I originally got my job at the Commonwealth Secretariat (ComSec) completely by accident. Back in the olden days, just before leaving college, I took a trip on the underground to the West End to look around central London on my own for the first time. I got totally lost while looking for Green Park tube station to get back home and wandered in through the gates of Marlborough House (MH). In those days, the Secretariat used to organise a daily guided tour around the building – so they were used to people just walking in.
Before I could open my mouth to say anything, I was grabbed by the arm by Kim Goh who said, “You’re late, you are running really late.” She took me to the East Wing of MH, sat me down at a typewriter and gave me a typing test which started off with me typing my name at the top of the page. After the test, Kim looked at it and said that I had passed it – then suddenly she looked at my name and looked puzzled. “Who are you?” she enquired. I told her that I was lost and had entered MH to find someone to ask for directions to Green Park tube station. She asked why I had not mentioned this earlier. I told her that she had not given me a chance to say anything. It turned out that the candidate who was meant to take the typing test had not bothered to turn up and she had mistaken me for that person when I had walked into MH!
“Well, you have passed the typing test. Are you looking for a secretarial or clerical job?,” she asked. I said I was going to sit for my last exam at a secretarial college later that week and agreed to go through a job interview. I passed my interview with Jean Fryer, a really nice English lady with short blond hair who looked a bit like Margret Thatcher.
I sat for my last exam later that week and started work at the ComSec the following week. I was later told that the organisation had been trialling an intake of school-leavers for secretarial posts. I might have been an experiment gone wrong because, as far as I know, I was the only secretarial school-leaver they ever took on!
So the result of wandering off the streets into MH whilst looking for directions to the nearest underground station led me to working at the ComSec for just under 36 years. I always used to say that I was probably the only person to start off as a teenager and leave as an old woman 🙂
Annie Carlton (née Matin)
(Management Training Services Division, General Technical Assistance Services Division and other divisions, Commonwealth Secretariat, 1981 – 2017)
13 June 2022
The first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) I attended was the one held in New Delhi in 1983, superbly organised by our Indian colleagues.
A zealous reporter discovered that whereas 1,000 rupees’ worth of aspirin had been sold during the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit earlier in the year, the small chemist’s shop in the press section of the Vigyan Bhavan had only sold 80 rupees’ worth during CHOGM. This, I argued, was proof that the Commonwealth was less of a pain than NAM.
A senior Government of India official was not convinced. “Have you taken into account”, he asked, “the relative lengths of the gatherings in question, and the relative availability of alcohol during the course of them?”
I dismissed both considerations as tiresome impediments to a good story.
Sir Peter Marshall
(Deputy Secretary-General, Commonwealth Secretariat, 1983-88)
13 June 2022
My first election monitoring tour was in Ghana in 1992. The delegation was led by Jeremy Pope. I asked him if my colleague (a delightful Mauritian Minister) and I could go as far north from Accra as possible for the week-long posting. So, courtesy the highly efficient Ghana Air Force we did so, very close to the Burkina Faso border.
Wonderful experience, not least the Saturday night beauty pageant at the Black Star Hotel in Bolgatanga. Apart from travelling widely in the beautiful savannah region, it was fascinating to see the mix of religions and tribes and how they dealt with the voting process.
Then, while waiting for quite a while in the hotel in Accra for a bus to the airport to return to London, Jeremy entertained us all by sitting at the hotel piano and playing many familiar tunes, including Waltzing Matilda.
Great guy, and a great experience for me.
(Export Market Development Division and General Technical Assistance Division, Commonwealth Secretariat, 1981-2000)
14 June 2022
Very interesting, Chris!
I bet you never expected to observe Ghanian beauties at that pageant…must have been a nice change from boring elections on your first ComSec mission in 1992.
Your mention of the great Jeremy reminded me of how I once totally unexpectedly bumped into him in Sri Lanka when we, unbeknown to us, were on separate assignments there around 1990.
I was having a swim in the open-air pool of my Colombo hotel on a sunny Sunday morning. As I turned at the end of a lap and looked up, I spotted Jeremy standing on the edge of the pool, smiling benignly towards me!
It turned out that he had checked in at the same hotel – Ramada Renaissance – the previous night.
The Pakistan cricket team led by Imran Khan happened to be staying at the same hotel; so, it was not long before he and I were talking about the game we both loved!
(Information Division, Commonwealth Secretariat, 1978-97)
14 June 2022
The reminiscences of Asif Khan and Chris Bowman involving our late friend and colleague Jeremy Pope brought to mind a further anecdote related to me some time after I joined the Commonwealth Secretariat in July 1988. Jeremy was by then Director of the Legal Affairs Division, having been recruited as a more junior officer in the mid-1970s from his home country New Zealand.
There he had already made a name for himself not only professionally as a lawyer and as an editor of the New Zealand Law Journal, but also as a very active campaigner against the then apartheid South Africa. At home he had been particularly prominent in denouncing New Zealand sporting contacts with the apartheid regime and criticising the New Zealand government at the time, during the tenure of the then conservative (National Party) government of Prime Minister Robert Muldoon – a very pugnacious and combative politician if ever there was one!
Thus, it came to pass that at some time in the second half of the 1970s, a newly-appointed Commonwealth Secretary-General Shridath Ramphal visited New Zealand and paid a call on Prime Minister Muldoon. The SG quite naturally thought to mention the promising new recruit from New Zealand to the Commonwealth Secretariat, one Jeremy Pope. It is recounted that the Prime Minister paused as his eyes narrowed, and he said to the SG, “You can keep him!”
By the way, this is the same Prime Minister Muldoon who represented New Zealand at the 1982 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Melbourne Australia (where I was on duty as a junior Australian Foreign Service officer attached to the Kenyan Delegation). He was a regular drawcard for the news media and delighted in “teasing” the Australians and their political leaders both conservative and otherwise, and particularly the Australian Prime Minister and then CHOGM host Malcolm Fraser.
In one of the CHOGM press conferences, in response to a question to the effect that if Melbourne was such a miserable place how come there were so many New Zealanders living there, Prime Minister Muldoon retorted: “They raise the intelligence levels of both countries.” Prime Minister Fraser’s response is not known.
(Political Affairs Division, 1988-1996)
19 June 2022
Chief Anyaoku, as Commonwealth Secretary-General (SG), was invited to visit Cuba and Missouri Sherman-Peters and I went with him. I was very excited and had my camera ready when Fidel Castro came into the meeting. He was accompanied by his Foreign Secretary and an interpreter.
Sadly, I jammed my camera! However, when we left the room there was a horde of journalists taking photos. And my camera began to work again! I took photos of the SG with Castro and then Missouri with Castro.
Then the SG said ‘Mary, pay attention’ as Castro had said I too should have a photo with him. Man of the people!
(Secretary-General’s Office and Office of Secretary-General, Commonwealth Secretariat, 1970-2000)
19 June 2022
I joined the Secretariat in July 1976, following a five-year stint with FAO in Sri Lanka. I was one of the first staff members of the newly formed Food Production and Rural Development Division (FPRD), which arose from the World Food Conference held in Rome in 1975. As Chief Projects Officer, I joined the Director of the Division, a venerable Ghanaian gentleman rejoicing in the name Mowbray Stephen O’Rourke Nicholas, and his Sri Lankan PA, Dhilma Nawagamuwa. Shobhna and several others joined FPRD later (see photos of the FPRD team taken on Mr Nicholas’s retirement in 1982).
One of the first assignments that FPRD undertook was the appraisal of a plan for rehabilitating a run-down coconut plantation on Turner’s Peninsula, a neglected area in the south of Sierra Leone. This did not sit easily with the remit of FPRD, since the plantation contributed little to food production and not much to rural development. However there was some pressure to respond positively to the Sierra Leone Government’s request, since the country’s Minister of Agriculture, whose constituency included Turner’s Peninsular, had played a significant role at the 1975 CHOGM in Jamaica in getting Heads of Government agreement to formation of this new Division.
Mowbray Nicholas was scheduled to travel to Freetown in late 1976, to try to find a diplomatically acceptable but affordable contribution to the Turner’s Peninsula affair, which FPRD could not undertake in full since our resources were very limited. Mr Nicholas had a strong personal connection with Sierra Leone, having spent some of his childhood years in Freetown where his father had been a priest with the Holy Ghost Missionaries, an Irish organisation which had been active in Sierra Leone since 1864 (this connection no doubt explains the origin of Nicholas’s interesting given name, O’Rourke). However at the last minute, for reasons that I no longer recall, Mr Nicholas had to withdraw from the trip and asked me to go in his place.
Arriving at Lungi airport (separated then as now from Freetown proper by the Sierra Leone River, which necessitates a three-hour road journey round the estuary, a one-hour ferry crossing or a hair-raising thirty-minute speedboat adventure), I was surprised to find a red carpet laid on the tarmac in my honour, and a delegation led by the Minister of Agriculture waiting to welcome me. The reason for this reception soon became clear, when it was revealed that the telegram indicating that Mr Nicholas would not be coming to Freetown but would be replaced by this insignificant English functionary had not been received. I remember well the quizzical expression on the Minister’s face as he came to greet me, with his head on one side, and said in true Livingstonian style, “Dr Nicholas I presume?”
Despite this unpromising start, the mission went well and I was able to convince the Ministry of Agriculture that they would get more value from an agricultural economist assigned to their Planning and Evaluation Unit (which CFTC was quick to pick up) than from a minor investment in an abandoned coconut plantation of dubious value or viability.
FPRD went on to take many effective initiatives in the following years – technology transfer workshops in East and West Africa as well as the South Pacific, training courses on irrigation and agricultural management in South Asia and the Caribbean, important work on fisheries and the Law of the Sea – of which I have good memories and I believe we can be justly proud. It is a pity that contraction of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s activities (as with many other national and international organisations) has resulted in downgrading of the priority given to agriculture and natural resource development, and the resulting early demise of FPRD. These short-sighted trends have undoubtedly contributed to the frightening food crises that currently face the whole world.
Chief Projects Officer and Assistant Director, FPRD,1976-1984
17 July 2002
I served under five former Commonwealth Secretaries-General and was honoured to have a photo with four of them and other colleagues, who remain good friends.
The Commonwealth Secretariat celebrated 50 years of its establishment in 2015. Its 50th anniversary was marked at the Annual General Meeting of the Commonwealth Association (CA) at Marlborough House. As the only members of the CA who had served under five former CSGs, Carmaline and I were invited to cut the celebratory cake.
Greta Fernandes, Executive Assistant, Economic Affairs Division, Social Transformation Programmes Division, and other divisions, 1974-2009
18 July 2022
The year 1982, when Margaret Thatcher sent a task force of more than 100 ships to the Falkland Islands, is memorable to me as I was job hunting and my mother in law spotted a Commonwealth Secretariat advertisement for a messenger in the South London Press. immediately applied for this position and was pleased to be called for an interview with twelve other candidates. The interview by the 4-person panel, which included Peter Dunne, Pat Bancroft and Doris Harmsworth, went well as a few days later I received a phone call from Jean Fryer asking me to report to work the following day to help out. Apparently, the Secretary-General’s chauffeur was on leave as his wife was expecting a baby. As a result, Jimmy who used to drive the mini bus delivering mail and other things, was moved up to fill the position of SG’s chauffeur and I was asked to replace Jimmy. I enjoyed my new role which varied daily and included driving for the Assistant and Deputy Secretaries-General. I also delivered mail to Commonwealth High Commissions until I was eventually positioned as an internal messenger.
I had many amiable discussions with my colleagues about the Falklands war, though our views differed. My long tenure at the Secretariat remained enjoyable and interesting as it also exposed me to so many different cultures. I am still in contact with many of my friends from different parts of the Commonwealth.
Martin Smith – Driver and Messenger January 2023
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