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Martin Bourke interview

An interview with Martin Bourke (OS 1966) can be found in issue one of Old Stops’ Review. The full text of Martin Bourke’s replies to Rachel Horsford can be read here.

What are your strongest memories of the school?

I was at Stockport Grammar School as a town scholar from 1958 to 1966. It was all boys and much smaller – about 550 pupils – including the Junior School.

I particularly remember very high standards of teaching in the subjects I studied, with equally strong discipline and no fancy ideas of political correctness. My main influences were Mr WS Johnston (English), Mr Norris (French), and the inimitable Mr A Johnston (History). We were a rowdy bunch and could make life difficult for some of the staff, but with these three you never dared to step over the line. The great Joe Stanley (Art) was also a strong influence, as were John Durnall (Geography) and Bingo Roberts (Latin).

My other main, and very fond, memory remains the fantastic school plays that Albert Johnston and his wife Mickey used to produce in the Hallam Hall. These plays, and the way much of school life revolved around them, were an institution, and were done to a very high standard with limited resources. I acted in many of the plays and also in Albert and Mickey’s own company, which also used the Hallam Hall.

How do you think being a pupil at Stockport Grammar School prepared you for life beyond school?

Being at Stockport Grammar School helped me in several ways in later life.

Firstly, it gave me a first class liberal arts education by excellent teachers in the traditional mould. Secondly, doing lots of acting greatly helped my self-confidence.

Thirdly, I learnt French at the hands of a true master, which prepared me well for my eventual career and my marriage to a French-speaking woman. Looking back I would rate Mr Norris – a tough but dedicated professional – as one of the finest French teachers in the English school system, ever.

What is your most treasured possession and why?

No physical objects really, but I guess what is most important is my wife and family. Four grown-up sons and four grandsons (no girls, yet!). Family and health outrank anything else.

What would you say is your biggest achievement or proudest moment?

I guess joining the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and thereby gaining access to central policy making, was a huge moment and I did feel very proud.

Later on there were all kinds of strange experiences, with their highs and lows, but one which stands out was the general election in the Turks and Caicos Islands in 1995.

I was governor then, and I took personal charge of supervising the organisation. The result was an election relatively free from corruption and intimidation, for the first time. Being highly commended by the ambassador for my commercial work in South Africa, and by the New Zealand foreign minister for my work in Wellington, were other highs.

Do you have some interesting stories to tell about your days in the British diplomatic service?

Life in the diplomatic service could be hectic and sometimes frustrating, but it was never dull. Some random experiences were facing potential rioters outside the high commission in Lagos , working on cultural affairs in Brussels, chairing weekly cabinet meetings in Turks and Caicos; doing a spell in the New Zealand foreign ministry (which involved dealing with a coup in Fiji) and attending a course at the École Nationale d’Administration in Paris, which provided a fascinating insight into how France actually worked.

What was your most memorable or hair-raising experience?

The most frantic experience, I think, was in 1992 during the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. I was deputy head of the FCO environmental affairs department in London and I had to supply voluminous briefing and supplementary notes to the minister of state for an adjournment debate in the House of Commons that very night. I had precisely an afternoon to organize this, and managed – just! I also had to sit in the officials’ box in the House in case the minister needed further advice. Fortunately the opposition were not too aggressive!

What advice would you give to someone considering working for the diplomatic service?

The FCO has changed a great deal since I joined, and I confess I am a little out of touch now.

It is smaller (the budgetary pressures are fierce) and highly computerised. It tries to downplay its old elitist Oxbridge image, and recruits more women and ethnic minority staff. And it also has to compete with No 10 for influence in foreign policy making in ways unknown 40 years ago. But it remains a stimulating and satisfying place in which to work, and what it does still matters.

A career there can be very worthwhile. You need to be bright, good at analysis with a creative instinct, resilient, flexible and able to work on complex issues at speed under pressure. And always to be ready for the unexpected! Resilience and flexibility are vital when serving overseas, often in difficult places.

You also need two other skills – familiarity with a foreign language (usually French but German is also important in Europe) and computer literacy. Really good linguists get the chance to learn hard languages such as Russian, Chinese, or Arabic.

Tell us about your work for Help for Heroes.

Since retiring from the FCO I have, among other things, been working as a volunteer for Help for Heroes since early 2008. I got involved partly because a friend asked me to, and partly because my youngest son was an army officer at the time and had just done a tour in Iraq.

It’s been great fun rattling the collection boxes at the Derby, the Boat Race and other events, and speaking to endless rotary club to raise awareness. I’ve also visited the MOD’s Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court to see at first hand what they do – a truly inspiring experience. I’m part of the Surrey county Help for Heroes organisation (all volunteers), and we’ve probably raised over £250,000 since we started.

I’ll keep on with it as long as I can, it’s so totally worthwhile.