How to make friends and alienate diplomats
“And what about your Queen Elizabeth, how much does she drink?” It was a loaded question, and not one I’d expected at the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Birthday Party at the British Ambassador’s Residence in Buenos Aires. Nevertheless, by happy accident, I knew the answer. Or an answer, at least – one I hoped would satisfy my stylish Argentine interlocutor, to whom I’d only just been introduced.
“Well,” I said, recalling an article I’d read online by chance, a few days before, “every day, before lunch, Her Majesty is said to suck down a gin and dubonnet. Then later, with her dinner, she looses a few dry martinis down the hatch, after which she goes through to the drawing room, where I understand she pops open a bottle or two of first-rate fizz.”
My new friend lifted a single silvery eyebrow towards the enormous Union Jack looming above our heads. “Herself?”
“Not likely,” I said with an intoxicated chuckle. “I mean, I doubt the Queen does anything herself, do you?”
He shrugged as I snatched another beaker of whisky from a passing tray. Then he twisted round to take in the bacchanalian scene and a disquieted note entered his voice. “You Brits,” he said, “certainly do drink a lot.”
“We do,” I agreed, because I’d noticed that myself. It’s embarrassing, and worse in lavish embassy gardens peppered with pop-up bars, serving free Tanqueray and Johnnie Walker. We smoke, too, more even than Argentines. That one’s harder to explain, except that a pack of twenty cigarettes sets you back a paltry £1.50 in Buenos Aires.
Across the marquee, a Beatles tribute act of four suit-wearing Argentines was on stage, playing an admirably spotless version of Hey Jude. Regrettably, it was the umpteenth time I’d heard the song that day. My apartment overlooks the Ambassador’s Residence and the anglophile band had passed the afternoon rehearsing the same two songs over and over. Sitting on my balcony, trying to read a book about English football hooligans, I’d been repeatedly reminded not to carry the world on my shoulders, not to be the fool who plays it cool, making his world a little colder.
It was a sunny if suitably chilly day, and as it wore on my square began to fill with police and security personnel. Blue strobe lights swept over my walls, and the tinny strains of Lennon-McCartney were eventually replaced with the grating buzz of bagpipes. A former British soldier I knew was standing outside my foyer in full mess dress, his striking collection of medals glinting showily in the spotlights, which made me feel the opposite of safe.
Nine hundred guests had arrived, apparently all at the same time. “We normally send out a thousand invitations,” a flustered staff member told me, “and half of them decline. But this year… everyone except the President of Argentina accepted.”
When I asked why, she paused. “Not sure. Covid? The Platinum Jubilee? The fortieth anniversary of the South Atlantic war?”
After flashing my invitation and passing through one of many metal detectors, a sealed brown envelope was thrust into my hands. Inside was a face mask made of purple cloth, with the seal of The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee 2022 printed on the front. My friend George shot me a look while shaking his head. But I was delighted. “Talk about the perfect souvenir!” I exclaimed.
A beautiful woman in black was staring at me, beaming. I grinned back and she swivelled ninety degrees, swinging her long arms to point out the shiny Land Rover parked by her hip. Alongside it was a brand-new Mini Cooper, and across the garden path there was a London taxi, advertising BritVic tonic water, by appointment to HM. Behind the taxi, giant block letters spelled out the word GREAT in the grass.
Virtually no one wore their face masks, so there were familiar, smiling faces in the throng, many of which I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. “I thought that was you,” people kept saying to me.
“Yes,” I’d agree, standing next to a mountainous birthday cake in the shape of a crown, “it is.”
Soon it was time for Ambassador Hayes’ speech, which to my approval she delivered exclusively in Spanish; then we all sang a rousing rendition of the fifteen-minute national anthem of Argentina, followed by a fifteen-second “God Save the Queen”. Nobody was really up for the latter, and I was reminded of the flaccid way red-faced Anglican congregations mumble their hymns.
That was the mood for much of the night. Britain came in for a hard time at the British Embassy in Buenos Aires, particularly from Brits. The chief criminal was the UK’s prime minister, for whom nobody I spoke to had anything but unrepeatable words. A sense of shame hung over proceedings, and the mouths of foreign diplomats twisted into playful smirks when offering kind-sounding platitudes about Blighty. In her speech, Ambassador Hayes mentioned the presence of the families of 1982’s war dead, but since her guests were gossiping rudely behind me, I didn’t catch whether she was referring to Brits, Argentines, or both. Also, I was standing next to a six-foot drag queen, and couldn’t shake my disappointment he hadn’t come dressed as Elizabeth II, complete with the Imperial State Crown and Grand Collar of the Order of the Aztec Eagle.
A tight knot of journalists waved me into their ranks. “A friend of mine in Los Angeles is convinced Her Majesty passed away months ago,” I told them, “and the Palace is covering it up by using a stunt double.”
I’d hoped to incite consternation, but instead everyone just murmured their agreement. “Yes, I can see that,” said a TV news anchor.
“I’m moving back home in December,” an Englishman told me later as we leant against one of the whisky bars. “To North Yorkshire, though, thank God. Not London. Can you imagine?”
I tinkled an ice cube in my glass. “I can’t.”
“I’ve stopped reading the news from home.” His eyes were damp with emotion. “It’s too… galling.”
My Belgian friend, Nancy, scurried over and introduced me to her charming sister-in-law, Jo, who was visiting from London. I asked how things were going over there and Jo’s eyes took on a faraway look, before she changed the subject: “How do you like life here?”
It took me an hour to answer her question, and we ended up huddling together under a palm tree on a plush white couch. It struck me what a good listener she was, how patient and absorbed; when I finally ran out of crap to say, she patted my knee and told me she was a psychotherapist.
“Get back to where you once belonged,” sang the group at that moment, a tad forcefully I thought. My mind strayed to a phone call I’d had with my mother the day before. She’d moaned like the clappers for an hour about the soaring cost of utilities, petrol and food in Britain, berating the “incompetent berks” at the Home Office and the “idle sods” making “a dog’s dinner” of the National Health Service. Then: “When are you coming back?” she demanded. “It’s high time you got out of that place, laddy.”
I bumped into the handsome Argentine who’d labelled all Brits lushes. “Ah, there you are, my friend has a question for you,” he said, introducing a very bearded man with slow-moving eyes.
The man stepped forward and spoke in a low voice. “Is it true,” he asked, “that your Princess Margaret had sex with your Mick Jagger?”
I had no idea, but at that moment a diminutive, dandily dressed Geordie named Brian stepped forward.
“Of course it’s true,” he told us. “I once sat next to Mick Jagger on a plane. We talked about cricket.”
Suddenly, it was just Brian and me, as he segued into the enormous benefits of being British. “For example,” he said, “the other week, I picked up a Russian in a park.”
“Here?” I asked, not following.
“Yes, by the lakes. She was stunning, so I stopped to chat. Half my age, at least, but I invited her to dinner, promising one of Latin America’s best restaurants. She was eager at this point, but the restaurant was booked for months. So I wrote them an email, pretending to be an English lord.”
Two streams of whisky shot from my nose. “You what?”
“I told them I was Lord Thurston, in Buenos Aires on a flying visit, and expecting to sample the finest their city had to offer. It worked! Roxana and I were treated like royalty, with much bowing and scraping. I knew the staff were thinking, ‘If that fat cunt can pull her, he must be a Lord!’ They only got suspicious at the end, when I paid with my crappy Argentine debit card.” Brian raised his glass towards the giant Union Jack. “My point is simply that it’s still great to be British. So long as you’re in some faraway land.”
Dominic Hilton is a writer currently living in Buenos Aires. His essays and diaries have appeared in newspapers and magazines across the world
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