The Times Literary Supplement


People in public life who describe their careers as having failed are generally being slightly disingenuous. Behind the false modesty often lies a desire not only to suggest how successful they have actually been, but how charmingly unassuming they are about it. A sceptic might suggest, too, that writing a second volume of autobiography - with, since it ends in the 1960s, the implication of another on the way - is not the usual mark of a man who thinks he is a failure.

Dan Vittorio Segre's first book of reminiscences, Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew (1987), told the gripping story of his childhood in Fascist Italy and his emigration to Palestine; this one, in comparison, seems slightly weak and watery. There is no big theme to carry along the anecdotes about his subsequent diplomatic career and give the narrative some wider relevance.

But it is impossible not to take to the old boy, with his good-humoured worldweariness. For several years, he was responsible for arranging official greetings for the array of world leaders, petty dictators, oddballs and tyrants who turned up in Tel Aviv. "Many arrived in Israel with credentials supported only by their visiting cards", he writes wryly. There were "magicians and serious businessmen, prophets and traders in weapons as well as in charms" - a selection that sounds as if it could have been found around many Cabinet tables.

Sometimes the diplomatic urbanity can be frustrating- one wonders with a shiver what unspoken grisly horrors lie behind he description of one African dictator as displaying " a gentleness which concealed an iron will and a political tenacity not without cruelty" - but he also comes out with some needle-sharp observations about the press and the practice of politics. As press attaché in Paris, he says, he avoided lying as determinedly as he avoided telling the whole truth. "I used to collect real information about Israel to throw like crumbs to French journalists, while avoiding giving them the key to the stupidity of certain decisions taken by the Israeli government." Neither journalists nor politicians come to well out of that description, but Segre won't care. There could always be a job for him in Downing Street.


Andrew Taylor

© 2005 THE TLS