AS a diplomat, Paul Knott has seen all manner of peculiar sights over the years.
But perhaps none more surreal than the one he witnessed in Bucharest in the early 1990s, following the collapse of Nicolae Ceausescu’s brutal dictatorship.
“I went for a walk in the city centre one Saturday morning and came across a few hundred people dressed as Michael Jackson. They stopped at a square and started calling for him to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize,” he says.
It’s just one of many surreal encounters Knott recounts in his lively book, The Accidental Diplomat – Adventures in the Foreign Office, which charts his career in Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service.
His journey has taken him across Europe and Asia, but it started in Hull where he grew up. By the time he was 18 he had six O-Levels to his name. “In the late 80s there weren’t a lot of jobs around and I spent quite a bit of time in the careers office at Hull College of Further Education,” he says. “I had a vague notion of doing something that involved travel but I had no idea what. Me and a few friends would fill in applications for jobs while we were waiting for the pubs to open.”
He fired off job letters to all and sundry. “I remember seeing a flyer for the Home Office and it sounded quite interesting so I decided to fill the form in.”
When he didn’t hear back he assumed his application had been rejected and he took a job on Hull’s King George Dock. “I worked for a transport company as a ‘gofer’. I was in a wooden hut on the docks helping clear lorries coming through customs.”
Then out of the blue he was invited for an interview at the Foreign Office. “It was all a bit bewildering and I don’t remember the interview, but I must have done ok.”
Next he had to get security clearance which involved some slightly forbidding-looking gentlemen talking to his family and friends. He was eventually given the nod and became a clerical worker at the Foreign Office, “This was before computers so every document had to be security classified, recorded and registered,” he says. “It sounds a bit prosaic but as a 19 year-old I found it really exciting. I’d gone from working on the docks in Hull to this grand Foreign Office building in London.”
He spent a couple of years learning the ropes before he was sent to Romania in 1991. “I’d seen the collapse of the Ceausescu regime on TV and all of a sudden I was there. The atmosphere was astonishing. For decades society had been so repressed and twisted and then the lid came off, it was quite a wild time.”
After 18 months in Bucharest he was sent to a new posting in Dubai. “It was very money obsessed, slick, shiny and false and it’s the only place I went to that I didn’t really like. Having that working class background I was appalled at the way the workers who built the place were treated.”
He left Dubai in the mid-90s and went on to have stints in Uzbekistan, where he met his future wife, Mwana, a Kenyan lawyer, as well as Ukraine, Belgium and finally Moscow. “I remember flying to a former Soviet airbase on a Ukrainian military jet with a delegation of Nato ambassadors. There were MiG jets taking off all around us and soldiers with kalashnikovs and it felt like something out of a James Bond film.”
He rose up through the ranks but in January, after more than 20 years’ service, he decided to call time on his diplomatic career. He now lives with his family in Switzerland and views this chapter of his life with a wry fondness. “It never reached the stage where it felt normal and now looking back there’s a slight sense of did that really happen?”
The Accidental Diplomat, published by Scratching Shed Publishing, is out now priced £13.99