Experiences in Germany
What have you discovered about Germany, its culture, and its people since taking up diplomatic service?
Outside family and work, music is my passion. Germany has a rich musical tradition, so living here has been a huge pleasure. I’ve enjoyed the many wonderful orchestras and opera companies, and the fantastic jazz scene in Berlin. I really enjoy speaking German – it’s such an expressive language. Political life here is lively and accessible – and has become a lot more dramatic in the last couple of years.
And my wife and I have made many friends, not least the fellow dog-owners we have got to know in the Grunewald when we take our golden retriever Albie for his regular long walks. And my wife, who is Thai, has been delighted that we’ve found, right here in Berlin, the best Thai restaurants we have ever found outside of Thailand.
What preconceptions did you have about Germany walking into the job? What matched your expectations? What surprised you?
The beer and sausages are as good as I hoped them to be. Too good, in fact. Berlin has the reputation of being a “5Kg posting”. I am now having to cut down a bit on the beer.
Then there is the cliché that Germans don’t have a sense of humour. It’s complete rubbish, of course. My German colleagues and friends enjoy humour every bit as much as their British equivalents. Perhaps the difference between us is that there is less humour in public life here than one would see in the UK. There are fewer jokes in the Bundestag than in the Palace of Westminster, for example. In Germany, humour is perhaps more something to be enjoyed in private, between consenting adults.
You gained a reputation as a “rock star” during your post in China. Have you been able to pursue any of your musical hobbies in Germany?
Sir Sebastian Wood playing at the British Embassy in Berlin with actors from a Beatles musical. Photo: DPA
I don’t think I’d describe myself as a rock star. But I really enjoy playing the guitar and I am currently trying, with only very limited success, to turn myself into a jazz guitarist. And my son is a very promising young saxophonist who has introduced me to Berlin’s best jazz clubs, where he often joins the other musicians on stage, which gives me a huge vicarious thrill.
Music runs in the veins of this country – a good example of this is the wonderful music played at church services here, as I experienced at occasions such as the reunification celebrations and at the anniversary of the Frauenkirche restoration in Dresden.
How important is it for a British ambassador to integrate into their country abroad? What efforts did you make to get to know Germany?
Being able to speak the language is vital. I made huge efforts to get fluent in German. It was a massive challenge. I had learned and very much enjoyed German at school, but then had not spoken a word of German for 35 years. To relearn the language at the age of 55 felt like putting my brain through a mincer, especially as I had only 6 months to do it.
But now I can give interviews on TV and radio in Germany with reasonable confidence. Being able to speak and understand the language opens a huge window into the country that would otherwise remain closed.
Taking part in a public podium discussion on a tough subject like Brexit is one of the hardest things I do, but gives me real satisfaction, and engaging in German makes me a more effective diplomat.
How has doing diplomacy in Germany compared to your diplomatic work serving as the British Ambassador to China in 2010-15?
It is far easier to network and make contacts here, because we are so much closer culturally and politically. For example, even a meeting with a Deputy Minister in China is a big event, with lots of diplomatic theatre and big retinues of supporting officials. Here, by contrast, I can drop round at short notice to the Bundestag office of a senior politician and have a lively chat over a cup of coffee.
The size of the two countries also makes a big difference; China is vast, on a continental scale, whereas the major population centres in Germany are comparatively close together. I would make a dozen or so trips to other regions in China in the course of a year – but each trip would typically last a few days. Here in Germany I travel outside Berlin maybe 50 or so times a year, with each visit lasting just a day or so.
Has diplomacy changed since you joined the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1983? How is diplomacy different in the digital age?
It’s changed out of all recognition. It’s now a 24 hour rolling news cycle and diplomats – just like politicians and journalists – have to stay on top of it. In 1983, the flow of information was so much less. Now it’s like drinking from a firehose, or surfing on a wave which never stops rolling. That in turn means that we have to do a lot more media and public engagement to get our own message out – otherwise it just gets lost in the roar. That includes social media of course.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I’m glad to say, is less hierarchical than it used to be, which is a good thing as we have a lot of fantastically talented young people, many of them right here in our Germany network.
We’ve also become much more diverse, open and tolerant. When I joined, homosexual staff had to keep their sexual preference secret. Now the British Embassy in Berlin conducts same-sex marriages on our premises (or at least we did until same sex marriage became legal in Germany recently), and we proudly participate in Berlin’s Christopher Street Day parade.