A joke someone made yesterday reminded me of a friend I had in the FCO, Emma Nelson, who died terribly young about 20 years ago. I wanted to say a few things about her that occurred to me in the context of the Alex Salmond case. In doing so I am conscious that Emma’s family might see this, and I want to be plain that no disrespect is intended at all. Quite the opposite.
Emma worked under me as a clerk, when I was Head of Maritime Section at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. She was about fifteen years younger than me and a long way junior in the service. There were several people between me and her in the hierarchy, but I saw a great deal of her every day because, the way the FCO then worked, everything was on paper and she produced all the papers and both filled and emptied my trays, and magically found all kinds of old documents from my vague descriptions of them.
Emma was Scottish, very good looking, found many of the absurd pretensions of the FCO funny, and mocked my forgetfulness and untidiness relentlessly. We got on well. In the run up to the first Gulf war, we were both seconded to the Embargo Surveillance Centre, where I headed the FCO section of a joint department (MOD, FCO, GCHQ, DIS, MI6, DTp, Royal Navy), set up in a NBC bunker in Marsham Street that had originally been Bomber Command in the Second World War and was known as “the Citadel”. It had been re-equipped as a logistics HQ for NATO in WW3. Lots of the old WW2 maps etc were still on the walls in odd places. The Citadel is a warren; there were tunnels connecting underground to Whitehall departments. It was a 24/7 operation. I led on intelligence analysis and action with foreign governments. We slept there. At one stage I did not leave the bunker at all, not for a moment, for 4 weeks. It all went on for several months.
Working in that pressured environment, you get closer to people and social barriers drop. We did very, very occasionally get a break, and one evening I went on a pub crawl with several staff which ended with Emma and I, arms round each other’s waist, high kicking our way around Central London while belting out hits from Cabaret. Not at all sober, we got back to the bunker and slept in the same little cell on separate camp beds.
It was not a romantic relationship. We never kissed. It was certainly not sexual. On a further occasion, when we were out for lunch with another young woman who worked with us, she asked Emma direct if we were linked. “Naw”, replied Emma, “Craig’s a’ mooth and nae troosers”. Working in the FCO, where everyone gets reposted every two or three years, you get inured to fleeting friendships and after one of us was posted out we were very seldom in touch. It came as a shock to me when, a very few years later, I got a letter from Emma who was, from memory, posted in South America, saying she was seriously ill. Very shortly thereafter, I received notification she had died.
There has been a major outbreak on social media of people claiming that Alex Salmond’s relationship with female staff was very bad even if not criminal. But the large majority of what was described was far less physical than Emma and I high kicking together to Cabaret (remember, there were allegations of pinging someones hair, putting hands on shoulders over clothes, touching a knee over trousers and putting an arm round someone who was crying).
What worries me is this. By the standards of politically correct behaviour which social media on the Salmond case appears to state ought to be the norm, my relationship with Emma Nelson was wholly inappropriate if not criminal. I was much older than her and very senior. I had a power relationship to her. We therefore ought by these standards never to have had our arms around each other high-kicking, and certainly should not have been getting drunk together. Inappropriate. Inappropriate. Inappropriate.
But does that not merely enforce snobbishness? Is that not simply reinforcing class and social barriers? If I could not interact in that way with Emma because I was senior to her, is that really the world we want? And is it not enforcing a bitter joylessness on life? What kind of world is it going to be if fun interaction is only permitted with people of your same social level – which is what “power relationship” effectively means?
Nobody will ever convince me there was anything wrong in my relationship with Emma. But I can see precisely how the extraordinary prevalence of misandry now would seek to misconstrue and portray it.
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