One person can change the world
OW John Duncan OBE (J H 1969 – 1976) has had a distinguished career in the Diplomatic Service holding key roles in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and in NATO. He writes about how Wycliffe prepared him for that career, after coming in to hear Year 12 Aspire presentations in Spring 2019.
I have been clearing out my late father’s attic and came across some of my report cards which make amusing reading. Wycliffe was something of a culture shock for me as I grew up in Kenya. Also I was dyslexic, but not diagnosed until my 50s so spent my school years yo-yoing between the fast stream and the normal stream and between the top five in class to the bottom three.
I was frequently found on the naughty step outside during prep and was always up to pranks including chaining the school gates together early one summer morning.
But my teachers must have seen something as I was eventually made a school Prefect. Philip Desprès was a huge influence. He taught English as though it was a mix of Sociology and Psychology. I loved it and it proved a huge boon during my later career. David King (Prep School) gave me such a solid grounding in French that I was able to get into the Sorbonne after leaving Wycliffe.
As to my life after Wycliffe, 38 years in the Diplomatic Service (I originally wanted to join the Army and was passionate about the CCF) it has been the most extraordinary experience. It has taken me from the deserts of the Sahara and the Amazonian jungles, to the mountains of Albania and Kosovo; a journey from “An office next to the toilet in the French embassy in Tirana” (as the Telegraph put it) to the council chambers of multilateral diplomacy in Brussels, Geneva and New York, from being Charges d’Affaires “en pied”! to Ambassador and Governor.
For me, diplomacy has always been about people and trying to make the world a better place, while defending the interests
of one’s country. It has been an immense privilege to have been able to live that vision, to meet and frequently spend time with world leaders from monarchs and
princes to presidents, from the head of the Catholic Church to Balkan warlords. From them I have learnt the importance of the individual. One person can change the
world for better or worse and that person can be you, whether it is by planting an idea, winning an argument or leading a negotiation.
I have also learnt that all success depends on the team and I have had some extraordinary colleagues, both inside and outside the Service.
There have also been the scary moments and at least two where I didn’t think I would escape alive, but the journey has also been huge fun. Unleashing the creativity and natural enthusiasm of British Diplomats completely confounds the public’s stereotype of what we are capable of.