In 2006, David Ensor quit his job as CNN national security correspondent and moved from Washington DC to an apartment off Kensington High Street in London, with his wife Anita, a former news producer, and their nine-year-old son Andrew. “Life is short. I’d spent 32 years covering the news and loved every minute of it. But journalism is the sidelines, just the first draft of history. I wanted to participate.”
Three-and-a-half years after taking a private sector job as head of public relations at Mercuria, an energy company, Ensor was tapped for a new senior US government post in Afghanistan: director of communications and public diplomacy for the US embassy. The job of communications “tsar” included a hefty budget to build up Afghan television, telephone and radio infrastructure and programming: “[The late diplomat] Richard Holbrooke asked me to go. I wanted to do my part to make sure Afghanistan moved into the modern world and never became a base for terrorist camps again,” says Ensor, 60, tanned from his time in Kabul.
Ensor’s move to London was driven by an urge to return to childhood stomping grounds. “Our daughter Kaya was already at school in England. We moved to London because I’d lived in Kensington and Hampstead on and off growing up and wanted to come back as an expat. I had fond memories of being taken to the statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.”
Forty-five years after Ensor left for a US boarding school, had life in London changed? “It’s dramatically different. For one thing, there is no fog. I can remember as a little boy the terrible fog that used to descend. You could hold your hand out and couldn’t see it. Schools would close. And the buildings were so covered in soot that they were black. Today, London is a lot brighter. And, of course, it’s much richer. And it’s completely international. But while there was great hardship after the war, with the cold and the rationing of one egg a day, there was great spirit.”
While Ensor is American, his English/British family roots run deep. His father, an oil executive, was a British bomber pilot and squadron leader during the second world war who sometimes towed gliders packed with priests to France. “They were men dressed in the garb of French priests.” He didn’t ask who they were. “Better not to know.” He “was a classic member of that generation, modest and didn’t like to talk about the war. He said war was awful.”
Ensor’s great-great-grandfather was a manufacturing mogul from Dorset who sold gloves to the British army during the Crimean war. His maternal great-great-grandmother, a duke’s daughter, died in the Staplehurst railway crash, a death recorded by fellow passenger Charles Dickens, who, says Ensor, “wrote of ministering to a dying gentlewoman. He gave her brandy.” Ensor’s grandfather, Sir Robert C.K. Ensor, also had a claim to fame: he helped found the Labour party. “He was at Winchester school when he learnt that his grandfather’s fortune had been gambled away. His parents were suddenly penniless. It was a shock. I think that’s why he became a socialist. He went to London, met the Webbs, George Bernard Shaw, the Fabian Society. They all teamed up with the trade unions and launched Labour,” says Ensor, who keeps a framed print of a local 1910 campaign poster.
R.C.K. Ensor also wrote a popular volume of The Oxford History of England. “It’s still in print. I still get royalty cheques.” The volume addressed the effects of technology on history: “My grandfather wrote that the invention of the bicycle helped lead to the suffrage movement. The bicycle gave women mobility, independence.” Is there any modern innovation that could play a similar role in Afghanistan?
“The mobile phone,” he replies. “It’s revolutionising life. Five or six years ago there were 10,000 mobile phones; now there are 15m. An Afghan woman who’s living in a house behind high walls has access to texting. Texting helps overcome illiteracy.” Ensor expanded social networking sites such as Paywast, where small businesses track wholesale prices during war. “It’s more popular than Facebook.”
Are there parallels between his father’s war experience and his own? “I only covered wars: El Salvador, Bosnia, the Falklands. Chechnya ...” But he adds that “one of my great-great-uncles died in Afghanistan, in the battle of Maiwand. I couldn’t help thinking, here I am, an American diplomat, not a British soldier, and we are back in the same place fighting. He was fighting for the British empire. I was there on behalf of a coalition of 48 nations trying to help the Afghan people get back on their feet. He fought with guns. I was fighting the war of perceptions.”
Once in Kabul, Ensor was outfitted with a staff of 60, heavy security and a chunk of more than $4bn in aid. He set about creating television, radio and phone towers as well as home-grown programmes from news shows and soap operas to an Afghan cop drama. “A lot of the programmes I founded are aimed at the young. Afghan police are perceived as corrupt. We wanted to create positive role models.”
Does he have hope for an end to the conflict? “There’s a great war weariness. It’s cost a lot of money and a lot of blood. We abandoned the place before and the price was high. We do it again, the price is higher. We have to have patience, maybe not with 100,000 troops but some presence, or our children will have to go in.”
Soon Ensor will be packing up with his family again to assume a new post as director of Voice of America in Washington. Meanwhile, he relishes ordinary life as a London expat.
“It’s strange to be in transition. Kensington High Street is a highly pleasant place to live, with its cafés and restaurants ... After Kabul it’s a relief to walk freely in the streets without men with guns. And it’s a relief to see children. Children and spouses are not allowed in the US embassy compound.” He adds, “I think I’ll take some walks to Kensington Gardens. It’s a cliché but it’s nice to know that some things, even in war, remain constant.”
● Excellent schools, trendy cafés, shops
● Hub of humanity: French, Italian, Russian and Farsi spoken on the streets
● Kensington Gardens and Holland Park
● Exorbitant housing prices
● Crowded Tube
● Increasing absence of the English; decline of the traditional pub
What you can buy for ...
£100,000: a one-car garage within a few blocks of Kensington High Street.
£1m: a one-bedroom apartment or lowerground, two-bedroom apartment within a few blocks of Kensington High Street.
Knight Frank, tel: +44 (0)20 7938 4311
Anthony Sharp, tel: +44 (0)20 7243 8398