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Brian Stewart Keelite of the Month December 2013
1972 Geography & Politics
What are you doing now?
Settled into retirement in Scotland, and getting drawn into community politics and arguments about local planning, after a 35-year diplomatic career in some of the most fascinating and troubled regions of the world.
How did you get to where you are now?
It has been a long and winding road. But as Yogi Berra famously said, “When you come to a fork in the road – take it!” After my finals at Keele I wondered if I could persuade the BBC that my experience as editor of ‘Cygnet’ qualified me for one of their coveted trainee slots. It didn’t. An American oil company offered me a job, possibly in the mistaken belief that a geology field course on Dartmoor had equipped me for global exploration in the pay of Big Oil. I turned it down when a brown OHMS envelope arrived in the back-to-back Potteries terraced house (now demolished) where I was staying while doing a temporary job in a factory in Burslem. That envelope contained a letter advising me that I had successfully passed the Civil Service Selection Board process and offering me employment – nay rather, “appointing” me – as a member of HM Diplomatic Service.
That road took me to Beirut to learn Arabic, in the halcyon days before the Lebanese civil war; onward to Amman in Jordan - and to a succession of assignments in the conflict zones of the Middle East and North Africa and some more tranquil destinations elsewhere. Overseas duties were interspersed with an assortment of “home postings” in Whitehall – in the Cabinet Office as an intelligence analyst, in the Foreign Office dealing inevitably with the politics of the Arab world, but also at various times in departments responsible for EU negotiations, for South East Asian affairs, and for international counter-narcotics operations.
Some diplomats – it is said – follow trouble (if they are not causing it). In 2003, after a couple of challenging postings in Syria and the Gulf, I thought a year at the Royal College of Defence Studies would be a calmer interlude. But it was interrupted by a summons to join the coalition forces in Kuwait and Iraq as the shock and awe of “Gulf War Two” led to the fall of Saddam Hussein.
That assignment was mercifully short, and soon after returning to complete the Defence College course I was heading for Buckingham Palace to see the Queen and to be told of my final diplomatic posting.....
Photo Right: "The one with me in flying kit (no, I wasn't the pilot - I flew in the co-pilot/navigator seat) was taken in 2003 while I was at the Royal College of Defence Studies, shortly before going off to Kuwait and Iraq during Gulf War 2"
What has been your biggest achievement so far?
Other than managing somehow to get through Finals and obtain a degree, being appointed as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary (what a wonderful title!) to be Her Britannic Majesty’s Representative at Algiers was a significant achievement in professional terms. To be given the responsibility for promoting British interests in such a vast, complex, and wealthy country, scarred by history and conflict and just emerging from a decade of civil war, was a daunting challenge and the culmination of my diplomatic career.
In personal life, I have to say that getting married – and staying married – to my amazing, patient, tolerant and talented wife Annie (also a Keele graduate) has been both an achievement and a joy. Without her enthusiasm and commitment few of our many adventures would have been possible – or as much fun.
Photo Left: Brian and Annie Stewart (Cockerill) (1975) at the Ambassador's Residence, Algiers.
And your biggest mistake?
Far too many to list. Just for example ..... Returning to Beirut for a friend’s wedding in the middle of the civil war and getting trapped in a building while a fire-fight raged around it. Failing to double-check my official documentation before travelling to Cairo, and ending up in an Egyptian detention centre. Agreeing to fly into the Golden Triangle in a Thai police helicopter so full of bullet holes that pressurisation was impossible and air conditioning inevitable. Attempting a 4WD desert crossing of the Rub’ al-Khali (the Empty Quarter) in Oman and getting stuck in the dunes of the Wahiba Sands: we survived and emerged, but only just...
What are your ambitions now?
To stay healthy and active. To be happy. To score at least one half-century for my local cricket team before I finally hang up my bat. And to give something back to all those - family, friends, university, community – who have helped me along the way.
Photo left: "This photo dates from 1974, soon after I had joined the FCO and was doing Arabic language training in Lebanon. It was taken at Palmyra in Syria during the 3-day Liban-Syrie motor rally on which I was helping and guiding a British film crew around the desert route. As is probably evident, I hadn't slept for three days! I discovered to my astonishment that the film we made of the event is on YouTube - now that was a blast from the past! "
What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in a similar field?
Take the job seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Respect those who work with you and for you. Success is 90% preparation, 10% execution: do your research before you go into the negotiations. Or in the words of Piet Hein:
The road to wisdom? Well it’s plain
And simple to express:
Err and err, and err again
But less, and less, and less
What made you choose Keele University?
The fickle finger of fate, and the infinite possibilities of the Foundation Year. As I came to the end of my schooling in Scotland, I had no firm idea about the subjects I wished to pursue. I just wanted to seek further education somewhere new and different, rather than the nearby and traditional academic destinations. Keele was interesting, unusual, original, iconoclastic, and therefore appealing.
What kind of a student were you?
A typical student of the Sixties. I became one of the people our parents warned us against. Politically radical, intellectually curious, socially irreverent. Revelling in new-found freedoms, and looking to change the world. More into late nights and music than keep-fit and studying hard. Head in the clouds of political theory and argument, feet on the ground of geographical field trips and map-making.
Photo left: Brian takes part in the Keele RAG procession 1970
How has Keele influenced your life?
Keele did not seek to impart all the answers. Nor did it deliver received wisdom. Keele showed me a world of possibilities. Keele succeeded in encouraging me to think, to ask questions, to keep a broad perspective. I learned how to analyse, not just to accept. I learned to challenge, rather than to acquiesce. Valuable lessons, valuable skills.
What is your favourite memory of Keele?
Impossible to pick one single recollection. Late nights in Lindsay F block with Jefferson Airplane, The Doors or Leonard Cohen on the record player. Early mornings with the hum of the motorway traffic and the first rays of the sun across the fields. The primeval vision of flaming furnaces, cascading sparks and billowing smoke from Shelton steelworks at night from the top of a PMT double-decker bus. The tranquillity of the lakes. Political arguments in academic tutorials and Union meetings. The attempt to levitate the Clock House. Mungo Jerry ‘In The Summertime’ at the Hollywood Festival. And many more magic moments.
What is your impression of Keele now?
A more serious, more organised, more “settled” place. A university with growing confidence in its own identity and purpose. But despite the growth in size and numbers, Keele retains that indefinable sense of community – and the campus still offers green spaces and quiet corners as well as interesting buildings, academic stimulation and ample opportunity for social life and recreation.