For its radio series, Parting Shots, the BBC recorded actors reading several letters from British ambassadors.
Roger Pinsent, Managua, Nicaragua, 1967
Ralph Selby, Oslo, 1975
Lord Moran, Ottawa, 1984
John Russell, Rio de Janeiro, 1969
David Hunt, Lagos, Nigeria, 1969
Dame Glynne-Evans, Lisbon, Portugal, 2004
British ambassadors have long had a tradition of unleashing vicious torrents of insults about their foreign posts in official documents bound for 10 Downing St.
They're called "valedictory dispatches," the final letters sent home before ambassadors wrap up their duties and move on. Many of these confidential documents were quite unremarkable, but BBC producer Andrew Bryson tells NPR's Guy Raz that "for every couple of dozen you would read, you'd come across one real gem."
Like this one, fired off by Roger Pinsent, the British ambassador to Nicaragua, just before he left the post in 1967:
"There is, I fear, no question but that the average Nicaraguan is one of the most dishonest, unreliable and alcoholic of the Latin Americans."
These letters, uncovered by the BBC for a documentary radio series called Parting Shots, reveal the candid side of British diplomacy. Bryson says that was considered a valuable trait for ambassadors.
"Ministers in the Foreign Office told us we have actually quite a small diplomatic service in the United Kingdom compared with other European countries like France. And because it's small, it needs to rely on its public servants being completely candid in the advice they give back to ministers so that they know what's really going on."
Ambassadors were traditionally given more license to be a little more expansive in their final posting. "Often these telegrams would be circulated to the palace — Buckingham Palace — and the royal family," Bryson says. "They'd go to the security service, the Bank of England, and over time this tradition just grew and grew."
While these notes were supposed to be top secret, at least one almost made it back to the host country. In his final dispatch, Sir Anthony Rumbold, who was based in Bangkok from 1965 to 1967, wrote:
"I have very much enjoyed living for a while in Thailand. One would have to be very insensitive or puritanical to take the view that the Thais had nothing to offer. It is true they have no literature, no painting, and only a very odd kind of music — that their sculpture, their ceramics and their dancing are borrowed from others — and that their architecture is monotonous and their interior decorations hideous. Nobody can deny that gambling and golf are the chief pleasures of the rich — and that licentiousness is the main pleasure of them all. But, it does a faded European good to spend some time among such a jolly, extrovert and anti-intellectual people!"
Documents of this kind were routinely circulated to British Commonwealth countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But this one, Bryson says, accidentally went to a much wider distribution list — "170 commonwealth countries including colleagues in Malaysia and Singapore."
Even this close call didn't end the practice. It wasn't until 2006, when one dispatch escaped to the pages of a newspaper, that the tradition was finally brought to a halt. Yet, Bryson says, there are many more snarky reports still waiting to be discovered.
"There have been many hundreds of British ambassadors who have written valedictory dispatches in this last 30 years, and as they are slowly declassified, we will see them," he says.
"These sorts of parting shots should keep us entertained for many years to come, I hope."