Recently returned from a three-year tenure as British High Commissioner to Zambia, OF Fergus Cochrane-Dyet OBE (Gepp’s 78-83) has fond memories of his school days and thanks Felsted for launching his successful diplomatic career.
‘My path to a career as a diplomat serving across Africa, Afghanistan, and Australia most certainly began at Felsted,’ says Fergus Cochrane-Dyet OBE. Now comfortably ensconced at Oxford University, Fergus is enjoying a well-earned sabbatical studying African Studies after 30 years representing the British people with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office around the world.
‘When I arrived at Gepp’s House in September 1978, the housemaster was Michael Craven, who allowed his prefects to run the house with extraordinarily wide latitude,’ remembers Fergus. ‘Thanks to intelligent, civilised sixth-formers, like Mark Cutts and Nicholas Banatvala, this engendered a refreshingly laid-back, yet buoyant, atmosphere. Eccentricity was actively encouraged, enabling literary and arty pupils to flourish alongside sporty ones, and this made for a stimulating environment where slightly unorthodox boys like me were able to flourish.’
Being able to develop his self-confidence is something Fergus has appreciated throughout his diplomatic career, which since 1987 has seen him serve as High Commissioner to Zambia, Malawi, and the Seychelles, as well as Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Liberia. Other influential roles have included Acting Ambassador in Kabul, Chargé d’Affaires in Conakry (Guinea) and Director for Trade and Investment in Sydney.
Fergus meeting the Zambian President
‘That “proud to be different” Gepp’s ethos lodged deep,’ he says. ‘I have been praised and criticised as an “undiplomatic diplomat” for being outspoken on corruption and authoritarianism. In fact, the tribute of which I'm most proud - even more than the OBE - is a Zambian newspaper editorial: “Fergus is not a ‘yes bwana’ diplomat”, meaning I didn't kowtow under pressure to shut up! There has often been a price to pay for this though, in particular my expulsion from Malawi in 2011- I am the only British ambassador in living memory to be declared persona non-grata by a Commonwealth country.’
Fergus has certainly relished the chance to travel the globe, an ambition that dates back to his time at Felsted.
‘There were so many opportunities at school to learn about the wider world,’ he remembers, ‘but a seminal moment for me came at a sixth-form lecture delivered by an anthropologist about his fieldwork among the Nuri people of northeast Afghanistan. It made a huge impression on me and opened up my mind to the prospect of travel and adventure.’
Examples of people who had made a positive impact on the world were all around Fergus, even in rural north Essex.
‘While at school I was always intrigued by members of staff who had done interesting things abroad,’ he remembers. ‘The headmaster of the time, Anthony Egglestone, had worked on Malta during the siege of World War Two. Gepp's housemaster, Michael Pomphrey, had been in the Royal Navy. Alan Lerwill had competed in the Olympic Games before becoming an athletics coach. These people were all an inspiration to me.’
Fergus’ chance to make a difference came as soon as he had finished his A levels in 1983.
‘I was invited to teach at a rural school in Kenya by the family of a Gepp’s schoolfriend, James Greenshields, whose father was a diplomat at the High Commission in Nairobi,’ he says. ‘But I couldn’t as I had already accepted a place at Jesus College, Oxford. After one term, the call of Africa proved too great! I abandoned Oxford to join James and I loved it.’
Returning to the UK, Fergus took a leaf out of the inspirational speaker’s book, studying anthropology (at Durham University) and then heading to Afghanistan for three tours, including two with the British Army and the US Marine Corps in Helmand. It was on one of these tours that he was slightly injured when an IED blew up the office where he was meeting Governor Mangal.
Indeed, Fergus’ career has not been without its dangers.
‘Over the past three decades as a diplomat in Africa, accompanied by my lovely wife and three sons, we have endured being robbed at gunpoint on a Libyan beach and the terrifying Ebola crisis in West Africa,’ says Fergus.
Fergus climbing remote African hills with his two sons
‘More positive highlights have been the Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry, staying with us at our residence in Lusaka last year, and countless trips into the African bush with my family to see spectacular wildlife such as a leopard leaping from a tree to kill an impala.'
‘It has been a wonderful experience and I owe Gepp's House and Felsted School a very great deal for preparing me so well for life’s journey.’