Sir John Shepherd W61


Looking back across the 60 years since I left Charterhouse I see a busy blur. Far from home and parents in Rome, the School was my main road on the journey from child to young adult; above all it taught me self-reliance. Being Head Boy gave me the confidence to take on that (gentle) and later more exposed leadership roles, greatly encouraged by Brian Young, Headmaster, throughout my 5 years at ‘C’house’. A fine – if outwardly austere - role model, he was unfailing in showing his confidence in me. One day I went (with other prefects) to persuade him to abolish the out-dated rule that we all wear detached collars; having made our pitch I was surprised and relieved when he quickly agreed to this blow for common sense.

I had avoided cross-country running like the plague, but as Head Boy I was advised to lead by example and run Pontifex for the first (and only) time. I think I came in 163rd, having hated every long minute. The sporting passions which I did take away were squash, cricket (Maniacs), and hockey (1st XI), all bat-and ball games. (Mediocre tennis outlived them all.)

Glad to have missed National Service I anticipated the ‘Gap Year’ with four months as a ‘Supernumerary Writer’ (= Purser’s clerk) on a ship plying to Southern Africa – an intense taste of life ‘outside’, the more fun because I had fixed it for myself and it left me £162 in pocket (a fortune in 1961). Cambridge (Languages and Economics) and a formative graduate year at Stanford (Economics) prepared me for the Diplomatic Service. The FO taught me Arabic, a doorway to another new world, which included four years flying by the seat of my pants as a young ambassador in Bahrain in Saddam Hussein’s ‘First Gulf War’ and two more as Middle East Director. My European languages and economics had already diverted me to EEC/EU work, with an exhilarating spell in Brussels when Margaret Thatcher was PM; that specialism later dominated – to the relief of my (late) wife and daughter. Rome as ambassador was a busy and fun climax to a varied and satisfying career. The Queen’s 2000 State Visit started my tenure, which was ‘made’ by having Silvio Berlusconi as Italy’s Prime Minister.

At 60 I retired, but didn't. South Africa's ex-President F.W. de Klerk invited me to help set up his Global Leadership Foundation, which gives discreet advice to heads of state and government. After 3 years as Chief Executive I remain on its board. 

Several trustee roles and a serendipitous new marriage conspired to keep me from my dream retirement project, researching and writing the first history of the Villa Wolkonsky in Rome, since 1947 the residence of the British Ambassador, and my home for 3 years. But publication is now imminent!