Out of Nicko's bag

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 October, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 October, 1994, 12:00am

Mandarin by Nicholas Henderson Weidenfeld & Nicolson $340 IN Roy Jenkins' autobiography there is a picture of the Oxford Union in 1939 with Nicko (as his friends call him) Henderson described as 'later ambassador to nearly everywhere'. These are the diaries of his times nearly everywhere, as Our Man - with his collar askew - in Warsaw, Bonn, then Paris and finally, plucked from retirement, in Washington.

A lifetime diplomat, Henderson here uses up more than a little of his deep resources of charm, wit and intellect. Which is not to say that the book is pain-free: the constant descriptions of luncheon and dinner parties, their guests, the seating, the wine and so on, can be almost as tiring as having had to attend them all and 'lay down your liver for your country'. The author makes no bones about this; it is not a comprehensive history of public events.

Henderson's silver pen makes it a pleasurable read. He has mixed with the great and the good (and the bad) and passes on the experience.

He takes the minutiae of the gardening of the embassy at rue du Faubourg St Honore and makes it engaging and significant (particularly his gardener's competition with the presidential garden up the road at the Elysee).

One or two of his portraits are exquisite, for instance, Henry Kissinger: 'I am reading the Kissinger book with intense pleasure and admiration. I asked him to what he attributed the great improvement in style compared with earlier books. He could offer no explanation - about the only thing I found he could not explain - except perhaps that he had not read a book for eight years.' Henderson's years in Bonn and Paris (which was 'beyond his wildest dreams') in the 1970s are mired in the great problem of British foreign (and domestic) affairs of the latter part of the 20th century, the relationship with Europe and the Common Market, as it was once called.

It is summed up in an entry about James Callaghan, then Foreign Secretary: 'Callaghan showed that he had little belief in the idea of [European] political union . . . The touchstone was what would please the British housewife.' Henderson worked tirelessly to improve British relations with France, which under Giscard was almost joined at the waist to the German Chancellor Schmidt when dealing with the recalcitrant British.

Later he was to put his talents to good effect with the Carter and Reagan administrations, particularly during the Falklands crisis.

The Foreign Office took exception to some of this book, seeking to abridge it. What was it that so offended the mandarins of King Charles Street? The seating plan at Washington Post owner Kay Graham's dinner party for President Reagan? The story of the objectionable Maltese guard who delighted in locking the ambassador in the garden? Who knows?