Monday, February 19, 2018

Ghost ships and cannibals

“You hear about the ghost ship full of cannibal rats heading for England?” my friend asked. He was always up to something so I knew that was not the real purpose of his call. I replied in Trini-speak, “I hear they not biting nice.” He laughed, “Nah. I have good news and bad news about them. What you want to hear first.” I opted for the good news. He paused, clearly savouring what was to come. “The good news,” he intoned, “is that they landed.” I expostulated, “Good news? If that is the good news, what is the bad news?” He paused even longer, “Well the bad news is that as soon as they reached England they joined the Conservative Party and were sent as high commissioners to the Caribbean.”

“Got it,” I said to myself. He had read my article in last week’s regional newspapers about the British High Commissioner in Trinidad, a man named Arthur Snell, who in a blog “Down in the dumps” carried by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and sundry regional newspapers, dumped on Trinidadian environmental practices and at the same time said that Trinidad could be a world leader in the field. I knew where my friend was coming from but not where he was going but I could guess. I was right.

“You know,” he said, “I was a diplomat and in my day we dare not say anything in public that seemed even remotely like criticism of our host country. Man, they would pack you back so fast it would make your head spin even if you were returning by steamer or LIAT. I heard that the United States sent back a Mexican ambassador tied by his ankles and lying face down across the saddle of a horse. In fact, an ambassador attacking or making disparaging remarks about his host country could lead to war.” I laughed, “So what madness are you advocating? If you want to send the man back to England you need a British war horse like the one in the movie.”

The man was too worked up to see how ludicrous the whole thing was. “No, the British love wars—they started a war called the War of Jenkin’s Ear because a British sailor was supposed to have got his ear cut off by a Spaniard. Then that ongoing war with Ireland was over a potato. The British got upset because the Irish referred to potatoes as Irish and not English potatoes.” “You can’t be serious,” I replied grinning. “Not a joking matter,” he thundered, “The IRA was originally the IPRA—the Irish Potato Republican Army.” I gave up and saying, “I’m passing through a bad area I will call you back”, while fervently praying he would forget he had called my land-line and not my cell-phone, I hung up.

I had posted my article in the FCO’s page which featured Mr Snell’s blog so I went back to see what comments were added after the piece, entitled, “The British Are Slumming! The British Are Slumming” ran. But before that I found what I thought was an anomaly. Mr Snell is an expert in “counter-terrorism issues”. He was in Iraq. He was assistant director for counter-terrorism at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and managed a £60 million global counter-radicalisation programme, with a particular focus on Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. He was in Helmand Province in Southern Afghanistan. And now he’s here in Trinidad trying to get us interested in recycling technology. I will say no more about this formidable résumé except to ask how such a star of counter-intelligence ends up in Trinidad. No wonder he’s down in the dumps. There are some serious questions here that should be answered.

Mr Snell’s comment on my column was “hilarious”. I thought about it and knowing that British diplomats have their own shorthand decided that it might not mean what we think it means so I went in search of a guide to British “diplo-speak” or diplomatic language. When they say, “I hear what you say” they really mean “I disagree and do not want to discuss it further.” “With the greatest respect” translates into “I think you’re an idiot.” “Very interesting” means “That is clearly nonsense.” “You must come for dinner” is really “It’s not an invitation. I am merely being polite.” “Correct me if I’m wrong” does not mean that at all. It means, “I’m right. Don’t contradict me.”

So what does “hilarious” mean in “diplo-speak”? I read a BBC news piece entitled “Diplomats mind their language” which says, “The diplomatic world is one where the thorniest of subjects are discussed in the most cautious language—where a stand-up row just short of a fist-fight becomes “a very candid discussion”, or “serious consequences” means war. I eventually reasoned out what “hilarious” means. I understand this is what was said when the Gurkhas who fought for England for so many years were denied the right of citizenship. It might have been said in China when British and other forces engaged in widespread looting, raping and killing or in the Boer War in South Africa with the widespread destruction of crops and slaughtering of livestock, the burning down of homesteads, poisoning of wells and salting of fields. If that is not hilarious, what would I consider “hilarious”? Whatever reason is given by the British to explain why a high-flying, Arabic-speaking, counter-terrorism specialist and over-achieving diplomat would be posted in Trinidad and Tobago. Thereby hangs not just a tale but a Grim, fairy one.

• Tony Deyal was last seen remembering British diplomat Clare Short who accused Montserratians of making unreasonable demands when they lost everything to the volcano. “They will be wanting golden elephants next,” she said.