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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