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Stiff Upper Lip: Life Among the Diplomats

Stiff Upper Lip: Life Among the Diplomats

Stiff Upper Lip: Life Among the Diplomats

Stiff Upper Lip: Life Among the Diplomats

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The celebrated author of the Alexandria Quartet offers a collection of comic tales about the British Empire’s colonial diplomats.
 As the overseer of the kitchen at the British embassy in Vulgaria, De Mandeville has begun to abuse his power. He subjects the King’s guests to a blistering Madras curry, a French onion soup served without spoons, and a table so loaded with vegetation that the party can hardly see the food. But worst of all, he has begun to cook with garlic, that fragrant bulb so beloved by diplomats that it must be banned, lest foul breath cripple the Empire. De Mandeville is due for comeuppance, and no breath mint can save him now. “If Garlic Be the Food of Love” is only the first story in this invaluable peek at life in British diplomatic circles. After the ninth, the reader will wonder not how the British Empire came apart, but how De Mandeville, Polk-Mowbray, and the King’s other dips ever got it started in the first place.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781453261576
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 06/12/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 94
Sales rank: 829,515
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Born in Jalandhar, British India, in 1912 to Indian-born British colonials, Lawrence Durrell was a critically hailed and beloved novelist, poet, humorist, and travel writer best known for the Alexandria Quartet novels, which were ranked by the Modern Library as among the greatest works of English literature in the twentieth century. A passionate and dedicated writer from an early age, Durrell’s prolific career also included the groundbreaking Avignon Quintet, whose first novel, Monsieur (1974), won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and whose third novel, Constance (1982), was nominated for the Booker Prize. He also penned the celebrated travel memoir Bitter Lemons of Cyprus (1957), which won the Duff Cooper Prize. Durrell corresponded with author Henry Miller for forty-five years, and Miller influenced much of his early work, including a provocative and controversial novel, The Black Book (1938). Durrell died in France in 1990.  

Born in Jalandhar, British India, in 1912 to Indian-born British colonials, Lawrence Durrell was a critically hailed and beloved novelist, poet, humorist, and travel writer best known for the Alexandria Quartet novels, which were ranked by the Modern Library as among the greatest works of English literature in the twentieth century. A passionate and dedicated writer from an early age, Durrell’s prolific career also included the groundbreaking Avignon Quintet, whose first novel, Monsieur (1974), won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and whose third novel, Constance (1982), was nominated for the Booker Prize. He also penned the celebrated travel memoir Bitter Lemons of Cyprus (1957), which won the Duff Cooper Prize. Durrell corresponded with author Henry Miller for forty-five years, and Miller influenced much of his early work, including a provocative and controversial novel, The Black Book (1938). Durrell died in France in 1990.  

Read an Excerpt

Stiff Upper Lip

By Lawrence Durrell, Nicolas Bentley


Copyright © 1959 Lawrence Durrell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-6157-6


If Garlic Be the Food of Love ...

Every Wednesday now, in the winter, I lunch with Antrobus at his club, picking him up at the Foreign Office just before noon. I think he enjoys these meetings as much as I do for they enable him to reminisce about old times in the Foreign Service. For my part I am always glad to add an anecdote or two to my private Antrobus File—the groundwork upon which I one day hope to raise the monument of my own Diplomatic Memories....

Yesterday his memory carried him back to Vulgaria again where he had served under Polk-Mowbray—and over De Mandeville—as Head of Chancery. "Bitter days," he mused. "And perhaps one shouldn't talk about them. De Mandeville was in a queer state all that spring; perhaps it had something to do with the phases of the moon? I don't know. He was in a "Hamlet, Revenge!" sort of mood. The trouble seemed to centre about the Embassy table—as Third Sec. he had a watching brief on the food. It started I remembered with a series of Constance Spry table-decorations which made that otherwise fairly festive board look like an illustration from the Jungle Books. One could hardly carry a fork to one's mouth without biting off a piece of fern by mistake. Slices of decorative pumpkin and marrow gave a Harvest Festival note to things. One peered at one's guests through a forest of potted plants. Finally Polk-Mowbray put his foot down. De Mandeville became huffed. The next thing was he ordered Drage to serve everything from the right—in deference to a left-handed Trade Mission chief who was staying with us. It may have been tactful but it led to endless complications with us right-handed trenchermen who found everything upside down, and had to scuffle to rearrange our table-patterns as we sat down. And then what with Drage coming in so fast from the wrong side one was practically always out, hit-wicket on the soufflé. I tried to reason with De Mandeville but he only pouted and bridled. It was clear that he was in an ugly mood, old boy. I feared the worst. I have a sort of intuition about these things.

"The next thing in this chain of progressive sabotage was curry. De Mandeville had a series of Madras curries served. They were of such a blistering intensity that the entire Dutch Embassy had the inside of its collective mouth burned away—peeled off like bark from a tree, old boy. The Minister called on Polk-Mowbray in tenue and wanted to know if a state of war existed between England and Holland. His wife had to be treated for soft palate. A junior attaché went about saying that the Embassy food was full of quicklime and hinting darkly about damages. Naturally there were high words and massive contempts flying about which made Polk-Mowbray somewhat nervy. De Mandeville was sharply taken to task, but without avail. He next served an onion soup and black bread without soup-spoons. You know how long a rich onion soup takes to cool. Our little lunch-party dragged on almost to dusk, and several guests were lightly scalded because they neglected to take thermometer readings before gulping. The whole thing was gradually working up towards a climax. I saw it all coming and mentally, so to speak, closed my eyes and breathed a prayer to the Goddess of Diplomacy. I could not, however, guess from which quarter this warped and twisted Third Sec. might deliver the knock-out blow.

"Then ... all this is in the strictest confidence, old man.... Then it came. Polk-Mowbray used to leave his office door wide open so I could see and hear all that went on therein. One morning I heard a familiar sort of row going on and I knew that the blow had fallen at last. Polk-Mowbray was hysterical. 'I adjure you by the bones of Cromer', he was yelling, 'to answer me without prevarication. Have you been putting garlic in the food without telling anyone? Did you, wittingly or unwittingly plug that cassoulet, impregnate that lustreless salad, order the peas to be lightly simmered in the stuff before serving? Answer me at once, or in Heaven's Name I'll—'

"De Mandeville made a gobbling self-deprecating sort of sound and spread his manicured hands as he muttered something about garlic being eaten in all the best London houses. It toned up the nervous system. Some said it was the only specific for scabies. One would have to be very retrograde to imagine.... And so on in this style. Veins were throbbing all over poor Polk-Mowbray by this time. 'Do not try to justify yourself,' he thundered. 'Answer me with a simple yea or nea. And take that beastly sensual smile off your face. If you choose to dine on heads of raw garlic with your scabrous chauffeur it is your business. But the Embassy table is sacred, do you hear? Sacred. If you do not answer truthfully I shall make you the subject of a General Paper to the Foreign Secretary.' There was a short silence during which they glared at each other. Then De Mandeville threw back his chin and uttered the word 'yes' rather defiantly; he was wearing an obstinate Canine Defence League expression on his face. Polk-Mowbray levitated briefly and banged his desk with a triumphant. 'Aha! So you did.' It was clear that De Mandeville was in for one of those Searching Reproofs. His Chief now began to walk up and down his own carpet as he always did when he was moved. He Pointed The Finger Of Scorn at De Mandeville in no uncertain fashion. 'Wretch!' he cried in a shaking voice. 'Could you not see the harm that might come from such reckless and criminal cookery? Moreover you choose the one lunch party of the year which is of policy importance in order to do me the greatest damage. Think of the Naval Attaché! What has he ever done to merit that unspeakable lunch—at which he ate far too heartily? And my niece Angela—what of her? And the Head of the Foreign Ministry—what of him?'

"De Mandeville tried to make a few unavailing protests. 'Enough!' cried Polk-Mowbray hoarsely. 'Surely you know that to feed a Naval Attaché garlic is like stoking a coke furnace with dead rats? Did you see his face as he lurched out into the afternoon? You did not know, I suppose, that he was due to lecture to the Sea Wolves on Temperance and Self-Denial at sea? He created a very poor impression in a very short time. The wretch now fears court-martial. He says that now whenever his pinnace is sighted they raise a Yellow Fever flag and forbid him access to the ship. I do not doubt that the dirk-point will be facing him when he walks into the ward-room. All this is on your head and more. Don't interrupt me. That is not all. Do you realize that when I helped the Minister into his car he was making a noise like a bunsen burner? You would not care that he had to address the High Praesidium that afternoon on Foreign Affairs—moreover in a language so full of aspirates as to make the gravest demands on his audience! No, you would not care, with your pumpkins and pottery and left-handed table arrangements! On you go in your headlong career, weaving these devilish plots around my table. And apart from all this what about me. You cannot be expected to know that I was booked to read the Lesson at a Memorial Service in the British Baptist Chapel which is notoriously cramped and ill-ventilated. How did you think I felt when I saw the first two rows of the congregation swaying like ripened wheat in an east wind? How do you think I felt when it came to my turn to embrace the hapless widow? She was breathing as if she had slipped her fan-belt. Answer me! You see, you haven't a word to say. You are mumchance as you jolly well ought to be. Fie on you, Aubrey de Mandeville! You did not stop to think what effect Angela might have on Cosgrave after such a lunch. The engagement was pretty tremulous as it was—but you snookered the wretched girl well and truly. And what of the typists' pool? Girls keeling over one after another as they tried to take dictation from us. What of them?' For a moment words failed him. His face worked. Then he said in a low murderous tone, from between clenched teeth. 'I tell you that from now on there is to be no more garlic. Sage, yes. Thyme, yes. Rosemary, marjoram, dill, cummin, yes. Emphatically yes. But garlic, no!' And so the edict went forth and the sale of peppermints in the Naafi dropped off again."

Antrobus sighed sadly over these memories as he replenished our glasses. Then he said musingly: "I should say really that Garlic was the biggest Single Cross a Diplomat had to bear in the rough old times. It had to be banned, old man. Yet in a sense we were all Living A Lie, like the Americans under Prohibition; for we all secretly yearned after the stuff. (I say this in the strictest confidence. I would not wish to be quoted.) Yet it is strange that this noxious bulb should have such an allure for men. As for diplomats, it played havoc with Confidential Exchanges; and as for dancing with your Ambassadress ... well. It was the quickest way to get posted. That is why I was so relieved when the Age Of Science dawned. I used to be against Science once, and for the Humanities—I freely admit it. But when at last chlorophyl came in I was instantly won over. What a boon and a blessing to dips! What an over-riding sense of relief! Many a breach was healed that day between man and man. Even Polk-Mowbray in the end allowed the salad-bowl to be lightly rubbed with a couple of heads before serving. And I don't know whether you noticed the rather respectable little ragoût we have just been eating? Not bad for the Club, is it? But fear nothing! In my pocket lies a phial full of those little grey tablets which make human intercourse a rational, easy, unbuttoned sort of thing again. No more shrinking from pursed lips in The Office. We can hold our heads high once more! Let's drink a final little toast to the Goddess of the F.O. shall we? I give you Chlorophyl!"


Stiff Upper Lip

As for the Fair Sex (said Antrobus), I am no expert, old boy. I've always steered clear. Mind you, I've admired through binoculars as one might admire a fine pair of antlers. Nearest I ever came to being enmeshed was in the Folies Bergères one night. Fortunately, Sidney Trampelvis was there and got me out into the night air and fanned me with his cape until my head cleared and I realized the Full Enormity of what I'd done. Without realizing it, I had proposed to a delightful little pair of antlers called Fifi and was proposing to take her back to the Embassy and force the Chaplain to gum us up together. Phew! I certainly owe Sidney a debt. We positively galloped away from the place in a horse-drawn contrivance with our opera hats crushed like puff-pastry. Sidney, who was only visiting, and who had also crossed the subliminal threshold and proposed—dear God—to a contortionist; Sidney was even paler than I. That night he dyed his hair green to escape identification and crossed over to Dover on the dusk packet—a bundle of nerves.

But Dovebasket in love was a strange sight. His sighs echoed through the Chancery. There were sonnets and triolets and things all over the backs of the War Office despatches. The little winged youth had certainly pinked him through the spencer. Yes, it was Angela, Polk-Mowbray's niece. I can't think why Polk-Mowbray didn't liquidate one or both of them. But then the Popular Verdict on him was that he needed stiffening. Yes, the stiffest thing about him was perhaps his upper lip. As for Dove-basket, I would have described him as an ensanguined poop. A spoon, my dear chap, a mere spoon. Yet love makes no distinctions. Afterwards he published a little book of his poems called Love Songs of an Assistant Military Attaché with a preface by Havelock Ellis. A rum book in sooth. I remember one refrain:

The moon gleams up there like a cuspidor
Angela, Angela, what are we waiting for?

You get the sort of stuff? Could lead directly to Nudism. It was clear from all this that he was terribly oversexed and I for one felt that he would end in Botany Bay or the Conservative Central Office or somewhere. You see, Angela wouldn't respond to the rowel at all. Not her. Press his suit as firmly as he might the wretched chap only got the tip-tilted nose in response. It was clear that she considered him as no more than a worm-powder. And here I must add that we had all been worried about Angela, for she had been showing signs of getting one of her famous crushes on the Russian Military Attaché—Serge, or Tweed, or something by name—a bloater to boot. But of course, the worst aspect of it all was that we weren't officially fraternizing at that time with The Other Bloc. Polk-Mowbray was worried about her security. He had been frightfully alarmed to overhear an idle conversation of hers with a Pole in which she gave away—without a moment's thought—the entire lay-out of Henley Regatta, every disposition, old boy. She even drew a map of the refreshment room. I know that Henley isn't Top Secret, but it might just as easily have been the dispositions of the Home Fleet. Such lightness of speech argued ill for the Mission. One simply did not know what she mightn't reveal in this way.... We were concerned, I might say, Quite Concerned.

Well, it so fell out that during this fruitless romance of Dovebasket's the Vulgarians invited us all to join them in pushing out the boat for the Wine Industry. They had always had a Wine Industry, mind you, but it had never been put on a proper basis before. So, very wisely, they had imported a trio of French experts and turned them loose among the bins. Within a matter of a couple of years, the whole thing had been reorganized, new cultures had been sorted out, and Vulgaria was now about to launch about twenty new wines upon the export market. Advance intelligence from old Baron Hisse la Juppe, the Military Attaché (who had practically lived down there while experiments were going on) suggested that something most promising had taken place. Vulgaria, he said (rather precariously) was on the point of exporting wines which would equal anything the French and Italians could do.... We were incredulous, of course, but were glad to assist in the send-off of the new wines. The whole Corps accepted the invitation to the Vin d' Honneur with alacrity.

The day dawned bright and fair, and it was a merry party of carefree dips who took the train north to the vineyards. The whole vieillesse dorée of diplomacy, old man. In sparkling trim. For once, the whole thing was admirably worked out; we were carried in vine-wreathed carriages to the great main cellars of the place—more like a railway tunnel than anything, where warm candlelight glowed upon twinkling glasses and white linen; where the music of minstrels sounded among the banks of flowers.... I must say, I was transported by the beauty of the scene. There lay the banks of labelled bottles, snoozing softly upon the trestles with the candles shining upon their new names. Our hosts made speeches. We cheered. Then corks began to pop and the wine-tasting began. One of the French specialists led us round. He tried to get us to take the thing rather too professionally—you know, shuffling it about in the mouth, cocking the chin up to the ceiling and then spitting out into a kind of stone draining-board. Well as you know, one is trained to do most things in the F.O. But not to spit out good wine. No. We simply wouldn't demean ourselves by this niggardly shuffling and spitting out. We swallowed. I think you would have done the same in our place. What we were given to taste, we tasted. But we put the stuff away.

And what stuff, my dear boy. Everything that Hisse la Juppe had said proved true. What wines! Wines to set dimples in the cheeks of the soul. Some were little demure white wines, skirts lifted just above the knee, as it were. Others just showed an elbow or an ankle. Others were as the flash of a nymph's thigh in the bracken. Wines in sables, wines in mink! What an achievement for the French! Some of the range of reds struck out all the deep bass organ-notes of passions—in cultured souls like ours. It was ripping. We expanded. We beamed. Life seemed awfully jolly all of a sudden. We rained congratulations upon our hosts as we gradually wound along the great cellars, tasting and judging. What wines! I couldn't decide for myself, but after many trials fell upon a red wine with a very good nose. You see, we each had to pick one, as a free crate of it was to be given to each member of the Corps. Sort of Advertisement.


Excerpted from Stiff Upper Lip by Lawrence Durrell, Nicolas Bentley. Copyright © 1959 Lawrence Durrell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • 1: If Garlic Be the Food of Love …
  • 2: Stiff Upper Lip
  • 3: The Game’s the Thing
  • 4: Something à la Carte?
  • 5: Where the Bee Sucks
  • 6: The Unspeakable Attaché
  • 7: The Iron Hand
  • 8: The Swami’s Secret
  • 9: A Smircher Smirched
  • A Biography of Lawrence Durrell

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