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Robert Arbuthnott: A Life in the British Council

Robert Arbuthnott

Published 1st July 2017

I was born in Kuala Lumpur in the Federated Malay States, in 1936. My father was severely wounded in The Great War, losing an arm. His mother's family owned a chartered accountancy firm in Glasgow at which he qualified, so when the company opened a branch in Malaya, he was sent to lead it.

My mother wanted to be an actress but her parents didn't consider it a suitable occupation, so sent her to the colonies to find a husband. She met and married my father. The country’s growing plantation industry meant there was plenty of commercial auditing for my father’s firm. 

One day in 1941, with the Japanese advancing towards Kuala Lumpur, I remember hearing my father, in his Army uniform, telling my mother to take the next day’s train to Singapore because it would probably be the last, which it was. 

We stayed in the abandoned home of a family friend in Singapore while my mother tried to get us a passage out. On Christmas Day, we heard an air raid warning and hid under the stairs. After the bombs had fallen, we emerged to see that the house next door had disappeared. 

Finally, the three of us squeezed into two seats aboard a flying boat to Australia, where we arrived as refugees. We lived in Sydney, where my mother gave elocution lessons, teaching girls how to speak proper English! There was a good deal of anti-British feeling as Australians, quite rightly, believed the British had let them down by allowing Singapore to be taken at a time when many Australians were fighting for the Allies.I was knocked about in the playground and had my nose broken. Yet we also experienced great kindness. 

My father became a prisoner of war, working on the dreadful Burma-Siam Railway. Some 60,000 prisoners were used as slave labour alongside many civilians, and 15,000 died. We heard nothing from him for two years before a postcard arrived with a reference to Winnie the Pooh, which he loved to read to us. We knew then that he was still alive. 

The Aussies offered us a free passage home in 1945. We sailed via New Zealand, where we picked up troops and lamb in huge quantities. We zig- zagged the Pacific, went through the Panama Canal and joined a convoy across the Atlantic. It was then the Germans surrendered and I recall seeing U-boats rising to the surface all around us to give themselves up. 

When my father didn’t return after the Japanese surrender, we feared the worst. Later, we learnt that he and six others had stayed behind to make sure that the abandoned and starving civilian labourers on the railway could also get home and this took time. We were finally re-united.

When my father had recovered, my parents went back to Kuala Lumpur. My brother and I were sent to boarding school and during the holidays we would stay with relatives in Bournemouth, Northumberland or Scotland, in each of which we enjoyed a different lifestyle. My mother made the long journey to see us once a year, if she could. It was an unsettled childhood but with our generation, boys didn't cry and you got on with life. The post-war years were tough for everybody.

My first boarding school was near Redhill and then I went to Sedbergh School in Cumbria. This was a tough school with cold baths and lots of cross country running. I did okay academically, earning a scholarship to Cambridge to read Modern Languages. But first, I had to do military service. 

The head of the Arbuthnott family in Scotland served as a Major General during the war. He arranged for me to serve with his old regiment, The Black Watch. Military service was a great experience as I met people from all backgrounds. One chap stole my rifle to try and get me into trouble, but we became friends as I helped him write letters to his girlfriend, as he was illiterate. Many young soldiers were miners and I admired them for their resilience.

As I had A-levels, I could apply to become an officer, and luckily I was successful. I served in Perth and Berlin where the Allied powers, including Russia, had divided the city into four sectors. However, I never fired a shot in anger. 

I spoke fluent German and it was fascinating talking to people in the cafes and streets, particularly in the Russian Sector. Many Germans asked about my regimental uniform as I wore a kilt. The Berliners were beleaguered and knew the Russians could take over at any time. They were conscious of the Allies protecting them, so we were popular.  When the regimental bands paraded, people flocked to listen.

I spent three years at Cambridge, learning about life and putting the world to rights! I enjoyed music and conducted the college orchestra, and also played a lot of sport. Cambridge was a different institution then. Life was structured, disciplined and we were treated like slightly grown-up schoolboys. This was hard for those of us who had served in the military. 

I expressed an interest in becoming a diplomat or teacher, so the Appointments Board said: ‘Why don't you try for the British Council?’  I discovered it was a combination of education and diplomacy, providing learning and cultural opportunities around the world. Working abroad greatly appealed to me.

My first posting was in Karachi. The British Council was providing English language training as well as recruiting British principals, professors and department heads at schools and universities across the country. We also had exchanges, awarded scholarships and ran libraries. 

The best thing that happened in Karachi was meeting Robina, my wife. She was staying with my boss who asked me to help entertain her.  After an unpromising start, we got engaged three weeks later. When I was on leave, we married in Horsham Parish Church with the reception at South Lodge, which was then owned by Robina’s cousins.

My next post was in Lahore, a vibrant, cultural city with a huge 16th century mosque. My job there was in finance and administration, working with the British Volunteer Programme (VSO) and servicing the people recruited as staff in schools and universities. We were happy, and our first child was born there. On our first night in the house, the walls and ceilings were covered with mosquitoes. We had to jump and hit them with pillows! We were both shouting and laughing for ages. The neighbours must have wondered what was going on! 

Pakistan was very different then; educated women didn’t walk about in veils. It was a friendly, welcoming place and we took to the people immediately. We played sport and enjoyed exploring the countryside. We drove into India to visit Kashmir one summer and had to drive up perilous mountain roads, oftensqueezing past a military convoy travelling in the opposite direction. It was scary as you could see wrecked cars far below over the precipice! 

When we arrived at the pass into Kashmir, we looked down across an incredible valley with lakes, rivers and green vegetation. You can understand why Pakistan and India have fought over it, as it’s a magical place. We stayed on a houseboat and would swim in the blue lake and use water taxis to visit gardens and local markets.  We’ve been back three times, but during our last trip there were serious bomb attacks. I hope they will solve the politicalproblem and bring peace here again.

In 1967, I was posted to Kathmandu in Nepal. We lived with our two children and labrador in an extraordinary house with views of the Himalayas on one side and a mediaeval city with golden pagodas on the other. Women wearing garlands and marigolds would walk along the ancient brick path past our house on their way to the main Hindu temple, and every morning a buffalo was milked for us by our back door. Nepal was a desperately poor country full of remarkably friendly people.

One of the British projects for which I was responsible was the building of a big new school, aimed at bright but poor children from remote areas. It is still doing well. We had a team re-training every secondary English teacher in the country and a British Volunteer Programme. We also ran three libraries and people would walk for several days to change their books as there was such a hunger for learning. 

We would go trekking in the hills and mountains when we could, but it was difficult as we were busy. One favourite spot was a lake at 14,000 feet where pilgrims would visit. The water was so cold that occasionally someone would die after taking a holy dip! Another memorable experience was climbing to 18,500 feet, above Everest Base Camp, and seeing the panorama of Everest and the mountains surrounding it. Nepal was an experience of a lifetime.

A surprising number of official visitors arrived at weekends expecting to be looked after, so we took them on picnics in the Himalayan foot hills. Occasionally, the British Council provided us with an opportunity to host cultural events. A theatre company touring India agreed to visit Nepal and staged the country’s first professional theatre production. I acted as impresario, bouncer and box office manager to ensure it went ahead. I visited the only theatre in Nepal and found there were no toilets or furniture. Robina used our home curtains to create dressing rooms and our furniture became make-up tables! The embassy found two old portable toilets and we wired everything through one single plug socket! 

After that, we had more visiting actors including Felicity Kendal’s parents (the ‘Shakespeare Wallahs’ of the film) and the famous West End actress Barbara Jefford and her husband. Both performed in our house, the latter doing love scenes from Shakespeare to an audience including the Crown Prince, prime minister and other notables.

After five years in Nepal, I was posted to Kuala Lumpur. The British government had given the Malaysians an aid package and they wanted it to be in education and to be managed by us, as we were already working with them on educational projects.   

Amongst the many specialists we brought over, the most memorable was Lord Denning, one of the most famous British judges of the 20th century. He conducted seminars and made speeches all over the country and we hosted a dinner in his honour, attended by top judges and lawyers as well as the visiting British Lord Chancellor and our High Commissioner. Lord Denning kept everybody spellbound. 

It was an exciting time for our children too as we would snorkel off the west coast and in the South China Sea. People talk about the coral in the West Indies, but it is nothing compared to Malaysia! 

It wasn't a normal upbringing for our three children. The advantage was that they had many adventures and experienced different cultures, whilst a disadvantage was that they weren't rooted in one place and had to leave friends behind. But some experiences they wouldn't swap for the world, like seeing the giant leather-backed turtles coming in from the sea at night to lay their eggs on the beaches. 

Our next big move was to Germany, where the British Council’s role was different. In the 1980s, Germans had a poor opinion of Britain because of bad industrial relations, inefficient industry and football hooligans. It was important to persuade them that we were still a serious country.

Our contribution was to encourage university and other links and exchanges.  We ran seminars about Britain today for senior German civil servants. We also brought over British authors (at their German publishers’ expense) including Tom Sharpe, Iris Murdoch, Angela Carter and Salman Rushdie to read their books and talk about them. I interviewed them in front of large audiences, sometimes covered by the media. We also loaned information packs about Britain to schools and brought over the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as art and sculpture exhibitions, which are popular in Germany.

One difficult experience was being interviewed by a popular German radio programme, about British attitudes to the Germans. Why, I was asked, did we continue to make jokes about the Nazis in programmes like ‘Allo Allo’ so long after the war?  

I was also on the jury for the Shakespeare Prize, awarded to someone who made a profound contribution to British culture. During my time, we chose Alec Guinness and David Hockney. The former was very modest, pleasant and understated.   David Hockney was more upfront, wearing a back-to-front baseball cap and trainers to a posh evening party in Hamburg!

My last, longest (nearly six years) and best posting was to India, based in Delhi. It was the best, professionally, because I was in charge of our biggest overseas post with an enormous programme; and personally, because we had the opportunity to explore this vast and exciting country. We had a network of libraries which issued two and a half million books to 100,000 members and were hugely popular.

One of the surgeons at Moorfields, who operated on my eyes, told me he would never have qualified as a doctor without the help of our Bombay library. In those days, Britain gave a lot of aid to India and we managed over 40 projects for the government in education, health, urban development and other fields which gave me a wonderful opportunity to travel to them, usually to inaugurate something or make a speech.

We experienced no ill-feeling about the British Raj of the past and many older people had good personal memories of that time. We experienced great kindness from the villagers who insisted on changing the car tyre when we punctured in a remote area, to the many Indians who became friends for life. 

With hundreds of specialists and consultants visiting the country, we met many interesting people and sometimes entertained around them. I had capable and loyal Indian staff, too; the most capable I found anywhere. I met our Prime Minister as well as members of the Royal family during that time.

The most memorable visit was by Prince Charles and Princess Di when their marriage was breaking up. While she was photographed looking sadly at the Taj Mahal, he was visiting our new office building. I found him very professional and charming and am sure he will be an excellent monarch. Robina accompanied Princess Di to a number of her social welfare visits, and thought she was wonderful too. What a pity they were not right for each other. 

In 1991, I was fortunate to be awarded the CBE. I drove an Austin Maestro and parked in the forecourt of Buckingham palace, alongside an array of luxury cars! It was a wonderful day and the Queen asked me where I’d been, before I picked up the subtle hints that it was time I moved on.

After retirement, we found our dream house in Shropshire. We became gardeners for seven years and were involved in the National Garden Scheme (NGS). I also became a trustee of the Leonard Cheshire Foundation for the disabled. Music has been a life-long passion and I’ve conducted 15 choirs all over the world. I accompanied professional singers and musicians on occasion and was also on the committee of the English Haydn Festival in Bridgnorth. 

Later, we moved to Maplehurst where we both had family history. I was losing my sight and although doctors stopped the rot, I had to stop driving among other things.  So, we downsized and moved to Mannings Heath where I can get about on the bus, walk to the village shop or watch The Nutters play cricket on the village green. I also sing in the St Andrew’s Church choir at Nuthurst and am a member of the Horsham Arun Probus Club.

We still love to travel and among other places have visited Kanchanaburi in Thailand to see the Burma Railway, where my father worked as a POW. We met two men who were survivors, which was a humbling moment.

My working career was a wonderful experience and I cannot think of a job I could possibly have enjoyed more. I believe that the organisation I worked for made a real difference to our relations with other countries over many years and I would like to hope that I made a small contribution to this.   ­­­

INTERVIEW BY BEN MORRIS

PICTURES BY TOBY PHILLIPS/ ROBERT ARBUTHNOTT

Robert Arbuthnott as a boy
Robert Arbuthnott serves with Black Watch
Robert Arbuthnott with family in Nepal
Robert Arbuthnott is honoured by the Queen