Sitting out and enduring the lockdown , I spent a lot of time trawling through YouTube videos especially trooping the colour and the celebrations of the Queen’s birthday. I love our history and traditions and make no apologies for saying so.
Every year, on the occasion of the Queen’s official birthday, all British embassies and Posts throughout the world organise their own Queen’s birthday celebration.
So, this took me back to a time and place when the apparently straightforward task of arranging an event of this magnitude can often be fraught with uncertainty and a whiff of danger, especially abroad.
It was the first week in June 1998 in Tirana, where the focus then was on the upcoming Queens Birthday Party, (QBP) which I had been told I was to organise.
Although I took the embassy lead with the organisation and logistics, all QBP’s are very much a team effort.
Given the importance of this event, all staff in the embassy, from drivers right up to the Ambassador, have a role to play in putting together this, our showcase social occasion of the year.
My chief role as lead was to coordinate all the various strands, make sure everyone knew exactly what they were expected to do, liaise with the venue for catering and entertainment and of course assist with the compilation of the all important guest list.
Planning progressed well. Perhaps a little too well. When the great day arrived we were all in position, well prepared and briefed as to what our role would be during the two hour long event. The Tirana International hotel had pulled out all the stops and really done a splendid job. Flower baskets abounded, the food was laid out on silver platters buffet style along the terrace, spotlessly white- jacketed waiters were primed and ready to mingle and dispense drinks.
For background, I had even hired a small classical musical quartet as well as a solo lady harpist.
For an event such as this, protocol dictated that as well as other foreign diplomats and notables, we invite the heads of the two main political parties, who were the President of Albania from the current governing party and his chief political rival from the opposition party, who just so happened to be the former President of Albania.
There was bad history between both men, they despised each other and there had been outbreaks of serious violence and bloodshed between their supporters in the recent past.SAS Rescue 3 Trapped British Diplomats in Albania
Therefore, given this mutual loathing, we didn’t expect either to turn up. For us, the best-case scenario would have been both sending lower level minions for appearances sake or, better still, nobody from either party showing up.
Therefore, based on this presumption, I catered for one hundred official guests. No RSVP was received from either current or former President, therefore it was assumed that they would not be coming. Even last minute phone calls to their respective offices evoked non-committal answers
Well, I was wrong.
First to turn up was the incumbent President of Albania with a whole host of bodyguards, drivers and associated hangers-on. The Ambassador, thinking that the President was not coming was initially caught on the hop, but thinking fast on his feet announced that he was honoured and thrilled that the President had decided to accept our invitation.
I was then tasked with ushering him and his party to a shady spot on one side of the harpist who began to look extremely nervous at being so near to the President but more so I think because of his bodyguards, all black leather jackets and bulges under their armpits.
Not long after, more official guests arrived. But what was this?
I could not believe it. The President’s chief political rival had also decided to accept our invitation. So in he came, with even more bodyguards, drivers and associated hangers on. Why had he come? He must have known that the President would be coming. Was this an excuse for some form of confrontation?
The by now clearly rattled Ambassador greeted the former President announcing again how honoured and thrilled he was that he had decided to accept our invitation. At this stage of the proceedings I was trying to merge into the background fearing the worst, but (bugger) the Ambassador spotted me and motioned for me to take charge of the party and find them a suitable spot. Well, the only free space large enough was on the other side of where the lady harpist was playing and so I directed the former President and his entourage there.
The poor harpist.
I had no idea what Albanian piece she was playing but with two warring factions on either side of her the pace of her playing definitely increased in tempo and volume. Also, at that stage, I really did not think that a harp would be a sturdy enough barrier if the two factions decided to have a go at each other.
However, my main concern at this stage was not about confrontation, it was the catering arrangements. I had only catered for one hundred and now with the recent, unexpected arrivals it looked to be about one hundred and fifty. Horror of horrors, it now appeared as if we might run out of food and drink at an early stage, a cardinal sin of the first magnitude at a QBP.
If so, I was in trouble. If this was not bad enough, we had two factions who would at the drop of a hat be at each others throats, a twitchy harpist who was literally going into overdrive with the speed of her playing and an Ambassador who seemed to be hyperventilating under an awning in the corner with a very shaky large G & T.
Things were definitely taking a turn for the worse. I could see my career ending before it started. I was the one put in charge, I had arranged all of this. If things went wrong it was down to me.
The uneasy atmosphere persisted as it came time for the speeches (very short thankfully), which, both the Ambassador and the President managed to deliver without incident or interruption. On conclusion of the speeches, the two national anthems were played followed soon after with the orderly departure of the President and his party.
A few minutes later, having been advised that the President’s convoy of cars had left the hotel and sped off into the distance, the former President and his entourage also left. Both parties fortunately (for me) had not touched any of the food instead limiting themselves to soft drinks or iced water.
My relief was palpable. It had turned out eventually to be a good QBP given the uncomfortable circumstances and unexpected guests. At least the Ambassador who had by now recovered his composure, was content with the proceedings which was the main thing. This was a good, steep learning curve for me as I was destined to organise a number of QBPs in the future in various locations and under some pretty extreme constraints.
So, valuable lesson learned, never take anything for granted.