What do you do when a glittering career as an itinerant diplomat comes to an end? If you are Sir Christopher Meyer, former British ambassador to Washington and known as the silkiest of mandarins, you return to London, chair the Press Complaints Commission for a few years and write a book in which you tease politicians and enjoy the fallout as they agitate against you, thereby creating sales you cheerfully regard as ludicrous. The other thing you have to do on vacating the embassy – in his case, the Great House, a baronial mansion by Lutyens – is work out where to live.
Seven years after they left Washington, Meyer and his wife Lady Catherine believe they have found the solution in the three-storey mews cottage they bought in Knightsbridge six months ago. The builders haven’t quite finished but the Meyers, both serial house-movers with dozens of worldwide relocations between them, can see an end to the disruption.
“Both of us have got this feeling that all this wandering has come to an end,” he says. “I’ve always found the peripatetic life exciting and stimulating – I associated it with moving on and moving up. Yet I’ve always liked to have refuges. In Washington we created a little flat within the embassy and we had a romantic bolthole in Megève to flee to, somewhere to snuggle, hide from the world.
“As I’ve got older, the latter instinct has started to predominate. Home is a refuge, it’s very private; there’s a guest room for our children but this house isn’t built for guests. It was designed very selfishly for us. It was exciting to be at the heart of Washington at a time when Tony Blair was close to Clinton and the Labour hierarchy was desperate for Clinton to survive, and then during the early years of Bush’s administration, but I absolutely do not miss the socialising. It was a necessary part of the job that during the final year did start to get very wearing. I’m glad that’s gone. It was madness. Now I don’t like going out at night.”
Meyer was British ambassador to the US from 1997 to 2003, and returned to London with very little money, he says. Saddled with a large mortgage, he and Catherine bought a house in First Street, Chelsea, that was so small he banged his elbows going up and down the stairs. They sold that when an estate agent, accompanied by a Coronation Street actress, rang the bell and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. “The property boom was booming crazily. We took the money.”
The next house, spread over five storeys, again in Chelsea, turned out to be too big. Their recent purchase, probably built around 1830 as servants’ quarters to one of the larger houses it abuts, was formerly owned by an Italian playboy and not to their taste. “It was like one enormous bed,” Meyer remarks. The house has been redesigned by Catherine to accommodate rows of hardback books, their pictures and no small amount of Ralph Lauren wallpaper.
“We are not looking to do it up and flog it on. I now loathe the hassle of moving. We finally think we’ve got this bug out of our system, although Catherine is the one who had insomnia for weeks as she worked out what to do. I’ve contributed almost nothing to the design, I’m utterly useless.”
Meyer was born in 1944, 13 days after his pilot father was shot down over Greece. An only child, he was brought up by his mother and grandmother in Esher, Surrey, and sent to boarding school. “Going away from home to boarding school, hating it for the first three years, was a key formative experience,” he says. “I think it made me very self-contained.”
These days he sits on a couple of boards, writes, broadcasts and does some consulting. Not that his fascination with politics has abated. He spends hours following US political websites and bloggers, and none of the indiscretions disseminated by Wiki-Leaks have surprised him, he maintains, though some appal him.
“That list of places that the Americans consider vital to their security – that’s very damaging. After 9/11 one of the criticisms was that US intelligence agencies didn’t share information. They created an allegedly secure intranet to which it appears that two to three million American officials and military people have access. The biggest thing that’s come out of this is the terrible weakness in protecting and archiving confidential communications.”
His unease about WikiLeaks may seem a bit rich coming from the man whom John Prescott, then deputy prime minister, dubbed a “red-socked fop” for DC Confidential, Meyer’s sometimes cavalier memoir of his time in Washington. Furthermore, as chairman of the PCC, Meyer argued vigorously for a free and self-regulating press. Faced with the charge of a measure of hypocrisy, Meyer pleads guilty only to wearing red socks. He first wore them on the advice of a journalist in Moscow who told him he needed to be easily spotted.
But his fundamental response is that disclosures that lampoon politicians are not comparable to those that jeopardise national security. “I am a bit of a libertarian. I do think that newspapers should publish as much as possible. I could have written another DC Confidential stuffed with some of the things we’ve been reading in WikiLeaks. If you are a civil servant or a diplomat you have access to all kinds of private information. That’s why you submit your manuscript to the cabinet secretary of the Foreign Office. They are supposed to make a judgment.”
Is he still plugged into the government? He knows people, he replies, but it is Catherine who has the contacts and has known David Cameron “since he was a tiny little MP”. She is politically active, both as a Conservative party treasurer and through Pact, the charity she set up in 2000 to locate missing children after her two sons were abducted by her estranged German husband. The main focus of her work is now the government and police; Meyer admires her tenacity and sits on her board.
Are there any political pygmies in this government? “I’m like Denis Thatcher,” he replies smoothly. “It’s too early to tell.”
Sir Christopher Meyer is the author of ‘Getting Our Way’, published by Phoenix, £8.99