Oriental Club: 5 Oct 2001: 80th Birthday Dinner

Thank you, John William, and everyone, for your kind wishes.

I am so pleased to see you all here. Thank you for coming, some from far away. Thank you, Michael, for these splendid surroundings.

Sad that some cannot be here, especially two sisters, and brothers-in-law. But time and frailty diminish the circle. But especially nice for me that three out of five super grand children are here.

I would like you to join me in three toasts -
to the United States of America, to the Queen, and to Absent Friends.

First, in memory of my two amazing American wives; in honour of Tonda, Tilla’s cousin, who has come all the way from brave New York to be here; and in great respect and admiration for the gallant fire fighters of Manhattan, police and other services, some of whom I saw for myself going to the front, many not coming back. Indeed to America itself.

The last in special affection for my two sets of American family and friends, especially Clair George, lately Director of Operations of the C.I.A, who, alas, is almost blind. He was my second best man in West Cornwall, Connecticut, in 1991 and had much hoped to come.

My dear friend Peter Wake was my first best man, at St George’s Hanover Square in 1950. It is a joy for me that his family are all with us.

Please now fill your glasses.

“The United States of America”
“The Queen.”
“Absent Friends.”

And now you may smoke. Or, rather, I may! Perhaps a few others? Carry on.

I have my ear ready for stop watches. Parsons and Loram threaten. But there is a bit more, if you can bear it.

To start with, I make no apology for sharing with you some good news, of which I have only just learned. Janet Taylor’s first novel is to be published by Chatto and Windus. And John William’s poems are to be published in New York in December, following his translation of Rilke’s Duino Elergies.

And now some history.

Eighty years ago, I was born in a Dublin Nursing Home at 89 Lower Baggot Street.

My father, aged 32, was serving in the Castle as member of a small elite English team under the great Sir John Anderson. My father was called Treasury Remembrancer, and was responsible for the Governmental finances of all Ireland.

Rashly and uniquely, my parents elected to live on the Hill of Howth, on Dublin Bay, rather than in the secure quarters of the Castle, as did the other Brits.

Nightly, and sometimes in plain daylight, the Sinn Fein assassinated British officers and soldiers, Irish magistrates and police, by the dozen. The Black and Tans countered with not much less ruthlessness.

My father and mother drove into Dublin one day with me, an infant, in a basket.

The Sinn Fein ambushed us, and took my father out, and put him up against a wall. They took me too, and put the basket at my father’s feet. Then a bus full of Black and Tans drove round the corner, and the Sinn Feins ran away.

My father never spoke in my hearing of this event. My mother, under questioning, told me twice, without embellishment.

Someone once said to me:- “After that, I guess it was all down hill.”

I’m not sure. But is was a curious connexion with my own life’s history and early Irish links that Frank should have asked me to come to the Northern Ireland Office in 1973, just when I had accepted an offer to become Managing Director of a Head Hunting firm in the City!

I have always been grateful for Frank’s call. I don’t think he knew of my Dublin origins. If he had, perhaps he would not have called.

Even in Ulster my Dublin antecedents reared their heads. Among other things I administered, for a time, all the Courts, including the Supreme Court. Surprisingly, perhaps, as my qualifications were few, if any. The Permanent Secretary of the Supreme Court, a splendid title, was a charming man. He managed matters under the Lord Chief Justice, but the Lord Chief Justice, no less charming, was far above administration. One day I called on the Permanent Secretary. No doubt I made some observations on his administration. When I had finished, he drew out a splendid, bound volume and invited me to read the opening paragraph. The volume was entitled “Proceedings of the Supreme Court of Northern Ireland”. It began in 1923. And it read:

“After weeks of protracted and unresolved disagreements, Mr A P Waterfield came up from Dublin, and, within a few days, settled matters to the satisfaction of all, by tact, goodwill, sense and charm.”

“Oh John,” said the Permanent Secretary, “why can you not be more like your father?”

At 80, one is treated as an antique, and part of history. History was invoked when President Reagan met Gorbachev in Iceland. After the day’s business, they relaxed tête à tête by the fire. Reagan asked:- “You are a student of history, Mr Secretary; what do you think would have happened if, instead of our President John F Kennedy having been assassinated, the assassination had taken place of your Comrade Secretary Khruschev?”

Gorbachev replied: “In terms of history, I am sure of only one thing in the circumstances you describe. I can state, Mr President, with no fear of contradiction, that Madame Khruschev would never have become Mrs Aristotle Onassis.”

My great grandfather, Thomas Nelson Waterfield, who lived in Barton Street, Westminster (how nice if we had a house there still) was Secretary of the Political and Intelligence Department of the India Board. When he died, comparatively early, and probably of over-work, in 1862, a number of obituaries paid tribute to him. The nicest, in the Gentleman’s Magazine, included this sentence:-

“No man was more fond of society; no man better loved a good story, or laughed more at a good joke.”

Not all civil servants have to be dull dogs. I would not mind an epitaph like that.

But it’s not time for obituaries.

Let us all make the most of our lives and enjoy ourselves. Despite difficult times, we should be united, resolute and optimistic.

And now John William and Polly will play some music. We can either remain here, or sit in the ante-room, as preferred. There are more drinks and chairs there.