My late father served as Labour Attache in the British Embassy, Mexico City from 1957-59. Recently we discovered some previously unseen papers which included a four-page letter from a Mr H.A.N.Brown, outgoing Labour Attache, to his successor, Mr H.Atkin offering Mr Atkin some useful advice re his new posting. Presumably Mr Atkin passed the letter on to my father when he was appointed. The letter gives some interesting insights into diplomatic life at the time it was written. The original pages have been scanned and OCR’d with some minor reformatting to enhance readability.
BY AIR MAIL
Calle Lerma 71
August 26, 1954
I am sorry not to have replied sooner to your letter of August 6 , but I have been away from Mexico City on a tour for the last three weeks and returned only a day or two ago.
First of all let me congratulate you on being appointed to Mexico. My wife and I – not to mention our young children – have been very happy here and, strictly between ourselves, I think that it is the best of all the Labour Attache posts.
Briefly, the answers to the questions which you have asked in your letter are as follows:
You have to find your own furnished accommodation. Normally such things as linen, blankets, crockery, cutlery, etc., are supplied, but usually it is advisable to bring one’s own crockery and cutlery, as the quantity provided may be on the small side. For the last two years we have been living in a large house with five bedrooms and a large garden. We think it is a very attractive house, but you might feel that it is bigger than you and your wife – and daughter when she comes out – will need. It is, of course, more expensive to run, with servants and so on, than a smaller house would be. There are however, plenty of furnished houses going in Mexico at any time and I am sure that you would have no difficulty in finding something to your taste. The maximum rent which we may pay for a house is fixed by the Ambassador, but it is generous and you will have no difficulty on that score.
(b) The Voyage out
The approved route to Mexico is by sea (Cunard liner) to New York, which takes about five days, and then, after two or three days in New York, by train to Mexico which takes a further three days. You can take it therefore that your journey out will take something like 10 or 12 days. If you wanted to, you could travel out by one of the steamship lines which go direct from England, or from other ports in Europe, to Vera Cruz on the Gulf of Mexico. The Department would agree to this and there is something to be said for a long cruise of this sort. We ourselves like New York and for that reason -and because we have young children for whom medical attention would not normally be available on the smaller ships – we prefer to travel by the sea and rail route.
(c) Travel Outside Mexico
You will be accredited to 10 countries in Central America and the Caribbean in addition to Mexico. The farthest points to which you will have to travel from Mexico are probably Caracas and Ciudad Trujillo (the capital of the Dominican Republic) which are probably some two-and-a-half thousand miles away from Mexico City. You will have to fly everywhere, of course, but even so, covering these 10 countries will mean that you will be required to spend at least a quarter of your time – and perhaps more if things are humming – away from your base.
The Department is very sticky about paying for your wife’s travelling with you outside Mexico. By a little wangling I was able to take my wife with me on two or three trips in my first year or so here, but in general the Department will pay only in special circumstances and subject to prior authorisation. As to travelling within Mexico with your wife, there is not much difficulty, although there, too, the Department will normally not pay any of her expenses.
(d) Cost of Living
There would be little point in my giving you a detailed account of the cost of living in Mexico, as there are many things here which are very expensive but which you would never buy in the country. All your drinks, for example, and cigarettes are imported duty free from England or France, and we also bring in such things as biscuits and clothes from England and groceries from the States. I personally have found the allowances not ungenerous, and sure that when you have settled in here you will agree with me.
While we are on the subject, I think you would be advised to go to Saccone and Speed when you are in London and order such things as Scotch Whisky, Gin, Liquors, Wines and cigarettes to be sent out more or less in time for your arrival here. They usually take about three months from door to door.
(e) Personal Clothing
Special clothing of two kinds is required (a) formal clothing and (b) tropical clothing. You do not have to wear formal clothing very often, but I have taken the view that it would be rather letting the Labour Attache Service down if I were unable to attend some official function properly dressed. This means that you ought to equip yourself – if you do not already have them – with morning suit (tails), dinner jacket and evening dress. This is an expensive item, but you will be a member of the Foreign Service while you are here and you will to some extent lose face if you cannot be properly turned out when the occasion requires it.
Most of the time in Mexico City you can wear ordinary English-weight clothes, but when you travel outside Mexico City, particularly to the coast, you will need to wear tropical suits. Similarly, when you go, for example, to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Nicaragua and Salvador you would be very uncomfortable in English-weight suits and will have to wear light-weight clothes. These can be bought fairly cheaply in England now I believe, although when I came out such suits were rather expensive and were much cheaper, for example, in How York, Miami and Kingston. You can take it that ready-made tropical suits in this part of the world can be bought for about 30-40 dollars, so that if you can find anything cheaper than that in England, it might be as well to buy them at home. I personally have found it useful to have a dark blue tropical suit for formal evening wear and fairly dark shades even for wearing in the day time in tropical countries. But this is only a personal preference and you might fancy yourself in a light-coloured suit of the kind effected by Brazilian gentlemen!
You will find that the princely allowance of £30 which the Department gives you and your family for kit will not carry you very far. You will be able, however, to recoup the initial expenditure within your first year or so out here. My wife intends to write to yours to give her some tips on the sort of clothing she will need.
There is an official car here, a Humber Super Snipe of 1946 vintage. I have recently had it fairly well overhauled and it is running perfectly at the moment. It is however an old car and I personally would not feel very safe in it for any very great distance outside Mexico City. I have tried the whole time I have been here to get the Department to withdraw the car and let me have a personal car sent out. My efforts have been in vain, and I think that you, too, might find it difficult to get them to agree to it, as I cannot in honesty say that the Humber is on its last legs. The point here, of course, is that the Department will pay for a personal car to be shipped out here (and back at the end of your tour) only if no official car has been provided. You could buy a car and have it sent out at your own expense, but I gather that the shipping costs are something like £80 – £100 each way. That is up to you. If you are going to buy a car, I would certainly buy it in England where you get very much reduced prices from some manufacturers. The best type of car is a matter of taste, but I personally would have bought a Ford Zephyr, as Fords have an assembly plant here and the question of repairs and spares is, therefore, less complicated than with most makes of British cars.
It is possible to manage here for a time with no Spanish, but you will fairly soon pick up enough to be able to carry on some kind of conversation. You have not forgotten, by the way, that the language spoken in one of your countries, Haiti, is French? Many people there speak English, but I thought I would mention the point in order to make you feel as bewildered as possible!
The Foreign Office has a document called a Post Report on Mexico which you should try to see as soon as possible as it deals with many of the problems which you must be thinking about at the present time. The sooner you see this the better, as you will find that you will have a lot to do at the last moment unless you start making your preparations fairly early.
I have just written to O & E Department to tell them that I propose to leave here on December 2, and that in my opinion you should be here about one week before that date, The Department may not agree to these proposals, but if not, they will, no doubt, let you know as soon as they can what alternative they have in mind. For the time being I think you should aim to be out here on about November 25. There should be no difficulty about the outward voyage, as Travel Section in St James’s Square have had quite a lot of experience with mv predecessor, with myself, and with Joan Thicke, my Personal Assistant, who came out here just before Christmas last year. She, by the way, has been here long enough to learn the ropes and will be able – and, she says, delighted – to help you in all ways when you arrive.
You will find that I have not written too many reports in the four years I have been here, and you should be able to read them all in a fairly short time at Headquarters. They will tell you all you want to know at countries to which you are going to be accredited.
As I have said above, you will be a more or less normal member of the Foreign Service with First Secretary rank while you are here. This means that you will have quite a busy party life both here in Mexico and in the other countries to which you are accredited. I hope you and your wife like this sort of thing; and are fond of entertaining. Some of our colleagues – may I whisper it? – have not been too good at entertaining and l have tried to get out of it wherever possible. This, in my opinion, is a bad advertisement for the Labour Attache Service and could also be construed as misusing public funds, as we are given fairly large allowances for the purpose of entertaining on an appropriate scale.
That is all I can think of for the moment. If you have any other questions you want to ask, please do not hesitate to write to me again.
A few comments:
- Note the generous housing provision: a large house and servants for a couple and daughter. We had much the same, a large house, two native maids and embassy driver. Of course it may be that the extra accommodation was used for guests.
- The suggested travel arrangements would be history within ten years – at this time crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth was unexceptional. When we made the journey out in April 1957 it was aboard the RMS Media, a combination liner/cargo ship. When it came to the return journey my dad was put on a plane so as to get him back in the office asap, leaving my mother to make the cheaper rail/sea journey – she was not impressed!
- You have to feel for Mr Brown with his 1946 Humber Super Snipe, a facelifted pre-war car, dreaming of a contemporary Ford Zephyr . By the time we arrived the embassy-provided car was a Zephyr.