1995-1997. The London Embassy, United Kingdom

The consular year in London was uneventful. The Government shut down for a few weeks and the consular section bosses all took free leave. Junior officers were, of course, declared “essential personnel.” In my spare time I started a mystery novel about odd third-country national visa applications, strange travel patterns and a vice-consul who took his work home with him one time too many. The novel never saw the light of day, but the draft still lives on my hard drive! I continued doing NIV interviews in the morning and eventually took over the Volume Visa Unit in the afternoon. Toward the end of my consular “sentence” I headed the E Visa section after mornings at the NIV window. My boss warned me I was spending too much time on NIV interviews and wrote in my EER a backhand slap that I would make a fine political officer. My excuse about gathering information for my mystery novel obviously neither amused nor impressed him. Luckily I got an early release and transition to the political section.

Work in the political section was a blast. A great team of mid level guys who would all become famous in their own right: Jim Young covered Africa and Labour, Matt Tueller covered the Middle East and the Lib Dems, Charlie Peacock did PolMil, Blair Hall covered Northern Ireland and the Tories, and as the junior officer in the shop, I had Latin America, Scottish and Welsh national parties, international organizations, and global issues. We had outstanding leadership in deputy Marcie Ries and political counselor Mike Habib.

I went to the Foreign Office each week to explain why the USG chose not to pay its annual UN dues. On alternate days I went to the Foreign Office to explain why the USG had a right to refuse visas to influential British subjects who invested in expropriated properties in Cuba. My senator Jesse Helms was behind both efforts – demarches that my boss Marcie called carrying dirty water.

And I got to write the annual Human Rights Report. Gathering the material and writing it was a different experience, but the clearance process was a real killer, no pun intended — I found it curiously strange that so many people of color were dying in custody in UK jails and prisons. Even more curious was the contorted criteria we devised for determining which of those deaths qualified as extrajudicial deaths while in police custody for reporting in our annual Human Rights report.

Going by overnight train to Inverness, Scotland for the Scottish National Party (SNP) conference was an adventure in a lot of ways. It was my first work trip outside the immediate London area (other than the prison health and welfare visits we did in consular). Surprisingly enough, at the conference in Scotland I met people named Maxwell and Hairston whom I presumed to be descendants of Maxwell (paternal) and Hairston (maternal) ancestral lines. Cousins, perhaps. Distant cousins. Way distant cousins. White cousins from the back-home families of absentee fathers who owned Virginia and North Carolina plantations. (There is no such thing as consensual sex with people whom you own). That’s a different story, of course, though I did find out many years later when I sent a spit sample to Ancestry.com that I am 12% Scottish! Shit happens in America. See my later poem: rape culture.

After my first big reception an SNP Member of Parliament I had worked with in London, Rosie Cunningham, took me out for a single malt tasting expedition. We were in Scotland, after all. And she regaled me over dinner with stories about the Loch Ness monster! I got real dizzy after the fourth or fifth sample. Forever a lightweight!

SNP members, at the time, were a curious blend of KKK-types at one end of the spectrum and Weathermen at the other and everything in between. What a bunch! I remember writing a cable describing my meeting with the SNP leader, Alex Salmond. He reminded me, I wrote, “of a Southern Baptist preacher I had grown up knowing, one hand thrusting the Bible into space, the other holding a white handkerchief to wipe his sweaty forehead — one foot planted in the muck and mire of our temporal abode, the other foot already in Zion.” Way too much context, perhaps. Definitely way too much information.

But back to real politics. I spent a lot of time with UK counterparts on UN scales of assessment. I covered Scottish and Welsh devolution issues back in London and spent some time chatting with the then Shadow Secretary for Scotland and Wales, George Robertson. He later became Defense Minister in the first Blair administration and was later tapped to be NATO Secretary-General. Wow! How fortunes change!

When New Labour won the election, after 18 years in opposition, we scrambled. I mean, it wasn’t like we didn’t know Blair and company would make a clean sweep. I drafted a cable detailing what would happen in the event of a tie in the parliamentary elections. The Queen gets to choose if there is a tie; but in fact, it wasn’t even close. As the junior officer of the section, I drew the straw to draft the Tory condolence note. “The US Government is so sorry you lost, buster. See ya, but I wouldn’t want to be ya.”

Along the way, I was coned Admin (this was the “unconed” era. For a short span of years, FSOs entered without a conal designation and bid their cone in their second tour. Coming into the service directly from a year in a PhD program in Economics, I assumed I would go for Econ. But the fun I had doing GSO work in Bissau, coupled with the lack of fun I saw econ officers having in London conspired to persuade me to bid Admin), and I thought it made sense to chat with the Admin folks at post. The admin counselor, Lyn Dent, took me under his wing and remained a mentor throughout my career. He walked pass my office one day and mentioned something about bidding on jobs in the Ops Center. I took him up on it and while in Washington that fall, stopped by the Ops Center for an interview. The rest is history (see part 6).

A word is in order here about meeting Filomena, our courtship and marriage. Filomena and I met a month or so after I arrived in London, November 1995. We started dating the following February and shared most of our weekends together thereafter. It was fun, we shared similar interests, liked the same music, and enjoyed browsing London bookstores and art galleries together. Cupid’s arrow struck. We got married in July, 1997, just before the London tour ended. Happily ever after. We packed up and moved back to Washington together.

I enrolled in a graduate program at SOAS (University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies) in my last year in London. The Center for International Studies and Diplomacy was in its second year and reaching out to folks who worked in the hundreds of embassies in London. I went to an orientation session and decided to do it. I had classes three nights a week and spent evenings and weekends studying and writing papers for class. It wasn’t really kosher for the junior guy in the political section to dash out at 5:30 three nights a week to make it to Russell Square for class by 6pm, but I did it and suffered the consequences. The schedule was hectic, but it all worked out and I completed the coursework and my MA dissertation on transnational organization legal personality on time and within budget.

Next stop, Washington, DC and the Operations Center!

Part 1 – Foreign Service Exam and Oral Assessment
Part 2 – A-100 and reassignment training
Part 3 – Embassy Bissau – the first year
Part 4 – Embassy Bissau – the second year
Part 5 – The London Embassy
Part 6 – The Ops Center
Part 7 – Embassy Luanda, Angola
Part 8 – Embassy Accra, Ghana
Part 9 – Domestic Assignment – AF/EX
Part 10 – Epilogue: the final eight years
Part 11 – Bonus: Reflections on War and Peace in Iraq

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