The Society’s Annual Supper February 2016
Last updated 27th April 2016
This year’s supper was, as usual, a feast of Nepalese entertainment, food, authentic beverages and two addresses; one by Andy Sparkes, the recently-returned ex British Ambassador to Nepal, and the other by BNS Chairman Roger Potter. We recall them here for your entertainment.
The Speech by Andy Sparkes (Recent British Ambassador to Nepal):
It would have been a privilege any year to speak at your Annual Supper. But I am particularly honoured to be your guest speaker this year, 2016. It’s a landmark year for the Britain Nepal relationship. Next month marks the two hundredth anniversary of the ratification of the Treaty of Segauli, which formally began our diplomatic ties. This spring, Prince Harry will visit Nepal to lead the celebrations of those two hundred years. As a soldier, he will also be recalling another milestone. Last year,2015, was the two hundredth anniversary of the recruitment of Gurkhas into the British armed forces.
So- we recruited their soldiers first and then we started bilateral relations…..?
Well, for those of you who don’t know, like many of the best friendships, it all began with a fight. After Prithvi Narayan Shah unified Nepal in the late 1700s, his successors wanted to expand further into British India. The East India Company took a dim view. Jaw jaw led to war war, and in 1814 the Company sent the boys in. The boys had a tough time with some local hill tribesmen with curved knives. Reinforcements were needed but in a situation unheard of today the British Prime Minister was having problems with Europe. Napoleon, to be specific. The East India company therefore followed its commercial instincts. It started paying the hill tribesmen to swap sides. That did the trick, and the outcome was the Treaty of Segauli.
So our two hundred years didn’t exactly start with a love in. When I delivered a speech as Ambassador to the Nepal Foreign Affairs Society, in late 2013, as a curtain raiser for the bicentenary, one learned Nepali stood up and said: ” At the Treaty of Segauli Britain took away a third of our territory, demanded to establish a residency in the heart of our city, demanded exclusivity as a foreign partner, and formalised the purchase of our best troops. What are we Nepalis supposed to celebrate?!”
My answer of course was that we weren’t celebrating the Treaty. We were celebrating the relationship which the Treaty began, a relationship which has evolved into a special friendship. A relationship between two countries which have both travelled a long way since 1816, but whose esteem for and cooperation with each other has endured.
Within days of arriving in Nepal as Ambassador I had an early reminder of one famous example of that mutual cooperation and esteem. Soon after presenting my credentials, I found myself climbing towards the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar, in the foothills of Everest. That sounds quite good put like that, although this room will contain many veteran trekkers who would think nothing of it. Nobody should think anything of it anyway in my case because i got there by helicopter. In company with the New Zealand Ambassador and Honorary Consul, I had flown in first to Lukla. Thence we had flown up to Namche in order to present the prizes for the Everest Marathon, on 29 May 2013, the 60th anniversary of the conquest of Everest by Hillary and Tensing.
There, surrounded by Sherpa villagers, I and the New Zealand Ambassador recalled that great triumph, the pinnacle of the long British romance with the highest mountain in the world. A British-led expedition, in the tradition of those of Shipton and Mallory, as always helped all the way by Sherpa porters and trailblazers, had made one last effort after decades of trying, and had got a Kiwi and a Sherpa to the top.Then through the persistence of British journalist Jan Morris, the news had been passed to the crowds awaiting the coronation of our Queen. As Britain put the Second World War behind her, and entered the modern age over which that same Queen still presides, this triumph in Nepal had set the tone of hope. My own parents remembered that as vividly as the coronation itself. But as Hillary, strong supporter of the Sherpas and great contributor to their welfare, said many times: no-one could have climbed Everest without them. The effort was a joint one.
As I arrived at the Everest marathon finish line from the other side, panting from a short climb up from the helicopter landing pad at 12000 feet, I and my companions were met by our co-prize presenter, Miss Nepal. My son still maintains that it was she who took my breath away.
But one person who was still breathing as normally as you please was the Nepali runner who had won the marathon, up and down the lower crags of the Sola Khumbu, higher than the Swiss Alps, coming in a full six minutes ahead of the next competitor. And like all the Sherpa villagers around, he was wreathed in smiles. A perfect example of the incredible physical resilience and toughness, allied to dependability, loyalty and courage, which the people of the Nepal mountains made available to Shipton, Mallory, Hunt, the British pioneers, and all the mountaineers from so many nations since.
And I was reminded of Sergeant Major Pun. My first encounter with Gurkhas was in one of my early postings, at our Embassy in Bangkok. Sergeant Major Pun commanded the former Gurkhas who guarded us there. They made the mistake of telling my seven year old that they could not unsheathe their kukris unless to draw blood. They demonstrated this by cutting their thumbs. My seven year old was fascinated and made them do it ten times a day for weeks. Sergeant Major Pun however bore no grudges. He came to watch our five a side football team on the tennis court. In 30 degrees C and 100 per cent humidity, we were changing players every five minutes. Sergeant Major Pun offered to replace me. He played for 45 minutes. He barely broke sweat. Then at the end he dropped to the tennis court floor and did a few press ups. About a hundred.
You all know about the Gurkhas. What they have done for British arms for two centuries. Their loyalty, bravery and discipline. They are not flash. They are respectful and, when on duty, quiet. So are the Sherpas, and in fact most Nepalese. They are not in your face- they are hospitable, tough, devout. They attune well to us Brits, a people also not given to histrionics, but dedicated to getting the job done. And we appreciate them, and tens of thousands of us gave to help them after their earthquake. And they appreciate us, and our flag is a good luck symbol up and down the land, on teeshirts, on trucks, on shops.
Not too many Nepalis would have put a flag on their shops in 1816. But by 1850 the Nepalese leader, Jang Bahadur Rana, was visiting Britain and becoming best friends with Queen Victoria.. What happened in between? Step forward a man, largely unsung until recently, but thanks to Charles Allen’s excellent new book, the Prisoner of Kathmandu, finally enjoying a bit of limelight. Brian Houghton Hodgson was the British Deputy and then Resident in Kathmandu for the best part of that time between the Segauli Treaty and the age of the Ranas. Hodgson was one of those amazing Victorian diplomat polymaths, like Raffles in Singapore, who went out, discovered and then documented a new species before breakfast. They not only pursued British interests, but revolutionised our knowledge of the places where they were posted. Hodgson pioneered Buddhist studies, the anthropology of Nepalese tribes, and the study of Nepalese animals, birds and flora. How did he find the time? Because he was not required to use all his energy and creativity writing twelve emails to the Fpreign Office for permission to spend five thousand pounds to stop the wall of the British cemetery from falling down. To take a- ahem- hypothetical example. But more because he was a quite remarkable man, who oversaw the transition in the relationship from sullen hostility to the goodwill which paved the way for Rana’s visit.
I remember thinking several times as I looked out from the Embassy, from the building which in Hodgson’s day was the Residency Post office, that I could have done with Hodgson’s way with birds- the feathered sort. The Embassy in Kathmandu, for those of you that don’t know, is infested with crows. Since the Embassy survived the earthquake unscathed, I expect the crows did too.
My Defence Attaché and I considered one solution- s few selected executions at the hand of Gurkha Brigade marksmen, pour encourager les autres. But as you know, Nepalis may do sacrifices but they are not into casual murder of their fellow creatures. My local staff therefore suggested that instead we hire a crow whisperer. By the time I left he had visited three times. He seems able to persuade the crows to depart for a few days. But they then come back. If you think about it, he probably tells them to do that too!
So I see only one stone as yet unturned. We have to take metaphysics one stage further and summon up the learned shade of Brian Houghton Hodgson.
The current Ambassador in Nepal, Richard Morris, tells me that owing to a shortage of wall space, my own picture in the rogues gallery of former Ambassadors now hangs directly under Hodgson’s. I am deeply honoured and I hope that he looks down benignly upon me through his beard.
After Jang Bahadur’s 1850 visit, there was no turning back. He launched a taste for all things British that characterised the whole century of Rana power. And the specialness of the relationship has remained- through Britain’s loss of Empire, through Nepal’s sees-sawing from democracy back to autocracy back to democracy and finally to republicanism. We are no longer big brother next door, but we are still by far the biggest bilateral donor for Nepal’s development. And through all this has run the win win of the Gurkha arrangement, worth the same amount again to the Nepalese economy- 100 million pounds- as all that DFID gives each year.
We embark now upon the next two hundred years. They have begun with Nepal in transition, and in deep pain. 2015 saw Nepal finally pass its constitution with its vision for a more inclusive society in which all the poor, repressed and disadvantaged, downtrodden under decades of elitism, should find their place. In November Richard Morris became the first Ambassador in Nepal’s history to present credentials to a woman President. But the constitution passed against the backdrop of the appalling 25 April earthquake, with its 9000 death toll and its displacement of hundreds of thousands. And that misery was compounded when the constitution was immediately challenged by the Madhesis and the Tauru along the border with India. The long fuel blockade began, stopping reconstruction and recovery in its tracks and stalling a country already on its knees.
Politicians squabbled. Black marketeers profiteered. There was a delay in setting up the National Reconstruction Authority, supposed to plan and marshal the disbursement of all the international aid pledged after the earthquake, to “build back better”. Britain just did its best to reach the people who needed it ,especially through this last grim winter. Nepal’a oldest partner provided 200,000 earthquake victims with shelter, 200,000 with blankets and winter items, 50,000 with safe water and sanitation, and 25000 with small cash handouts.
But as of last month, Nepal is slowly lifting up its face again. The NRA is at last getting into gear, and the blockade seems to have run its course. Concessions have been made to the Madhesis, and tomorrow PM Oli leaves for a six day visit to India. Things are looking up at last, so perhaps the Nepalese, who love a good festival, will still raise a smile for Prince Harry, and a Union Jack for all that we have shared, and will share.
I’ll leave you therefore with a couple of insights into the 200th celebrations. First, I’m delighted to flag a project close to my heart, on which i worked with Dr Mark Watson of the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens, all round Nepal enthusiast and global authority on Nepalese flora. He tells me that this project has survived the earthquake and the blockade and will happen, largely funded by HMG. It is for a lasting memorial of the bicentenary, a UK/Nepal Biodiversity education garden above the Kathmandu smog line, at Godavari. Appropriately, this project looks both forwards and backwards. it looks back,in a way, to Brian Houghton Hodgson, Francis Buchanan Hamilton and the early pioneers of botany in Nepal, those who brought the rhododendron to Kew. It continues a 150 year tradition of educational links between Nepal and the Uk which grow ever stronger. And it looks forward by involving the new generation in the benefits of preserving biodiversity and the environment, the great 21st century cause which binds the Uk and Nepal together in the councils of the world.
Finally, let me tell you about a Nepalese schoolgirl. Richard Morris and his team have begun a series of videos on social media illustrating the people to people side of the Britain Nepal relationship. This will feature such extraordinary figures as John Cross, the British Gurkha officer and scholar who became only the second ever foreigner to be granted Nepalese citizenship. But to launch the series, the Embassy team had the bright idea of getting some Nepalese school children to talk by satellite link to Tim Peake, the first ever British astronaut now orbiting earth in a multinational space station. The satellite only allowed a 12 and a half minute window of comms before Tim passed out of range. Twenty schoolchildren were lined up to talk but the time only permitted 16 to do so. After the event, which can be seen on You Tube and has already been clicked on by 223000 people in two weeks, the school children were asked if they wanted to say anything. Most were shy. But one school girl stood up. She thanked the Embassy and Tim for the great idea and opportunity. She had,she said, been the 17th student. She was inspired to be an astronaut herself one day,maybe Nepal’s first. If so, she said, she promised that when she came to answer questions from pupils she would do it a bit quicker than Tim!
A timely reminder to all speakers not to go on too long. So I won’t. Thank you for listening, enjoy the rest of the evening, and Jai Britain Jai Nepal!
Once again my first and very pleasant task of the evening is to read out to you the customary messages that the Society has exchanged with Buckingham Palace. In our greeting to the Queen the Society wrote:
“On the occasion of the Annual Supper of the Britain-Nepal Society held at St Columba’s Church of Scotland Hall, Pont Street, on Thursday 18th February 2016, the Chairman and members of the Society send Her Majesty their loyal greetings with their deepest respect and warmth. They hope that Her Majesty will have a very happy 90th birthday year.”
In reply, we have received the following message:
“Please convey my warm thanks to Members of the Britain-Nepal Society for their loyal greetings, on the occasion of their Annual Supper which is being held tonight at St Columba’s Church of Scotland Hall, Pont Street.
I greatly appreciated your thoughtful message and, in return, send my best wishes to all those who are present for a most successful and enjoyable evening.
May I now ask you to stand for the loyal toast:
The President and People of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal
We were also pleased to receive from Kathmandu a message of support from Prabal Rana, a founder member of the Society and quondam Ambassador to London.
Once again, it is my very great pleasure to welcome you all to our Annual Supper which I very much hope that you are enjoying. We are particularly delighted to have Andy Sparkes as our Guest of Honour this evening and greatly look forward to hearing what he has to say. More of that in a moment.
In the year since we last gathered here momentous events have taken place in Nepal – the horrendous earthquakes, the promulgation of a new constitution and the Indian border blockade. I suspect that Andy Sparkes will allude to these things in his remarks.
I would very much like to recognise the excellent relationship that we have with the Embassy and to say how pleased we are that The Charge D’Affaires and members of his team are with us this evening. We still eagerly await news of a new Ambassador but in the meanwhile Mr Chhetri and his colleagues have continued to hold the fort, enabling us, amongst other things, to hold various events at the Embassy – notably our successful fundraising event in June and the AGM. I am delighted to say that Mr Chhetri has agreed to say a few ambassadorial words in a moment.
We are also delighted to have with us the two Queen’s Gurkha Orderly Officers Captain Muktibahadur Gurung and Captain Buddhi Bhandari and their wives. To all of them and to all our members’ guests a very warm welcome.
We always look forward to welcoming to the Annual Supper the previous year’s speakers and I am delighted that two of them are with us this evening. Craig Holliday gave us a powerful and humorous illustrated talk on Water Aid in Nepal whilst our Society member Greg Hickman presented a scholarly and comprehensively researched account of The Genealogies of the Shah, Rana and Related Families. Our thanks to both Craig and Greg.
Sadly, our speaker in November Professor Robin Coningham, who told us about his archaeological research at Lumbini, was unable to accept our invitation. Those who were unable to attend his talk will find a transcript in The Journal.
At the AGM Dr Gillian Holdsworth and Colonel William Shuttlewood brought us up to date on the post-earthquake relief work of The Britain-Nepal Medical Trust and The Gurkha Welfare Trust respectively.
It has been encouraging to see numbers growing at our talks which regularly attract 40 – 50 members and guests, many of whom stay on for a curry afterwards.
It is a special privilege and a great honour to be able to welcome Andy Sparkes as our chief guest this evening. Many of you will already know him and be aware of his close links with Nepal. Andy joined the Diplomatic Service in 1982. In his early career he served at Ankara, Bangkok, Jakarta and on secondment to the then Department of Trade and Industry as Director of Service Exports.
During a wide-ranging and distinguished career he has been Deputy High Commissioner to South Africa (and Consul General for Johannesburg and Pretoria), Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo and first British Ambassador to the new Republic of Kosovo. In 2010 he was appointed Deputy Head of the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo. In 2013 he was appointed Ambassador to Nepal taking early retirement from the Diplomatic Service at the beginning of last year to pursue other projects. Amongst other things he has taken a keen interest in the affairs of the Britain-Nepal Society, including speaking at our recent Schools event in Kent.
Andy was appointed CMG in the 2007 Birthday Honours, for services to peace in the Congo. I gather that he plays the piano slightly better than he plays golf though I do not believe that he is planning to demonstrate either skill this evening
Mr Sparkes’ speech was followed by one from Charge D’Affaires Mr vTej Bagadur Chhetri
Because of their close proximity there is usually little if any Society activity to report between the AGM and the Annual Supper. This year, however, many of us were able to take part in a splendid reception at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to mark the bicentenary of the relationship between Britain and Nepal. I am sure that those of you who were able to attend thoroughly enjoyed the evening.
Nonetheless, apart from this event there is little to add to what I reported at the AGM and as many of you were present on that occasion I do not propose to repeat at length my words then. In the unlikely event that anyone else wishes to know what was said they can find my comments on the website or in the recently published 2015 Journal – that should be coverage enough!
I would, though, once again like to pay tribute to the Committee, now strengthened by the Younger Members Committee, for all their hard work during the year. A special vote of thanks goes to Rupert Litherland who combines the roles of Treasurer and Membership Secretary. He has spent a huge amount of time unearthing lost or defunct members – though possibly ‘unearthing’ may not be the correct word in the latter case.
We have also recruited or re-recruited some 16 new members during the course of the year. Please continue to do all that you can to identify potential new members. It would be wonderful if between now and the Annual Supper 2017 everyone could introduce one new member each!
This time last year we were still on the lookout for a new permanent honorary secretary to take over from Jenifer Evans. As most of you will know we have been immensely lucky to recruit MJ Streather who has now completed a full year in office. MJ hit the ground running and has subsequently woven her way nimbly through the intricacies of organising the Society. She has played a major part in all the events past and present recorded in this report and we all owe her a considerable debt of gratitude. Many thanks MJ and I hope that we haven’t overworked you.
Thanks are also due to those who have helped with a number of new initiatives this year: the committee as a whole for their contribution to the June fundraiser and especially Maggie Solon and MJ for getting the auction of promises off the ground; to Ashley Adams for bearing the lion’s share of our successful and inspiring schools event in Kent in July, and Alison Marston for keeping me up to the mark with a stream of imaginative ideas – if only I could move as swiftly! To you all, very many thanks.
A huge amount of work goes into the production of the Society’s Journal and this year’s is a bumper edition with a fascinating range of articles. There is also an encouraging number of advertisements that help to defray costs. I am sure that space could be found for other advertisers next year! Our thanks are due to Editor Gerry Birch and to BP Joshi for organising the advertising.
Looking ahead, we have a varied programme of lectures for the year. In March there will be a showing of James Dartnall’s film Mahout The Great Elephant Walk, which chronicles the relocation of four elephants from Chitwan to Badia National Park. Jack will be followed in May by accomplished traveller and speaker Zara Fleming who will talk on the theme From Zanskar to Bhutan with an emphasis on the history and practice of Buddhism.
In November Dr Maggie Burgess will report on the work with leprosy of her charity Promise Nepal. At the AGM Professor Surya Subedi will speak on Constitutional and Political Progress in Nepal.
The speaker for our October talk has yet to be confirmed but possible topics include a successful ascent of Everest, the development of a trans-Himalayan hiking trail, and living with the porters of the Solu Khumbu. A number of other talks are in the pipeline and looking even further ahead the Guest of Honour at next year’s Annual Supper will be Lisa Choegyal nee van Gruisen whose reflections on the highs and lows of 40 years in Kathmandu should be fascinating. Do try to support as many of these events as you can and please bring guests particularly of the younger sort! Details will be circulated in due course.
You will be aware that we have not arranged a Summer Outing for a year or two for a combination of reasons – choice of location, cost, uncertain participation amongst others. Perhaps this year we might be able to centre an outing around a welcome reception for a new ambassador – possibly combined with more fundraising for continuing earthquake relief.
Another possibility is to make the 19th July cricket match between Nepal and the MCC at Lord’s the focus of a Society Summer Event. Watch this space!
We are still hoping to arrange a Society visit to Nepal this year. The original plan was to coincide with the visit of Prince Harry to enable us to participate in bicentenary celebrations in Kathmandu. Sadly, a number of uncertainties – the precise timing of the Royal Visit, the Indian border blockade, the possibility of political unrest, too short a lead in time – led us to postpone the visit which we are hoping to re-arrange for around 4-20th November.
As well as time spent in Kathmandu, Pokhara and Chitwan there will be the opportunity of a six day trek based on either luxury lodges or luxury tented accommodation – or even no trekking at all! If you are remotely interesting in learning more about our plans do get in touch with me.
And now a few final words of thanks: to our charming and talented dancer, Nikkita; to the many people who have helped to make the evening possible particularly to Khem Ranamagar from the Munal Restaurant in Putney for the excellent catering; to Mahanta Shrestha of Monty’s Restaurant and Prashant Kunwar for so generously sponsoring the Khukuri beer to which I hope you have done, and will continue to do justice; and to our Gurkha friends for producing the piper, the bar orderlies and the driver. Thanks to you all.
Finally, finally Maggie Solon has asked me to remind you that as usual the table flower arrangements are yours for the taking in exchange for whatever donation you think fit. It would be a shame for them to go to waste.
Thank you all very much. Do please continue to enjoy the evening and have a safe journey home.
April 27th, 2016