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12 September 2018

Christopher Meyer’s Diary: Surviving major trauma and stealing John McCain’s jokes

I found myself lying in a bruised and bloody state on a platform at Victoria Underground station – with no memory of what happened.

By Christopher Meyer

One of the first things you have to do as ambassador in Washington, DC is get to know key senators and members of the House of Representatives. The late senator John McCain, who died a few weeks ago, was one of my closest contacts. He was free to the point of indiscretion with his views on American politics and foreign policy. Though former president George W Bush gave McCain an eloquent eulogy at his memorial service, in my time the two men did not really get on. In the primary contest between them in 2000 for the Republican presidential nomination McCain gave Bush a near-death experience in New Hampshire, but was then obliterated by a ruthless Bush campaign in South Carolina. I don’t think McCain ever forgave Bush.

Despite his maverick reputation, which owed a fair bit to political artifice, McCain was one of the last representatives of an older, wiser Republican tradition, which Trump appears to have destroyed.

McCain told great jokes, which I used to plagiarise (with his permission). Most of them are publicly unrepeatable today. My wife played craps with him once at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. We really liked him.

State of emergency

One afternoon in July I regained consciousness to find myself lying in a bruised and bloody state on a platform at Victoria Underground station. The British Transport Police continue to investigate the circumstances of my misfortune – I have no memory of what happened. The first thing I saw on opening my eyes was a sea of dark blue uniforms – ambulance men, police and Transport for London staff. As they checked me for broken bones – thankfully there were none – I watched from shoe-level the trains come and go, asking myself whether this could really be me. I was supposed to be with 30 American students at the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall.

Between the station platform and my emerging from hospital six days later I was in the hands of very good and competent people. The ambulance staff, and the police officer who travelled with us, were terrific, giving me first aid as they whizzed me to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington. I asked them why I could not go to St Thomas’s, which is much nearer to where I live. They told me that St Mary’s is a major trauma centre. My injuries were considered sufficiently serious to be taken there. When we arrived at A&E, a team was waiting. They seemed to tower like giants above me on my stretcher. A strange image came into my mind: the cover of Rainbow’s 1981 album, Difficult to Cure (among my collection of cherished vinyl), with its montage of green-gowned doctors and nurses getting ready to operate.

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Injury time

For the next few days an army of NHS specialists, doctors and nurses marched through my life. Among the nurses Angel and Angela were special, with the right combination of firmness and kindness that the fretful patient needs. But I owe most to my wife and two sons, who took turns to keep me company in hospital and had to endure the distress of seeing me all bashed up. I am now back at work. But I’m left with a scarred hand, a scarred lip and a drooping eyelid. Fortunately the eye itself is OK.

Peer approval

The “incident” was particularly hard on my wife, as it hurled her abruptly from one extreme to another. Only two days before, Catherine had joyfully celebrated with friends and family her Robing ceremony, on being appointed to the House of Lords. She is now Baroness Meyer of Nine Elms. There were guests from France, China, Switzerland, America and Germany. We quaffed champagne and ate scones on the terrace overlooking the Thames. I am incredibly proud of her. I tear up when I think about it. By the time you read this, she should have delivered her maiden speech. She is determined to put her back into the job. She finds starting a new career at her stage in life a truly re-energising thing. So do I.

House rules

Catherine’s appointment has created a rebalancing of roles within our household. While the House is sitting, she goes to work every day on the 87 bus, while I do a lot of work from home. That includes the washing machine, the dishwasher and the vacuum cleaner, as well as more intellectual pursuits. She is now senior to me. The laws of protocol require that she be addressed before me on things like envelopes and invitations. I have been given a pass to enter the House of Lords as her spouse. But there are rooms where she can go and I can’t – though I am allowed to enter the chamber during debates, so long as I confine myself to a small area with chairs. I shall be her unpaid factotum and assistant, three steps behind.

It reminds me of a time when we visited Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where each of us was to give a talk. I was walking behind Catherine in a sharp blue suit with a bulging wallet (thanks to $1 bills). The chancellor of the university greeted us, saying to Catherine, “This way to lunch, Lady Meyer, your bodyguard can go to the cafeteria.”

Of course, I must be my wife’s bodyguard as well. You never know what those crazed Remainer peers might do. I was thinking of modelling myself on Richard Madden in the current BBC TV series, Bodyguard. But he failed in his task of protecting the home secretary; and I am not minded to display my buttocks as he did in episode three.

Next generation

In addition to the Baroness’s factotum I have just been honoured with another new role, that of grandfather. This is thanks to my older son and daughter-in-law a fortnight ago. The question that poses itself, as the French say, is whether the arrival of the little lad will make me more tolerant of the howling babies who invariably sit near me on BA flights or the Eurostar. I doubt it.

Sir Christopher Meyer is a former British ambassador to the United States and Germany

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This article appears in the 12 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism