My former FCO colleague the legendary Alyson Bailes alas has died, at the age of 67.
Here is her Guardian obituary quoting Sir Kim Darroch:
Her flair for languages was remarkable. She spoke and read French, Hungarian, German, Mandarin Chinese, Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish at what she herself described as “an operational level”. She also had reading knowledge of Danish, Icelandic, Faroese and Dutch. Sir Kim Darroch, British ambassador in Washington, describes her as “always the cleverest person in the room, and sometimes, when she was bored, she would admit to having been translating something from Hungarian into Mandarin just as a mental exercise to keep her brain occupied”.
And here is former diplomat Carne Ross who gets closer to what she was like as a colleague:
Whenever I am asked who is the cleverest person I have known, I would answer her. She spoke multiple languages extremely well. She had a vast knowledge of literature, film, history, politics, pop culture, TV and international affairs. She was a wicked gossip and wit. She was a great fan of science fiction. She lent me her entire collection of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) videos which I watched over long otherwise-empty weekends (I stayed in a bungalow in a distant suburb and had no car so could not get around easily). We would then discuss the political subtext of certain episodes: she would say, “this one’s about Northern Ireland”, “this one’s about Vietnam vets” (it was about a planet populated with bitter mistreated ex-warriors)…
Her favourite character in “TNG” was Data, the android. Her favourite episode was when Data was put on trial over whether he was human or not (he thought he was). It was called The Making of a Man. I have often thought about this; it recently occurred to me that she must have been “on the spectrum”. She didn’t “do” social things easily. She hated diplomatic receptions as much as I did (and do), and advised me – correctly – to treat them as work where you should seek out a particular contact, “make” them, then leave…
She should have been head of the Foreign Office. Instead, she resigned early after serving as ambassador in Finland, leaving the Foreign Office to head SIPRI. I don’t think the Foreign Office valued her. In those days, the very few senior women were treated to an extent as curiosities. Each was well-known for her eccentricities (though to be fair, the senior men often were too). They were all single.
I sometimes think that Alyson was almost too brilliant for diplomacy. She understood too much in a profession that requires a certain suspension of disbelief. You need to pretend that you take it at face value, even when you know that underneath it’s often total bullshit and dishonesty: the pretence of states themselves is, just that, ultimately pretence. Interests are manufactured, not real, not human. She would not confess this, but it was clear to me that she knew this. As you become more senior in the profession, it’s harder and harder to maintain the separate and necessarily-secret self that can look at the business as it really is, and not as it presents itself to be. After a while, the cognitive dissonance can become unbearable…
Both these obituaries emphasise Alyson’s ‘cleverness’. But to call her ‘clever’ does not begin to describe it. Is an iPhone 7 ‘cleverer’ than an early 1990s brick mobile telephone?
* * * * *
Alyson had a Brain whose processing power far exceeded anything any of us merely clever diplomats had ever encountered. She was my line manager in the then FCO Planning Staff in the mid-1980s. I was the FCO speechwriter. One day I had so much to do that I meekly asked her to help with a prosaic bilateral speech that the Foreign Secretary had to give in Greece. The Greece section had produced a dull draft. What might she make of it?
She literally glanced at each page of this text and said that it was obvious what was needed. Paragraphs and sentences needed re-ordering, an added quote or reference here and there. She took it away and soon produced a sparkling smart speech full of interesting references and unexpected allusions. She was a staggering word processor in human form long before word processors were invented.
Most of us had respectable cranial megabytes, with the odd gigabyte strolling around. Alyson had yottabytes. Need a short comic opera for the Embassy Christmas party in the High Baroque style with some dashes of Mozart, combining dirty jokes about Icelandic volcanic formations, local political satire, esoteric pop music references and rhyming couplets in Hungarian? She’d knock one up over lunch.
Hence the jokes. Alyson had a sui generis hairstyle. Somehow every wisp was locked (soldered?) into place, soaring back from her forehead. An FCO consensus formed. This gleaming fierce black bullet-proof hair-do had nothing to do with actual, you know, hair. It was a carapace, some sort of Darth Vadar helmet that concealed the tiny being inside her head that took orders from another dimension.
Off she went from Planners to learn Chinese. Rumours swirled that within weeks she was ticking off her teacher for making naive Chinese grammar mistakes.
Thereafter we rarely met. Her posting to China ended early: it was said ‘not to have worked out’, perhaps under the pressure of events (Tiananmen Square and all that). Her career drifted into sundry secondments, including to the now defunct Western European Union. She finished her FCO career as Ambassador to Finland before moving into academic/research circles. She was passionate about rocks and the chilly landscapes of northern Europe.
* * * * *
Carne Ross is wrong. Alyson should not have been head of the FCO. She had the wrong sort of mind.
Back in the 1980s there were quiet regular consultations between key Western European governments and Washington. These discussions were treated as a highly guarded secret although it’s hard to imagine that plenty of other governments such as the Soviets did not know what was happening. FCO Planners were the guardians of the papers arising from these meetings, and Alyson was the note-taker. She duly produced astonishingly long and detailed records: important and interesting, but senior FCO hearts sank when they were circulated – they were just too much of a good thing.
When Alyson left Planners another FCO woman took over this job: Mariot Leslie. Mariot was no slouch when it came to brainpower. She alone in Whitehall in 1987 spotted Germany’s reunification. Mariot briskly concluded that Alyson’s extended records of these meetings were rather too, ahem, elaborate. She cut them right back, thereby making them both far more interesting and operationally helpful for everyone. A sigh of relief.
As we all know, the central skill diplomats need is Judgement. Someone whose ability to process information and ideas leaves the rest of the planet in the dust no doubt has Judgement, but on a higher plane of reality that is just not that helpful in patiently getting things done and being persuasive to stubborn humans. In Alyson’s case her almost obsessive ‘Europeanism’ combined with her fervent ‘anti-Americanism’ (she thought that systemic corruption in the USA posed global risks – an opinion that is gaining wider support nowadays haha) made her Judgement come across as one-sided if not eccentric.
Alyson was, truly, staggeringly clever. She was also funny, honourable, honest and open-minded. Maybe she was usually right. But she wasn’t always convincing.
It wasn’t that the Foreign Office did not ‘value’ Alyson. Her abilities were hugely respected, and when I knew her she was being fast-tracked towards the top. But a career is a long time. And sometimes things indeed ‘just don’t work out’.
* * * * *
Back in Planners when we were all getting excited about Gorbachev and glasnost, I wrote a paper about ‘Europe and the Superpowers in 2000’. What would happen? Would a reforming ‘nice’ European USSR come to look a more attractive partner for western Europe than a grouchy aggressive cowboy-style USA?
Alyson said something dry and astute: “The thing about Planning papers is that if you wait long enough they’re always right”.