Page 6, 23rd May 1986

23rd May 1986
Page 6
Page 6, 23rd May 1986 — Britain's Arab 'moment' lasted 150 years

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Britain's Arab 'moment' lasted 150 years

They Say the Lion Britain's Legacy to the Arabs by Anthony Parsons (Cape, £9.95).

BY the accident of two world wars Britain has produced a generation of ambassadors who were children after the first and reached maturity during the second. As a result a number might be termed soldierdiplomats, some scholardiplomats too, having particularly taken to academia as "mature students" on demobilisation.

Sir Anthony Parsons virtually tossed a coin between these three professional options, and combined them. Here, more than in his The Pride and The Fall, on Iran, we see the result; he thinks like a diplomat, acts like a soldier, and writes like a scholar. His theme is the dismantling of Britain's "moment" — some 150 years in the Middle East.

His narrative method is a flash-back: the job it describes is a progressive dismantling. It implements Britain's post-war decolonisation policy which, as a diplomat, it is the author's duty to execute. Having dealt before with Iran, the postings he now describes comprise Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan and Bahrain. To each of them the former diplomat who had represented a fading and often resented imperial presence returns, and is welcomed, as an elder statesman from a now middle-ranking European nation, on surprisingly good terms however with its former clients.

For this he, and the personal sympathy he and others like him had for the decolonisation policy and its beneficiaries, can perhaps take as much credit as the policy itself.

For Sir Anthony's professional reflex, like his narrative, has much of humanity, though some of his conclusions perhaps less so. The humanity shows in the off-beat quality of numerous professional encounters, and also in a cheerful readiness, as in his book on Iran, to point out wherever he "got it all wrong".

Where the warmth is tempered is when the writer looks back to the high noon of Britain's "moment". At the United Nations — where oddly he and I never overlapped — I recall their besetting sin of seeing the events of past centuries through the eyes of the twentieth, and not in terms of their own day, age and values. It has contributed much to that British school which sees Suez and 1956 as a line across the ledger before which everything is tabularasa. Such a cut-off can only impair the second of the aims expressed in the author's introduction, which is to identify Britain's legacy to the countries to which he was posted, his first being an impressionistic account of them.

Britain's military priority, the Indian commitment, and much undeniable material selfinterest, brought in their campfollowers and snobs — the author's "Middle East Hands" and "deadbeat British officials".

Yet they had their giants too. Among them General Glubb of Jordan earns only two brief references. There is none at all to Sir William Willcocks, who inspired Egypt's modern irrigation system, and Iraq's too even after his death. I also remember British constables of the Egyptian police reading out fluent classical Arabic in rich Cockney, and whose word needed no oath.

These, and countless other unobtrusive transients, have quickly vanished under the sands of history. But hers are shifting sands, burying then redisclosing the Sphinx herself. This is my only reservation towards an important and enjoyable book. To end with 4 quotation as familiar an4 evocative as its own title, not all will see the British legacy to the Arabs as just "two vast and trunkless legs of stone".

Geoffrey Jacksoft

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