Diplomatic Baggage - Brigid Keenan

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Diplomatic Baggage - Brigid Keenan

When Sunday Times fashion journalist Brigid Keenan married the love of her life in the late Sixties little idea did she have of the rollercoaster jour...

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Review of "Diplomatic Baggage - Brigid Keenan"

published 05/10/2008 | fizzytom
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Pro The funny parts are hilarious, some interesting cultural snippets
Cons much unnecessary political stuff; unlikeable author
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"A diplomatic disgrace"

Brigid Keenan's "Diplomatic Baggage" is a prime example of one of those books where one does not have to particularly like the narrator in order to gain enjoyment from reading. Perhaps it's hard to believe that I laughed out loud while reading this on an aeroplane, but seconds later found myself involuntarily clenching my fists and seething in anger? But that is exactly how I felt, reading these memoirs of a "trailing spouse".

A "trailing spouse", for those who don't know, is the wife (sometimes the husband, though, I am sure) of a diplomat, member of the armed forces or even an international businessman, who follows their husband around the world, living wherever the job takes them.

Brigid Keenan's husband is a British diplomat who worked mostly for the European Union, taking up postings in places such Barbados, India, Trinidad and Belgium. When the book opens the couple have just arrived in Kazakhstan where Brigid meets a young Romanian woman who is accompanying her husband on his first international posting. The woman is trained as a doctor and is uncertain as to whether she is going to be able to cope with being a trailing spouse, uprooted from home and without her career to focus on. She asks Brigid for some advice which gets Brigid thinking about the last twenty-odd years following AW, as she refers to her husband throughout the book, making a new home in every new country, bringing up their two daughters and wondering what might have become of the promising career in journalism she was beginning to develop when she met AW.

Brigid's first impressions of Kazakhstan are not good and she takes herself to her bed in tears for the first few days before pulling herself together and trying to feather yet another nest, unable to speak the language and communicating with the domestic staff in mime language. Brigid and I didn't get off to a good start; I quickly realised she was quite selfish and self-centred but I decided to give her a chance and read on.

Aside from the introduction, the book is a chronological account of the couple's lives travelling the world. When Brigid described the trip she made to the backwaters of Nepal to join AW shortly after they fell in love I found myself warming to her a bit. This young city woman just embarking on a career as a fashion journalist put on a brave face and really made an effort to make things work in an environment that was not only challenging but so far from what she had imagined - only one of the several evening dresses she took with her saw the light of day and she had to endure long hikes in flip flops having neglected to pack any proper walking shoes.

The various comic incidents she relates are the highlight of the book and I did find most of them very, very funny. One of my favourites was when the rather nervous Brigid felt obliged to make conversation at a dinner party and decided to tell the guests about the legend of the Pied Piper of Hameln and how he was supposed to have led the children away from their homes never to be seen again. She was confused to see her guests with horror-stricken faces and realised that they thought it was a true story and that she was telling them about a notorious paedophile.

This is a book about being a trailing spouse rather than about the different places the family live but there was still a decent amount of travel writing and some interesting cultural bits and pieces that made the book worthwhile in spite of the things it had against it. I think it's the mark of a good writer to be able to slip in this kind of information without being too scholarly and whatever faults Ms Keenan might have, I certainly couldn't say that she's a poor writer.

My main problem with Ms Keenan was that she constantly harps on about her views on Palestine. As it happens, I'm pretty much of the same opinion as the author and her husband but I do think she mentioned the subject too many times, mostly without any apparent need. Furthermore, her comments about Jewish moneylenders had, I felt, no place in this book.

Every time I felt myself beginning to like this woman she did something to change my mind again. On one occasion she left a dying man by the side of the road because she was appalled by the green stuff coming out of his mouth, yet she makes a long and elaborate point of describing how she and a fellow journalist tried without much response to alert the media to the imminent famine in Ethiopia. The latter incident seemed to me to be more a criticism of the press in London not to follow her tip than it was a disappointment not to be able to let the world know what was happening and what needed to be done.

When I read the quotes on the book's cover I was quite excited. Travel writer William Dalrymple, in particular, was very complimentary and, as a fan of his writing, I believed the book was worth reading. However, not long into the book I discovered that all the people quoted in the blurb were, in fact, friends of Ms Keenan and they cropped up all over the world visiting the family. This made me even more annoyed with Brigid Keenan. Her relentless whining about how hard everything was made much worse by knowing that they had a steady stream of rather interesting and talented friends popping out to visit wherever they went. Not only that but, unlike other expat wives who, without a job that they could pursue overseas, Brigid was able to write - sometimes magazine columns and newspapers articles, but also books on fashion, history and architecture - and so her experience is, perhaps, not really typical of the average trailing spouse.

Finally, but perhaps most tellingly, the most disappointing aspect of the book was Ms Keenan's attitude towards the staff who work for the family in the various postings. It wasn't that there was any overt racism but rather there was a general tendency to be quite condescending about the staff and their customs. One of the more annoying moments is when Brigid feels uncomfortable at having to broach the subject of body odour with one of the staff in the Gambia and suggest that the servant wears deodorant. How awful! It was crass episodes like this that really turned me against the author.

Brigid Keenan tries hard to do self-deprecating and, at times, I almost fell for it. However, you can only take the "I'm a bit forgetful and often say the wrong things" idea so far and, once you realise that Ms Keenan really isn't that nice, it becomes a bit boring.

I think this book would have worked better as a regular magazine column, that way you might have time in between entries to forget how much she annoyed you last week. There are some very funny incidents that would make excellent short anecdotes but the tedious complaints of the author overshadow the interesting and comical material. Brigid Keenan has lived a life I would love to live. It's a shame she doesn't seem to realise how privileged she is.

304 pages

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Comments on this review

  • tune57 published 13/10/2008
    I rather like the sound of this
  • arnoldhenryrufus published 08/10/2008
    great review and I can see your point about the magazine article - lyn x
  • greenierexyboy published 05/10/2008
    Well, remember this woman has to go through life with a badly spelled version of 'Bridget' as a Christian name, so who's had the last laugh?
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Product Information : Diplomatic Baggage - Brigid Keenan

Manufacturer's product description

When Sunday Times fashion journalist Brigid Keenan married the love of her life in the late Sixties little idea did she have of the rollercoaster journey they would make around the world together - with most things going horribly awry while being obliged to keep the straightest face and put their best feet forward. For he was a diplomat - and Brigid found herself the smiling face of the European Union in locales ranging from Kazakhstan to Trinidad. Finding herself miserable for the first time in a career into which many would have long ago thrown the towel she found herself asking (during a farewell party for the Papal Nuncio): was it worth it? As this stream of it-really-happened-to-me stories shows it most certainly was - if only for our vicarious bewilderment at how exactly you throw a buffet dinner during a public mourning period in Syria remain viable as a fashion journalist when taste-wise you are three seasons out of it and geographically a world away make people believe that there are actually terrible things going on in paradise be a good mother And save some of the finest architecture in Damascus and Brussels from demolition - seemingly all simultaneously.

Product Details

EAN: 9780719567254

Type: Non-Fiction

Genre: Travel

Subgenre: Travel Writing

Publisher: John Murray General Publishing Division

Title: Diplomatic Baggage

Author: Brigid Keenan

ISBN: 0719567254

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Listed on Ciao since: 29/09/2008