By Sarah Pridgeon
When British ambassadors are moved to new postings, it used to be that they would send one last letter back home. These “valedictory despatches” were a stark contrast to the usual messages that flitted back and forth; informal and candid, they are now infamous for the scandalous contents within.
The valedictory despatch was a way for ambassadors to share anything and everything they deemed of interest to the Foreign Office, whether it be advice on the posting, nuggets about the country and its government, remarks on the culture or salacious happenings on the ambassador’s watch.
As you can imagine, particularly if the ambassador was about to retire, some of these despatches were nothing short of outrageous. Not only are the British much snarkier than you’d ever guess from the stereotype, uncensored observations and a complete lack of discretion were the concept behind writing them in the first place.
Over hundreds of years, the tradition grew in scope and reading the despatches became an illicit pleasure for the many of country’s highest offices. Eventually, the letters were being circulated all around the upper echelons of government and to the Bank of England, the security service – even to Buckingham Palace itself.
Sadly, the tradition has died out with the advent of the internet and the alarming possibility that email hacking – or even the accidental use of the “Sent to All” button – might cause a valedictory despatch to be leaked to the media. Once or twice, even in the old days, a letter wound up in the hands of the very people it was criticizing.
Thanks to Britain’s own Freedom of Information act, the public at large can now indulge in the same treat that was once reserved for elected officials in Westminster. I can see why the despatches entertained their readers, though the contents are often quite shocking.
“On arrival we unwittingly caused some offence by enquiring the name of the first village we passed through on leaving the airport, which turned out to be the capital city of Managua,” said Roger Pinsent as he left his Nicaraguan posting in 1967, graciously illustrating my point.
Then there’s Lord Moran, who returned from Ottawa in 1984 and shared a few choice words about the Canadians. “Anyone who is even moderately good at what they do – in literature, the theatre, skiing or whatever – tends to become a national figure, and anyone who stands out at all from the crowd tends to be praised to the skies and given the Order of Canada at once,” he said.
Then you have the unhappy ambassador to Buenos Aires who wrote that, “were there but a tree in this godforsaken place, I would gladly have hanged myself” and Sir David Hunt’s observation on returning from Nigeria in 1969 that, “Africans as a whole are not only not averse to cutting off their nose to spite their face; they regard such an operation as a triumph of cosmetic surgery.”
Then, of course, there’s the ambassador to Morocco who revealed that his wife had woken in the middle of the night to find an assassin in the apartment. Clad only in her nightwear, she promptly threw him down the stairs.
There’s a good reason that I’m sharing knowledge of the valedictory despatch with you, dear reader: I’ve just received one of my very own. My own father, after performing the function of Ambassador to Wyoming for a month, sent me a despatch full of useful information.
Aside from being baffled as to why all the light switches are upside down in Wyoming and why you all so stubbornly insist on driving on the wrong side of the road, the overwhelming impression he wished to share was of blue skies, sunny people and unfailing courtesy.
However, he did unravel a Sundance mystery while he was here – a mystery that we, as Crook County residents, have never thought to investigate, though it’s always been hidden in plain sight. In the grand tradition of leaked despatches, I’ll let him share it with you in his own words:
“My own Sundance secret involves the world-famous wanted poster for the Sundance Kid, offering $5000 reward for his detention for the theft of a horse and saddle worth all of $40.
During an after-dinner discussion regarding the outlaw and his activities, I expressed my disbelief at such a disproportionate penalty. Given the effects of inflation, a $5000 bounty seemed terribly high.
Unbelievably, I had asked the one question to which I’d always hoped for an answer to the one man who could answer it. Much to my surprise, my host admitted to being the originator of the poster in question.
He designed it, he said, in the 1970s, and it soon became an important Sundance souvenir. The forger of this ‘historic’ document used the early proceeds of the sale of said poster to help fund his young family.
Under the circumstances, I suppose he could hardly claim royalties on the many thousands that must have been produced since.”
As I read my father’s missive, something occurred to me. The person who designed our famous poster pulled off a unique “crime” but has neither been caught by the authorities nor properly identified. Could it be that the Sundance Kid is alive, well and still among us…?