A journey from trailing spouse to retirement in Somerset

Brigid Keenan, left, in conversation with Claire Armitstead

Brigid Keenan, left, in conversation with Claire Armitstead

A journey from trailing spouse to retirement in Somerset

14 May 2014

By Sue Lanzon

Brigid Keenan was a successful fashion journalist, working at the Daily Express, The Sunday Times and The Observer, before giving up her career for love and a chicken shed in Nepal.

As an ambassador’s wife, or ‘trailing spouse’, she spent the next 40 years travelling the globe. She has documented her exploits in two books: Diplomatic Baggage (2005) and its sequel, Packing Up, which came out in April 2014. That concludes with her move back to the UK and the rigours of adjusting to retirement.

In conversation with Claire Armitstead, literary editor of The Guardian, Keenan started by revealing that she keeps her mobile phone in her bra, was sacked from The Observer, and only got a job at The Sunday Times because she was mistaken for her sister, the more successful Moira Keenan.

The same frank, self-deprecating humour that runs through her books immediately engaged the audience, among whom, it later transpired, were a number of past and present trailing spouses.

In response to Armitstead’s question asking her how she came to be a funny writer, Keenan gave a description of an excruciating encounter many years ago with a moustache-waxing kit. Having related this experience to Fleet Street high flyer and style icon Felicity Green, the latter asked her to write it down and  said“could you make it just as funny.”

“It was a turning point,” Keenan said.

Born in India in 1940, a second-generation expat, Keenan spoke of feeling bonded to India and, in particular, her love of Kashmir. As no contemporary guidebook existed, she decided to write one. Travels in Kashmir, first published in 1989, was the result.

Further postings followed to Syria, Ethiopia, Gambia, Trinidad, Brussels, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Keenan felt as if she was being ‘reincarnated’ every time she  made another move to a different culture.  Each posting required a fresh acquaintaince with the local social hierarchy and new relationships with domestic staff, who were often her most frequent companions. Light-hearted tales of culinary mishaps and the misinterpretation of newspaper headlines contrasted with her witnessing an army coup in Gambia and both famine and revolution in Ethiopia.

She also confessed to a fear of “trains, planes and creepy crawlies” – not the best phobias for a traveller to have, but outweighed by her desire for adventure.

A previous book by Keenan, Damascus: Hidden Treasures of the Old City (2001), was her response to the architectural decay that she encountered in Syria and the need to preserve its history. This led to a commission from Asma al-Assad, wife of the Syrian president, to write another book. The project was abruptly cancelled three months before the Syrian Uprising.  Keenan’s anger at the destructive policies of the Assad regime and sorrow that she can’t communicate properly with the friends she left behind there, saying “They can’t speak on the phone, can’t tell us what they think”, struck a sombre note.

The homogenisation of cities, the shopping malls and skyscrapers that proliferate in Asia at the expense of architectural history, is also of great concern to her.

“They want to be like the West – it’s understandable but I want to say to them, in 30 years or so you’ll regret this, what you have lost.”

Keenan read an account of a trip to a health farm in Sri Lanka, (a retirement present she and her husband had awarded themselves)  from her latest book, Packing Up. During a joint consultation with the resident doctor, they are closely questioned as to the precise colour, odour and consistency of their bowel movements, which she described as “secrets we had kept from each other for 36 years in an attempt to preserve some mystery in our marriage.” The trip culminated with them both falling over and sustaining injuries bad enough to require arriving home from the health farm in wheelchairs.

As the wife of an ambassador, Keenan was not considered worthy enough by the EU to be included in her husband’s retirement package. They refused to pay her airfare home.

“We don’t owe you anything,” they told her.

This added to the strains of adusting to post-diplomatic retirement.

When a man sitting in the back row of the audience objected to her referring to their residence in Nepal as a chicken shed, Keenan revealed he was her husband, Alan, known only in her books as ‘AW’, or sometimesthe long-suffering AW’.

AW now works for a charity. Keenan is working on her next book, Full Marks For Trying.

Watch a video clip of the event below:

Listen to the full audio of the event here:

Sue Lanzon is a volunteer at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival. Her first collection of short stories Something In The Water & Other Tales Of Homeopathy is published by Winter Press. 


The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival continues until 21 May. To book tickets click here. To see the full programme click here. 

To read other stories on The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival click here.