Sir Arthur de La Mare

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Sir Arthur de La Mare


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This biography was first published in two parts in the Trinity Tattler, the parish's quarterly magazine


Sir Arthur welcomes Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to the High Commissioner's residence in Singapore

Family

Arthur De La Mare was born on 15 February 1914 at Egypt Farm in Trinity, with every expectation that he would grow up and work the farm his family had owned since the 1860s. It was very much not to be.

The De La Mare family appears to have originated in St Martin and can be traced back at least to 1685. Originally farmers, they also became notable builders, constructing the Victoria and Albert piers in St Helier and Bouley Bay harbour. A De La Mare datestone can clearly be seen there.

One of those builders, Arthur’s great-grandfather Philippe, is buried in an ornate tomb close to the lychgate of Trinity Church.

Election

Arthur had an uneventful childhood and clearly loved the work on the farm. He walked to and from Trinity School every day. His headmaster, Mr Gruchy, spotted his ability and quietly brought him up to scholarship standard. Civic responsibility – in the very broadest sense – came to him when he was ten years old. It was election day and the school was closed because it was serving as a polling station. Arthur had assumed he would spend a sunny day with his animals, but his father had other ideas. A neighbour of theirs “Perruque” was, like the De La Mare family, a supporter of the conservative 'Reds' against the 'Blues'.

They had learned that, in return for a heifer in milk, he had agreed to turn up to vote in his Red colours, but use the secret ballot to vote for the Blue candidate. Decisive action was needed. The ten year-old Arthur was ordered by his father to hitch up the big horse to the dog cart and at 11am go to Perruque’s house to give him a lift to the polling station. Perruque had a weak back, and once helped into the dog cart, could not then get out without further help. So with the cart suitably decked out in Red colours Arthur, feeling very grown up, went to Perruque’s house and loaded him up.

As instructed, he then proceeded to drive in the exact opposite direction to the polling station. Perruque protested, but could do nothing as they made their stately way west and Arthur regaled him with a running commentary on the state of the crops as they passed. Arthur had been told to turn back at the St Ouen border but realised that if he didn’t think of something, he might still arrive at the polling station before it closed.

Back in Trinity he was approaching the forge, which he knew was owned by a good Red. On the pretext of concern that the horse might be casting a shoe, he stopped, hopped down and quietly explained his mission to the farrier. There then followed the most detailed and lengthy examination of all four shoes – consistent with the farrier discharging his professional responsibilities, before all was declared in order and Arthur could proceed.

This he did, and arrived at the polling station ten minutes after it closed; civic duty performed.

Scholarship

Back at school, Mr Gruchy’s careful tutelage paid off and Arthur was offered a scholarship to Victoria College. He agonized for a while over whether to take it up, as he was very attached to farming, but it was clear to him that his father and other close relatives all felt he should not turn down this opportunity, and so he went.

Arthur did well, winning all the school’s prizes for French. He also won a scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge. The scholarship paid £100 per year, but even in those days (1931) it would not have met his costs. The problem soon solved itself as Arthur became the first 'Davis scholar', benefitting from a trust established by T B Davis to help suitable boys progress to further education provided that thereafter they entered HM Government service or else joined the Merchant Navy.

So Arthur’s future was decided: in return for a generous additional grant he was to become a candidate for HM Consular Service.

University

At Cambridge he became secretary of the university branch of the League of Nations Union, an organisation in which he then profoundly believed. It was in this role that one can catch a glimpse of his occasional flash of temper. The MP for Cambridge University (in those days Oxford and Cambridge each had their own MP) made a public criticism of the League of Nations to which Arthur took exception. He wrote to the MP denouncing his criticisms, and at the same time sent a copy of his letter to the local newspaper.

Unfortunately he had not taken the courteous precaution of giving the MP time to read his letter before the paper published it and he complained to the university authorities about it. Arthur duly apologised and his tutor, who was also a member of the League of Nations Union, recommended at a branch meeting that the matter be allowed to rest there. Arthur disagreed and offered to resign as secretary. The meeting voted on it and unanimously decided against acceptance.

“Mr Chairman”, Arthur said “I have offered my resignation, and it has not been accepted. Well, now I am not merely offering it, I am bloody well giving it!” and he stalked out. A little while later his tutor summoned Arthur to his rooms. “I understand”, he said “that you’re planning to enter the Diplomatic Service. If, which God forbid, you should get in, then all I can say is “Thank God for the Navy”, for we shall certainly need it if you practise your brand of diplomatic art.”

Sir Arthur addresses a gathering at the High Commissioner's residence in Singapore

Languages

Arthur enjoyed his time at Cambridge and was very proud to leave with First Class Honours in Modern and Medieval Languages. At that time candidates for the Diplomatic Service were expected to be proficient in two European languages and have a working knowledge of a third. Arthur‘s main languages were French and German and he also had a smattering of Spanish.

To improve, in 1935 he enrolled at a summer course in Santander. That was very fortunate because there he met a beautiful American girl from California, Katherine Elisabeth Sherwood, with whom he fell hopelessly in love. The feeling was reciprocated and despite the fact that any wedding would have to be postponed until he met the Diplomatic Service’s requirement to pass his probation and master a “hard” language, which could take up to three years, they became informally engaged. It was the prelude to 52 years of happy marriage.

In 1936 he arrived in Tokyo as Vice-Consul and began the work of mastering Japanese. By early 1940 he had passed all his examinations and became free to marry at last. However, as war with Germany had broken out, all home leave had been cancelled and his plan to travel via California and marry there had to be abandoned. Instead Betty came to Tokyo and they were married there in 1940.

Married bliss, at least in Tokyo, was not to last, however, as in the early summer of 1941 the decision was taken to evacuate wives and children. Arthur took Betty to California and returned immediately. After Japan entered the war the embassy was virtually cut off until, under the aegis of the Swiss, British diplomats were evacuated to Mozambique, where they were swapped for Japanese diplomats.

'My Lord'

Once back in London Arthur was sent to Washington in 1942 and, as is the way of these things, ordered back to London the following year for further posting. He took Betty and his daughter to California and made his way to Gander, from where he was due to fly via Royal Canadian Air Force bomber to Prestwick.

He could not understand why, when he got to the airbase, he was treated with such deference, and why Canadian servicemen kept referring to him as 'My Lord'. The mystery deepened when it came to boarding the aircraft. As it was a bomber, it had no seats: passengers were accommodated on very basic mattresses. Except Arthur: despite there being more senior men than him among the passengers, he was ushered to the front where a mattress, his mattress, was equipped with blankets, pillows and an eiderdown.

The mystery was explained when, after a delay, the final passenger arrived. A tall and gangly fellow with only a briefcase was pointed to the final mattress and asked his name. “Lord Delaware,” he replied. Delaware, a member of Churchill’s entourage! It occurred to Arthur that it had been fortunate for him that, to the Canadian ear at least, “De La Mare” and “Delaware” (actually “De La Warr”) sounded so similar.

Gordon Brown

Later, back in London Arthur was appointed Assistant Secretary of State of Far Eastern and South Asian Affairs. His political boss was the Foreign Secretary, George Brown, a volatile and at times irascible man for whom Private Eye coined the enduring euphemism “tired and emotional”, meaning “drunk”.

Brown took a dislike to Arthur and swore at him every time they met. Finally Arthur’s patience wore out and he said to Brown: “Look here, Secretary of State, you have a pretty good vocabulary but I’ll give you some expressions which might please you more.” Arthur taught him how to curse in jerriais. Brown was taken with this idea and let Arthur drill him until he was word-perfect. And so it was that whenever Brown was in an aggressive mood, which was often, the precincts of the Foreign Office would reverberate to the sound of untranslatable Jersey-French oaths.

As can often be the case in large international organisations, Arthur hankered after a break from the politics of 'head office' and a return to the relative independence and challenges of another overseas posting. In 1963, at the age of 48, he was appointed Ambassador to Afghanistan. Not only was he young by Foreign Office standards for his first ambassadorial post, he was astonishingly young in the eyes of his Afghan hosts, who had got used to the idea that the appointment was a 'pensioning off' post for British diplomats at the end of their careers.

They accepted him and were rewarded with an unusually active ambassador. While his diplomatic counterparts preferred to stay in Kabul and play bridge, Arthur was off in the embassy Land Rover with only his driver, visiting British aid projects and generally getting to know the country.

Queen's Birthday

One of the highlights of Kabul’s diplomatic year was, curiously enough, the tea party celebrating the Queen’s birthday. Held on the lawn in front of the ambassador’s residence, the tea, sandwiches and cakes were served to an appreciative group of guests. A second set of guests, consisting both of diplomats and Afghan officials, appreciated even more the second tent that was situated subtly at the bottom of the garden. There, too, were cups and saucers on display - as well as bottles of whisky.

When it was time for Arthur to leave Afghanistan, the King expressed the wish to confer a title on him that would have been the approximate equivalent of a knighthood. However, British protocol was clear that he could not accept it. The only occasion on which an ambassador may accept a foreign honour is when the British Monarch is on a formal state visit. It fell to Arthur to have to explain this to his Afghan hosts and just hope they would not take it as a snub.

His next appointment, as High Commissioner to Singapore, was not obvious. For one thing, Arthur not only did not play golf, he enjoyed going about telling people that he didn’t. Yet it was a well-known fact in the Commonwealth Relations Office that the way to get on good terms with Lee Kuan Yew was to play golf with him.

A greater power intervened. George Brown wanted him out of his way. As Arthur puts it in his memoir: 'He didn’t care whether that meant sending me to Singapore or to Timbuctoo, or to Hell for that matter, though Hell would have been his first choice. But neither Timbuctoo nor Hell was up for grabs just then so Singapore it was.'

Singapore

After Arthur arrived in Singapore Lee Kuan Yew invited him round for an informal chat before he presented his credentials, and Arthur decided to take the bull by the horns. He told Lee that it needed to be understood from the outset that under no circumstances would he play golf with him. Lee was absolutely delighted. Every ambassador and High Commissioner seemed to have been given the story about golfing with him, so they all clamoured to have a game. Yet they were such hopeless players that Lee felt it was a waste of his time. Now he knew Arthur was not a golfer he could happily turn them down, saying simply that as he didn’t play golf with the British High Commissioner, he could hardly golf with them.

Their relationship was on a firm footing after that, not least when it fell to Arthur to present Lee with the insignia of Companion of Honour, bestowed by the Queen. At the end of his time in Singapore Arthur had completed 32 years service and was rewarded by being created a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG).

This was only his first knighthood. His final posting was as ambassador to Thailand, and it fell to Arthur to organise the state visit of the Queen, and to accompany her throughout. It often seems to be the case that on occasions like this, especially in more out of the way places, if something can go wrong, it will. And it did. But the Queen not only took it all in good part – whether it was the cistern without any water in it in the toilet she felt obliged to visit, the soaking downpour that they all suffered on a tour of a model rural village or the vintage limousine provided by the King that broke down on the way back to Bangkok – but thought it so funny she laughed about it all the way back.

As noted above, an ambassador may accept a foreign decoration only on the occasion of a State Visit. So it was that the King of Thailand bestowed on Arthur the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant, First Class. Maybe more significant to Arthur was that in recognition of his overall service and for organising the visit, the Queen created him a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order before she left the country, even presenting him with the stool he knelt on. This was his second knighthood, a double pleasure as he received it on his birthday.

A year later he retired, having reached the age of sixty. He and Betty went to live in Walton on Thames, and in 1988 they bought a house in Trinity and returned to the island he loved. Betty died in 1992 and Arthur in 1994. They are buried together in the churchyard at Trinity. The inscription after Arthur’s name is un buon jerriais.

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