The Accidental Diplomat: An Ordinary Bloke With An Extraordinary Life

I don’t read as much non-fiction as I should. After all, as we are constantly reminded, the truth is often much stranger than it’s made up counterpart and therefore, in theory at least, much more interesting. This is certainly true of Paul Knott’s “The Accidental Diplomat”, part travelogue part memoir of his career in the Foreign Office, spanning twenty years and seven countries with an attendant cast of gun toting pensioners, drunken MP’s, KGB spies and Eastern European Michael Jackson Tribute Acts.
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I don’t read as much non-fiction as I should. After all, as we are constantly reminded, the truth is often much stranger than it’s made up counterpart and therefore, in theory at least, much more interesting. This is certainly true of Paul Knott’s “The Accidental Diplomat”, part travelogue part memoir of his career in the Foreign Office, spanning twenty years and seven countries with an attendant cast of gun toting pensioners, drunken MP’s, KGB spies and Eastern European Michael Jackson Tribute Acts.

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The journey starts on a wind-battered Hull dockside in the late 1980’s, where the teenage Paul decides that a life slapping stickers on shipping containers holds little or no prospect of adventure for a young East Yorkshire lad curious about the workings of the world and hungry to explore it’s far flung corners. He sees an advert in the local job centre asking for Junior Officer recruits to the Foreign Office, to be posted initially in London. This was part of a conscious recruitment drive to attract younger people from “the regions” in an attempt to inject vigorous fresh blood into a somewhat traditionally staid and stuffy set up. A few weeks later Paul finds himself in shared accommodation in the capital with several other northern recruits where he spends his days analysing information from troubled global hotspots and nights getting royally pissed. And then he gets sent to Bucharest.

Knott’s portrayal of post-Ceausescu Romania is by turns surreal and slightly unsettling. Banned from fraternising with the locals because of the still lingering influence of the secret police but seduced by the emerging nightlife, Bucharest is painted as a darkly comic metropolis of whispered paranoia and bizarre post-modern spectacle. The local Michael Jackson Tribute Troupe moonwalking in formation beneath the crumbling edifices of the old regime serves as a vivid symbol of a city struggling to free itself from the shackles of the past by embracing the more whimsical trappings of the West. As a first posting it was an exuberant eye-opener.

Given Knott’s well-documented appetite for embracing local leisure, you would have imagined that Dubai, his next official port of call, would be a worker’s paradise. Wrong. The place disgusts our young hero; with it’s bloated wealth and excess encouraging the ex-pat community into boorish displays of self-indulgence and ego. The Arab Gulf state is portrayed as a gaudy bauble crash-landed in a cultural desert, bereft of proper values or substance, not least typified by the Asian workers who skivvied for the state in states of near penury and servitude. It is here in the book that the narrative takes a detour from Jolly Larks Abroad into a more complex examination of British values and their place on the world diplomatic stage. It’s fascinating reading.

The Arabian Nightmare does not last, and soon Knott is promoted and shipped out to Uzbekistan, a former Soviet state. Here the work was more harrowing – dealing with human rights abuse cases – but the environment much more stimulating. Knott becomes more embroiled with the military and the security services, the real life 007’s who ghost within the intricate machine of British Diplomacy abroad. His role was becoming more involved and his responsibilities more sharply defined. He also finds love in the form of a young Kenyan lawyer working for an American law firm who becomes his wife and companion on all further postings.

From there, The Accidental Diplomat takes us to Ukraine, Brussels and eventually Moscow. This is where things get very Gorky Park indeed, when Knott is involved with the investigation into the murder of former Russian secret agent Alexander Litvinenko. Part of his role involved the supervision of a team of Scotland Yard Detectives despatched to investigate Putin’s involvement in the killing. Despite being restricted in his reportage, Knott’s account of the increasing tensions between Russia and the west is riveting stuff. Tapped phones, shadowy figures that follow you home, break into your apartment when you’re out and re-arrange your possession in the name of psychological warfare. You can almost see your breath hanging in the freezing Moscow air as you turn the page.

The Accidental Diplomat is an engrossing and occasionally very funny read, told with wit and warmth by an ordinary bloke who has led an extraordinary life. I recommend it whole-heartedly.

Click here to read an extract from The Accidental Diplomat on Sabotage Times.