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Richard Davies on Daniele Varè, Laughing Diplomat

Smiling Through

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Some years ago I found myself acting as Her Majesty’s Permanent Representative to the Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific (ESCAP), a United Nations talking-shop based in Bangkok. There always seemed to be a gap in the ‘M’ section of the semicircle of delegates’ seats in the auditorium where we met each month. One day my colleagues and I whiled away a particularly tedious session by inventing a name for an imaginary country which might one day claim those seats – the People’s Republic of Moribundia.

Imagine my pleasure when, years later, I came across Daniele Varè’s delightful autobiography Laughing Diplomat and learned that in 1920, when he became a junior member of the Italian delegation to the League of Nations in Geneva, he too had invented a country. His was called Zembla and it owed its existence to the fact that each participating delegation was allocated a block offive places in the seats arranged alphabetically around the room, in a chamber similar to that at ESCAP. Because less scrupulous nations exceeded the number of delegates allowed, there was often nowhere for Varè and his other junior colleagues to sit.

One day, finding that the five seats next to the Venezuelan block remained unclaimed, he commandeered them, writing the name ‘Zembla’ on the card. Thereafter he and anyone else from the Italian delegation who could not find a seat always had somewhere to which to retreat as representatives of this non-existent state. In December 1935 Fortune published an article about the League of Nations which started with a couple of paragraphs about this prank: apparently no one in Geneva had ever queried the existence of this newly arrived delegation.

Signor Varè, it seems, conducted the rest of his distinguished diplomatic career with the same engaging sense of humour, refusing to take life and his chosen occupation too seriously. He once said that ‘when the fate of Europe hangs in the balance t

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Some years ago I found myself acting as Her Majesty’s Permanent Representative to the Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific (ESCAP), a United Nations talking-shop based in Bangkok. There always seemed to be a gap in the ‘M’ section of the semicircle of delegates’ seats in the auditorium where we met each month. One day my colleagues and I whiled away a particularly tedious session by inventing a name for an imaginary country which might one day claim those seats – the People’s Republic of Moribundia.

Imagine my pleasure when, years later, I came across Daniele Varè’s delightful autobiography Laughing Diplomat and learned that in 1920, when he became a junior member of the Italian delegation to the League of Nations in Geneva, he too had invented a country. His was called Zembla and it owed its existence to the fact that each participating delegation was allocated a block offive places in the seats arranged alphabetically around the room, in a chamber similar to that at ESCAP. Because less scrupulous nations exceeded the number of delegates allowed, there was often nowhere for Varè and his other junior colleagues to sit. One day, finding that the five seats next to the Venezuelan block remained unclaimed, he commandeered them, writing the name ‘Zembla’ on the card. Thereafter he and anyone else from the Italian delegation who could not find a seat always had somewhere to which to retreat as representatives of this non-existent state. In December 1935 Fortune published an article about the League of Nations which started with a couple of paragraphs about this prank: apparently no one in Geneva had ever queried the existence of this newly arrived delegation. Signor Varè, it seems, conducted the rest of his distinguished diplomatic career with the same engaging sense of humour, refusing to take life and his chosen occupation too seriously. He once said that ‘when the fate of Europe hangs in the balance the Ambassador’s photograph should be in the newspapers talking smilingly to a pretty woman. A diplomat should always show a carefree exterior et cacher ses angoisses sous un sourire.’ The son of a Venetian republican who had played a leading role in the Risorgimento and a Scottish mother, he had, he wrote, dedicated his life to ‘Italian emigrants abroad, animals and beautiful women’. He campaigned hard to improve the lot of Italian children sent to work in the glass factories around Lyon in France. He loved his dogs – one of which was drawn by Whistler after it had attacked him – and adored his horses. He had a beautiful English wife, a gifted artist who illustrated some of his books, and three lovely daughters, one of whom, still lovely, lives in London and is busy editing and translating her father’s diaries. As to the origins of the book’s title, it can be traced back to a remark made on his twentieth birthday in January 1900. He was in Berlin, where he had been sent to study the violin under Joseph Joachim. At dinner at the Italian Ambassador’s residence that evening, after the assembled guests, all very grand, had drunk a birthday toast to him, he was asked what he intended to do with his life. He replied that he could not decide between music and diplomacy. One of the guests, a Prussian general, warned against the latter, saying he would lose his sense of humour ‘among the formulas of official correspondence’ and his digestion ‘among the courses of official dinners’. The young man responded by asking what the moral might be if he did after all decide to become a diplomat, to which the General replied: ‘Even after you have donned your livery do not forget to laugh. Laugh at success and laugh at failure. Laugh at the way the world is governed. Laugh at others and, above all, laugh at yourself.’ Another guest, Talleyrand’s grand-niece Princess Antoine Radziwill, then suggested that Varè should create a new character for himself, that of ‘The Laughing Diplomat’. Varè did go on to join the Italian Diplomatic Service and in 1907 was posted to Vienna. He then served in Beijing (where he spent eight years because the outbreak of the First World Warand then the Russian Revolution made his recall difficult), Geneva, Beijing again, this time as Ambassador, and finally, briefly, as Ambassador to Denmark. In 1932 he was summarily recalled from Copenhagen by Mussolini and placed on the retirement list. It was then that he began to write for publication, producing a trilogy of novels about life in Beijing in the early years of the century, the best known of which is The Maker of Heavenly Trousers. He had assiduously kept a diary during his years of service and he turned this to good use when he came to write Laughing Diplomat, which was published in London by John Murray in September 1938. By August 1939 the book had run to seven impressions. This is not surprising for it is a treasure trove, full of perceptive observation of both historically significant events and matters of no consequence, and of entertaining, slightly self-deprecating accounts of his dealings with people ranging from a drunken hansom cab driver in Berlin to Benito Mussolini. One very senior diplomat I know was even inspired to join the Foreign Office after reading the book in his school library. Many of Varè’s anecdotes are about the women he encounters – Lenchen, whom he knew in Berlin when he was young, ‘a good girl according to her lights, though these were occasionally rather dim’; the legendary Italian actress Leonora Duse, with whom, as a young man, he spent a romantically chaste evening at the Villa Borghese outside Rome (it was, he writes, ‘like a dream, conjured up by the intoxication of a night in spring’); the dedicated Austrian nun Soeur Valensperg, who worked with Chinese girls in Beijing; and the Russian lady who complained at a ball of a nail in her shoe and whose Cossack dancing partner instantly flung her down on the sofa, pulled off her shoe and hammered the nail down with the butt-end of his pistol. ‘The lady looked flushed and pleased. Evidemment elle aimait d’être brutalisée,’ observes Varè. Animals, too, play a part in the story. In Beijing there was a tame bear called Mishka who terrified visitors, in Rome the equally tame sparrow Trottolina, who was a family pet, and a great ‘wolf dog’ called Pitou who ‘looked like Lord Palmerston’ and took Varè’s small daughters to school every day and collected them like a nanny. But it is Varè’s witness to world events that is perhaps most fascinating. He does not pretend to be anything more than a bystander as history is being made, so there is plenty of his trademark lightheartedness. But he was present at the birth of the League of Nations (which he likens to Uncle Remus’s Story of the Deluge and How It Came About, in which all the animals talk at once and trample on one another); he observed China in transition from imperial rule to civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists; and he met many of the world leaders of the time including Clémenceau, Curzon, Lloyd George, Balfour, Chamberlain and Poincaré. The picture he paints is of a civilization in turmoil after the First World War, and you sense that he feared another great confrontation was looming. Varè wrote nine other works of fiction and non-fiction, all of which, with the exception of the story of the last Empress of China, are markedly autobiographical and equally witty and good-humoured. Through them all shines the personality of a delightfully urbane man with epicurean tastes, and an eye not only for the details but also for the essence of people and places. He had, as his publisher Jock Murray said of him, ‘an immense knowledge of languages’ and was ‘a brilliant conversationalist with a medley of polyglot idioms’. He also had a huge affection for Great Britain, though that resulted in divided loyalties when the British opposed Italy’s colonial ambitions in Abyssinia in the 1930s; and, when Mussolini sided with Hitler, he found himself effectively an enemy alien. He resigned from the Savile Club, which he called his home-from-home in London (Club records have him as having died in 1940 – he might well have argued that some part of him did indeed die then), and it is clear from letters written to Murray after the war that he was scarred by the experience. Sadly, all his books are now out of print. As for Moribundia, I fear that, like Zembla, it disappeared. In its stead ESCAP acquired a Mongolian delegate who occupied the empty space. Because his country was not represented diplomatically in Thailand, this gentleman used to travel down every month to Bangkok from his Embassy in Vientiane in neighbouring Laos. He would take the overnight train and invariably arrive at ESCAP the next morning the worse for wear, having had a drink or two on the journey. I never heard him speak at meetings and, indeed, he seemed to spend some of the time there fast asleep. Perhaps he was, after all, a genuine citizen of Moribundia. I think Signor Varè would have approved of him.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 27 © Richard Davies 2010


About the contributor

For the past twelve years Richard Davies has put his diplomatic experience and his knowledge of Chinese to good use in restoring old stone houses in south-west France.

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