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A key encounter with Naim Attallah - Desmond Cecil

Blog | By Desmond Cecil | Jul 07, 2021

Desmond Cecil with his 1724 Stradavari violin and Mstislav Rostropovich

In recent years, I had been encouraged by my family to set down my life’s experiences before it was too late. The basic facts looked potentially interesting, youthful professional violinist in Switzerland, UK diplomat around the world with challenging assignments and increasing seniority, nuclear environmental clean-up in the fascinating window of post-Soviet pre-Putin Russia, pro bono work for arts charities around Europe, playing my violin, in later years an authentic 1724 Stradivari, throughout.

After years of ‘dry’ diplomatic writing, I had appreciated the ‘literary’ freedom of writing in 2017 a published monograph about my Stradivari violin, and then in May 2019 the Guardian obituary for my long-standing friend, journalist and writer Dan van der Vat. So with some trepidation, I then set to work on the autobiography. Inevitably, the initial drafts cut little ice with ‘traditional’ publishers.

However, a friend introduced me to Quartet Books with its recherché reputation, and its perceptive editor David Elliott. He gave me invaluable guidance on making the text readable to the outside world, adding necessary colour and emotion to the ‘dry’ passages, and structuring the book. However, the big challenge was to secure the endorsement of the Quartet Books Chairman, the redoubtable Naim Attallah, without whose approval nothing happened. We met in Naim’s ‘oriental’ first-floor office, surrounded by books and history, in the exotic surroundings of London’s Shepherd Market. We chatted, not about my book as such, but about life in the wider sense, with Naim asking courteous but challenging questions. Finally, somewhat to my surprise, Naim gave the go-ahead, and I was able to use 2020 Covid ‘lockdown’ time to complete the book.

The thread throughout the book is my love of playing music, and why, as a schoolboy bewitched by Yehudi Menuhin’s solo Bach and Bartók in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre, against all ‘sensible’ advice I decided to move from being an advanced oboe student of Joy Boughton to study violin with the illustrious Professor Max Rostal in Switzerland, and to work there as a professional violinist. When I eventually decided that I had gone as far as I reasonably could as a professional, and had left it too late to become a top soloist, diplomacy happened by chance, as it was the only ‘grown-up’ profession which offered me an interesting job. By happy chance, the languages which I learned in Switzerland were invaluable.

However, music continued to be my passion throughout my life, playing with excellent chamber musicians around Europe to this day, working with ‘greats’ such as Max Rostal and Kurt Masur, both of whom became close personal friends, and working pro bono with European arts organisations – Gstaad Menuhin Festival, Leipzig Mendelssohn Foundation, Russian Arts Help, London Philharmonic Orchestra, especially to help young musicians – a vital need, as I knew only too well from my own youthful experience.

The chapter on diplomacy and the Foreign Office is somewhat ‘anodyne’, given ‘Official Secrets’ restrictions. However, it includes many ‘anecdotal’ pen pictures about life and people in Germany, the UN, Austria, the Americas, the Soviet Union and a fascinating comparison with my post-FO nuclear environmental work in post-Soviet, pre-Putin Russia - and especially how music and diplomacy complemented each other.

People have wondered how I came to be in possession of such a valuable instrument as my 1724 Stradivari violin, made when the master was 80 and still had 13 years of his working life left – a complicated story, which I explain in my monograph about the violin

A sad episode occurred two days before publication on 4 February 2021, when Naim Attallah died, and his Quartet Books team were furloughed, leaving me as a ‘book amateur’ to do all the ‘marketing’. Many of the traditional ‘marketing’ routes such as book launches and newspaper reviews were ruled out by the pandemic. However, I was able (with shameless persistency) to enlist support from kind people and organisations – cultural, diplomatic, Swiss, Russian, and of course ‘The Oldie’.

‘The Wandering Civil Servant of Stradivarius’ by Desmond Cecil CMG, published by Quartet Books is available online from the usual outlets; https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-wandering-civil-servant-of-stradivarius/desmond-cecil/9780704374812


The author is donating all royalties to arts charities, especially to support young musicians who need all the help that they can get now.