Tuesday, 15 June 2010

A Diplomatic Incident

When I was young and had to travel through China to visit my father in Mongolia, it was agreed that it was too dangerous a journey for a girl to go on by herself. It was therefore agreed that I would time my train trips to coincide with Queen's Messenger runs to Ulan Bator, so that they could keep an eye on me. The Queen's Messengers already had numerous diplomatic bags to guard so I don't suppose they relished the task of taking care of me as well. They did it though and sometimes they were really nice about it. One pair I've always remembered - ex-East Africa civil servants, I think - because they were particularly congenial and at the end of the trip they presented me with a hilarious fantasy they'd written about what happened (or might have) the night we took the train from Peking to Ulan Bator. Their starting point was the fact that, as I was leaving their compartment to go to bed, I knocked over and broke a Chinese railway owned thermos, which upset the train guard a great deal. From this unexciting beginning, the messengers, who had to stay up all night, guarding the diplomatic bags in their compartment, wove a complex chain of events. This is what they wrote:

Minor Incident
I have the honour to refer to regulation 17 (1) a of the Diplomatic Service Regulations, Para 4 of the Handbook, 27th Edition, and to apprise you of an incident, though relatively of minimal import, which occurred on the night of 15/16th February, 1971. My colleague and I were assigned to QM journeys 25 and 26 respectively and at that time were travelling on the sector Peking - Ulan Bator on the International train.

By an unfortunate combination of circumstances, untoward happenings disrupted our journey and we have not yet completed the sector.

At the time in question my colleague and I were entertaining a lady in compartment 3, carriage no. 4, when, at approximately 20.00 hours, a thermos flask, property of the railway authorities, was unfortunately kicked over and burst, strewing broken glass over the Chinese pile carpet. During the sudden evacuation of the compartment, an ashtray, full of burning cigarette ends, was knocked off the table and its contents fell onto the bed. A small conflagration resulted and some diplomatic bags caught fire.

This spread to some gas cylinders in the next and adjoining compartment. They exploded, blowing out both sides of the coach and damaging a passing signal box. It is our considered view that we could have extinguished the fire, but for the fact that the lights fused, causing a certain amount of panic. The train conductor had entered the compartment and, wearing no shoes, regretfully cut his feet into ribbons. As you can well imagine, it became necessary to suspend all firefighting operations so that some medical treatment could be sought. The external temperature was some 42 degrees C below and , in the ensuing melee, many passengers, then in their night attire, leapt into the evening air. Thereafter there was a slight degree of confusion, because it so happened that the leap to safety coincided with the passing of the up goods bogey eight train, with the result of what might best be described as a 'carve up'. A further complication was evident as the driver of our train had most inadvisedly stopped the train over a bridge some 80 metres over a ravine. It was to be expected that burning embers from the train (by now blazing well) should fall on the bridge - mainly constructed of creosote impregnated wood. Luckily, although the bridge - or most of it - fell away, the train remained suspended across the chasm - somewhat precariously.

Troops eventually arrived and, as a result of our report to them, they continued their investigations among the survivors. It is not for me to fathom the inscrutable workings of providence, but the result of the investigation led to the seizure of a Sikh traveller, who was taken away, there being few or no living witnesses to this small incident.

My colleage and I feel duty bound to make mention of this occurrence as it is possible that some representation could be forthcoming from the nineteen countries whose nationals were affected. At the same time and though we cannot put a value on the 11 new luxury coaches destroyed, we do feel responsible for the damage to one thermos flask which could not be repaired and therefore make formal application for reimbursement of TKs.4. to defray the cost of a new one, at the rate of exchange pertaining at 20.12 hours on 15/2/71.

Ourt personal losses were naturally considerable. As far as I can remember the following was destroyed:

30 suits
41 shirts
10 1/2 pairs Lobb shoes
17 bottles whisky (40 oz)
24 bottles gin (40 oz)
1 toothbrush (some bristles missing)
4 gold watches
Cash 483.51p

and for my colleague:

36 suits (Savile Row)
1 vest (old)
1 set false teeth (National Health)
3 Sterodent tablets (part used)
1 roll toilet paper (FCO issue)
3 gas cylinders
18 shirts
7 ties
1 spoon
1/2 bottle angosturas
28 bottles vodka
17 large jade vases
Cash - 4328 American dollars
4 sets of ladies' underwear

There may follow an amendment to this list as some further items may yet come to mind. I feel sure you will appreciate we are still suffering from slight shock.

We have excluded from our list 4 crates of mixed mineral water which exploded - decimating one complete rescue gang - numbering some 40 souls of nationality unknown, but if you agree that this is a justifiable claim against public expenditure we would welcome your confirmation.

Our present circumstances are not by any stretch of the imagination comfortable and we would take this opportunity to indent, with your approval, for two stenographers, preferably young enough to stand the rigours of these vicissitudes, and an adequate supply of writing paper and carbon.

We would also be grateful if our wives could be advised and, as this is a delicate matter, respectfully suggest that your approach to them be couched in suitable terms, as we were expected home some 17 months ago.

We are assuming that our annual leave for 1971, 1972 and 1973 will accumulate and subsistence be held to our credit.

Of necessity we have confined this report to the briefest possible limits but are available to supply any further detail should you require it and send herewith sufficient copies for other departments. We imagine you may wish to consult the PM, the EEC, Treasury, the Attorney General, the United Nations, the International Court of the Hague and the Society of Civil Servants.

We are sirs,
most respectfully
Your obedient servants.


  1. Brilliant - what wonderfully entertaining travelling companions.

    And lucky you to experience such excitement when young. I did so envy the girls at my boarding school whose parents were in the Diplomatic Service. Their lives seemed incomparably glamorous when contrasted with my somewhat muddy upbringing in deepest Shropshire. Very often they were of mixed parentage so spoke at least two languages fluently and they wore beautiful and interesting clothes which I coveted. I'm sure my travelling bug was kick-started by these school encounters and you'll be pleased to know that I very often travel with my own spoon.

  2. great story!!

    *memo to self: become a queen's messenger as they obviously have too much time on their hands

  3. Love the listings of losses, with their mixing of fantastic (36 savile row suits) and rational (National Health dentures).

  4. Sophie - Oh yes, silly me, the spoon was the essential thing: I've been travelling around with 17 Large jade vases ever since. They were really nice men and very fond of each other. When one was out of the room the other told me in very concerned tones about how his companion's wife had been ill and it was taking his toll on poor old Bill or whatever his name was and therefore he tried to make the trips as much of a carefree break for him as possible.
    Worm - I wonder if they still have them? It's probably all done by skype or something now.
    M-H - I love the hopeful question about the crates of mineral water as well