Twice Round The World by John Colvin (Leo Cooper, £15.99)
IN the course of his diplomatic career John Colvin was sent in 1966 to North Vietnam as consulgeneral in Hanoi, and in 1971 to Mongolia as ambassador in Ulan Bator.
The first posting coincided with a critical stage in the war between North Vietnam and the United States, when the author was among the few westerners permanently resident in the North Vietnamese capital. As such he was exposed to American bombing. The second post was more pleasant, but involved exposure to Mongolian hospitality. This seems to have consisted largely of dumplings stuffed with mutton and onions, clotted cream, and Mongolian vodka. Such are the varied perils of diplomacy.
The Mongolian half of the book is the more interesting of the two, perhaps because the author and his family were happy there, or perhaps because there is an inescapable fascination in a country with a population the size. of Birmingham's and a territory half the size of India. In some provinces he visited he was the
only Briton to have been seen by the inhabitants in living memory.
However, his loyal conclusion that "the value of a British presence in Mongolia lies in the visible witness we afford of a different civilisation", and that "it would be absurd to deprive ourselves of the opportunity of observing events, not only inside this enormous country, but at the Sino-Soviet crossroads which it forms," does not seem to have been shared by many other western-style governments except those of France. India and Japan.
Life was punctuated by occasional excitements such as a state visit from the King and Queen of Afghanistan. When John Colvin asked their chief of protocol whether he had ever been to England he replied, "Not many times since I left Eton".
As to the North Vietnam section of the book, I still retain vivid memories of how unattractive the place was when I covered the first Vietnam war culminating in the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. It sounds from these pages as if, even a good many years later when the author was there, the mood was as sullen as ever.
The fact that fanatical communists ran the north while corrupt non-communists ran the south made little difference to the universal xenophobia.