The Diplomat in the Beekeeper's Suit

I THINK Richard would make a good foreign secretary. The idea came to me in the potato shed this morning as I was setting out the Maris Pipers to "chit." I found myself being very meticulous about putting each seed potato "rose end" up in the trays, and that brought Richard to mind - because he suggested it.

Richard tells me that if I put the seed potatoes in the trays with the "rose end" up, they'll do better. No one else bothers in this modern day - except Richard. But then he would. He has a proclivity for upholding the rights of the unrepresented, even if they happen to be potatoes. And that's one of the reasons I think he would make a good foreign secretary.

He was up last week to give me a hand with my bees. With him he'd brought some honey jars. He wouldn't let me pay for them, of course. "I've more than enough," he said, "and you gave me some compost last July. Don't you remember?"

Richard doesn't like money. He prefers goodwill as a currency: something that leaves both parties better off. He has a way of making things easy for you without causing embarrassment; he possesses all the skills of the professional diplomat but none of the guile. That is his strength - he's a natural and doesn't know it.

He was a teacher earlier in his life, and perhaps it was in the classroom that his diplomatic skills were born. Children who retreated from a barrage of bare facts would be drawn to Richard. He would coax them onto the path of learning with tidbits of information, and he'd allow them the pleasure of unearthing the answers for themselves - or at least thinking they had.

With everything he does, he looks at the situation from both sides. Even when he is working with his bees, perhaps especially when he is working with bees. That is how I first met him.

It was four summers ago, strawberry time. He called late in the evening for some jam strawberries and let drop that he'd heard I was a beekeeper. I was immediately on the defensive. My interest in bees was confined to their pollinating skills. The prospect of being inveigled into joining the Beekeepers Club and attending monthly meetings in the drafty rooms of the Tam O'Shanter to discuss "foul brood" and "requeening" was one I viewed with disfavor.

I needn't have worried. It turned out Richard was as far from my stereotype of a beekeeper as he was from that of a politician. He was devoid of any presumptuousness, and his general demeanor was one of sympathetic understanding, perhaps even a sharing of my sentiments. But it was when I saw his beekeeping gear that I knew he was my kind of man.

His beekeeping suit, like his everyday wear, had a comfortable, garden-worn look about it. I think it was once a painter's overall that has had the buttons replaced with an unreliable zipper. His gloves looked more suited to lifting hot dishes out of the oven than "supers" out of a hive, and the only thing that can be said in defense of his veil is that the bees who can so easily find their way through it can equally easily find their way out again.

It is his ambivalent attitude toward the risks posed by bees, or indeed to problems of any shape or size, that imbues Richard with an aura of invulnerability that somehow embraces all those in his company as well.

Which is why, when he appeared last week to help me with my bees, my slight, innate fear of them had evaporated before we were halfway across the raspberry field. He talked lightly of all the silly beekeeping things he had done over the years. I laughed with him, aware nonetheless that somewhere in his self-deprecating chat, he had planted the facts that he felt I needed to know on this particular morning - just as any good foreign secretary would.

My hives stand with their backs to a stone wall and their faces to the sun. From there the bees can conveniently forage among the soft fruit in the valley or can bee-line up to Crofthead hill, where in August the rocky patches that are too sparsely earthed for pine to take root are purpled with heather. Richard likes the site.

"Ideal for the heather," he remarked, seeing things immediately from a bee's point of view. "Uphill on the way out when you're empty, and downhill when coming home loaded."

The logistics of moving nectar from Crofthead hill had not occurred to me.

Richard lit the smoker and then snatched a few blades of grass and stuffed them in. I raised my eyebrows.

"Makes the smoke less acrid. Easier on the eyes." He grinned. The bees' eyes, of course.

Richard puffed some smoke into the entrance of the hive and stood back to give the bees time to settle. Then he lifted off the roof and eased back the quilt. Every move was measured and gentle. Diplomatic. Nothing to ruffle the domestic equilibrium.

He lifted up one of the frames and held it up for me to see. It bustled with bees, and some crawled onto his gloves. He kept his fingers apart so they wouldn't be crushed. A few bees flew around our heads, but the sound of their wings was easy - the contented song of the summer garden.

"Don't they ever get angry with you?" I asked, remembering my last invasion of the hive when, alone and armed with smoker and apprehension, I had succeeded in raising the ire of every last inmate.

"If I do something silly ... but we try to avoid that, don't we?" He included me in his answer.

After returning the last frame, he replaced the quilt. A lone bee crept out from underneath.

"Where do you think you're going," Richard asked, as if talking to a mischievous pupil. He put out his finger to the bee. It climbed on, and Richard carried it to the alighting board, where he encouraged it back into the hive. This seemed like just good beekeeping practice - one angered bee can incite a whole colony - but with Richard it was more than that, for he would have returned it anyway. Compassion is a good quality in a foreign secretary.

"They have an excellent system, don't you think?" he suggested as we made our way coffeeward.

"Very efficient," I agreed, "right down to their sting."

"Yes, the ultimate deterrent. Very sophisticated."

I was a little surprised. I'd have guessed that Richard wouldn't be in favor of ultimate deterrents.

"You like the idea?" I queried.

"What I like about it is the way it is loaded against the aggressor. Bees possess a weapon - a powerful one - but they know that if they use it, they will not only cause injury to the object of their attack but will certainly destroy themselves. Now that is what I call a deterrent."

WE made the coffee and took it outside and sat on the sun-warmed steps of the potato shed. The world, as far as we could see, was at peace: Up on the slopes of Crofthead, sheep grazed quietly, uncompetitively; the daffodils against the wall bowed willingly before the breeze like Lao Tsu's willows, and the soil lay open, welcoming equally both sun and rain.

"After what you've said, I'll have to be more considerate of my bees," I reflected, "avoid forcing them to use the ultimate deterrent." Even as I said that, I was contemplating how easy it is in our everyday lives to precipitate needless reaction and pain through a careless gesture, an unthinking action. Richard read my thoughts.

"There's generally a way round," he said.

"Yes, but finding it is the problem. Look at Yugoslavia. What's the way round something like that?" Conversations with Richard have a habit of expanding from the immediate to the ultimate.

"Very difficult. The legacy of repression seems to spawn turmoil. And such a lovely country." he said. I recalled too, the friendliness of the people of Yugoslavia.

"I wonder," he went, "whether it would have been different if someone had spoken to the womenfolk, early on, before the first shot was fired. Got them to sit down with their husbands and sons. Talked about things ... the implications of war."

It was typical of Richard. An answer appealing by its very simplicity, undeterred by the magnitude of the problem, brave in its disregard for protocol. Good reasons why Richard would make a good foreign secretary?

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