rot with few notable exceptions – which is surprising when you consider the reasonably high mental calibre of the people involved.  On the whole, the intelligent Americans seem less apprehensive of airing intelligent views than most.



New Delhi, 17 May 1948

… It is reaching a maximum of 110°  by day now, but the nights are still wonderfully cool and fresh and I feel as fit as a fiddle. I am riding, playing squash, swimming and dancing with great regularity. The office is full of fans and khus-khus [wetted screens of cloth and leaves]  and is beautifully cool, so the general effect is that one has no time to get hot and when I do brave the midday sun I find the enveloping warmth positively pleasant.


I got a grand strawberry the other day. Elizabeth Hopper said “I hear you’ve done a very successful tour report. They say how useful it is to have someone young and energetic with an open mind who can speak the language and collect new aspects of problems!”  Her informant was Jim Scott, one of H.E.’s [Mountbatten’s] ADCs who must have seen the report in one of its official channels. It was a very meagre report really, but it sounded good.



New Delhi, 18 June 1948


It’s bad now. Doesn’t drop below the 90°s at night. It is 10 p.m. and I am sitting in my room under the punkah. This paper is warm and dry to the touch like a newspaper that has been held in front of the fire. The woodwork of the desk is hot, the iron of the bedstead uncomfortably so. I am dressed in my Jap P.W. walking out dress – a smart garment called a fandoshi. It consists of a piece of cotton 6” x 2 ½ feet with a piece of tape across the end, like this:




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The tape is passed round the stomach and the rest through the fork. The whole provides a cool hygienic form of dress which the dhobi can’t spoil – and if he does, it only costs 6d. …


New Delhi, 28 June 1948

… “D” Day has come and gone. I don’t know whether you have heard all the rumours about 15th June – they reached The Times, I think. There began to be erratic though persistent talk that trouble was coming. It was often said to be anti-Sikh or anti-Mussulman, sometimes anti-Hindu Mahasabha [right-wing Hindu grouping], and occasionally anti-Christian. It was really quite extraordinary. No-one had anything solid to go on. The Government increased the general uncertainty by stoutly denying that there was anything in these rumours and then almost in the same breath saying that they were fully prepared for all eventualities.


Toyne [High Commission colleague] went up to the East Punjab to make a recce and found everything very normal. On the day, Delhi was well picketed with troops and police and not a thing happened anywhere. It was finally decided that the whole thing was a deliberate attempt by the Communists to create alarm and despondency – they being about the only people out here likely to gain from a social upheaval. …


Have I told you about our new P.G., Penny? Some friends of Peter’s went off to the UK for six months’ leave and left him their bull terrier bitch to look after. Of course by persistent hooging [sic] she has taken to me and is a welly sweet girlie. She is only a year old and very amiable and foolish. So far from being a burglar alarm as we had hoped, she would hardly cock an ear at a gang of marauders. We take her for walks in the horticultural gardens which are adjacent to the bungalow and try and coax her into the geysers and pools formed by the watering points. At first she was water-shy, but now makes a dash for the filthiest puddle in sight and immerses herself like a buffalo up to the snout. This usually involves a bath with soap when she gets home, occasioning a very bullet head, drooping tail and rolling eyes.



1 July 1948

… Peter May has been a good companion. A very keen Gunner officer who was [taken by the Japanese] in Singapore in 1942. He had an incredible 3 ½ years commanding a camp of British, Dutch, Yanks, Merchant seamen, Australians, and when finally released realised that his career as a Regular officer was finished. He saw, without bitterness, that he and his kind, without battle experience, were useless to the new army and that his only prospects were a rather hack regimental life ending up with command of a Depôt, perhaps. So he chucked his hand in and became a bureaucrat, like me, at the age of 32.


His stories of the camp, which came out bit by bit, are quite fascinating. Not so much the physical side – the eating of grass, bats, rats etc., and the hardships – but the psychological.  His theory was that it is essential for the ordinary Englishman to keep up his civilised customs as far as possible. Each group under his command kept up their service customs, including the Merchant seaman who worked to bells etc.


Although they worked as coolies with loincloths and slept on the ground, they made every effort to eat with utensils (old tins, etc.) and to maintain a civilised front. Once this broke down, complete anarchy would supervene. It happened in an adjacent camp where the officers lost control, 400 out of 600 died, whereas in his camp only 50 men were lost. He found that the city-dwellers – the “sharp” cockneys – adapted themselves more skilfully to this battle for survival than the East Anglian country bumpkins.


An amusing story of a great burly Australian tough who abused one of the RAMC doctors – a young fellow. Peter had him up and harangued him. He pointed out that the Aussie was old enough to be the doctor’s father – or his own – and he ought to realise that the doctor was doing his best – and so on in the same vein.  Suddenly, the Aussie’s sulky expression broke up and, with tears in his eyes, he rushed forward and grabbed the doctor’s hand – “I’m sorry, Doc, Put it there” – and rushed out with tears streaming down his face!



15 August 1948


‘Twas a blithe mornynge in Aprille, lacking seven hours of the clock when John Grigor sped towards the Willingdon Airport. Rustic New Delhi was bathed in its matitudinal calm and the sonorous clanging of 12,000 lavatory chains from the houses of the rising citizens on either side reverberated like the death knell of the British Raj, which had stuck it out for 200 years only using thunderboxes.


Not all was lost, however. Lounging against the padded resiliences of a large Humber, we find this latter-day scion of the United Kingdom’s interests in India. Lean and forceful, his chin sunk pensively into his concave chest, it is clear that this compelling young man is a fit arbiter of Britain’s overseas fortunes and that this revival of hope justifies our moving into the first person.


The airport is only 850 yards from our bungalow, so the word “sped” in connection with the car is part of the tint in the purple passage you have just swallowed.


In the large modern reception house at the airport the usual miscellaneous masses swarmed – char-wallahs and coolies, squawking infants and stout Hindu mothers. The excitement of the prospective flight soon merged into the frustration typical of Indian journeys. I found that the plane would not start for an hour in any case, and that there was some doubt about its being able to land at Srinagar, where the airfield was not macadamised and had become waterlogged by recent rain. They would not know whether they would go on until they reached Jammu, just this side of the range of mountains which isolates this side of the Vale of Kashmir from the plains. Eventually I decided to risk it and off we went.


The other occupants of the plane were all officers on their way up to the “War”. The pilot was, however, was an English employee of the Indian company and strolled back once or twice to have a chat. We landed once at a hot airfield near Amritsar, where there was a sandstorm blowing, to pick up mails, and I was glad when we were up again. From here to Jammu the flight was a dog-leg as it is necessary to avoid crossing the Pakistan border. A few minutes later the pilot strolled down the corridor and murmured into my ear “Don’t look now, but we’re over Pakistan. I can never be bothered with this stupid detour. Don’t let the others know and tell me if you see any fighters.” This roused me from the torpor into which I had been sunk hitherto and I had a good look round. From 6,000 feet Pakistan looked as brown and uninteresting as the plains of India.


Soon the foothills swam into view in the heat haze and in the distance I caught the flash and glimmer of snow peaks in the bright sun. The plane dipped and lurched and dropped its left wing. Over the end of it I saw the tents and huts of a large Army base and the usual activity of planes and lorries around a Service air-strip. One more chukker round and the trees and huts were flashing past as we drove into the air-strip.


We climbed out into the hot, heavy air of midday and everyone else was surrounded by saluting orderlies or back-slapping brother officers. Madrassi Sappers and Miners, looking like African negroes, were sweating at improving the airstrip. I noticed the carcases of three fighters that had overshot or missed the airstrip and had “pranged”. They might have been winged by the enemy’s ground fire, which has done quite a bit of damage.


The immediate problem was what to do with my own civilian body in the midst of all this military might. I had in my pockets letters addressed to the G.O.C. and another senior officer of JAKFORCE (Jammu and Kashmir Force), also a letter from the Government of India, requesting and requiring every assistance for one J.G.T. Eventually I begged a lift off a friendly-looking staff officer who was also bound for H.Q.  I hoisted my bag into the back of his Jeep and we bounced off, threading our way through bulldozers and repair squads over the rough, hard ground.


It seemed as though I had taken a jump in time as well as space – back to the days of the war. This was a completely different world from the upholstered unconcern of Delhi. Nothing but military vehicles, military notices and huts; and troops everywhere in their service jungle green. About a mile from the airstrip we bumped into the grounds of a country house. It was of course completely transformed by wireless aerials and tents and the constant bustle of despatch riders outside indicated that it was an important HQ. I was introduced to the General’s ADC, a young, rather unwarlike looking Sikh who rapidly fixed me up with a room. I was struck by the extreme efficiency of all ranks, and an odd sense of familiarity tempered with strangeness. This former was accounted for by the presence of so many familiar looking uniforms and faces – I frequently saw the shoulder titles of the Raj Rif. The sense of strangeness was probably due to the complete absence of a British face and the knowledge that this large-scale Indian Army operation was being conducted by Indians from the G.O.C. down to the men.


By the by I met the G.O.C. We sat in a small room where about six officers messed. The food was of course all Indian and simple but well-cooked. Not much different from the men’s food in days of old, in fact. After our dhal and veg curry we all got stuck into a bowl of apples. Conversation was fairly easy. A General’s mess is tempered by the character of the Great Man (as I know from bitter experience!) Kalwant Singh or “Kalu” as they all call him is a fat, shortish Sikh. Jovial, very Sandhurst, as most of the modern senior Indian officers are, but pretty self-centred. The others all hung on his words rather more keenly than interest warranted – not a healthy sign. He talked a bit abiout his past jobs (indicating thereby his meteoric rise in promotion). As some great pandit once said: “There is nothing so interesting as another man’s job; so dull as his career.”


His bear garden were interesting. He had a young Colonel, General Staff (I think), Satarawala, a Parsee. Can’t have been a day older than 33; probably a good deal younger. Good-looking and pretty bright, but rather immature. There was another Sikh, a Brigadier who was one of the nicer type – very large, quiet and unassuming and, one felt instinctively, not nearly as interested in Joe Soap (himself!) as Kalwant. After a bit we decided that Kalwant had met that senior scion of the well-known Indian Army family [i.e. John’s father]. What was the characteristic that pinned this? Amongst all JMGT’s multifarious talents, it was his ability to play tennis with either hand!! (or should I say his inability to play a backhand stroke). Yes, he thought he remembered you from Ajmer days. He was Recruiting Officer at the time, probably a Captain.


I had to watch my conversation step at times. They tried to draw me in about the war. At the time, I felt India’s case was a good deal weaker than I feel now, and I had to be guarded. They were all pretty indignant about the tendency of third parties to question the evidence of Pakistan’s participation. Many of them had fought in the old frontier scraps and were well able to tell the difference between a tribal force and one using MMGs [medium machine guns], 3-inch mortars, wireless sets and even 25-pounders.


The day passed slowly but pleasantly. I had a “gossal” [bath] under a tap – the only kind available – and made my preparations for the morrow. If the airstrip was still out of commission at Srinagar, I was to push on by road – a distance of about 180 miles, I believe, though only 50 as the crow flies. I rose early the next day, but only just in time to catch the General before he pushed off to visit one section of the battle. Then were the inevitable hutches which prevented me getting off before about 10.30 a.m. This meant a night on the road. The highest point on the route (9,000 feet) – the Banihal Pass – lay just above the Vale of Kashmir and hence near the journey’s end. It was closed after dark due to frequent landslips and avalanches of snow which lies thick at over 8,000 feet at this time of year. The road in general was so bad at this season that only one supply convoy travelled one way each day.


My companions, all Jeep-borne, were three I.O.R.s [Indian Other Ranks], a Madrassi driver and two Naiks [corporals] in the Provost [military police]. The two latter were being transferred to a post just the other side of the Banihal called Anantnag. We took a trailer which we stocked with petrol as the difficulties of supply limit all non-operational vehicles to one gallon per day on the other side of the Hills. I packed a large emergency ration of cold chapatis and sabzi [vegetable curry]. The chaps all carried airborne rifles or Stens (they all came originally from the Airborne Division).  The road was supposed to be 100% clear of hostile infiltration, but a few had broken through during the winter and everyone now travelled armed as a precaution. At last we were off, bowling up the foothills away from the already uncomfortably warm plains.





The Jeep bumped up the rough mountain and the air gradually became cleaner and cooler as the army road signs recorded our steady climb – 4.000 ft, 4,500 ft and so on. Every dozen miles, we passed a painfully lumbering convoy of three-tonners moving up to the front with supplies. As often as not there would be a squad, repairing the ravages of a landslide, and occasionally we would stop and chat with the crew of a lorry that had been stranded for 3 or 4 days and was awaiting a breakdown van. The troops were happily camping in the back and cooking their own meals from supplies collected off passing convoys. We did not average more than about 12 m.p.h. and after an hour or two out from Jammu the road started to tackle a really big ridge some 8,000 feet high. It zig-zagged backwards and forwards almost on top of itself and, although it was getting steadily cooler, I did not feel that we were making much headway. We took an hour to pass half a dozen lorries grinding up at 5 m.p.h. This involved cutting smartly in when opportunity offered, which was not frequently as the road was only designed for one-way traffic. The possibility of overshooting and finding ourselves about five miles back on the same road seemed to whet the appetite. I might add that five miles back was about 600 feet sheer below in the previous “zig”, and you will understand with what relief I stowed my cold curry and chapatis inside me at our first halt. This was a small hill village where I stood the boys a cup of char. The locals gathered round as everyone was curious to see a civilian and a sahib amongst all this militancy. No raiders had appeared in these parts since before Christmas, they said.


It began to be obvious that we would not cross the Banihal today.  The refrain “Through the Banihal pass to Vancouver” kept on running through my head for no apparent reason. However, I was not unduly worried. This Cook’s tour of the Indian Army was ample compensation for any delays. As the shadows lengthened, the views became really magnificent.  The dying sunshine caught the red leaves of some variety of local tree that stood beside the little tea-stall in the village. It reminded me of a Scottish or Welsh mountain ash in colour. Steep below us, the land fell away to a dark belt of pine, reflected across the valley by a similar belt stretching along the mountain-side. Through the spreading red fingers of this tree’s leaves, at an immeasurable distance, floated the panorama of snow peaks.


After our halt, we pressed on for a place called, I believe, Benali, the main staging-post on the road. We were now, rather pointlessly it seemed, plunging downhill mile after mile, losing the height that we had so laboriously gained. If it had been raining, I would have consoled myself with the soldierly philosophy of “Thank God I’m not a bloody cyclist”. But it wasn’t raining; it was heavenly except that the night airs were getting a bit chilly round the buttocks, which I may say were swathed only in shorts.


Soon we bumped over a Bailey bridge spanning one of the Himalayan torrents and the lights and fires of Benali flashed into view round a shoulder of the mountain. I drove straight to the Road Control Officer’s office and found two friendly and helpful chaps – one a Punjabi Captain, tall, fair and moustached with an English manner, and the other a little Goanese subaltern. They directed me to some huts where, they said, I would find a priestly compatriot spending the night. He was an R.C. father called Murphy on his way to re-open the Catholic school in Srinagar.


We were both bidden to dinner in their Mess.  There was a spare charpoy [string bed] in the hut, a tin basin and a candle. The other charpoy was presumably occupied by the Church Militant. I began to sort out my kit and sort out what I could in the way of warm clothing; when I left Delhi, I had not bargained for this mountain trip in selecting my wardrobe and Benali at 6,000 foot was pretty nippy. Suddenly someone announced that the padre was coming and I heard footsteps and Irish curses on the verandah, “Come here, Nemo, you young devil!” In walked a shaggy dog followed by a mobile tent of flannel which was topped by a cheery face – Fr. Murphy.


He made a very good companion. He had been out here for many years and his main vocation seemed to be moving from one frontier garrison to another. With the removal of British troops from the frontier, he had now been appointed in charge of the flock in Srinagar.


We talked of India, past and present, sitting in the dark on the verandah while Nemo interspersed barks at any troops who passed on the road below. Later, we walked through the village to the Mess. Now and again, men would leave their circles of quiet rumbling talk round glowing embers, or crawl out from the blankets below their trucks, and come up to us. They were Madrassi Christians – Catholics who wanted a friendly word with the priest and a blessing.


The “Mess” was a small hut with a table and two benches. There were four officers besides us, one or two of whom occasionally left the table to see to some complaint from troops passing through or to answer the phone. They were all very keen and had been there all winter, ice and snow. The Rations had failed to come through that day and we had a simple meal of char, dhal, apples and fried water-lily stalks. The latter sounded rather alarming, but were quite palatable – local produce, of course. We had the usual stories of Pakistani help to the “Azad” forces [from the Pakistani-administered part of Kashmir], and instances of British voices being heard on the tactical wireless sets: probably those of British educated Muslims of the Pak Army, but the stories were symptomatic of the general belief amongst Indians that Britain was backing Pakistan. I did my diplomatic best to discredit them, without, I fear, much inner conviction.

Extent of conversation between me and the Punjabi Captain:


“Who is your C.O.?”


“Oh, he’s Hairborne”



“Yes, a Sikh.”


And so to bed in a darkened camp area amongst the neighing of pack mules and the splash of the stream. The next morning’s convoy started for the Banihal at 6 a.m. and we were to go half an hour ahead – a pleasant thought for last minute contemplation before sleep.


I was up and dressed by 5.30 and stood outside the hut sniffing the wan, pale early light which filtered down the valley. Even to look at the snowfields 5,000 feet above, where we were to cross the pass, sent a shiver down my ill-clad body, driving the matitunal rumblings to a crescendo of protest. These distant voices, prophesying woe, were soon quelled by a hot, almost syrupy, cup of the inimitable Indian Army char and a chapatti. The arrival of the latter was the cue for Nemo’s entry, but his importunate sniffs were resisted.


I began to walk up the road to the katcher [temporary] barrack where my Jeep crew had spent the night. I was surrounded by the pleasantly nostalgic and romantic aspect of war - an Indian unit coming to life in the early morning: pungent blue smoke bearing aromas of stewed char, that persistent smell where two or three Indians are gathered together – the smell that would have been only too familiar to Pepys’ contemporaries in 5 o’clock London – but which we scornfully condemn as improper sanitary arrangements.


So much for smells. Sounds: the comforting splutter of great engines springing into action and the frustrating whirr of ironically named self-starters; the clank and clatter of weapons being cleaned; the subdued buzz of early morning conversation and orders; the soothing undertone of the nearby steam now over-scored by those curious bursts of retching sounds with which the Indian advertises his attention to the cleanliness of his face and mouth.


Up the road past the long stationary column of three-tonners to my waiting Jeep and away twisting up the mountain road, with the rocks and trees just sorting themselves out into distinctness in the growing light. The road got steadily worse and at times we had to move round great 10-ton rocks or hug the near or wrong side of the road, away from ominous cracks which presaged another landslide. At about 7,500 feet patches of dirty caked snow began to appear. Soon we reached a large cutting where the road was overhung with a lip of frozen snow a yard thick; a squad of Madrassis were still shovelling away the remains of this recent landslide.


We stopped to get warm. I was blue and pink; they were grey-blue. None of us had sufficiently thick clothes. We chased each other round a hut on a flat natural platform overlooking the valley and did P.T. The sun was now well up, but its welcome though only tepid golden light was striking the mountainside 500 feet above. About five miles away and 4,000 feet below we could see the black bugs of 3-tonners creeping out of Benali, nose to tail.


On with the journey. We reached 8,989 feet and the crest of the pass. The road swung round a sharp bend and into the mouth of an 80-yard tunnel. Icy water splashed from the roof. We hoisted the Jeep’s hood over our heads and made a dash for it, emitting shrill yells when a splash got through to our necks.


Out the other side, into the blessed sunshine, and then down and down into the warmer, soothing air, thawing us out. Round a bend and onto a straight stretch of about 50 yards perched on a ridge thrust out from the mountainside….and there it was!! We stopped the Jeep and jumped off, the better to gaze and drink it in. The Vale of Kashmir. We were surveying it from one end. The enclosing wall of mountains fell to Anantnag, where we dropped the two military police. We said good-bye with many warm hand-clasps, and the local boys produced some more char and chapatti, an enormous apple, and two eggs which they had hard-boiled on the spot and which I ate with my fingers.


Then down the last few miles to Srinagar.

[Any further instalments have not survived.]



Naini Tal, 5 September 1948

… I had a rotten go of sandfly fever, which was followed by a plague of boils and upset tummy. In fact, life was most depressing. I had decided to go off on leave but could not make up my mind where to go and had to postpone departure to allow the boils to clear. Eventually everyone said that I ought to push off to Naini Tal without more ado and the change of air would do the trick.


I left a very sticky and unpleasant Delhi with the prospect of a similarly uncomfortable train journey and had considerable misgivings. However, I have now been up here four days and am blooming in health. All the boils stopped and I am putting on weight and energy every day.


Everyone was extremely good. Alec Symon turned up trumps and said I was to get right away for at least a month and enjoy myself and Peter May practically packed my bags and kicked me out of Delhi. Brigadier and Mrs Loring, our Military Attaché, and John Locker, my boss who is a Counsellor and acting No. 2, were already up here on leave and had instructions to see that I behaved myself. I have really had a magnificent time here. It is a far, far nicer place than the miserable Simla or Mussoorie. It is prettier, has nicer walks, good rides, excellent yachting, is clean and, most important, is not burdened by Punjabi refugees and the ubiquitous and now unpopular Sikh.


Yesterday, we went off for miles to a glorious little lake in the mountain to fish Mahseer [species of carp much favoured by British anglers in India]. We walked out, mostly downhill, and rode back. I didn’t catch anything, but old Locker hooked three, which made him happy. I didn’t worry about the blasted fish and could enjoy myself without the wretches biting my hook. On the way back a deluge started and we were all soaked to the skin. I kept up my morale and [that of] the horses (but lowered everyone else’s, probably) by singing vociferously. Arrived back to a roaring hot bath, fresh fish for supper and some real Scotch whiskey. …


I have got Penny [his dog] up here. She thinks that it is very cold and wears a red overcoat most of the time. I have also got Asiv, my very young Madrassi bearer. He is Ambrose’s nephew and has been doing for me for the last two and a half months, since Peter’s family arrived. It makes a luxurious difference to hear him padding around.


John had notoriously illegible writing. One word has been cut out of this letter and it has been annotated by his father “I have cut out and returned to sender a word I could not read! John often does this to me”.



New Delhi, undated

Have just got back from leave and am sending this off by today’s bag. Everybody is commenting on my miraculous change in appearance – bronzed and tough as opposed to wan and worn as I left. It really was an excellent leave. I ended up by walking down from Naini to the railhead Kathgodam – about 13 miles over very rough country. Just Penny and I. Some of the most lovely country; rushing streams and thick jungle. I was expecting a panther to carry Penny off at any moment, but we came through footsore but unscathed. Delhi is lovely now. The edge of coolness is breaking in to hot mornings and evenings. It won’t be long before we have fires.  …



New Delhi 17 October 1948?

… I have just received your latest with Daddy’s account of the feud over the top of the milk. He asks for further suggestions. I can only visualise the future in this manner: For some days now, Col. T. had been showing a tendency to drop asleep in his chair at unusual times. This latest habit coincided with an absence of cream on the milk when Mrs T. collected same from the doorstep. An inadvertent rapid descent of the stairs by the Col. which woke Mrs at 6 a.m. indicated that the former had conceived of the low practice of descending the stairs and having a lick before his spouse’s wakening. Thus forestalled, a small fee paid to the milkman caused him to secrete the cream in a separate container which the Col. collected clandestinely. The only effective counter-measure was a similar bribe from Mrs T. to the milkman.


The inevitable climax and moral comes after nine months of this internecine strife; this otherwise worldly couple are reduced to penury and the milkman arranges delivery in a smart Rolls Royce. At this juncture, JGT returns on leave and corners the available supplies of cream, with a relatively small bribe – but an effective one in that there are no competitors.


This was before the days of homogenised milk and the cream used to collect at the top of the bottle.



New Delhi, 27 October 1948

… The sort of stuff we deal with is problems of nationality, repatriation of distressed British subjects, law suits, lunatics, pension claims (there are about 450 of these to be cleared up yet, shipping, registration of births, marriages and deaths, charities, claims of Europeans and a lot of odds and ends. It doesn’t sound very thrilling, but the policy side is surprisingly interesting and one sees the human side in the detailed administration. … Jim Locker [the Counsellor in charge of the section] says that [Robert] Tesh and I will probably be sent out to the Outposts in the New Year to “gain local experience” – quite a good idea. They all have their points. Calcutta is the most interesting and important with its 20,000-odd British in the area (as opposed to Delhi’s 600-odd, of which we provide 300); Madras is a pleasant, cheap and agreeable backwater; Bombay always has plenty of interest and amusement. …



New Delhi, 10 November 1948

I have just completed as pleasant a piece of duty as it has been my privilege to tackle. I came out of the office just before lunch this morning and ran into our Head of Chancery, John Shattock. He was waving two tickets about in his hand and looking agitated: “I have got just the job for you and Bryan Shepherd this afternoon, John”.


Me: “Sir?”


John Shattock: “The High Commissioner has been given an excellent box for the Test Match, and we have got to keep it filled at all costs. Will you kindly fill it for this afternoon?”


We had a magnificent seat of honour on top of the Pavilion, the Nawab of Pataudi’s family on our left and the President of the All India Crickey Association, de Mello, on our right. …


This is the first day of the Test Match [against the West Indies].. There was a crowd of about 4-5,000 – as much as the place could hold – and vociferous enthusiasm and applause. I have often heard that the Indian cricket crowd is very sporting and these chaps certainly gave the West Indies a great ovation. …


After the game, we sped back to the office tyo hear the new High Commissioner give a talk to the whole of the British Mission in Delhi – us, the Trade Commission, rge Brirtish Information Services, British Council and Ministry of Works. – about 240 men and women gathered around the huge lounge in the girls’ hostel. It was a very good talk – Shone [his predecessor], incidentally, never did this. His delivery was good and clear and to the point. He spoke of morale – of our duty to keep fit and healthy and pleasant to each other. He introduced a stern warning: Britain could only afford to have the best goods in the shop window and anyone who was even 99% efficient would be pushed off home. Anyone who had any worries was to go straight to him and he wanted no hesitancy or delays over this.


A really good vigorous talk; like a breath of fresh air to have a bit off martial spirit about!


Anyhow, there is no danger of despondency in our particular room. It is a large room, but there are four of us there – Bill Bickford, David Anderson, Bobby Tesh and me – and what with the number of desks and the gusts of hilarity that sweep it from time to time, Bill Bradley’s [Assistant Military Adviser]  jibe of “How are the boys in Remove this morning?” is fairly apt. …




New Delhi, 26 November 1948

… I had a grand birthday. I ordered 20 meringues at enormous expense and, having eaten about half, passed the rest round the office at tea-time. We had a white iced cake for tea at the Christies, into which the children pitched with a gusto which somewhat overshadowed mine. Penny is in the family way, by some awful pie-dog, I fear.


John was renowned for his sweet tooth, and meringues remained his birthday treat of choice until the end of his life.



New Delhi, 24 and 27 December 1948

The highlight of the [Christmas} festivities was the fancy dress ball at the Club. I originally had no intention of going but was talked into it by Elizabeth and John {Christie, with whom he was lodging] at the last moment. Historical costumes were the order of the day – so I decided to delve back as far as Ancient Briton. Eventually, I arrived at the Club with a motor rug, sandals, woad, a club and not much else except some reputable bathing trunks. Having fewer clothes than any other of the 1000-odd people there, I was quite a sensation, especially when dancing with Elizabeth or Chrystal Bradley, who were respectively 18th and 19th century. It was a very joyous and colourful scene. A 16-stone Aussie with white tights and wings as fairy queen. One youth with a halo illuminated by a battery in his pocket which he flashed on and off. The only unkind cut of the evening was when, after the last dance as I was leaving the floor, the Americanised Goanese band-leader leant across with a puzzled expression and said, “Say, what is you exactly??”



New Delhi, 16 January 1949

Life is still completely marvellous – if possible more so than ever – the weather magnificent and the people equally so. I at last have achieved my ambition to be transferred to the Political side – although I view the work with some trepidation. I shall work under Ralph Selby, whom I like enormously, and between us we shall conduct India’s foreign relations – well, not perhaps quite conduct: Nehru and Attlee and Bevin have perhaps a more intimate control. Nevertheless, this is the field we cover. …



New Delhi, 1 March 1949

… Work continues to be fascinating. We are in the full swing of the conference on Burma, which is in the capable hands of Arthur Bottomley, our Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Overseas Trade – an altogether admirable chap from what little I have seen of him. 35, plump, friendly, quiet, yet commanding confidence and yet no trace of self-assertiveness – he is the very best type that Labour can produce. I hope for our sakes that they make a go of this Burma business which, once settled, may pave the way for stability and peace in Asia.


Then, at the other end of the scale, I had to hand an important missive to da Silva, the High Commissioner for Ceylon, at 1 o’clock on Saturday. I discovered that he was out for a picnic and finally ran him to earth (or rather water) at 6.30 p.m. – in his bath! What a whirl of diplomatic activity!


Boxing. We have formed our own club in the office. My main object is to get the maximum amount of exercise in a short time without getting hurt unduly.  So far I have achieved both these objects with a certain degree of success and also oddly enough get a lot of fun out of it. We perform in the Royal Indian Air Force ground and combine the odd round in the ring with a little P.T. and bag-punching. I found that my initial considerable apprehension of going into the ring rapidly disappeared with practice and as I say in the certain knowledge that we are not trying to bust each other up. It’s great fun. …


New Delhi, 30 May 1949

…Frank Roberts, the new Deputy High Commissioner, is a good man on first impressions. … I dined with them a few nights ago. … Frank talked about Stalin a little. He only saw him after he had been about two years in Moscow and then only over some very high level stuff. He [Stalin] is completely charming and is in fact the only man in Russia who can risk chatting spontaneously and cracking little jokes.  Everyone has the same reaction to an interview with him. His technique, in fact, is to leave the negatives to his subordinates and only step in himself, like the deus ex machina, when the time is ripe to say Yes. Interesting. F. Roberts, as you probably know, made his name when Chargé d’Affaires in Moscow, through his brilliant reports on Russian affairs. Bevin [Foreign Secretary] then bagged him as his Principal Private Secretary. … 



New Delhi, 3 June 1949

… There is no doubt that in the modern world this is a pretty exacting career – as of course most are nowadays. But even old Sir Walford [Selby, retired Ambassador and father of John’s older colleague and friend from Ralph Selby], who only retired in 1940, was astonished at the amount of work we do. The social side must simply have been the icing on a rather moderately sized cake of day’s work in former times. Now, however, it can almost be too much when the only hours away from the office – not daylight hours – are spent in eating with people who, if not total strangers, necessarily demand a degree of alertness and attention which one can always shed at home or with one’s friends.

I am not carping. I love it. But I can understand the resentment felt by a man like Ralph, who has a family to busy himself with and is old enough to remember the spacious days of the Peace.


I think I have commented on this before, but I, and men under say 28, are spared one cross to bear in this modern world which seems to weigh most heavily on those aged 29-38: the memory of the easy, spacious days. This group of men seem to be, broadly speaking, the unhappiest. They are not old enough to be philosophical about the changed circumstances. Many of those who had lived through what Robert Graves calls The Long Week End – 1918-39 – must have realised, perhaps only sub-consciously, that the social order they knew was bound to come a cropper sooner or later. But everything must have seemed so prosperous and well-arranged to those who became men from 1936 to 1939. Little unemployment, lots of private incomes and low prices. …



New Delhi, 18 June 1949

I snatch a guilty half-hour to write a guilty letter from the office. I am in the throes of officiating for Ralph [Selby, his boss] and have been “hammer and tongsing”. French India and the deliberations leading up to its future disposal have been a headache, but we have had a détente (a diplomatic word which I am learning to use with some familiarity!) and things are moving a little more smoothly. Plebiscite tomorrow in Chandernagore [French colony] and my estimate is 91.6% in favour of India! [It was actually 97%.]


I collected a shabash [congratulation] from Nye [the High Commissioner] the other day for a piece of work that wasn’t in the least meritorious. I was asked to go and canvass the support of another power for a British proposal. Having rung up the official concerned, I discovered that he only had 15 minutes before going to a conference of his Chief. I sprang rapidly into a car, therefore, arrived in his office 5 minutes later having decided my approximate line of argument, and rattled off my case at him. He was most receptive and so grateful, I think, that I put my business bluntly without wasting his time, that he promised to get a decision at the meeting for which he was just leaving.


We heard the next day that they had agreed to support us, and Nye walked into my office and said “well done, John”. His Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote [from Sir Henry Newbolt: But his captain's hand on his shoulder smote. 'Play up! play up! and play the game! ']. I felt rather bogus as I knew how flaky the whole thing had been. Still, that’s the way of the world. No gratitude for a painstaking and accurate report, compiled after hours of sweat and concentration, and bouquets for a fortuitous bit of lucky bargaining. …



New Delhi, 13 July 1949

… I was attended with wondrous luck over the weather. Having kept perfectly fine for my leave, the rains broke on the last day. They cleared, however, in the evening and I walked to the nearest hilltop with Elizabeth C. For the first time you could see the whole snow range of the Himalayas from Kasouli [town in Himachal Pradesh]. Simla, 20 miles away was as clear as if it were 5 miles off and the hills were tinted with a steely blueness which transformed them into loveliness in a way impossible to describe. …



New Delhi, 17 July 1949

It is a nice sunny afternoon, rather like the kind you are having. I doubt whether it’s more than 92° or 93°. The air is saturated with moisture, but clear and bright, fleecy tumbling cumuli race across the sky and the grass is fiercely, startlingly green after those dry months. And I have a peaceful afternoon to do all those things I have left undone, and rather more energy than usual to do them with, since life has suddenly become rather lazy. For the first time in months, I left the office punctually at 4.30 p.m. On Saturday, no work came in at all and I was reduced to sorting out the High Commission’s library. Just one of those occasional doldrums, I’m afraid. Tomorrow, no doubt, there will be a handsome stack of telegrams. …


I shall unfortunately have to move house this autumn, but it won’t be for long. I am not sure if I have mentioned the great housing wrangle here, but of course accommodation is terribly tight. The Government of India won’t let anyone buy houses either, so the position steadily deteriorated until Nye [the High Commissioner] demanded action. The last state is possibly worse than the first in that at enormous expense HMG have bought (or rented) a block of flats by Connaught Place. They are quite comfortable, but no one really wants to live hugger-mugger with the rest of the office if they can help it.

Moreover, they haven’t been able to fill the place with volunteers, so they have asked permission to make it in effect compulsory by stopping rent allowances to those that live out. In addition, the High Commission became very unpopular for kicking out several British civilians who lived in Wenger’s* before to make way for us. …


Have I told you about the exhibition I am treated to every day? There is with almost unfailing regularity the most magnificent sunset every evening. The sky’s whole frame is “frett’d with golden fire” [Hamlet] and the picture slowly changes, throwing the natural objects on the horizon into black silhouettes, till rocky hills and gaunt trees fade finally into quiet darkness and the stars come out.  My best “seat” is the roof of the Office where I can get a 360° view of it all, and I often make a point of going up to watch it for 20 minutes if I am working late.


* Wenger’s was – and is – a well-known bakery on Connaught Place in New Delhi, opened during the Raj in 1933 – presumably the Britons were living above the shop.



New Delhi, 6 January 1950

… I have enjoyed these last few weeks enormously and will be sorry to leave such a pleasant crowd of people. Most of my own friends in the Mission I will meet sooner or later at home, however, and it is quite possible that I may run across other diplomatic “colleagues” (which is the word used to describe someone of another mission at the same post) in other posts. I have really got into the swing of the political work now and, although I have no objection to doing consular work, I hope I shall have a chance of continuing in this line. I have had everything very much on a plate here and have been thoroughly “spoilt” and helped along by my bosses, who have been without exception really good chaps.


I have yet to master the art of feeling fully at home in the incessant round of social activity and of being able to play the host without hesitation or embarrassment, but I dare say it will come with practice. I find there is a slight inner struggle over the reconciliation of one’s “social” public life with social “private” life. We as a race and I as a person like to choose my friends, to give them as much of my spare time as possible and to relax and enjoy myself fully on those not too frequent occasions when one feels like making a party of it.


As far as I can see, however, the young diplomat has to learn the rather unpalatable lesson of not considering his spare time and his parties his own. He will have to leave his friends and talk to people with whom normally a casual passing of the day would at the most suffice. He has to learn to allot his leisure to the wholesale cultivation of acquaintances and to the slight taint of insincerity which that seems to involve, and he must not rely on developing the few real friendships. All this requires quite an effort, until in time one develops into the kind of person in whom this conduct has become natural or second nature. I am of course over-simplifying my thinking on paper. The choice is not quite as clear-cut as I have made it seem. …


This has missed the bag (we have a more infrequent service now) and will have to go by ordinary airmail. A little bleary this morning (Monday) after a picnic last night. It was the greatest fun, run by the Crosses, our Administration Officer, and consisting largely of the staff – nearly all British, anyhow. We made a large bonfire on the ridge beyond the Qutb Minar, brewed a punch and sang and ate Chinese food made by one of the wives. It was a pleasant jungly change from Delhi and we sang all the old songs – “Nellie Dean” and “They’re digging up my father’s grave to build a sewer”. Stanley [unidentified] and I did our imitation of a pipe-band amid general applause.



New Delhi, 2 February 1950

This will be my penultimate letter from Delhi. … I really cannot appreciate that I am going. These two hectic years and what they have meant to me in happiness and wear and tear will only become apparent sometime after I have left, I expect. The days are golden and icy blue – Delhi is at her loveliest when I am leaving her. The fountains splashing and glittering on the spacious expanse before the State buildings made me want to sing noisily.


We married off Bobby Tesh and Jean Bowker last week, an exceedingly nice pair. A most successful and nice little wedding.  Three nights previously, I had participated in an orgy in which eight of us, including a Ceylonese, a Frenchman and an Indian, sang an incredibly rude collection of songs and removed Bobby‘s trousers in traditional manner, hanging them up to greet the dawn on the porch of the most sedate flats wherein reside our families [i.e. presumably those of married members of the High Commission]. I was best man at the ceremony and was inwardly panicked but outwardly sufficiently collected, I gather. …



Delhi, 20 January 1950

…  The office chores are redoubled as a result of the visits of Noel-Baker [Philip, later Baron, Noel-Baker, Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs, under which all High Commissions came at the time] and [Sir Percivale] Leisching, Permanent Under-Secretary. The former gave us a brief talk. He has a clear, forthright speaking voice which indicates a stronger character than his rather wet appearance would warrant. The whole lot of us were gathered on the back lawn, 200-250 in all. I thought of the miscellaneous crowd – old men and maidens, young men and children – all contributing their mite to the effort controlled and directed by Archie Nye [High Commissioner] – sorting out British graveyards, rescuing British lunatics, devising British policy, advising British firms, plotting British air routes, distributing British books and films and so on. With the rugged and purposeful Nye presiding, I momentarily had a feeling that we were probably quite an effective team in all.


The elections. You are instructed, when in doubt, to vote Labour on my behalf, but I would like an appreciation of the candidates if you can provide one for me. If there is a good Conservative (someone like Fitzroy Maclean) or Liberal who strikes you as a good, broad-minded chap with lots of native vigour, I don’t mind considering him. If on the other hand the Labour chap is sound, doesn’t talk about fleecing the rich or “the starving workers” and looks as though he might have the right ideas about Russia (distrust, caution and firmness, not hysterical dread) and the Colonies (a trust to be developed smoothly for self-government and not to be just handed away), I would plump for him on balance.


In other words, I have a fairly open mind. I have a sufficient knowledge of policies, but none of personalities. If both chaps are good, I would vote Labour, especially if the Labour man is not an extremist. I leave it largely to you, on the strength of this rather vague directive.




Back to Europe 1950


   The posting to Delhi came to an end in the spring of 1950 and John took a cheap boat to Egypt, filled to the gunwales with Anglo-Indians on their assisted passages to the UK (which for the vast majority was a totally unknown land). From Egypt he flew to Rome, with Field-Marshall Auchinleck as a fellow passenger, pointing out the sites of his battles to John as the plane flew over them. John’s intention had been to have a jolly good holiday in Rome before going back to do his duty by his aging parents, and on arrival he put up in a hotel on the via Veneto. But Rome was icy cold (with snow on the Sabine Hills) and three days into his stay John went down with pneumonia, so he never really got to know Rome until he started going there years later with Sophia. The rest of his leave was spent convalescing with his parents, who had this time acquired a house of their own, Fuchsia Cottage on the Isle of Wight.




The Hague 1950-53 


   John’s next post was as the junior member of Chancery (the political section) in the British Embassy in The Hague. The doctor had told him before leaving that he needed to go to bed by 10 o’clock every night, not an easy counsel to follow for someone embarking on a diplomatic posting. Fortunately, John’s health improved rapidly in The Hague. He finally shook off the bugs of India and was able to participate fully in a social life made more hectic by the fact that, as a bachelor, he was targeted by every diplomat with a marriageable daughter, being constantly invited to night-clubs, rumba parties and the like.


   As in Delhi, John made a sustained and successful effort to get to know as many local people as possible, both in the Dutch Foreign Ministry and outside. He made many extremely good Dutch friends (his best friend was Arie de Vries, a journalist), with whom he went walking, skating and skiing. He grew to love Holland and the Dutch, their culture and love of music and their penchant for physical exercise and analytical conversation.

Skating with friends on a frozen Dutch canal.



   It was not altogether an easy time for the Dutch. Food was plentiful - more plentiful indeed than in Britain where, five years after the War, everything was still rationed (except coffee, ironically the only thing in Holland still on the ration). But Holland had been devastated during the occupation and in the fighting on their territory during the closing stages of the war, and the economy still had a long way to recover. There were also tensions within society. Some 10% of Dutch people had been Nazi sympathisers at some stage; and some of these had by way of reaction now turned to communism (the son of Dutch friends of John’s was imprisoned for handing over confidential documents to the Russians). There was also considerable immigration from the overseas colonies that Holland had lost after the war (the Dutch had intermarried in their colonies far more than the British); while at the same time a large stream of Dutch people were leaving for English speaking countries like the US, Canada, Australia and South Africa. John’s impression was, however, that the Dutch had managed to achieve a well-functioning democratic society that was making a pretty good fist of overcoming its difficulties.


   As the junior member of Chancery, John was asked to write a ‘despatch’ about the state of Dutch society. (Despatches are formal reports giving a considered view of some particular issue or aspect of the country concerned. They are signed by the Ambassador, but often mainly drafted by a more junior member of the Embassy. The best ones were ‘printed’ for circulation to all UK diplomatic missions.) John wrote of the large number of young Dutch people who were emigrating to English-speaking countries and predicted that some large percentage of Dutch babies alive then would be brought up speaking English as their first language. The despatch was printed and given a wide circulation, and John found this prediction quoted back at him many times.


   Since the Netherland was a monarchy, diplomatic uniform was worn on grand occasions. This was the only posting during which John wore his uniform, and then only twice: once when the Dutch Queen gave a reception for foreign diplomats and once at an Embassy reception for the accession of Queen Elizabeth II.

John in diplomatic uniform


    John got on well with his colleagues in the Embassy, who included Ralph Selby, his old boss from the High Commission in Delhi, who was again his boss. The wider Diplomatic Corps was divided chiefly between night-clubbing Latins (South American states were represented in force) and hearty rugger and cricket-playing Commonwealth diplomats. John found a few friends among those in neither group, including Wally Erwin of the American Embassy (with whom he corresponded and exchanged visits into old age) and Keith Douglas-Scott of the Australian Embassy. Keith made the dream young diplomat’s marriage by carrying off the Dutch Foreign Minister’s daughter Frie Bayen, and John was best man at their wedding. Keith ended his career as Australian Ambassador in Rome and he and Frie then retired to London, buying a flat near to John and Sophia’s house.

Amateur dramatics in The Hague

Extracts from John’s letters from The Hague


British Embassy, The Hague: 27 January 1950

Tuesday is “bag” day and therefore a busy day at the office, with everyone finishing off their despatches for the departure of the messenger this evening. This torrent, however, flows around and over my little room, leaving a more tranquil eddy where I sit steadily and quietly (no shouting at all) reading myself into the picture. At the moment I am quietly waiting for a quiet lunch at my flat, ordered by me – steak, strawberries and cream. Leni, my young cook-cum-bearer, seems to be generally coming up to scratch. She is still technically on trial, but I am so unused to ordering a European around that I shall obviously never dare to sack her, irrespective of merit. …


British Embassy, The Hague: 4 August 1950

… My most entertaining day recently was when the Selbys arrived. I met them at the boat at 7 a.m. and brought them home for breakfast. After a leisurely meal, we set off for Arnhem in our two cars, they to sight-see on their way to Germany, I to visit Nijmegen on duty. …


The “do” in Nijmegen was a success. It was the final day of the annual long distance walking tests. A four day contest into which anyone can enter as an individual, family or team. Men walk 30 miles a day with a medium pack and so on down to the under-16’s and over 50’s, who only do a mere 18-20 miles per day.


At the end of it, there is a terrific tamasha [celebration] – p.m. of the last day. The road is lined for miles to greet the heroic contestants and all who compete (like the Caucus race) get prizes – a silver medal with a clasp showing the number of years the recipient has competed. The record was about 27 for a man of over 70. The crowd was about 120,000 and the contestants were loaded with flowers as brass bands blared away to escort them to the end.


Among the 7,000 contestants were, as I say, were families, old men in ones and twos, mixed parties of youths, mothers in clogs, Boy Scouts, platoons of Army, Navy and Airforce, RAF, Belgian paratroops, factory teams, in fact about every conceivable element of society went to make up this happy and motley crew. Much to my embarrassment, I was asked with great solemnity by the local Dutch organisers to decorate the two leaders of the two RAF squads in the show, an Air Commodore and a Wing Commander. They took it in good part, however, and stood rigidly to attention with no smile on the face – only in the eyes – when I pinned the tin medal on their right breasts. …



The Hague, 3 September 1950.

… My Dutch naval friend told me about the incident in the last war when the Dutch destroyer De Ruyter collided with the harbour boom at Chatham in a fog. It was the same spot where, in 1667, the Dutch admiral de Ruyter had, sailing up the Medway and breaking the boom, destroyed our fleet and taken the flagship prisoner back to Holland. On the more recent occasion, however, the naval officer in charge of the port sent the message “What! Done it again?”


Hans also told the story of when his skipper came alongside very clumsily at Gibraltar in the war and made an awful cock of the operation, fully conscious that he was under the eyes of the C and C  Mediterranean. Finally the message from the C in C came through: “To the captain of H.N.M.S. ---- Good.” The captain was very agreeably surprised and pleased. Twenty minutes later another message arrived: “my earlier message. Add the word ‘God’”!



The Hague, 27 December 1950

Having established that sketchy telephone contact this morning, I will have a more leisurely chat – in a rather low eathouse where I am sitting down to a meal of mussels. I have wanted to try them ever since I have been here, and at last have taken the plunge. This curious little spot with a “Harry Lime”  [from the film The Third Man] atmosphere is almost deserted. One unknown type in the other corner is waffling his way through a vast bowl of mussels; a barrel organ is grinding away, its remote sound almost drowned by the steady chomping of Taylor’s jaws. Anyhow, it’s all peaceful and warm.


Last night the Selbys gave a party for the office.  I had a typical experience of this extraordinary kaleidoscopic life. In the earlier part of the evening I was taking a cocktail at the South African Christies. … Rank and nobility were spread thick on the ground. If one backed to give way to a Minister, one trod on an Ambassador. That was at 6.30. By 7 p.m. I was at the Selbys with a teeming cross-section of our very British staff. At 8 p.m. I was giving two rather tight members of our Services Attachés staff lifts home and I, together with our Sergeant-Major , was singing lugubriously “Please don’t burn our Shithouse down – Father is willing to pay”: an old service classic. By 8.30 I was back in polite company at the Selbys again [rest of letter missing].



The Hague, 2 January 1951

Whew! What a life. The disjointed entries in my notebook generally indicate that I have not had much sleep in the past 10 days. The particularly rigorous programme consisted of dance at the Dupuys (Canadian Ambassador and Doyen of the Corps), bed 6 a.m. 11.15 phone call from Selbys. Up, shave, change, fetch car. At Selbys by 12.00. Off with Selbys and a Dutch couple to the other side of Amsterdam, to a little village on the coast. It was freezing and a cutting, tearing wind was blowing off the Ijsselmeer (Zuyder Zee), largely frozen. I have never felt so cold.


After a bowl of pea soup and an uitsmijter (ham and eggs on bread) in a crowded little pub, full of rugged types in sweaters, boots and huge gloves, we set off. I funked the idea of skating out to the island of Marken (two miles) and the two girls and I settled into a contraption called an ice-yacht, an ordinary boat mounted on wooden runners.  Off we went at a smacking 25 m.p.h., tacking across the ice, roaring over the bumps and irregularities.


It was the most remarkable and colourful scene. There was a column of gaily dressed skaters, men, women and children, wending their way to the island and back, like a procession of ants against the limitless, translucent expanse of ice and sky. All the Markeneers (islanders) were wearing their curious and resplendent national dress, the women with their hair worn long and loose, in two fair cascades down either side of their necks in front.


We skated back to the mainland with the wind behind us, without making any effort at all.


We saw the New Year in at the Larkins’, our Commercial Counsellor, with games on paper and charades. It has all been a non-stop riot and I have managed to get along remarkably well with very little sleep. Things will be a little more steady in the New Year, I hope, although the official round of Jours begins. Tomorrow, for instance, a very grand old lady, the Baroness van Tuyll, Grande Maîtresse to the Queen (which means that she sits as Her Majesty’s deputy in The Hague), holds her Jour. Apparently one just turns up, swigs a cup of tea, says hullo and buggers off again. It is all really quite amusing and I am grateful for the experience, although I think it is as well that life is not always conducted along these lines.


Some of these parties are conducted on the very pinnacles of luxury: flunkeys hovering round, caviar, champers, and girls in lavish dresses dripping with rocks! Although I am almost regularly the only Englishman there, and in a minority of two or three as far as English speakers go, fortunately they all natter away in English. Many, however, prefer French and I really feel I must make an effort some time to acquire that language. …



The Hague, 26 January 1951

… I had an absolutely blissfully joyous day yesterday. About five of us (2 Wops, American, Portuguese and I) went down to the South near Middelburgh in a car and picnicked.  The sun shone brilliantly. We (or I chiefly) sang both ways. We played football in a wood, hide and seek, walked along the dykes, and generally behaved stupidly and happily. Being young and free is really terrific, isn’t it? There is always the feeling that I could take a fortnight’s leave and go to the ends of Europe and drop all my work – if I wanted to!



The Hague, 29 January 1951

… The day was ruined from the work point of view. After an expansive (expansive in time, not expensive) lunch with a young Frenchman in my flat, I returned late to the ever-increasing amount of paper in the office. This has latterly increased more than normally as a result of the current Government crisis in Holland, which may have taken up the odd paragraph in your newspaper. … Anyhow, the afternoon was miserably ruptured by the tedious though necessary interruption of having to go to Wassenaar to present a medal to a sick man. It was the King’s Medal for Courage, a special form of decoration for Continentals who served our cause well in the Resistance. The recipient was an unfortunate chap who had had his nerves badly wrecked by his experiences. He was in bed and H.E. [the Ambassador] pinned the medal onto his pyjamas and the Military Attaché read out the citation. I merely looked helpful and respectful.


After that, on to the Jour [reception] of Madame Dupuis, the Doyenne of the [Diplomatic] Corps. Tea, éclairs, small talk and back to the office for an hour’s work. 7.45 p.m. out to the Carissimi [Carissimo was the No. 2 in the Italian Embassy with an attractive daughter] where I exchanged my usual idiotic conversation with the parents, “Bon soir” or “Bon jour” as befits the occasion, and out to the theatre to watch two Spaniards dancing. There were six of us, an American youth, Edwin Adams, who is a barrister of 30-ish; a Dutch lad and maiden and me; and the two Italian girls. Thereafter, we adjourned to a small dance spot at Scheveningen and, fortified with bacon and eggs and beer, danced for about an hour.


Tomorrow, apart from being bag day and a day of undue pressure of work, is blessedly free of other commitments. Wednesday the Young Vic come here and perform the Merchant of Venice. I will take two very nice young Indians, the Masons[?] (Second Secretary) and A.N. Other – not sure whom, yet, probably a Dutch girl on the principle of mixing diplomats with locals, which is the prescribed formula. And on Thursday I dine chez Langleys [Canadian Embassy] and go onto a party at the home of the young Swedish Secretary and wife.  And on Friday I take in a cocktail and go on to the Jeffreys (retired Captain R.N. and wife) for a dance…



The Hague, 7 February 1951


… The crisis still reigns unrelieved and Holland now approaches its third week without a government. No one seems to mind much except the foreign diplomats who vent their disgust in testy despatches. Otherwise situation normal: it continues to rain; the natives and at least one foreigner continue to over-eat; Ratty the Dog who lives below still barks whenever he sees my face at the window, though with perhaps a trace of better humour.

You can’t tell who you are talking to these days – that’s one of the disadvantages of a government crisis. Today’s mere back-bencher may be tomorrow’s Foreign Minister – an overnight metamorphosis from “Old Cock” to “Your Excellency”. We saw off the delegation of Dutch MPs to Britain with a small cocktail party at H.E.’s [the Ambassador’s] residence. I got quite chummy over the fourth Bols (his, not mine) with one, by name Piet Kerstens. The next morning the local gossip columns had tipped him for the next Foreign Minister (not, however, a likely forecast in our opinion) [he was not appointed].


One social occasion I missed was a performance of the local orchestra and chorus in the Requiem by Verdi, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death. It was more memorable than most such occasions, I gather. The conductor for the evening was one van Kempen, a Dutchman who had become a German before the war. This was his first official post-war visit to Holland. Hardly, I hear, had the music got underway than some demonstrators started to kick up a row and, apart from making noises, succeeded in releasing some tear gas. The police cleared the rowdies out of the hall, but the gas was more intractable and The Hague was treated to a row of distinguished diplomats, some celebrated for their phlegmatic demeanour, sobbing copiously into large handkerchiefs throughout the performance. …



British Embassy, The Hague, 13 March 1951

… One of the more entertaining evenings was when I went over to Amsterdam with a Dutch journalist called Arie de Fries and two girls. The atmosphere of the city was quite different from that of The Hague: far gayer and lighter. We went first to a small café where they had a negro calypso singer. This, in case you don’t know, is a West Indian form of balladry: the singer improvises couplets about contemporary topics and people in the room; all most amusing.


Then on for a couple of hours dancing at a restaurant, which differed only from The Hague in spirit. Everyone sang, including waiters and customers. There was one particularly stirring chorus in which I joined noisily. The only word which I could contribute, but which seemed to occur quite frequently, was “Omsterdom”. …



Seefeld, Austria, March 1951

… After the usual last minute remembrance of things unpacked, we finally took the road from The Hague to Arnhem (the way we chose) at 4 p.m. on Good Friday. I set my first foot in Germany at about 7 p.m. Although we swept through Germany in 24 hours, I formed several vivid impressions. The destruction is quite uncanny. The raids might have been last week. You can still see the backless, roofless houses and twisted girders which jut onto populated footpaths. It is an extraordinary contrast. Of course our damage in Britain bears no comparison with theirs, but with others I wonder if this is not the product of a deliberate policy. It is six years since the war and they have 1½ million unemployed in Germany. They are also a most industrious race and have completed amazing feats of reconstruction in other respects. Why, then, are the main thoroughfares through their towns in a worse condition relatively than ours were on the morrow of our heavy raids in 1940?


The suggestion is that they want the world to see how brutal Allied bombing was in 1944-45. There is no doubt that we obliterated whole areas, the equivalent of Hampstead and Golders Green, where there were no military targets. Thus they will revive the legend of the “dictated peace” which they propagated after Versailles. Let us hope, however, that this is off the mark and turn to the gayer part of our trip.


We spent the first night at a lovely little Hans Anderson town called Limburg, beyond the Ruhr and 50 miles before Frankfurt, but we didn’t see much of it as we arrived at 12.30 in the night and left at eight the next morning. The next day, we drove through the rest of Germany by “autobahn” (superb roads) to Munich and over the border and up to Innsbruck in Austria by 8 p.m. A huge Austrian dinner and bed in an old 17th century pub. On Sunday we continued up the valley and climbed a huge mountain in bottom gear to arrive here by 12 p.m. We had lunch, found rooms in a good, quite cheap pension and have been skiing with various degrees of success ever since. … The only slight snag is that we share a room and both the others snore with varying degrees of intensity. However, after the first night one is too tired to notice.


We are all burned brick brown or red by the sun. We usually practice in the morning on the slopes by the town, trying to master our turns, which assume much importance in this game as they are the only way of stopping yourself.  In the afternoon, snow, hail or sunshine, we rush off on a two or three hour hike through the woods and valleys, which is almost as much fun as the downhill skiing. The country is deathly quiet in the snow and the trees are wreathed by snow and ice into fantastic patterns. …



The Hague, 26 June 1951

… On Thursday I laid the Foundation Stone of an English Church. In fact, Princess Alice did the actual job, but I organised the seating; saw to the decoration of the enclosure; held meetings; coached ushers – all of which involved intricate and sustained planning, as you can no doubt imagine, in a country where the relative position of dignitaries in their seats becomes a matter of cardinal importance. We had quite a gathering of the great: pomposities of bishops, expansivenesses of cabinet ministers, suavities of ambassadors and redundancies of mere mortals like your humble servant. …



The Hague, 10 July 1951

… I settle down to write to you in the oddest of circumstances from a high-backed chair in a tall, solemn 18th century room in the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ambassador is discussing affairs of moment, apparently interminably, with Mr Stikker [Dutch Foreign Minister] next door and I await his emergence. In another spacious and attractive room, we have all been through a brief formal signature of the Netherlands-British Commonwealth War Graves Agreement – a typical example of the numerous routine subjects, forming the daily exchanges between our Governments, with which I deal. Mr Stikker flourished his pen and signed one side of the paper, while the representatives of the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan (India absent) signed the other side. During these solemn moments, Keith Douglas-Scott, the Australian Secretary, and I made tentative arrangements for a future party out of the corners of our mouths. …



The Hague, 20 July 1951 (to his father)

Dear Daddy,

Oh, call the clan!  Collect the crowd. Rally all Grigors to this place! For Grigor Taylor, John McLeod, the doyen of your hardy race, is now (I must confess to doubts) – sixty-nine or thereabouts. Well, whatever it is, many happy returns my dearest Daddy.

You always write to me on my birthday and say a lot of nice things about an event which happened nearly thirty years ago and how it has turned out on the whole to be a good thing. Well, I can’t think back quite as far, but I would like to say something that I don’t think I have ever said before, and that is – how lucky I have always thought myself to have a father like you. Although we don’t often say serious things to each other, at least for the last two years, I have always felt that you have always stood behind me like a rock and that if ever anything had gone wrong or unhappy, you would have understood. I also want to say that I love you very very much, both because you are you and because of all the things you have done for me – lots of big things and millions of small ones.


That really is quite enough as I am, like a true Grigor, on the verge of a blub, and I often think these things best unsaid. But I have also felt that, although I don’t say them, they are there and I would like you to know them.


Atchello! [Hindi expression meaning “that’s it, let’s move on”.] Don’t think that this unusual letter means that I am ill, unhappy or anything but tremendously fit and happy!




The Hague, 11 September 1951

Sir, Madam,

I have the honour to report that your son has obtained a post in the Netherlands equivalent of the Old Vic – well, anyhow, the Leeds Rep. It ‘appened like this ‘ere. The Amsterdam Theatre Company are putting on a play called “Mr Roberts” – something about a naval officer of that name in the U.S. forces during the last war. At various junctures the characters switch on the radio and an English announcer is heard, in one case giving out war news, in another describing the scene outside Buckingham Palace on VJ night. Although the play is being produced in Dutch, the company wanted an English voice for these items and the lot fell on me.


I went to a Studio to make the recording. All quite exciting – red light, microphones, ear-phones. For the Buckingham Palace interlude, I had to merge myself in with the crowd noises. The final result when it came over the loudspeaker surprised me. I sounded exactly like one of the BBC announcers – I can’t remember which, but one of the more pleasant ones – [Bruce] Belfrage, I think.


I shall now clearly have to go and sit through the Hague performance of the play in order to hear myself – and then there is always the possibility of an alternative occupation if I can only learn to avoid swallowing one word in thirty (your ratio would I divine be more unfavourable to me!) …



The Hague, 13 October 1951

… I dined on Saturday last with a Dutch lady, widow of a general, who told rather a good doggy story about her much spoilt 14-year-old boxer. During the war, they taught him a trick so that when anyone said “What will you do when the Queen comes back”, Bobby danced on his hind legs. Come the Queen eventually in 1944 and a large crowd gathered along the streets to cheer her. Their already tried emotions were further tested by the sight of Bobby, who had joined the crowd and in response to the familiar “The Queen’s come back”, executed his ritual dance of glee. Universal blubbing was caused by this touching sight. …



The Hague, 14 November 1951.

Aglow with wine and exercise and general cheer, I sit down at 10.15 to write to you. It has been a pleasant evening. Robbie van der Felts (ROBERT VAN DER FELTS – got it? I can’t trust you a pothook after your interpretation of my friend JEAN FLAVIAN LA LIVE d’EPERNAY as something along the lines of gammon and spinach) and I played squash at 6 p.m. immediately after office. He is one of my chums in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who has recently married one of the girls there. He is an absolute beginner and weighs 15 ½ stone I would say.


We then drove separately and rapidly out to my flat, he picking up his wife en route. A rather rueful Leni met me at the door and explained that the 2 lbs of haddock were rapidly shrinking under the process of cooking. A dinner for three by the time it was ready boded fair to look like one of Charles’s elevenses [unknown allusion]. I bathed rapidly and sponged away all cares. R and his wife Connie arrived. R enters bath after me (poor fellow). Leni, unwarned of ablutional activities, enters bathroom and confronted with a 16 stone bum retreats rapidly. We all have drink and I repair to kitchen. Haddock is still delectable to human eye. Leni much abashed by bathroom encounter, but I consoled with my reflection that she had at least seen a baron in the bath. Finally, we all eat merrily and the haddock seems to go quite far.


Unburdened by his general nudist activities (he was obliged to play squash in his underpants as Connie had laid him  out a pair of her shorts), he confides that Holland is likely to back us up over our Middle East difficulties in spite of strong commercial reasons urging them to do a deal with Egypt. This latter gobbet, the sort of straw that is always useful to the job, I store away for reproduction to my bosses tomorrow. The wine continues to flow merrily, the haddock disappe4ars without undue speed and the van der Felts, bless ‘em, retire at a punctual and respectable hour, giving me a chance with this. …



The Hague, 9 December 1951

… We are in the throes of saying good-bye to the Nichols who leave in 10 days [Sir Philip Nichols was the British Ambassador during the first part of John’s posting to The Hague]. Vast cocktail party receptions are given in the Embassy to which 500 people are invited. Interminable dinners where everyone dresses up and guzzles and swills, but I cannot help feeling that about 80% of it is strictly speaking useless: the people concerned would be contributing as much to the sum of human happiness or progress if they remained at home. There is, however, always a small minority of more pleasant people with wit, knowledge and charm, and I suppose that the other 80% unfortunate enough not to possess these attributes gets asked in order to provide an inoffensive colourless background.


On Saturday, we had a dance in the Embassy, the first for some years, which was an unqualified success. It was given primarily for the staff itself. We had about 200 people and we danced in the ball-room to the music of a local Dutch air force band. Everyone was there, from the messengers with their mostly Dutch fraus to senior gentlemen and their ladies. The by-ways were scoured to get enough men and a contingent was drafted in from the British Army camp at the Hook. Contrary to fears, no-one got tight or set fire to the carpets and even Lady Nichols, who loathes all parties, seemed to enjoy herself.

The Hague, 5 January 1952

… Since I have been back [from holiday], I have been hammering and tonging fairly hard, both in and out of office. There are times when I get a bit fed up with this rather rackety existence, but the compensation of work and nice people are always ready to hand. In a farewell chat to me, the [departing] Ambassador remarked that you get out of life exactly what you put in. This really does seem true. If I am fed up and bored with everything and flooded by a mood of self-pity and hopelessness, I have only to decide to bother less about myself and to try and treat the people who surround me as reasonable humans, full of the same needs and emotions, and they immediately achieve fuller dimensions and become altogether more pleasant and sympathetic beings. …


Big things are doing in the political world over this move towards European unity. Much talk of Federation in the air and pressures and counter-pressures from and on England and America to get involved. The poor Dutch don’t seem to know what they want. They feel that, in order to achieve prosperity and to keep Germany under control, the smaller European powers must sink their differences and federate. What they have not worked out is precisely what Federation means. I believe it means that their children and grand-children will probably not speak their own language and that the present State of Holland will have no more significance by that time in international affairs than say Alberta, Pennsylvania or Greenland now. I think that they are beginning to feel this too and that to sacrifice a national independence and unity, which has been maintained for many hundreds of years, is a very big step. The same would apply to us of course if we came in, except that our culture is probably strong enough to survive and merge effectively with a greater unity. We would, for example, have no difficulty in maintaining our language.

At any rate, as far as England is concerned, it is step which I am convinced only a tiny minority is prepared to take.


Still, it is all very interesting. Milton: “I am glad to be living at this hour” – or as I should perhaps say as a former member of Christ’s College, “Mr Milton”.



The Hague, 22? January 1952

Today has been resplendent and slightly tiring. I feel rather as I did when I left a [children’s] party 20 odd years ago.  The Queen received the Diplomatic Corps at the Palace and I wore full – but full – diplomatic uniform. Overalls [trousers]: black with a gold stripe, black patent leather boots, a resplendent coat with tails and a high golden collar and nine brass buttons, sword, cocked hat, medals and all. It was nice to see people gasping at my magnificence! Ralph of course was similarly accoutred and one or two others.  We were led into the presence by our new Ambassador, Sir Nevile Butler. I was wished a Happy New Year by Her Majesty [Queen Juliana]. The Prince merely gave me a cordial smile and a firm hand.


And off I swaggered through the lofty pillared halls between golden men, red men, blue men, feeling that I ought to draw my sword and challenge someone to a duel in these Rudolf Rassendyll surroundings [character from The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope].


Much of my remaining spare time has been devoted to either playing squash or Scottish dancing. The squash is almost a necessity as well as a pleasure. I have realised that I am approaching the age at which lazy men tend to protrude ever so slightly amidships in their more relaxed moments. Leni commented the other day that whereas she could now see my cheek in profile from behind, she distinctly recalled the lean, distinguished look I bore on arrival.  These were not her precise words, but they were sufficient to spur me on to yet greater effort on the court.


Almost equally reducing is the Scottish dancing. About 30 to 40 of us join these gatherings. We are mostly British, but count a goodly assortment of other kindred odds and ends, including Keith [Douglas Scott] and Wally [Erwin].


I can now almost guarantee that I will not fall over my own feet and indeed not even over other people’s, though at times the risk is great. I have graduated from an eightsome reel to a Strathspey. It’s all very sweaty, noisy, invigorating and good fun. …


I had a dinner in a rich American oil (Esso) house last week. A pleasant couple who live in a large house in what could be called a wild spot in Holland: about eight miles from here in the dunes. They were called John D. Murch and Cornelia D. Murch. They were all Yanks except for a couple of pleasant but rather mentally limited Dutch, typical of a certain higher social level of their country. We got into a genial argument which hovered round the extremely wearisome hardy annual, Indonesia and Suez. They said in effect that they didn’t see why they should lift a finger to help us in the Suez Canal since we had sat by and watched them despoiled of their Eastern colonies. With a bit of an effort I managed to keep the discussion on a fairly cordial and inconclusive level, and I gather rather impressed the headstrong Americans. She later told me, after the Dutch had gone, that they were about sick of the critical and uncooperative Dutch and couldn’t have stood for one tithe of the carping I sustained. And more in the same strain. It is not difficult to find flaws in either the American or the Dutch attitude, the one headstrong and the other too canny and selfish. One sees the good points of both too. It’s always amusing to watch the antics of both from the touch-line.



The Hague, 6 February 1952

… A quite splendiferous week-end boiled up out of nothing. The Butlers have got a temporary Dutch social secretary – a girl from a crusty old Dutch family called van Nispen tot Sevenaer. Peter ?German had a rather crusty old cocktail party for the aînesse doré (I made that phrase up!) on Friday, and I went too, mainly to help. As Kia, which is this lass’s name, was one of the last to leave, the staff waiting anxiously for the Ambassador’s departure, I took her home and gave her a snack meal at a place in town first. She asked me whether I would like to go to a party at her home the next day, 70 miles away. I acquiesced (or assented eagerly on the surface) and found myself in for a really remarkable do. I was to stay at a pub near the house, along with some of the 70-odd quests. I was also to drive Oonah [unidentified] there and two other Dutch.


We left at 3 p.m. on Saturday and when I arrived I discovered that I had to take a white tie, not a black tie as I had thought. Back home and rapid re-pack. Quite an amusing drive out with the young Dutch boy and girl.  He was a bit Dutch and cautious until I uncovered a bottle of Bols I had brought with me and let him loose on it. Soon he was singing heartily and losing the way, so we only got to the house a few minutes before Oonah was due for dinner.


We drove rapidly to the pub, where I found to my consternation that there was no h. [sic] Started to change and overcome by even greater consternation when I found no shirt at all. In my 10-minute re-pack, I had extracted the soft one without replacing it with the stiff. The landlord, an extremely jovial character, stepped in to oblige and I ended up happily dressed as to the shirt for all the world like some supernumerary waiter from the Acropolis restaurant in Soho. I am never at ease when incorrectly dressed (a relic of school-days?) and I steeled myself with the following consolation: with black ties all the Anglo-Americans nowadays wear a soft shirt and turned down soft collar. The Dutch still wear what my father wore and are never without the stiff front, even with a D.J. Since the war, however, a few adventurous types are beginning to follow our laxness. Well, I thought, they will no doubt consider that a soft shirt with tails is but another step on the downward path.. Perhaps if I visit this part of the world again, I shall find the more enterprising adopting the foreign “fashion” first introduced by me. The party was anyhow so good that I enjoyed it without giving thought to my vestments.


The house was very large, moat-surrounded, mid-19th century Gothic. Father and Mother were most cordial. Uncle, a retired General, was absolutely bent double under decorations. Many men wore medals and all were in tails and white ties (except of course for the butlers and, I almost said, myself!) Most were Catholics of the near nobility and 80% were young, 20s and 30s.


We waltzed and I talked about Holland and England steadily till 3 a.m. when, after a splendid evening, with much good food and drink, we sang the Wilhelmus [Dutch national anthem] and gave three cheers for the Koningin (Queen).


They were a very nice crowd of people – and seemed to be a good deal less snobbish than the people round here – also less prone to sucking up to diplomats, which is an odd and unaccountable practice in most capital cities, I believe. Even the two remote German relatives who had daringly been asked seemed to enjoy themselves and receive a fair measure of cordiality.


We were all back at the pub by 4 a.m. and proceeded to dance some more there to a gramophone and the encouragement of the jovial landlord. That took us to 6 a.m. The party then decided that it was not worth going to bed before Holy Mass at 7.30. we sat in the bar and drank a bit and played twenty questions until the girls went up to change. Octave, my noisy young student passenger, finally tottered off to church in his tails. I slept from 8 till 2. Breakfasted and joined the “morning after” tea dance that was organised in the pub for the guests, Only about 10 of us were staying there, but by the time we had to leave for The Hague at 4, about 30 more had come from their houses and lodgings round about and were in full swing. I drove home in three hours through much snow, singing mostly, and arrived just in time to have a good Sunday supper with the Langleys, entirely cooked (joint and apple pie) by Mr Langley. It has been his Sunday hobby for the last 10 years. …



The Hague, 25 May 1952

… Peter Scarlett, the [Diplomatic Service] Inspector, lunched with me. … It turns out that he was the companion in captivity of a silly old boy called Oliphant , our Ambassador in Brussels in 1940, who wrote an idiotic book about his experiences which I acquired through Auntie Madge.  The old man was well-known to be a bit of a bore and when he was due to be moved to a separate place for detention, Scarlett offered to go with him. This was a voluntary choice because Scarlett thought the old man would be miserable. The Nazis couldn’t understand why he should want to closet himself with this old chap. Their doctrine had, Scarlett says, driven all respect for old people out of their thick, square heads. They cross-questioned him on his motives. Suddenly, light dawned: “Ach!” they said, “it is for your career that you go!”


Anyhow, he went and they spent nine months together. For 200 out of 220 nights they played six games of bezique. They had no real books. Scarlett trained himself to pass into a sort of half-waking coma every night at 10 sharp, in which state he remained until 10 a.m. Thus he was able to speed the time by. … 



The Hague, 10 August 1952

… I settle more and more into this effortful but agreeable life. In my more placid moments, I would have no other; and then when I am harassed or perturbed by people or work I wonder temporarily why it all goes on; why I am here; where it all leads. I reckon my thirty years and what they have achieved; add another ten and see middle age of a misfit looming ahead. But that sort of mood doesn’t last for long. There are too many friends about, and too much kindness and laughter in the world to permit it. …



The Hague, 23 August 1952

… Reading Alan Campbell Johnston’s Mission with Mountbatten. An easily and fluently written diary of day-to-day events which makes good reading for me especially as I feel that I had a seat in the Gods, at least, during the central events. The more I read of these sorts of memoirs, the more I am amazed at the contrast between the pithy, practical conversational record of meetings, at the dining table and cocktail, and the diffuse and repetitive ramblings which seem to characterise such discussions in real life among the great. I suppose that authors like Campbell Johnston concentrate on recollecting only that part of the conversation that was business-like and dress it up until it appears to read like the minutes of an exceptionally witty board meeting. Perhaps in retrospect I could make even some of our idle talk at luncheon on the Dutch Cabinet crisis appear in the same light. I must try my hand at it!



The Hague, 13 September 1952

… Ralph gave a cocktail party for a collection of English athletes over here: “English” – many were black, Jamaicans, Nigerians, all students in London belonging to one of the athletic clubs. They were a mixed but curiously pleasant bag: even the real English contained every range of regional and social accent. I took three out to supper afterwards. The man was an artist; the girls respectively teacher of music and near-doctor. One of them said that athletics was the most barrier-effacing form of sport there was. People considered you as a runner, jumper etc. and not as a black, khaki, Scottish etc. It was also the sport most conducive of modesty because an individual’s performance varied so much from time to time that he could never afford to put on airs. …



The Hague, 3 October 1952, describing a session following a cricket match.

… After a few preliminary beers at the Pavilion, we adjourned to my place. Thereafter.a recording angel (male, I hope) might have observed one of those common yet eternally remarkable events: Anglo-Saxon gentlemen enjoying themselves en masse.


He would have seen a circle of stern, gaunt Englishmen, grim-jawed and ascetic, beer mugs clamped systematically to their right hands, as though officiating at some ancient rite, which indeed they were. From the mouths of these entirely respectable gentry issued forth, verse after verse, in unending saga, the accumulated cacophonic bawdy of centuries, stemming in word and rhythm direct I am sure from our Anglo-Saxon forbears. We sang and sang until exhausted. They are always great fun, these sessions, and when I view them objectively I can understand how my French friend at Tesh’s premarital party [in Delhi] lay doubled in hopeless, winded laughter. “But you are all so obscene; solemn”! …



The Hague, 21 October 1952

… Colin Mayhew [old Mhow friend)] flew over for a long weekend and we talked and talked and talked. Never, ever, can I remember talking so much. Great hours of idle reminiscences interspersed with keen analysis of problems connected with the world and our work. He has done well for one who has no degree and has become a Second Secretary (Commercial) in the Embassy at Amman, Jordan, is the father of two girls now (one aged 7!!) and enjoying life. It was intensely interesting to hear his views and analyses of Arab problems (he has passed his Lower Standard Arabic). But the chiefest joy of our talk was the complete and un-English lack of reserves. We agreed that you never quite acquire the same degree of confidence in your friends as you get older, particularly perhaps in our job where you are inevitably with them only for a small proportion of your life. …


People sometimes ask me what I actually do in the Embassy and I am hard put to it to explain in a few words. Here then is a genuine extract from one of our notes to the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The phrasing is that of the Foreign Office, so alas! I cannot even claim originality there. But this specimen, which I might carry round with me reduplicated, might serve to satisfy people’s curiosity:


Her Majesty’s Embassy present their compliments to the Royal Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and have the honour to inform them that public concern has recently been expressed in the United Kingdom at the uncontrolled importation of repulsive periodicals, known familiarly as “crime comics”, which consist wholly or mainly of the pictorial representation of stories of crime and violence, not infrequently spiced with eroticism.


The note goes on to solicit the Netherlands Government’s advice in dealing with this problem, but it is a splendid opening, isn’t it? My only regret is that the Foreign Office did not enclose a specimen of the afore-mentioned literature. …



The Hague, 9 November 1952

… A really charming Indian girl, one Uma Bhandari, is passing through on her way back to India. I met her up at Jagat’s in-laws’ place at Simla [Jagat Mehta, later head of the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was an old friend from Cambridge]. Although an entirely orthodox Hindu, no smoking, drinking, meat or dancing and sari-clad, she has had a most adventurous 12 months gallivanting round Europe and America visiting friends and relations, chiefly in the various Indian [diplomatic] missions. It’s all rather odd when you think of the speed of their emancipation.


Narendra Singh, the Indian lad, and I and she celebrated our reunion by an amusing excursion to a local nightclub. This was after we had sat out our duty period of drinking post-prandial coffee at the Indian Embassy. There it was agreeable but domestically sedate. We drove thence to this night-club place, which is furnished like the inside of the hall of an English country house: soft leather chairs, a good fire and much space. It is usually fairly empty and we chatted happily for half an hour. Narendra and I over whisky and Uma over orange juice. As we made to go home, the place was suddenly invaded by a most hilarious but friendly crowd of youths who had clearly dined well and wined even better. They were The Hague cricket club who convert themselves into footballers in winter and who had just played a successful match. “Narendra”, they all cried, seeing his familiar, smiling, brown face, “our own fast bowler!” and they lurched up to embrace him jovially. Suddenly they caught sight of Uma and stopped dead in their tracks. The transition was a scream to behold. Narendra introduced them, and it being the first time they had probably seen a creature in a sari, they all became elaborately courteous and dignified. “Good evening, good evening,” they said with ponderous solemnity and deep unstable bows. And they shuffled off, mute and awed, to the bar as we left. …




The Hague, 7 December 1952

… I had lunch with three most aesthetic and cultured gentlemen a few days ago. I felt so be-Batemanned at one point [H.M. Bateman was a cartoonist famed for portraying social gaffes] that I almost laughed out aloud at the situation. In order to be helpful and artistically constructive I mentioned, à propos of Lisbon, the story of the coach museum and the tip-up commodious seats. As a museum, I added, it must be quite unique.


  • Well, someone said, there are of course the coach museums at Champignon and Schönbrunn –
  • Yes, said another, and those Polish ones –

By this time my thorax, metaphorically speaking, was level with the table-cloth and I was almost chuckling at the completeness of my rout.


A pause –

  • And, said the third reminiscently, there is that beautiful one near Ravioli.


Silence. Collapse of youthful party. And the funny thing was that they were all trying to be friendly and helpful.



The Hague, February 1953


John was in The Hague at the time of the great North Sea Flood of February 1953 which devastated areas of eastern England and Scotland but was far more disastrous for the Netherlands. This the only reference to it in his surviving letters.


… The position here is relatively and absolutely worse than at home. They cannot even begin to stem the flood until its force is spent in about nine days. We are of course O.K. here, being above sea level, but the Hook has been twice cut off, and if the Rotterdam dyke goes, the water may reach Leiden as it did in the time of the siege after William the Silent cut the dykes (1640 approx) [actually in 1574, when the Dutch were revolting against Spanish rule and cut the dykes to allow ships to carry provisions to the besieged inhabitants of Leiden].


We have our hands full, although not intolerably so except for the service attachés, especially the Air Attaché, John Glen.


There is an atmosphere of heavy gloom here, partly perhaps due to the feeling of impotence, partly to the difference in temperament.  I feel we should be “going to it”, were we in their place, with more cheer.



The Hague, 20 May 1953

… My first act in the office is to read at least the headlines of the world’s news, then in more detail the Reuter agency’s report of all the Dutch news. There may be something to report urgently: a Dutch M.P. may have decided to criticise our actions on the Suez Canal and we may need a fuller account of our own case so as to brace ourselves against the questions which will be put to us by Dutch newspaper correspondents, by Dutch officials, by Dutch friends at parties. But often before I have even done this chore, the phone starts ringing. Naval Attaché, Bob Eames, “Oh John, there are a couple of chaps here in the Dutch Navy who want to go on leave to Kenya. Do they need a visa?” Or Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “What is the authentic version of Churchill’s remarks about a European Army?” Or “H.E. [the Ambassador] wants you to come and discuss the church service for Coronation Day”, or the windows have been broken, or someone’s ill, or some Dutch personality hasn’t been asked to a party he ought to be at etc.


By this time, the morning is well under way and someone has put a dozen letters, reports or copies of any telegrams on my desk. Any one of them may contain information which H.E. or the Counsellor or the Counsellor Commercial should see soon in case they meet someone with whom they would like to discuss it; but I am sitting on them and the world – our world – remains ignorant of their unrevealed treasures till I have read and side-lined and marked them to be sent to the right person. Then, as my hand reaches out for the pile, the Air Attaché’s brisk face looks in: “Are you frightfully busy? There is something rather personal I want to discuss with you.” “No, do sit down.” And off he launches for 10-15 minutes on to some momentous subject like the shabbiness of the Embassy’s back garden or should he go above or below the Military Attaché on the invitation cards to a joint party.


But while he is there, the phone rings and someone in the Embassy or outside asks whether I can tell him the date of DR Adenauer’s departure from London. I can’t, but I can look it up and ring him back. Before lunch? O.K.


And so it goes on throughout the day, during which I am expected to produce a thoughtful and cogent paper arguing that it would be a mistake for HMG to ask the Dutch for money in payment for materials lent by our Army to bridge dykes during the floods.

Perhaps at the end of the day I shall be at a party: with three or four Dutchmen drinking coffee or in a noisy cocktail party and someone knowledgeable will say “Surely this new Nigerian constitution is a bad mistake on the part of the British?” or “I gather you are not getting much cooperation from the Chinese in Malaya?” And unless I have read my papers, private and public, carefully, I shall know nothing of the subject and still less about how to counter their arguments. More seriously still, I may miss an opportunity of drawing out someone whose opinion we need on our policies.


Quite a bustle, you see.



The Hague, undated.

… Last night we went to Leyden. It is the lustrum of a club in the University called Pro Patria. [It] is a sort of corps and likes to think it derives its descent from the Leyden contingent that fought in the heroic war of 1830. This was an Away match against Belgium and the Dutch won by a large margin, over-running Belgium in nine days at the cost of a few hundred casualties. The Corps wears the uniforms of about 1865 – blue, with white spots and plus fours, with a plume in a little képi. They had managed to get the Drums of the Grenadier Guards (2nd Battalion) and the Royal Scots over from Germany for the occasion. These latter beat the Retreat in the Square behind the Town Hall at 9 p.m. I am usually susceptible to this sort of thing, but this was one of the greater occasions. It was a still, starry night and the two bands, like unreal coloured figures, marched and counter-marched across the open square, watched by a ring of spellbound Dutch. Every window and balcony was thrown open and crowded. Both the straight, precise young Guards and the kilted pipers were superb. None, except possibly for a couple of NCOs, were more than about 23 years old, many a good deal younger. Most impressive. 




Foreign Office 1953-55


   At the end of his tour in The Hague, John was posted back to Western Organisations Department in the Foreign Office. This was the department that dealt with relations with NATO, the Council of Europe and similar bodies. The NATO countries had just concluded a Status of Forces Agreement on the conditions that should apply when one NATO country posted forces to another. As an international treaty, it needed to be enacted into British law before it could be implemented in Britain, and one of John’s main tasks was to help prepare the necessary Parliamentary legislation. This necessitated numerous negotiations with other Government Departments.

In the Foreign Office courtyard: the perfect diplomat




   The hours worked at the Foreign Office were generally more relaxed then than in later years, but Saturday morning was a working day – although the men would come in on Saturday wearing tweeds rather than dark suits. For most of his time in London, John and his colleague Tom Sewell lodged with a friend of Tom’s in a flat in Dolphin Square, conveniently close to the Office. Mysteriously, John somehow got onto a list of Deb’s delights – young men considered possible marriage material (or at any rate ‘suitable’) by the mothers of the year’s debutantes, and he found himself invited frequently to deb dances and similar events. He did not feel altogether easy about this, as he was by that time considerably older than the 18-year old debs that he was expected to chat up. Moreover, he found that if he danced too often or talked too much with one girl, her parents would start having expectations of him. This was an odd period; the old pre-war social certainties - when any close attention to a girl was taken as serious intent to matrimony – were dissipating but were still half there in the eyes of parents; it was not until the1960s that it was totally accepted that young men and young women could and should organise their own relationships.


   For some months in 1954 John was a Resident Clerk – one of three young men who lived in a flat on the top of the Foreign Office and acted in turn as duty officer overnight and at weekends, dealing with the stream of telegrams from posts all over the world that came in at all hours – quite taxing, especially after a full day at one’s desk. John slept in a bed alleged to have belonged to one of the Pitts, but the flat was far from luxurious, with no heating at all in the bedrooms and coal fires in the main living rooms. Early one morning, on a particularly wintry day, John was woken by the telephone. The operator barely had time to gobble ‘the Prime Minister’ before Winston Churchill’s well-known tones came over the wire, asking whether a reply to a certain telegram had come in. John sat up in bed, bare-chested (as now he slept in a sarong or ‘lungi’), and replied that the reply had indeed come reporting agreement to whatever Churchill had proposed. Churchill was by this time extremely old and deaf and asked John to repeat himself several times. Although John bellowed down the telephone, he was still not sure that Churchill understood. Finally Churchill said ‘send the telegram over’ and slammed the phone down.   For a young diplomat, contact with the man who was by that time a legend (and a not particularly good-tempered legend) was fairly scary. When John glanced down, he noticed that sweat was pouring down his bare chest despite the unheated bedroom and the wintry air coming through the open window onto St James’s Park.


   John’s maternal grandmother, born Margaret McLeod, was Australian, from a Scottish family that had emigrated to Australia a couple of generations previously. After she married into the Grigor Taylor family, there were regular visits to the Grigor and Brooke Taylors by Australian cousins. One of these, John’s second cousin Dodie McLeod, arrived for her first visit to Britain during John’s London posting, and in 1954 John and Dodie were married. Their son Jonathan was born in the following year, and Imogen followed in 1958. Marriage could not be combined with Resident Clerkship and the couple moved into furnished flats, first at Crystal Palace and then in Claygate. They were very hard up as junior Foreign Office salaries were not generous, and John had no assets, having lent what remained of his wartime savings to his parents who had been threatened with eviction from Fuchsia Cottage unless they bought the freehold.

John and Dodie's wedding






Burma 1956-58


   John’s next overseas posting was to the British Embassy in Rangoon as First Secretary (Commercial). John, Dodie and Jonathan travelled out by sea, stopping for a few days in Colombo. John greatly enjoyed finding himself back in the East and chatted happily with all the taxi-drivers, waiters etc. that they encountered. Ceylon then had an old-fashioned pro-British, pro-Commonwealth Prime Minister. Elections were however coming up, and several of John’s interlocutors said they thought that the Prime Minister would be thrown out – a somewhat electrifying thought to a Western diplomat as the then opposition party was particularly spiky and anti-Western. John thought no more about it until shortly after his arrival in Rangoon, when he was invited to lunch by the Ambassador (Sir Paul Gore-Booth), the other guests being some visiting senior officials from the US State Department. They asked John about his journey and when he mentioned Colombo commented that the election were due there any day. John responded that indeed the Ceylonese had been full of it and it looked as though the Prime Minister would be dumped by the electorate. The Americans looked extremely surprised and asked Gore-Booth if that was the official British view, as it was not the message that they were getting from their own people. Gore-Booth, who obviously knew little about Ceylon, temporised, but John got some satisfaction from the news a few days later that the Prime Minister had indeed been defeated.


   Despite this early diplomatic coup, Rangoon was not an easy posting. John’s predecessor had been invalided home suffering from stress caused largely by having to work under a particularly difficult senior officer (who was still there when John arrived). John felt towards the Burmese none of the empathy that he had with the Indians or the Dutch. Burma had been one of Britain’s most prosperous colonies, a major exporter of rice to neighbouring countries, ‘the bread basket of Asia’. But since independence in 1948, the economy had been left to go steadily downhill and Burma, incredibly, became a net importer of rice. The Burmese were not interested in any sort of constructive relationship with the West, and resisted any attempt to develop trade. This made the job of the commercial department of the Embassy particularly frustrating. More generally, the Embassy had a large staff, who really did not have enough to do, given the negative attitude of the Burmese Government. Nevertheless, Gore-Booth pressed London successfully for more staff – which to John seemed a quite misplaced investment.


   Embassy life in Rangoon was also a lot more old-fashioned that it had been in The Hague or even Delhi. Every time the Ambassador and his wife returned from leave or a trip out of the country, the whole diplomatic staff were expected to go out to the airport with their wives to greet them. And if Lady Gore-Booth came back alone, all the wives had to go to meet her – which often meant that their husbands had to go too, as several wives did not drive.


   However, there were good moments, including a holiday on an extremely remote beach (plane once a week and no communications with the outside world in between, even by radio), full of interesting birds, scuttling crabs and other strange creatures, much enjoyed by Jonathan.


   Jonathan had a local nanny from the Karen tribe. Although he was in Burma a relatively short time (Dodie took him on a long holiday to Australia half way through the posting and then returned to Britain with him some months before John’s posting ended), by the time he left Burma aged two he was speaking fluent Burmese. 

Visiting a Buddhist monastery school, 1956






Extracts from John’s letters from the boat to Burma and from Burma


On board MV Derbyshire of the Bibby Line, at Port Said, 5 March 1956

Guess whose birthday it is today! The gentleman in question is much enjoying his voyage and being spoilt by everyone. He sleeps in a low cot between our two bunks, the sides of which only reach his chest. He can therefore stand up quite easily in it, grasping the sides, and even walk about in it, frequently after he has been snuggled down for a sleep. Dodie and I lie back with a sigh of relaxation on our bunks only to be startled by a loud “Bo” or “Bar”, to see a moon-faced cherub beaming over the cot’s edge at us.


The food is admirable and the company very congenial. We share a table with a nice homely wee body of a Scotswoman travelling out to Aden to join her (harbour) pilot husband, with her three children, seven, four and two. The two older girls are dear little things and spend much time mothering Jonathan. The younger (4-year-old) is so Scots that I have to assume an accent to make myself intelligible. …. Next there is a charming girl (38), also Scots, who is joining her husband at the oil wells up at Chauk [a town in Burma where oil was discovered in 1902]. Next is a very pleasant couple, Ray and Doreen. He is a tanker captain in the same company as the aforementioned (Burma Oil) and is about three years younger than me. A big, kind, friendly cockney with a Swiss father. Went to sea in 1940 aged 16!


The only fly in the ointment is the ship’s doctor, who is a Scot, our table “host”. He is cantankerous, misanthropic and morose to a degree. Although we derive a certain amount of innocent fun out of laughing at his pronouncements after he has left the table, he is a pretty pitiable case. Fortunately, he rises from meals some 15 minutes after sitting down and, as we all now turn up late, we do not have to suffer much of his company.

This apart, we are really delighted at the standard of amenities on board. There is an excellent nursery, children’s meals are sensible and varied and everyone obliging. Jonathan is the baby of the dozen or so children on board.


We have received your lovely letters at Port Said. The place was quiet: rather sinister in its quietness. A policeman or soldier stood every 50 yards with a rifle. Simon Anzt [the flagship department store of the town] seemed hardly itself as I last saw it, sad and rather without hope and redolent of the 1920s and 1930s with the immemorial middle-eastern cheap-jacking and its angular wax models. Perhaps, though, it’s just that these places seem less glamorous as one grows older.


The Burmans on board seem an engaging bunch and, if they are a fair cross-section, work with them should be pleasant. The No. 1 is a Barrington*, returning Burmese Ambassador from New York (U.N.). He and his wife are both Anglo-Burmans and he is a former member of the I.C.S [Indian Civil Service] – the offspring I think of a British I.C.S. father.


*James Barrington, Burmese Ambassador to both the U.S. and the U.N 1950-55. His father was British and was a Forestry Commission official in Burma.



On board MV Derbyshire of the Bibby Line, at Aden, 11 March 1956

… We are now fair and square in the tropics and no mistake. … We are acquiring asteady tan quietly (shh!) – not overdoing it. Charlie Beetlebee has been receiving similar treatment. Yesterday I treated him to 15 minutes nudism on the sun deck. He loved it. To express his pleasure he baptised the deck. The Indian stewards were delighted.


Port Sudan was the loveliest day. We crept into the harbour at first light. All (J included) were delighted to see authentic Fuzzy-Wuxxies (they refer to themselves as Fudgie-Wudgies: “You wanna buy real Fudgie-Wudgie sword?”) It was the sort of tropical day of perfect memory. Bright, the heat beat up but not too fiercely. The sun dazzled, water sparkled, sky shone a piercing blue. The town, spread out white, orderly and small (population about 6-7,000 I would guess) beside the water in its hot, dusty plain ringed with hills, jagged and covered with scrub, evoked memories of Nasirabad and the North Indian small towns.


First, I went for a trip round the harbour in a glass-bottomed boat. Wondrous fishes of every imaginable hue, rugger teams of fish in striped jerseys, and communist fish in a red ensemble gambolled for our pleasure in the translucent water.


That lasted half an hour. I then went into town with an American missionary couple (Dodie stayed to look after J) and, shedding them, had my hair cut (2nd time in 10 days – bravo) by a Greek. … I then pottered through the bazaar and the “Municipal Gardens”. You can imagine it well. Rank grass. Dusty trees with shiny leaves. Kites circling above. Marigolds and the scent of watered earth. To me, the whole experience was pure joy. The reasons would be hard to describe to anyone who didn’t know the East.


After lunch on the ship, we waited till J had had his afternoon sleep and then began to shout a little. We all three took a taxi with our collapsible pram aboard, and Dodie and I pushed J through the hot wide tree-lined streets just as you no doubt pushed me as a baby. He loved it and made friends with several Sudanese, who despite Independence seemed to be friendliness itself.


Then back to the ship and we slipped out into the dark sea as the lights came up all over the place. …



Colombo, 17 March 1956

We make Colombo tonight. Unfortunately, we were not allowed ashore at Aden because of a dockers’ strike. For a couple of days thereafter, the weather continued fresh and bright. Then, two nights ago, we must have arrived in the tropics, for with a bump the temperature went up. It would be muggy and rather oppressive now were it not for a strong hot breeze. The pool is still pleasant, but the water temperature is between 80° and 90°. Smith, however, thrives. I should explain his identity. One of the Burmese lads explained that they had no first name system. Thus Ki Maung Kyi is that, whether to his wife or his form master. But certain Burmese who have had contacts with the West or have had a Mission education, acquire nick-names which are used as first names. As an instance, he pointed out to me one Burmese gent in the party whose first given name is quite simply “Brown”. Hence we have decided to rechristen Jonathan “Smith”.

Well, Smith does all right. He remains the idol of the ship and the main drain on the commissariat. Anything that is placed before him gets shovelled down that ever open beak. He has also had an innings in the pool which quite amused him once he got used to the idea. There is no shallow end, so it is a question of holding him up. He has grown to love his little tin fresh-water bath – about 20” long – in which he squats like a small Buddha, shrieking with glee. …


The ship seems empty after shedding our little Scots family at Aden and will be emptier still after Colombo. We should stay three days in Colombo. I may pay a visit to Kandy but am not sure. We also have it in mind to visit a girl-friend of Dodie’s in the Australian office who lives at the Galle Face Hotel. This will give us entrée to the Hotel’s exclusive pool.  We shall also, I hope, be able to fit in a sea bathe, and we shall have to do some more shopping. We never told you, I think, that one of the boxes sent out in advance was opened (and locked again) and pilfered. It contained Jonathan’s things and they took, oddly enough, a lot of his baby kit: coats, socks, pyjamas etc. Very annoying for Dodie. Not much in value, however, (about £7) and we can claim of course. …



Galle Face Hotel, Colombo, undated

I can hardly hear myself write. The surf thunders apparently against the wall below, for all I can see in the dark is a limitless plain of green sea through the red stone balustrade.


This is Day 3 in Colombo. On day 1, I went with the Burmese Ambassador and family to Kandy. A rushed but exciting trip. Left the ship at 2 p.m. 75 miles to Kandy through coconut palms and paddy changing slowly into craggy, rain-swept, jungle-clad hills. Highlights were a drink from a green coconut; the botanical gardens in Kandy where I bounced on a rickety suspension bridge above a turgid red-brown torrent and smelt spicy trees: cinnamon, clove, nutmeg; a swift bacon and eggs at hotel; and a journey back in the dark in 1 hour 45 minutes (75 miles!).


After all this I found my white trouser bottom soaked with blood from an ankle leech bite and felt a hell of a chap: into darkest Asia and back alive.


One other adventure: the day we reached Colombo, we saw a twisting black funnel a mile off at sea reaching up 600 feet to the clouds. At the bottom was a sort of burst of spray like a mine exploding: it was a water spout. Yesterday Dodie and I left Jonathan and shopped and drove around.


An election is due in about three weeks and we find the populace politically conscious and relatively speaking intelligently so. Symbols everywhere urge the illiterate electorate to support the parties they represent: an elephant for Sir J. Kotelawala’s party (the present Government); a hand the main opposition (Bandaranaike); a star the Communists etc. Our friends, who are of course taxi and shop walas [people] and therefore not entirely representative, seem generally to approve of Sir J., but to think it’s about time Mr B. had a turn. The Communists are placed nowhere.


The only exception to the general air of contentment with the new order was a dear old Tamil seaman who had worked for 30 years for the pilot. “Sinhalese people give it too much trouble to Tamil people, making all people speak Sinhalese. In British time, all mens equal.” I sympathised but would, if I had understood, replied “Yes, my friend, but you should have convinced your cousins across the Straits who are so vociferous in their protests about the discrimination of the Ceylon Government against you, that they cannot have it both ways. The price of independence is the end of the Pax Britannica and the weakest groups must accept their relegation to the wall.” The Tamils in India were content to see us go, because in India they can hold their own. Not so in Ceylon where they are a 20% minority. …


Distressed you are so behindhand with our letters. Bloody Gippies have a strict censorship and have probably used letter for rude purposes. …



Rangoon, 12 May 1956

The rains here have broken, making life a great deal more tolerable all round. Though, except to an entomologist, to sit under a light is trying. Within a yard of me as I sat trying to read the other evening there were at least 20 species. Among the more attractive were a moth, pure white with red piping, looking like a Delta bomber with two red spots for jet exhausts; and a charming green and yellow beetle. The other creatures are harmless, though some raise itchy bites. I dislike an occasional visiting bat whom Dodie regards with complete intrepidity; marauding frogs and toads, one the size of a pair of army boots or of one’s head that sat in our spare room; many scorpions 8” black – none in the house but about 12 killed in the environs. …



Rangoon 8 July 1956

… I am so sorry to hear about your not feeling well, Daddy, and I am quite sure that if anything is amiss you will combat it and rise above it with your usual philosophic resilience, determination and adaptability which you (and I hope your descendants) acquire from the same fertile source as that from which Binda [Robina Glossop, née Grigor Taylor, sister of Jack and John’s great-aunt], derives her unconquerable spirit. Anyhow, your latest descendant takes after you (and me, though I find it incredible that I share your vices) in many respects, according to your daughter-in-law, for instance. He rejected his egg this morning because the cook had over-boiled it, thus, according to Dodie, displaying a fastidiousness characteristic of the male Grigor! I assek (I mean ask) you!


But our greatest piece of news is a change of house. We have moved to a furnished house, also in Golden Valley [an exclusive area of Rangoon], belonging to a businessman who has gone on leave. They are an elderly couple, for these parts, and have made a house exactly like the kind of place they aspire to own at home.  Thus it is suburban, but a gem of neatness and efficiency. It is as though we had moved to a different continent. We are high up (the other was in a depression), surrounded by neat houses and gardens instead of a stinking bazaar. The house is about half the size of the other (economies in servants are possible), but with as many rooms. ….  Every bedroom has a spotless bathroom with a wonderful flush thingummy that really works. The beds are strung, not just charpoys. There are carpets and good curtains. All our own pictures are hung and it is a perfect delight. I will ask Dodie to try and paint it for you sometime. …


Last night, Saturday, we had a kind of house-warming. … Neighbours (strangers to me), dropped in for a drink to call on us, as it were, at 6.45 (our guests were invited at 8.00). They stayed drinking (the callers) till 7.30. At 7.35, as Dodie and I were trying hurriedly to change, the electric power failed (there had been a powerful storm in the afternoon) and it remained failed most of the evening. Nevertheless, adaptability, as Dodie remarked, carried us through a cheerful and pleasant evening.


I must now tell you a little about my Bangkok trip. I spent most of the night of departure (except for two hours sleep) waiting for monsoon-bound aircraft at the almost inconceivably squalid Rangoon airport, which must look much as it did the morning after its besiegement by the Karens was raised five years ago. The arrival of the always beautiful Asian dawn over the flat airfield and miles of scrub and paddy, 50 feet below us, stretching out to the horizon was some, but insufficient, compensation. [He broke off writing at this point and the duty trip to Bangkok is described in his next letter, not quoted here.]



Rangoon, undated 1956

… We have just returned from a trip to the Shree Dagon pagoda and, after padding round the endless funfair world of Buddhas, tinkling bells and jasmine in bare feet and slacks, I am now back home.


    Billy Bee [Jonathan] is shouting something up the stairs at Nanny and I am writing is a chair in the drawing-room. I have washed my feet in Dettol and changed into my indoor Sunday rig of sports shirt (tucked in) and a fine new lungghi [sarong]. A lot of us wear this Burmese kit at home: very comfortable, cool and easily washable.


    I think we can now claim to be completely settled in Rangoon. Dodie has taken up sailing on the lake with some aplomb, which helps to make things more pleasant and compensates for that shut-in feeling. This is during the mornings when I am busy winning bread. …


    The trip up to Nantu was an unqualified success. I shall summarise it for you in an air letter [which has not survived] as this won’t leave till Wednesday. Mel ?Corcan, a plump, large, equable Canadian a couple of years older than me, who flew in the last War, made an ideal companion. We had three days with a great deal of liberty and Dodie said I looked 10 years younger at the end of it. The last part of the trip I will describe now. The three of us duly bowled off from Maymyo [in central Burma] in Cranley’s battered Land Rover. On the somewhat steep descent we came upon a lorry-load of troops, preceded by some officers in a jeep. At this point Cranley [Cranley Onslow, then a member of MI6  who went on to become a Conservative MP and peer], with great verve, accelerated sharply and overtook, plunging ahead. As he did so, he explained that it was much safer to be as far from the Army as possible. They simply [illegible] as provocation for an attack, whereas the bandits rarely molest civilians. …


Jonathan is now bringing his tray into the dining-room and declaiming “Lubly jelly-pudding, lucky boy” which you will easily recognise as a sentence almost wholly nanny-inspired. He is very sharp on recognition now. A photograph in the paper of U Nu [first Prime Minister of Burma] wearing a gambong (Burmese headscarf) was greeted with a shout of “Tun Shein” because our bearer dresses similarly.



Rangoon, 23 July 1956

… We are very content with our spruce little house.  Jonathan – he can say his name – “Unnanan” – now is as happy as a cricket. The first thing we hear nowadays is a thumping and imperious shouting: doorwer, doorwer! And he balances chubbily on fists held at chest height, arses with our shoes and then marches out shouting “Nannie! Walkie!”


You mention (Daddy) do we drive out into the country? That of course is our only serious deprivation:  the feeling of incarceration. The knowledge that you can’t go outside the town, as you can well imagine, multiplies the petty irritations and frustrations which are bound to crop up in this kind of society. If only one could get out, say for a weekend! We are in fact more beleaguered that are people nowadays in Communist posts. Of course I can get my breaks – Bangkok, Narita; but Dodie and the wives generally are well and truly stuck. This doesn’t, or hasn’t so far got us down unduly, because we are otherwise happy, but it is productive of an occasional sense of depression. You mentioned Ringalodon [unidentified]. As a matter of fact, it is one of our recreations to drive out to the airport. You can also drive with impunity right up to Prome by day, but you are not supposed to halt your car.  We have, however, found one nice open walk near the lunatic asylum! This gives us a wide view over the flat paddy plains stretching away indefinitely and we have all the sensations of open country.



Rangoon, 30 May 1956 or 1957, about an official trip with his colleague Fred Warner to look at the construction of a new road. Fred (later Sir Fred) Warner was very much a diplomatic service ‘character’ who ended his Foreign Office career as Ambassador to Japan and later became a businessman and a Conservative Member of the European Parliament.

… I have promised you some further brief account of our journeying. Here, then, a brief instalment. We set off on the morrow (6 a.m.) of our local celebration of the Queen’s birthday. We had had two successive arduous evenings and, with what I suppose with anticipation and exhaustion, I felt abominably queasy the night before. Anyhow, 5-6 hours later, I rose fresh as a daisy at 5 a.m., made final preparations and drove round to Fred’s. We set off four up: us two and two Karen servant-drivers, in a Land Rover. We felt a great liberation of the spirit as we drove North. It was still not hot. The Burmese countryside never completely loses its greenness, unlike India, before the rains. It might in places have been East Anglia at the height of summer. Very soon, distant blue hills to the left (Arakan Yomas) and to the right (Pegu Yomas) interest and promise of wilder things.


I should say a few words about Fred Warner, who is an unusual chap with remarkable talents and a very stimulating companion. His father was an R.N. officer killed in the 1st War; his mother an American. He was destined for the Navy, did Dartmouth and a couple of years at sea. He liked the Navy, but had a passionate wish to complete his education at a University. After a great fight, almost making history in the process, he got out of the Navy and got his two years at Oxford before the war came and the Navy returned. His great forte is his conversation: most entertaining. With a lot of money, brains and friends among the Great, he is nevertheless a man of humility and humanity. 6 foot 4, swarthy, odd-faced, a bit like Sir Ralph Richardson in an eccentric part.


To continue the narrative, the country changed near Prome. Soon we were by the river bank, here about 1 ½ miles wide like a great estuary with 40 foot banks. A few miles more brought us into the dusty, sleepy, muddy Prome, the usual one-horse post-war Burmese town with its relics of more spacious planning and its huddle and rash of lean-to shacks, broken down cars and general decrepitude. Our first date was with the District Engineer with whom we were to try to fix a river crossing. We ran him to earth, a Madrassi who spoke slightingly of his incompetent Burmese colleagues, his constant struggle against inefficiency.  Clearly his struggle wasn’t all-absorbing since he was in the middle of an extensive siesta.  So at 22 p.m. we sat in his office politely, lunchless, rocking with fatigue, while enquiries were made elsewhere about the crossing and Mr Swami talked on and on about life. Finally we moved about 3 p.m. Back down the road, about five miles to the crossing-point. Down the precipitous slope, onto an outboard engineered punt and away for a lovely 1 ½ spin down the broad stream towards the distant Yomas [hills]. We really felt we were away, and still more so when we went ashore on the other bank.


Padaung was a hot little spot on the Irawaddy, 10 miles down from Prome. We were made as comfortable as circumstances allowed in the two-storied rest-house on the river bank. Actually, between us on the foreshore and the stream was 250 yards of dry road, covered only by water during the rains. I suppose it was 105°-110°in Prome but tolerable since dryer than Rangoon. We soon organised our first meal of the day: boiled rice with some packet soup. I had my hair cut in the local bazaar, an experience I have frequently coveted but never attempted. He sliced off most of it for about 3 inches in preparation for the unknown but suspected rigours of our journey ahead. Evening fell as the population of Padaung (some 1,500) made for the water’s edge to wash, drink, draw cooking water, dhobi, etc. We sat on the verandah, surveying the scene and swigging warm whisky and water, and contemplated the stars and the 160-mile journey towards the coast on the morrow.


So much for this week [there was probably a weekly bag taking mail home].



Probably early June 1956 or 1957 (the second instalment of John’s account of the trip).

You were left in the torrid heat of Padaung beside the Irawaddy. The creak of axles going down to the river to draw water from the river brought me to consciousness – consciousness of the fading stars and a little morning breeze from the hills. Leaving a still snoring Fred Warner dozing on his bed, I galvanised our Karen servant into brewing up some tea. We breakfasted shortly after on – guess what – yes, rice.  While we waited for the arrival of Saw David, the Karen district engineer responsible for road construction, and his henchmen, I dhobied [washed] my dust-encrusted kit.


After 9 a.m., by which time it was uncomfortably hot, Saw David at last turned up with our Land Rover, which had been rafted across the Irawaddy. There are some rather poor photos of this proceeding taken on the return journey. At 9.30 we set off with our one servant, Saw David, a couple of his gunmen (reformed Karen insurgents) and another jeep behind.  We were soon bowling mainly along the macadamised part of the road which led along a straight bund [embankment] above the rice-fields towards the hills. We passed a 200 foot hill with a pagoda and monastery on top. It had, oddly, five approach paths (four is the usual maximum). Each was guarded by two of the usual dragons (Chinthes) and roofed with that fine old historic Burmese material, corrugated iron. Nevertheless, these paths with their echeloned roofs making up the hill route [sic]. I think I was able to capture this in my colour photograph.


A few miles further took us through the last hamlet. This was the last human habitation for 80 miles except for camps for chaps working on the road. There are no villages, no huts, no jungly walas [people]. It is hard to appreciate the emptiness of Burma after India. There has been a track of sorts over these hills for many years – certainly since British days and probably before. But, despite that and the fact that this new proper road has been a-building for 2-3 years now, not one single extra head of population has moved in. Though the road will be the only effective land-link between Arakand and Burma, it begins (on the wrong side of the Irawaddy) and ends (10 miles from the sea at the end of a shallow creek) nowhere. One can only assume that this expensive venture has been undertaken as a sop to Arakanese nationalism – as an earnest that the central government is concerned with the development of the outlying states.


The insurgency set-up is typical of large tracts of Burma. In some areas it is much worse – the Delta, Tenasserim) and in some better (the North). There are about half a dozen gangs, each of about 30 to 80 men,that operate between Padaung and Taungup, the sea end of the road. They are all nominally PVOs [People's Volunteer Organisation, formed by Aung San as a paramilitary force out of the demobbed veterans], a dissident element stemming from the last war – “Burmese Army”. There will also be a few communists and some communist influence on the others. The insurgents harry each end of the road. They destroy culverts and wreck machines on lorries, but generally speaking do not injure civilians; their activities are directed against the government. The Army (about one company is allocated to this 170-mile road) is fair game, and so are the police (usually armed).


So much for politics. We are now leaving the plains and the tarmac. The road raw, red and rubbled, wound up cuttings into jungle or scrub-covered hills. Everywhere there are signs of landslides. The consistency of these hills is that of a crumbly cake.  When the rains come (due in a fortnight) the engineers will abandon the road and retire to the plains. After six months they will return to find that the road has disappeared down the bund in perhaps forty places. There was one jolly little pagoda on the edge of the plains – to enable apprehensive travellers to say a final prayer, no doubt. I got it well in colour with a bullock convoy passing it.


Then it began to grow a little pleasanter with jungle smells and glimpses of the extensive plains to the East. We were soon over the top, at about 3,250 feet and we stopped at one of the camps for lunch. This was an area the size perhaps of six tennis courts, built on a spur. It is one of the richest areas for game in Burma. Elephant, tiger, leopard, wild buffalo, pig, deer etc. abound. The camp had therefore a ten-foot barbed wire fence. I took one or two good coloured photographs of it, one a particularly effective one through the gate and over the jungle, with three Burmese citizens in the foreground. We lunched off – yes – rice and pressed on. By about 2 p.m., we had tackled 80 miles or so, had passed the top of the pass – 3,800 feet – taken the appropriate photos there and reached the road head where the sight of 20 or so giant tractors working so far from anywhere was somehow awesome. I got a good coloured photo. And there at the road-head I will leave you. We had crossed the Arakan border and had only another 40-odd miles to go to our destination, Taungup. (To be continued.)


The rest of the account has not survived.




Back in the UK 1958


   At the end of his posting in Burma, John and his family had some leave on the Isle of Wight, where they had taken a cottage near his parents (his mother was by then quite ill, and John felt that he ought to stay near her). John was told that his next posting would be as First Secretary (Commercial) in the Embassy in Cairo, which was due to be reopened after the break in relations following the Suez affair. First, however, the details of the resumption of relations had to be negotiated, so all the staff designated for the new Embassy were stuck in London. John found a nice flat in St James’s Place and was occupied on various odd jobs in the Foreign Office while he waited.


   One of these was to bear-lead a group of senior Burmese trade officials who had been invited on an official trip. John agreed to take it on somewhat reluctantly, and insisted that, if he was to do it, he should be allowed to take the visitors to night-clubs, even though it would be costly. This policy paid off. The Burmese greatly enjoyed the London nightlife, and the most senior one formed an affectionate relationship with one of the night-club hostesses, whom he dashed off to see at every opportunity.  When the time came for the visitors to leave, all the grey men from the Central Office of Information (which had organised the trip) lined up in a row at the airport in their dark suits and Homburg hats and solemnly shook the visitors by the hand. The Burmese are not into formality, and they shuffled sheepishly along the row of suits towards the steps up to the aircraft. At the last moment, the admirer of the nightclub hostess broke away from the group and rushed back to John, threw his arms around him, burst into sobs and thanked John effusively, saying that it was the best time that they had ever had. After he had returned to the aircraft, there was a moment’s silence among the COI men, and then the senior one turned to John and said ‘Mr Taylor, I really must congratulate you’.


[The Burmese partiality for night-clubs was still in evidence when Sophia joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1966. Her first job was in South-East Asia Department. There was a young batchelor in the Burmese Embassy who used to invite her regularly to the Playboy Club with its Bunny Girls, not a place she would otherwise ever have been to.]




UK Delegation to NATO in Paris, 1958-61


   The negotiations to reopen the Cairo Embassy dragged on for so long that those waiting to go were offered other posts, and John snapped up the offer of a post to the UK Delegation to NATO, then based in Paris. Imogen was born just before he left, and Dodie followed a month later with the two children and an au pair girl. For most of their stay they lived in a flat in the rue Molitor in the 16th arrondissement and Jonathan attended the American School.

John with Jonathan in the Jardin de Bagatelle


   John started by being the UK representative on the NATO Information Committee. Halfway through the posting, John moved at his own volition to the Infrastructure Committee, which was responsible for approving military infrastructure projects – ports, airbases etc. – in NATO countries. Throughout his posting, the work of NATO was overshadowed by the cold war. It was a tense time with the Soviet Union pushing at the limits in Berlin, where relations between the four occupying powers were still governed by agreements concluded at the war. Berlin was in the middle of the Soviet bloc state of East Germany and the Soviet Union’s aim was to undermine the position of the four Western powers. The then Secretary-General of NATO, Paul-Henri Spaak, was full of doom and gloom about the possibility of World War III being unleashed by an incident in Berlin, possibly slight in itself but representing a Soviet breach of the quadripartite arrangements.


   One of the perks of the infrastructure committee job was the regular ‘choirboys’ outings’, trips by members of all the delegations to the individual NATO countries to see the NATO installations there. John went on one of these trips to the US for the first time, sending Dodie and the children to Australia, where he was able to join them from California at almost no extra cost. He also went to Greece, visiting Crete and a remote airfield in Northern Greece full of Americans and their rockets. John remembers Northern Greece as particularly wild and fierce, with a population to match. It struck him how easy it would be for them to overpower the small bespectacled American eggheads with their fingers on the triggers of the rockets and to start World War III. In Crete he hired a bicycle to visit some of the classical sites that had figured so much in classics at school and was exhilarated by seeing the dry classical references come to life. 


   John also persuaded the Ministry of Defence to organise a trip to UK NATO installations and took a group to Malta and Gibraltar which was much enjoyed by all. On the flight between the two places, a message came from Gibraltar to say that unfortunately there was one bedroom too few and two of the delegates would have to share. John asked the Dane next to whom he was sitting whether he would mind if they shared a room. The Dane said not at all, but there was one thing he should warn John about. Every night he had a nightmare about a runaway car. Some nights he just groaned, but on others he flailed his arms around and knocked things over; and on very bad nights he biffed anybody in reach, including his wife. It was too late for John to draw back, and he had had some experience of these problems since his lifelong friend John ffrench had been in childhood an inveterate sleep-walker.  Fortunately the Dane had the mark II nightmare on that occasion and merely knocked the bedside table over.

John with a Dutch representative on the visit to Malta



Foreign Office, 1961-64


   John returned to London in 1961 and the family bought a house (the only one John ever owned) in Ringwood Gardens in Roehampton. John was given a job in the Information Policy Department (IPD) of the Foreign Office, in charge of the European desk. This four-person unit was responsible for propagating the British point of view in Europe. It was an interesting time to be doing it, as the French President, General de Gaulle, had just said his famous ‘non’ to the British application to join the Common Market, and the aim was to persuade as many people as possible that the veto should be reversed and Britain should be allowed to join (which of course they eventually did). All sorts of methods were used: sending Ministers out to European countries to talk to their counterparts; inviting influential visitors from those countries back to the UK or giving them subscriptions to British publications; and above all trying to influence the continental press. The French press, taking its cue from de Gaulle, was unreceptive, but the Department used to cultivate French-language Swiss newspapers that circulated in France.


   The head of the department was Tony Moore and another congenial colleague was Mary Galbraith to whom Tony was subsequently married and who went on to be Principal of St Hilda's College ,Oxford. Tony and Mary Moore remained among John's closest friends until their deaths. John added their son Arthur to his collection of godchildren (which eventually rose to six – Richard Townsend-Rose, Cynthia Selby, Gillian Tesh, Nicky Britten, Arthur Moore and Patrick ffrench).


   Working for John was one of the ‘characters’ and permanent fixtures of the Foreign Office – Ernst Albert. Ernst was Viennese and had been the Berlin correspondent of a Viennese newspaper before the war. But he was strongly opposed to the Nazis and had to flee to Britain to save himself. During the war, he was employed in the black propaganda unit run by Sefton Delmer. This unit operated a radio station beamed towards Germany that purported to be run from within Germany by ex-Nazis who had seen the light and now opposed the regime. Ernst assumed the persona of an ex-SS Gauleiter, who would every so often lose his temper and have a good rant – something that came naturally to him even when not playing a part. After the war Ernst had joined the Foreign Office to write commentaries in German on current events that were telexed daily to the British posts in Germany for dissemination and indeed direct to many German newspapers – a sort of private mini-news agency.


    When John joined IPD, he was told that, although Ernst was technically his subordinate, he should treat him with kid gloves. John took this to heart and made considerable efforts to gain Ernst’s trust, in which he was successful. Ernst even began asking him for advice on drafting, and also became a personal friend. John’s successor had a less happy time with Ernst, at least to begin with. When John was handing over to his successor, he repeated the advice he had been given about treating Ernst with kid gloves. The successor was dismissive, saying he would stand no nonsense and would soon sort Ernst out. A couple of weeks later John was told by the two women who had also worked on the European desk that there had been an almighty shouting match in the corridor outside their room between Ernst and the successor, followed by a crash, which turned out to be the successor fainting. 


New York, 1964-68


   In 1964, John was posted to the UK Mission to the United Nations. He and Dodie had by that time separated and Dodie moved with the children to Derbyshire to marry Martin Brooke-Taylor, a cousin of John’s Brooke-Taylor cousins, but on the other side of their family, so not related to John. John therefore went alone to New York, and the children joined him only during school holidays.


   John’s job was to act as the UK representative on the UN Third Committee, which dealt with human rights, race relations, slavery and other social issues. It spent much of its time negotiating international conventions on these subjects that UN member states were then invited to sign up to – for instance the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, for which John was the UK negotiator. The Committee worked throughout the year, getting through some quite serious business. Then, every autumn, for three months, the UN General Assembly took place. This was the main general gathering of UN members, to which most member states sent their Foreign Ministers for part of the time.  Rhetoric ruled in the General Assembly, as most member states were playing chiefly to domestic audiences back home. The Assembly had the power to pass resolutions instructing the UN bodies (including the Committees) on what they should be doing, although many of the resolutions simply expressed general condemnation of particular member states or their activities. Whenever a resolution concerned a social issue, John would spring into action, lobbying everybody he could to persuade them to adopt language which would allow the UK to endorse the resolution. Most resolutions began as drafts in extreme language and much effort was put into toning them down. For instance, a Third World sponsored resolution would start life condemning the West’s ‘shameless support for the abominable crime of apartheid in South Africa’ (whereas in fact the Western states had condemned apartheid). The UK aim would be to persuade the sponsors to drop the reference to the West’s shameless support and to concentrate on the condemnation of apartheid itself. 


   This was the period when the UN was dominated by the newly decolonised Third World states, in full cry against their ex-colonial masters, and egged on by the Soviet bloc (the Soviet Union’s own colonies in central Asia and the Caucasus were not recognised as such). Of course some of the criticisms were justified, but many were not. The UK had decolonised much earlier than other colonial powers, and members of the Labour Government then in power used to arrive in New York rather preening themselves as being the good guys representing the international Left (compared to e.g. Belgium, Portugal and France). They were often in a state of shock at the beginning to find that all that stood for nothing, and that they were faced with ranting speeches criticising the UK just as harshly as the other colonial powers or even more so, for instance over Rhodesia (now, Zimbabwe, where the white colonial government had just made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence) and over the few remaining small British colonies, mostly islands that were thought too small to be viable states or countries like British Honduras (Belize) that needed a UK presence to defend themselves against a neighbouring power that had a territorial claim. The delegates were friendly in private, but in public their chief aim was to put the Western powers in the wrong. India, which was trying to establish itself as the leader of the Third World, was one of the worst. Later on, the Western states simply ignored the rants and the Third World lost interest in that particular sport. But at that time most Western states adopted a craven attitude that probably just fed the enthusiasm of the Third World delegates for exaggerated rhetoric.


   During the General Assembly, the permanent staff of the Mission were reinforced by visiting officials from London. In 1966, one of these was Sophia Lambert, who had just joined the Diplomatic Service and had been sent out to send back daily reports on the proceedings of the General Assembly – a regular dogsbody job for new entrants. So this was John and Sophia’s first meeting. But there were also more heavyweight visitors, sometimes Labour politicians who would act as the UK representative on one of the Committees for the duration of the assembly. One of these was Baroness (Dora) Gaitskell, the widow of Hugh Gaitskell, the former leader of the Labour Party. She was appointed the official UK representative on the Third Committee and John became her minder. She did not always understand the issues and left to herself could go off at unfortunate tangents.  John became known as the only one who could keep her under control. She had had previous contact with John’s family in the form of an early affair with Silas Glossop (John’s father’s first cousin), and used to tell John about it.


   John enjoyed New York. He felt that what he was doing was generally worthwhile, and there was also a stimulating social life. The Americans were at that stage very interested in the UN, and influential people in New York were enormously hospitable to members of the UK Mission. Because he was on the Third Committee which dealt with race and human rights, he was cultivated by various interested lobbies - black American, Jewish, Irish. Dora Gaitskell, who was Jewish, had the entrée to left-wing Jewish society in New York and used to take John with her to parties and luncheons as a walker. John’s main girlfriend in New York was Rachel Pakenham, who subsequently became Rachel Billington and the author of a highly lucrative series of popular novels. Her parents, Frank and Elizabeth, the Earl and Countess of Longford, were both writers and Rachel was well supplied with introductions to literary circles. So overall John had access to most interesting sections of New York society. Other friends were the environmentalist Stanley Johnson (working at the World Bank) and his wife Charlotte who were there with their first two children, Boris (later to become Prime minister) and Rachel (later a novelist and journalist).  He also had a good flat in Manhatten on the East Side, and managed to rent an agreeable cottage in the mountains outside New York for weekends and holidays.

Stanley and Charlotte Johnson and their family. John steering Boris.


   One anecdote-engendering event during John’s time there was the great blackout – New York’s worst until that of 2003. The lights went off shortly after 5 o’clock just as John’s UN Committee was packing up for the evening, rather early. John walked back to his flat, which was on the 17th floor, and began the long climb up the normally unused stairs. By this time it was dark and he had to feel his way. By the time he had climbed a dozen floors, he realised that he had lost count of the floors, and had no way of finding out which floor he was on except by going down and starting again or shouting out ‘what floor is this’ and hoping that somebody in an apartment on that floor would answer. Fortunately, the latter course was successful, and he finally got to his flat.


    He had arranged a party at the flat that evening with some journalist friends. The telephones were just working, but faintly, so that one had to shout to make oneself heard. The telephone in his apartment began ringing as soon as he walked in the door, as his guests rang to say that they could not make it due to the traffic gridlock caused by the non-working traffic lights. Somebody had heard that volunteers were being sought to direct the traffic, so John and a group of journalist friends decided to meet downtown to take up traffic duty. One of the journalists was the well-known veteran Guardian correspondent, Hella Pick. She said that there might be rioting on the streets and suggested that everybody should come armed. So John strapped his great uncle’s cutlass to his belt, underneath his mackintosh. John and his friends duly performed traffic duty for a while and then adjourned for a natter. In the event, there were no riots and everything was perfectly orderly (power was restored the following morning). But John jokingly showed off his cutlass (in its scabbard) to his friends to demonstrate that he had come prepared. In the following day’s Guardian, there was a colourful description of the blackout by Hella Pick, in which she described how it had brought out on the streets all sorts of weird people, including a ‘wild-eyed Englishman brandishing a cutlass’.


Back to Delhi, 1968-69


   After four years in New York, John was posted back to Delhi as Counsellor (Information). From having a staff of half a rather disgruntled secretary in New York, he arrived in Delhi to find a staff of some 200-300 people under him, of whom half a dozen were UK-based career members of the Diplomatic Service and the rest locally employed Indians. In addition, he supervised a further 200-300 staff in the information sections in the British Deputy High Commissions in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras.


   It is difficult now to understand what all these people were doing. They were of course distributing a lot of material about Britain (there was for instance a film unit that used to go round showing films about Britain all over India). They also spent a lot of time encouraging British/Indian contacts and exchanges and visits in a number of fields: science, technology, medicine, literature, social work etc. But they were imbued with the ethos of the Commonwealth Relations Office (when the British colonies first started to become independent, the old Colonial Office was transformed into the Commonwealth Relations Office which became responsible for relations with Commonwealth countries; it was only in the 1960s that it was merged with the FO to become the Foreign and Commonwealth Office). Part of that ethos was that they were there not to serve Britain but to serve the whole Commonwealth, even though paid for by Britain and working in the British High Commission.  A certain amount of staff time was spent on distributing and collecting information about other Commonwealth countries. And a lot of staff were probably just creating work for others in one way or another.


   Within a year of John’s arrival in Delhi, The High Commission had one of the regular ‘inspections’ to which all FCO posts were subject, with a team of people coming out from London to assess whether they were correctly staffed. Not surprisingly, they took one look at the Information Section and decided that it was far too big, a judgement with which John thoroughly concurred. They decreed that the staff should be cut by two-thirds and that there was no need for somebody of Counsellor grade to head it. So John’s posting in Delhi lasted only just over a year. Before he left, he managed to ensure that the staff reductions were achieved through natural wastage over a five-year period (many of the staff were on the elderly side), without anybody having to be sacked.


   The High Commissioner when John arrived was John Freeman, an ex-editor of the New Statesman who had been a political appointment to the post by the Labour Government. He was then replaced by a career diplomat, Sir Maurice James. The latter had the reputation of being a bit of a firebrand, but he had just married a new French wife who took up most of his attention, so he was a pretty passive High Commissioner. Relations with the Indians were in any case in the doldrums. Mrs Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, was suspicious of Britain; pro-Soviet Union; and keen to be seen to be in the forefront of the anti-colonial movement. The staff of the High Commission included a number of intelligent, amusing and energetic bright young men who later went on to the heights of the Diplomatic career. This made for a lively social life, but largely conducted within the Diplomatic Corps, and the High Commission made few inroads into Indian society.

Cocktail party in Calcutta


   One his way to Delhi to take up the post, John had passed through London, and a lunch was organised to allow him to meet the main Indian journalists working in London. He was a bit late for the lunch, and he remembers entering the room to a great babble of noise as the Indian journalists chatted to each other, and his heart was warmed by the prospect of being back among Indians, bubbling with ideas and for whom conversation is one of the chief aims of life. When he got to Delhi, he was able to take up many of his old friendships yet again. Jagat Mehta was by then in the top job in the Indian Foreign Ministry; and Fateh Shinde was in Lucknow commanding a military district. He also got on famously with the Indian journalists in Delhi, to such an extent that, when his post was down-graded, the editor of the Delhi edition of The Statesman of India (who subsequently became High Commissioner in London) wrote an article deploring his departure:


The success of a foreign mission is best judged by the relations it has with the public. The otherwise formal British High Commission has been fortunate in having a popular Public Relations and Press chief. Mr J.G. Taylor, who exudes informality and friendliness. And it is not the way he speaks Hindustani alone that has won him so many friends; it is the way he treats people. He personifies the idea of equality, the concept that many of his countrymen are questioning under the spell of Powellism. He is leaving his post in Delhi after a tenure of only a year. A person like him is bound to achieve great heights – and we wish him luck – but the High Commission will not be the same in his absence.(20.6.1969)


     He was said to be the only member of the High Commission who had good contacts with Indians and was interested in the development of India rather than in the business of the High Commission. A visiting team from the Duncan Commission (a body charged by the Government to make recommendations on modernising the Diplomatic Service) was also impressed by the fact that John was the only British member of the High Commission who talked Hindustani to his Indian staff.


The new High Commissioner, Sir Morrice James, prsdenting his credentials in 1968.

John is at back left.


Sabbatical at Sussex University


On returning from Delhi, the Foreign Office gave John a sabbatical year at Sussex University. This was quite common for the more intellectual members of the counsellor grade as there were more people than posts at that level.  He was designated a Visiting Fellow and worked in the Department of International Relations with the historian Robert Rhodes James (subsequently a Tory MP), inter alia on a study of some aspects of the UN.


Washington 1971-74

   John was then posted to the Embassy in Washington, again as Counsellor (Information). There was a separate British Information Service office in New York, the media capital, which churned out the endless handouts and briefings and other literature that were supposed to influence people in Britain’s favour. So John and his dozen staff were chiefly concerned with the Washington press and opinion-formers in the federal capital. During John’s time, by far the biggest issue was Northern Ireland. The big Irish American community in the States was influential in pushing the IRA line, which portrayed the British Government as the villain of the piece, and the Embassy had its work cut out to ensure that a more balanced assessment prevailed, and that the point of view of the British Government was also appreciated. John reckons that he was pretty successful at this; indeed sometimes in retrospect too successful. He remembers persuading one journalist of the justice of the British Army position on Bloody Sunday, whereas it has subsequently transpired that that the role of the Army in that particular episode was far more dubious than had been understood at the time.


   There was considerable hostility towards the Embassy from Irish-Americans, and during John’s time there a letter-bomb arrived at the Embassy and blew off the hand off the unfortunate secretary who opened it. John had to go on television to describe what had happened, an interview that was shown throughout the world and brought John much fan-mail from old friends. He himself received a death threat, and shortly afterwards returned to his house late one night after a party to find a large parcel standing on the door-step with its label facing the door so that it was unreadable. It was extremely cold, and John decided that all he wanted to do was to get inside the house as soon as possible, which he could do by opening the door and stepping over the parcel without touching it. So he rang a friend in the Embassy to explain the situation, so that if he was blown up somebody would know what had happened. Despite the friend’s advice to call the police, this is exactly what he did. In the event the parcel proved quite harmless, but it was a jumpy time.


   John managed to find himself a pretty old 19th century red-brick ex-workman’s house in Georgetown, which he much enjoyed. His landlord was a tycoon who lived nearby and had a heated open-air swimming pool that he let John use whenever he was away. John recalls the extraordinary experience, in the middle of a Washington winter, of running barefoot across stones so frozen that they hurt the feet to jump into the heated pool, and then having to duck his head every few moments to prevent his hair freezing. He had a black maid from the Caribbean who used to come in two days a week and with whom he quickly established extremely cordial relations. And the academics and others who lived in Georgetown were interesting and friendly. His children used to come to stay, and he also took up with Pauline Neville-Jones (later Dame Pauline). With both he used to go on trips to the coast (wild horses and a plenitude of oysters) and the mountains (good scenery and fresh farm food).


   There were quite a few rich Americans who believed that they had a duty to cherish foreign diplomats, and John used to joke about America being the only country so generous that they ran charities for diplomats. One of these was run by the Hearst Foundation, and offered to take two diplomats from each Embassy with their families on a tour of the North-West of the United States. John was one of the lucky ones and took his children. The Foundation paid their air fares out to the starting point for the tour, and then allocated each family a ‘Winnibago’, a huge camper-van. The organisers then led the convoy of some 30 Winnibagos on a three-week tour, taking them from San Francisco up the coast to Washington State and the East to the Dakotas. The children seemed to enjoy it, and this holiday was for John one of the high-lights of his posting.

With Jonathan and Imogen on the Winnibago trip


Geneva 1974-77


   In 1974 John was posted to Geneva to be No 2 in the UK Mission to the Committee for Coordination of Disarmament (CCD), a body set up at one of the East-West summits aimed at ending or at any rate warming up the Cold War. It had an equal number of NATO, Soviet Bloc and non-aligned members. The main protagonists were of course the Soviet Union and the United States. Nuclear matters predominated, as at that time the general feeling was that the world was at very real risk from the use or even the testing of nuclear weapons. Although the Soviet Union and the United States were antagonists, at times they found themselves in unspoken alliance against the non-aligned members pressing for early nuclear disarmament, as on the really serious nuclear issues progress was made secretly and bilaterally by the two big nuclear powers. Nevertheless, during John’s time there, the Committee successfully negotiated a revision of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.


   The Committee also attempted more or less successfully to negotiate agreements on various other types of armaments, such as chemical and biological weapons and nuclear depleted weapons. One of the successes during John’s time was an agreement to ban weapons for environmental modification (e.g. changing the climate).


   John also became involved in a Red Cross initiative, outside the Committee, to reduce the lethality of weapons. Sweden was a champion of this initiative, and Hans Blix (later famous as the leader of the UN delegation checking on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) played a leading role. Two summers running, during the CCD’s long summer recess, the Red Cross organised conferences (in Lugarno and Lucerne) to discuss how to control weapons causing unnecessary injury or having indiscriminate effect – cluster bombs, mines etc. John was asked to lead the UK delegation to these conferences, reporting direct to Disarmament Department in the Foreign Office in London. Under his auspices, the UK took a leading role in persuading the Americans and others of the evils of indiscriminate mine-laying, although it was not until much later, and with the help of Princess Diana, that his efforts bore fruit in the form of an international agreement. There were also debates over a new rifle bullet then being introduced by the UK. It was smaller and of higher velocity than the traditional bullet, and more accurate. But the Red Cross and the Swedes believed that it caused worse wounds. The Swedes invited the delegates to Sweden to oversee tests on anaesthetised pigs, considered to have tissue most like humans. Once killed, the pigs were whipped into tents, as would happen with wounded soldiers in battle, and surgeons extracted the bullets. After all that, the tests were inconclusive and the Ministry of Defence went ahead with the new bullets.


   John quite enjoyed the work of the Committee, but above all he loved being in continental Europe, which he hardly knew, after all that time in India and America. For him, Europe was the seat of all serious culture, and he lapped up the cultural offerings available on his Geneva doorstep. He also enjoyed the wonderful mountain walks, often in the company of Colin and Shirley McColl (Colin McColl, who later became head of MI6, occupied a shadowy job in the Mission). He took up skiing enthusiastically and became quite good at it. All in all, Geneva offered a perfect mix of cultural and agreeable physical pursuits. Finally, he had Jonathan and Imogen (now pretty grown up) to stay in his very nice flat, and also many friends and relations, repaying many of those who had offered him hospitality when as a single parent he had had his children with him during their school holidays.

Skiing in Zermatt



South Africa, 1978-80


   For his final posting, the FCO offered John the choice of a small embassy of his own or another post as the second in command in a larger mission. On the basis that he preferred to be a small fish in a big and interesting pond, he opted for the latter and was posted with the rank of Consul-General to the British Consulate-General in Johannesburg. It was headed by a secondee from the Department of Trade and Industry, as most of the work of the Consulate-General was concentrated on the big UK trade promotion operation in South Africa. But Johannesburg was also where most of the black political action was in those days, with the apartheid regime and white supremacy still in full swing. As the British Embassy was based in Pretoria and Cape Town (to which all the embassies moved during the Parliamentary session), John found himself doing a largely political job, acting almost as the Ambassador to the black community in Soweto. He opened up an office in Soweto, taking on a black assistant to run it, and concentrated on developing good relations with the leaders of the black community.

    Under the apartheid regime, while blacks could come to white areas (where the whites needed them to do the work), they had to live in townships such as Soweto. The fiction was that these were towns for the blacks, and they were generally off-limits to whites. But the South Africans avoided creating a diplomatic incident by banning diplomats from going there, so John was one of the few regular white visitors to Soweto. At that time, Nelson Mandela was still in prison on Robben Island and his wife Winnie, who was a popular heroine in Soweto, had been exiled by the South African Government.


Party at John's house in Johannesburg


   When John arrived in Johannesburg, he almost immediately took up with Sophia Lambert, who was serving as First Secretary (Economic) in the Embassy in Pretoria, about 50 kilometres from Johannesburg. Together, they had a tremendous time exploring South Africa and neighbouring countries, becoming the best travelled British diplomats in South Africa.

Walking in the Magaliesberg near Johannesburg



In the Karoo desert


Trips to India

   John also took Sophia on holiday to India, on what was to be the first of some half dozen trips that they made from South Africa and after retirement, mostly to John’s beloved Rajasthan, but also to Kashmir (where they stayed, on a very cold houseboat on the Dal Lake - it was November and snowing in Srinagar), and to Bombay and South India. Largely at Sophia’s instigation, they travelled mainly by local bus, a mode of transport outside of John’s experience, and probably not what he would have preferred, but he put up with it manfully. He had lost none of his ability to chat to Indians of all classes and castes. There was general amazement at a European speaking Hindustani – something that only Indians alive at the time of the Raj had encountered.


    On one trip, John and Sophia joined a coach tour to Ajanta and Allora, the only Europeans among a group of middle class Indian tourists. The tour involved an overnight journey. In the small hours the bus stopped in a small town so that the driver and his mate could take a comfort break. The passengers (including Sophia) were asleep, but John woke up and got out of the coach. He asked the driver the name of the town. “Ahmednagar”, replied the driver. “My birthplace” exclaimed John – the first time he had been back there since being born. The driver was delighted and kept saying “How auspicious!” He insisted on rousing the owner of a nearby café and they sat around drinking warm Thums Up (the local variant of coca cola) and toasting the auspiciousness of the occasion.


    Later on that same trip, the coach party for some reason transferred to cars. One of the cars broke down just outside a village. The drivers, quickly joined by volunteers from the village, set about trying to repair it, which seemed to involve dismantling a large part of the engine, the parts of which were strewn across the road where different people worked on them. One of the passengers, an engineer by training, turned to John and commented: “Do you know that there are currently five different repair operations going on!” – a testament to the engineering ability of ordinary Indians. The repair was successful and the party went on its way.

    John also looked up his old Indian friends. He and Sophia stayed with Fateh Shinde, his best friend from army days in Delhi, in Pune, where Fateh – now married to a Sikh doctor and with three daughters – was running a factory making laminates. Pune was at that time the headquarters of a Hindu guru, Rajneesh, whose ashram was near the Shindes’ house. He attracted a large number of Western followers. The followers all wore orange and the streets were full of orange-clothed westerners. On John  and Sophia’s first visit, Sophia happened to be wearing an orange dress, which she was discreetly asked to change, so that it would not be thought that the Shindes were entertaining a rajneeshi or member of the sect – the latter being rather given to free love and noisy tension-relieving sessions which irritated the local inhabitants.


    John and Sophia also stayed several times in Udaipur at the family house of Jagat Mehta, John‘s old Cambridge friend, now head of the Indian Foreign Ministry; and in Ajmer with Jack Gibson (whom John had recruited after India independence to act as a sort of unofficial liaison officer between the High Commission and Britons living Rajasthan). Jack Gibson had become headmaster of Mayo College, which he made into one of the one of the most prestigious schools India, attracting pupils from high-ranking families from all over India. He was one of the very few Britons who continued living in India long after independence. In the words of the blurb accompanying his memoirs (written with an India journalist):


In some ways, Jack was the last Indian Englishman. He came ten years before independence and stayed on 47 years after it, rendering dedicated service to the country of his adoption for 57 years. Jack’s journey started as a school teacher at The Doon School. He was the last English Principal of Mayo College and the last English President of the Himalayan Club. He was the last, and for most of the time the only English resident of Ajmer. He must have been just about the last Englishman to have been honoured by both the British and Indian Governments.


    When Jack retired in 1969, he settled in a house in Ajmer.  It had two stories and to raise some cash he had sold the ground floor to an Indian Army brigadier with an agreement that when Jack died the Brigadier would get the whole house. He clearly thought that Jack would not last long, but Jack was a tough old boy who did not die until 1994, at the age of 86. He never married and lived alone with a servant called Tanzook. John and Sophia remember the signature sounds in the house being Jack calling “Tanzook” at the top of his voice and the screeches of the noisy peacocks who lived round about.


    The Pushkar camel fair took place near Ajmer, and John and Sophia had the privilege of seeing it when it was still a purely local Rajasthani affair and not the massive tourist attraction it has now become.

John at the Pushkar camel fair, 1985





    Sophia returned to London at the end of her posting in early 1980. John was less than a year from retirement and decided to go early to join her. They bought a house in Ladbroke Grove in London, where John lived for the 36 years of his retirement. When Sophia inherited some money from an aunt, they also bought a small cottage in Somerset where they spent many happy weekends walking in the country and exploring local churches, gardens and stately homes.

John and Sophia outside Tinderbox Cottage

    Shortly after he retired, John was asked by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to undertake a meeting and greeting hob at Heathrow. They were having problems with the large number of arriving foreigners who though that they were entitled to the use of the VIP suites that the FCO kept for the use of arriving and departing Heads of State and Government, senior ministers, royal families etc. Nigeria in particular turned out to have an awful lot of local kings who all thought they should be able, with their large families, to use the suites, as did a number of minor Gulf sheikhs and their entourages. There was not enough room for them all, and John’s job was to soothe those who felt snubbed. In the event, he decided that it was pretty much a non-job and resigned. From then on, he eschewed paid employment and decided to devote his time to his own pursuits.


    Above all, he wanted to get to know his own country and the rest of Europe, much of which was unknown territory. Sophia was still working, but during her holidays they made frequent trips to continental Europe. John also used to organise trips with old friends when Sophia was not available. He also spent quite a lot of time with his relations in Derbyshire, which he saw as his home county insofar as he had one. He loved walking, and was still up to walking a couple of miles a day up until his death. He delighted in organising walking trips with family and friends, including one memorable four-day trip along the Kennet and Avon Canal.

On the Kennet and Avon canal walk 1986

John took this photograph with a time delay camera while on a solo visit to Iona in

May 1990 to prove to Sophia that he really had gone for swim in the sea


Sophia did occasionally drag him on longer haul trips, for instance to Japan, where she had a cousin living.

John sitting uncomfortably in Japan with Sophia and her cousin Frank Tuohy

(Japanese host out of the picture)

Both John's children got married in the yeras after his retirement and one of his great joys was his five grandchildren. He adored children, and as more than one of the speakers mentioned at his memorial service had a rare gift for communicating with them, usually with a fair degree of teasing.

At Imogen's wedding to Michael Fishwick


James, Sam, Joe, John and Sophia, Barney and Venetia



Now that you're eighty

We still think you are

The very best Granddad

Who could be found near or far

We love you to pieces

You never need rest

Your sockfights are the very best

We adore all your jokes

We love all your jigs

You are the very best of all Dig-Digs


Poem composed by Sam Fishwick (age 10) for John's 80th birthday and found among John's papers. The Fishwick grandchildren called him Dig-Dig as they used to watch him dig in the garden at Tinderbox Cottage.










    One of John’s regrets was that he travelled too much to be able to keep a dog. He had been brought up with dogs, as his parents had always had at least one dog, and when he could he temporarily adopted one – Penny in Delhi and Floppy, a half-blind Jack Russell, in Johannesburg.  He made up for the lack of a dog of his own by chatting to everybody else’s dog whenever he could. A walk through Kensington Gardens after his retirement was always a lengthy business as it would be punctuated by frequent stops to establish friendly relations with every dog he passed.


    He also was an avid visitor to museums, galleries and historic buildings, acquiring an impressive knowledge of art and architecture. He was a friend of almost every museum in London. He also looked up a lot of his old mates from army and early diplomatic days and spent many happy hours in their company.


    John joined the Rajputana Rifles (RajRif) Association, which brought together the former British officers of the Rajputana Rifles regiment. He soon ended up running it. There was an annual lunch, for which the Rajrif Association would borrow a piece of the old regimental silver – a statue of a subhedar – from the Army Museum. John also used to write a regular newsletter for the members (copies are now in the Army Museum). The Association maintained cordial relations with the modern Rajputana Rifles regiment, and any member or child of a member who visited the headquarters of the regiment in Delhi could be assured of an overwhelmingly warm welcome. Senior members of the regiment also used to call on John when they were visiting London, so there were frequent Indian visitors. As the years passed, death took its inevitable toll of the ageing members of the Association, until the numbers had dwindled to such an extent that John decided to close it down.

Last RajRif Association reunion lunch. John on left.


    Towards the end of his life, John became one of the few people with memories of India during the war and immediately after Independence. One young Indian woman, Aanchal Malhotra, who came to interview him when he was 94 for a book about Partition, asked him what most brought back memories of India. He replied: “the two things that most remind me of India, were both smells. The first was the scent of geelti mitti, wet earth after it has been watered by the maali [gardener], or even better, after it had rained. … And the second thing I remember is the smell of my father’s leather boots when he’d come home from work in D.I Khan. The mustiness of leather, mixed with earth and sweat and heat and the fatigue of the day. That smell, that particularly Indian smell, is unforgettable.”  When Aanchal returned to India, she sent him a small packet of Indian earth, which was scattered in Somerset with his ashes after his death three years later.

John on his 95th birthday