Part of a speech to the Australia-Britain Society in Melbourne on 26 October 1999

Since the Melbourne Cup will be run a week from today, I thought I would tell you a story about a horse tonight. Not a racehorse, not even a British horse, but a Turkmen stallion.

When I was working for John Major, the President of Turkmenistan came on an official visit to Britain. At the end of their meeting he handed John Major this leather bound book. John Major opened it and it had a picture of a horse and various descriptions in Turkmenistani. "How interesting", John Major said cautiously. But it eventually became clear from the interpreter that John Major was not just being given the book, this was in fact the breeding information about the stallion that was being given as a gift.

John Major could hardly refuse such a gift – indeed he took the book off to his audience with the Queen that evening and she told him Turkmen stallions were much sought after as breeding stock. She herself had been given one some years before. The problem for us, though, was that the horse was in Turkmenistan and we needed to arrange to get it to the UK.

We discovered the only way to do this was to get it delivered to Moscow, where it could spend some time in quarantine, and then be shipped to Britain where the Household Cavalry had expressed an interest.

So it fell to a third secretary at our embassy in Moscow, a very resourceful girl, to make the necessary arrangements. She discovered that President Mitterrand had also been given a Turkmen stallion, and that they would be sent together by train to Moscow in the charge of local grooms. So she contacted the French horse attache in Moscow and they agreed to meet the train.

The first setback, however, occurred when the train got lost. At least they had been told it was arriving on Sunday night, but on Monday they could find no trace of it. On Tuesday, they got an excited phone call from the Russian Horse Society to say that the train had been found. The reason he hadn’t been able to find it the day before was because it wasn’t there. The Turkmens had got the day wrong, and the train had arrived on Monday night not Sunday. But the railway authority’s vet had now inspected the horses and passed them as fit, so our third secretary and the French horse attache could now begin the Customs formalities. They duly phoned the twelfth diplomatic customs post in northern Moscow and were given as appointment for one o’clock.

At one o’clock, they presented themselves at the Customs office. Apart from two mangy dogs and a receptionist, the place was deserted. The receptionist told them it was lunchtime: they should return at 3 o’clock.

They explained their mission, pleading the case of two poor Turkmen horses that had been standing up in a railway carriage for four and a half days. This elicited in response the sad tale of the Finnish Ambassador’s parrot, the only other living thing to have fallen into the hands of the twelfth diplomatic customs post. The receptionist, an animal lover and close to tears at the thought of the parrot, relented and led them through a maze of packing cases to where they found the staff of the twelfth diplomatic customs post playing poker.

15 dollars poorer, but with the Customs formalities completed, the third secretary from our Embassy, accompanied by the French horse attache, hot-footed it to the station accounts office in South Moscow. They got there at 4.45pm. They presented the vet’s certificate and the stamped Customs declaration. They were told that the staff in the accounts office had stopped work in order to get ready to go home at 5pm. Nothing could be done until the following day.

They again trotted out the pitiful story of the horses. The soft-hearted and enormously fat clerk relented. But after one glance at the papers on her desk and a quick twiddle on the office abacus, she announced that they owed the Russian railway authority eight and a half million roubles (about twenty thousand dollars). They explained that the Turkmens had paid for the transport in advance. She replied that the Turkmens had added up the figures wrongly and the balance needed to be paid. They pointed out that the Turkmens had provided their own railway carriage for the journey, and did not want it back. Couldn’t some arrangement be found? After some deliberation, the very fat clerk consulted her boss. He finally agreed. But now it was after 5pm, so they would have to return the next day.

The third secretary and the French horse attache duly arrived at the accounts office at 8.30am the following morning. Could they now have the bit of paper that would allow them to drive out of the freight yard with the horses? "In principle, yes", said the fat clerk. "In practice, no." Since the horses had been at the station for 24 hours, they would have to be seen again by the vet.

The vet was in her office adding up extremely slowly a long list of figures on a calculator with dodgy batteries. The numbers kept fading, at which point she began again at the top of the list. They waited an hour. The vet then pushed across the table a signed declaration saying she had inspected the horses again and they were fit. All without leaving her desk.

At 10am, they got to the station itself. Within twenty minutes they had the horses loaded into the horse-box. It looked all over. But then the three grooms who had traveled with the horses appeared out of the railway carriage, and began to carry countless sacks of potatoes, onions, carrots and at least 200 large yellow melons. One groom explained that as Turkmenistan had no post-1992 banknotes, they were forced to bring wares to sell in Moscow to buy the return ticket to Ashkhabad. He said they had been held up by armed bandits at a rural station in Kazakhstan. The bandits had been disappointed to find no cash at all. And the main cargo (the horses) had been unwilling to dismount from the train and make off into the Kazakh darkness. So the robbers had had to be satisfied with as many of the legendary Turkmen melons as they could carry.

As the last few sacks of vegetables were loaded alongside the horses, the third secretary and the French horse attache made their way to the office of the head of the freight department at the station to get the document allowing us to leave with their ‘freight.’ They were told that they had to return to the accounts department to arrange for a sticker to be stuck on the carriage saying that the freight had been removed and the carriage was ready for disinfection.

They trooped back to the accounts department. It was 11.40am. Predictably, the staff were again packing up their papers in order to begin the lunch break at 12 noon. They found the fat clerk, who abandoned the woman she was dealing with – giving her as explanation the same pitiful story they had told her the day before about how long the horses had been standing up in their carriage. They paid 5,000 roubles, for which they received a little old lady with the aforementioned sticker.

They accompanied the little old lady back to the railway carriage. She took one look inside and screeched that she was not going to stick her sticker on such a dirty carriage full of horse manure. It would have to be cleaned out. And no, it could not be put in the station dustbins. By this time the French horse attache was getting hysterical.

The British third secretary was made of resourceful stuff. She contemplated putting the manure in the boot of her car and taking it back for the ambassador’s roses. But they didn’t have a spade, and the amount of manure produced by two highly-strung horses over five days is considerable. Luckily the melons came to the rescue. Bribed with several particularly large ones, an engine driver was persuaded to shunt the carriage a couple of miles down the track where the offending material was unceremoniously scraped out onto the track. The carriage was returned to the freight yard. The sticker was stuck. And the horses were allowed to leave the station.

Our third secretary sent back a report to London, concluding "I have made some useful contacts over the last few days so that the next time we want to import a horse to Russia it will be a doddle." She got a personal reply from John Major congratulating her on her resourcefulness.

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