Never Learn to Type: A Woman at the United Nations

Never Learn to Type: A Woman at the United Nations

by Margaret Joan Anstee


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ISBN-13: 9780470854310
Publisher: Wiley
Publication date: 06/28/2004
Pages: 560
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Dame Margaret Anstee served the United Nations (UN) for over four decades (1952-93), and, in 1987, was the first woman to achieve the rank of Under Secretary-General. She worked on operational programmes of economic and social development in all regions of the world, mostly with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). From 1987-92 she served as Director-General of the UN at Vienna, Head of the Centre for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs and Co-ordinator of all UN narcotic drug control programmes. From 1992-3 she was the Secretary-General's Special Representative to Angola, the first woman to head a UN peacekeeping mission including its military component.

Dame Margaret served successively as Resident Representative of UNDP in eight countries, in Asia, Latin America and Africa. From 1974-87 she occupied senior positions at UN headquarters in New York and was also given special responsibility for a number of disaster relief programmes, including the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the Mexican earthquake of 1985 and the Kuwait oil wells of 1991.

From 1967-8 Dame Margaret served as Senior Economic Adviser to Harold Wilson in the Prime Minister's Office of the Government of the United Kingdom.

Dame Margaret was educated at Newnham College, Cambridge, of which she is an Honorary Fellow. She continues to work ad honorem for the UN and for the President and Government of Bolivia. Amongst other activities she is a member of Jimmy Carter's International Council for Conflict Resolution.

Read an Excerpt

Never Learn to Type

A Woman at the United Nations
By Margaret Joan Anstee

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-470-85424-3

Chapter One


One Sunday evening in 1915 a young soldier, invalided home from Gallipoli, shyly greeted a pretty young girl after church in Kington, a small market town in north-west Herefordshire, where he had been sent to recuperate. Had it not been for the vagaries of war my parents would never have met. In those days there was small chance for country-folk, born into straitened circumstances on the opposite sides of England, to move away from their place of origin.

Many years later, as an Under Secretary-General of the United Nations, I caused some consternation when, responding to the Turkish Foreign Minister's speech at a dinner given in my honour in Istanbul, I regretted that I had not been taken to the Dardanelles. My hosts relaxed visibly when I explained that, but for Gallipoli (where my father, a private soldier in the Fifth Essex Regiment, had narrowly escaped death), I would not have been at that dinner table, would not have existed at all.

Eleven years were to elapse after that chance encounter before I appeared on the scene. The young couple were able to 'walk out' together for only a brief few weeks before my father was sent back to the Middle East, first to Alexandria and then to join Allenby's campaign through Palestine. They could correspond only in the stark multichoice options allowed by army postcardsand did not meet again until after the war. On 16 September 1921 they became engaged and on 9 September 1922, they were married.

The Herefordshire Line

My mother's parents came from farming stock in Radnorshire, and my grandmother's family name, Probert, is Welsh, a modification of Ap-Robert, or 'son of Robert'. An orphan at three years old, she nonetheless had a comfortable childhood; she had her own pony, and went to boarding-school, spending the holidays with uncles and aunts who farmed the rich dairying country round Hereford at Bishopstone and Yazor Court, still solid farmhouses today, with an air of prosperity about them. She was barely eighteen when she married John Mills, at Penybont. He, too, came from a comfortable background, but the story of their marriage was, in the material sense, one of progressive decline. As their children increased, they moved to ever smaller and remoter hill farms, graduating downwards from ownership to tenancies.

According to my mother, my grandfather's troubles were caused by a ne'er-do-well nephew who either embezzled money from him, or failed to repay him a large loan, absconding, so the story goes, to Australia. The family fortunes were not helped by my grandfather's way of life. An accomplished horseman, frequently riding off to sheep fairs as far away as mid-Wales, he was of an outgoing and gregarious nature, and there was no lack of people prepared to take advantage of his generosity. He was also a handsome man, with that irresistible Celtic combination of dark, almost black hair, deep blue eyes and a ruddy complexion. A faded sepia photograph shows him in the saddle, clad in well-cut riding clothes and impeccably polished boots, looking quite splendid.

My grandmother was also a personality to be reckoned with. Of her I can speak directly, for she lived past 90, dying in 1964. She had an infectious sense of humour, and an almost mordant wit, softened by her Herefordshire accent, verging on a Welsh lilt. She was also a good-looking woman with large brown eyes and the high cheekbones that defy the onslaught of the years. Even in advanced old age she retained not only her beauty but also the imperceptibly imperious aura that goes with it. Life had done its best to defeat her but in the end one felt that it was she who had been the victor.

My mother was the fourth of the nine children, and the second girl. She was born on 12th February 1898 and christened Annie Adaliza, a Welsh name, after a great-aunt. To her eternal chagrin, it was spelt out as two words on her birth certificate, owing to a mistake by the registrar and the inattention of her father.

She was born at Heywood Common, outside Kington, on a small farm on the edge of Hergest Ridge, one of the tawny, bracken-covered hills that formed the natural bourne of the Welsh Marches long before King Offa of Mercia built his dyke. Her childhood memories were of the family's next home, the Bower, a hill farm of some two hundred acres. The poetic-sounding name must have been given by someone with a bent for wishful thinking. At the turn of the century it was a cold, grey stone house standing bleakly in its farmyard, surrounded by its granaries and barns, on the side of Rushock Hill, another bastion of the Welsh Marches. A more inclement and lonely location can scarcely be imagined. Yet it had, and still retains today, a compelling wild beauty that weaves its own spell.

My mother's childhood was hard but she recalled a happy time. She ran wild with her brothers about the hills and in the plocks (meadows) and paddocks around the farm. Jim, the one nearest to her in age and affection, was not much more than a year older and they were inseparable, almost like twins. He was killed at Ypres, in 1917, when barely 20, and my mother never quite recovered from his death.

Every morning my mother walked miles to the school in Kington in the valley below, climbing back up the hills in the evening, winter and summer. She was awarded a prize for never missing a day, whatever the weather. Her prize could hardly be called romantic, but was certainly suitable: it was a pair of boots.

The family moved to Oatcroft, a farm on the other side of the hill, a pleasant, large house with a lovely view over rolling countryside. The move also meant a new school for my mother, in the village of Titley, where she was very happy, for the schoolmaster taught not only the regulation three R's but even the elements of shorthand and Latin, as well as appreciation of poetry and literature. But my grandfather's health, like his finances, was flagging. Perhaps as a result of those long rides over bleak hills in all weathers, arthritis now confined him to bed. At the age of 12, in 1910, my mother had to leave school to care for him. This was a sorrow to her all her life, for she had been a good scholar, much addicted to 'book-learning'.

When, in 1914, my grandfather died - at the age of 49, leaving his widow only debts and nine children, the youngest only three - my mother was sent into domestic service. The family had to move out of the spacious farmhouse into a tiny, dour cottage, reached only by a rough track high on the hill above, with the appropriately bleak name of Gorsty Doles.

Yet my childhood memories of Gorsty are imbued with a fairylike aura, as of a castle guarding remote hills, high over the sunlit plain. The saving grace of Gorsty Doles was the view. A vast panoply of English countryside lay spread below, an intricate and enchanting mosaic of fields and woodlands, threaded with rivers, roads and hedgerows - a marvellous, composite picture, illuminated variously into changing images by shifting cloud shadows, one feature now thrown into relief by a shaft of sunlight while another was tantalisingly masked in shade.

My indomitable grandmother lived there for 20 years, hauling water from a well at the bottom of the hill, and cauldrons to pools in the valley to heat water over a wood fire to wash the family's clothes. She never lost her sense of humour and transformed the dreariest of activities into fun. With the help of the older siblings she even managed to educate two of her daughters to become teachers. There was a special, wholesome smell about her kitchen - where a sooty kettle, suspended on a hook over the old black grate, was always singing quietly away with the promise of a cup of tea - a smell compounded of wood smoke and the salty tang of whole sides of bacon hung from the blackened rafters. Despite the cold floor of enormous granite slabs, it was a warm, friendly place, where the family gathered at mealtimes at the old round table, lit at night by the soft glow of candles and oil lamps, and the fire in the hearth. At the risk of idealising a very hard existence, there must also have been compensations of a kind little known today.

My mother's life at her first 'place', Hergest Croft, just outside Kington, was not easy either. Aged barely 16, she earned £10 a year, most of which went home. Yet old photos show her always neatly and even fashionably turned out, for she sewed all her own clothes, adding finishing touches of embroidery, pin tucks and lace.

She showed enterprise in other directions too. Through an agency, she acquired a series of positions as parlour-maid to titled and high-society families, with whom she moved around: to London for the 'season' (where she frequently opened the door to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, then a young debutante, later Queen, and ultimately Queen Mother); summers in Scotland; and visits to large country estates. During my childhood she regaled me with hilarious tales of life below stairs in grand establishments. I particularly relished those about a rumbustious cook, keen on her tipple, who on one occasion threw a pan of fish over the butler, already formally attired for dinner, and then picked up the pieces from the floor to serve to the guests; and who, on another, dumped the same unfortunate man in the sink in his own butler's pantry, and turned the tap on him.

The Essex Line

My father, Edward Curtis Anstee, was born on 26 November 1894. His family had deep roots in rural Essex, centred on the village of Writtle, in those far-gone days - and still in my own childhood - a self-contained community where the same families lived on for generations.

From mediaeval times Writtle clustered round a traditional green, surrounded by flat countryside of arable land and pastures, where the winds swept in unimpeded from the North Sea, a landscape very different from the hills that enfolded my mother's childhood homes. My paternal great-grandfather was the village tailor, William Collicott. My grandmother, Alice Ellen Collicott, was born in 1863. In 1887 she married her cousin, George Frederick William Anstee, then resident in Lambeth. He was born in Barnet, Hertfordshire, in 1862, the son of William Austin Anstee, a prosperous butcher who had expanded his business to Lambeth (there is still an 'Anstee's Yard' in Barnet).

One thing my parents' families had in common was declining fortunes. My grandfather was a total misfit as a butcher and businessman. By inclination he was a born scholar and intellectual. He had been sent away to school, and it seems had passed an entrance examination to Cambridge, which explains why he was so pleased when I got there two generations later. But his father died and he was thrust into the family business. He never recovered from this cruel change in his destiny. Not many years after their marriage my grandparents moved back to Writtle, probably because my grandfather had little taste for regular work, and particularly not the butchering kind.

For nearly 50 years my grandparents rented a solid stone house called Heroffs, fronting on Writtle Green. My grandfather occasionally worked for the village butcher, but mainly devoted himself to his intellectual interests. This unusual way of life was facilitated by a windfall, on his mother's death in 1905, of one or two properties which provided small rents.

My grandparents had aspirations to higher social status, an illusion to which my grandfather's life of leisure was no doubt considered to give credence. He read a lot, and dabbled in history and poetry. His reputation as an educated man led him to acquire the role of village wise man, filling in forms for people and counselling them on various matters. He was a big man, with a drooping walrus moustache in the Victorian mode, and always wore the stiff, celluloid shirt fronts of the same era. Early in life he became crippled, a mixture of arthritis and gout (no doubt hastened by his predilection for good drink and mountainous breakfasts of steak, as well as bacon and eggs). I cannot remember a time when he was not heaving himself awkwardly around, cross-legged, on creaking crutches. In summer he would station himself in a chair at the front gate, which gave him a commanding position for watching cricket on the village green, as well as for intercepting passers-by and harvesting village gossip.

To us children he was a gruff and intimidating figure, though in my later schooldays I had no hesitation in soliciting his help before history or Latin examinations. He had a remarkable memory, knowing all the dates, declensions and conjugations off pat, and I still cherish a tattered Latin dictionary bearing on its flyleaf the signature 'G. F. W. Anstee 1876' followed by my own, with the date 1942.

My grandmother was tiny but probably the more formidable personality. She must have had a hard time bringing up a brood of children (several died in babyhood but eventually there were seven extant) and trying to keep up appearances (she continued to have one or two maids while the children were growing up). She had a ferocious temper, which put the fear of God into everyone - including, I suspect, my grandfather - and ruled the household with a rod of iron. She was also a very good cook, producing gargantuan meals for large numbers of people.

Despite his own intellectual cast of mind, my grandfather did little to encourage his children's education. All of them left the village school at 14. The eldest, George, was something of a daredevil but his adventurous spirit did not survive long. He was killed on the Somme, about the same time as my mother's brother, Jim, lost his life. The other boys were apprenticed to local factories in Chelmsford. My father was the one who most deeply felt the lack of further education. He had been top of his class, and won many prizes (mostly bloodthirsty annals of patriotism and Empire, which I still have). He went into the employ of a local printer in Chelmsford and trained as a compositor, the nearest he could get to indulging his love of books, literature and learning. Dorothy, the youngest, and the only girl, became a lady's maid.

After the war my father went back to his old job and spent the next 30 years painstakingly composing type with little metal letter blocks, coming home each night with fingers stained black with printer's ink. As subsequent events showed, he was capable of much more, but he seemed to lack both confidence and ambition. Whether this was the result of an innate gentleness of character or of being brought up in an authoritarian household, it is hard to say. Perhaps it was a bit of both. My mother, in contrast, was full of energy and initiative, determined to overcome all obstacles.

The Wedding

My parents were married from Gorsty Doles in Titley Church, a couple of miles down the hill, whither the wedding party descended on foot.


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Table of Contents


The United Nations System.


Map 1.

Map 2.


1. Prelude.

2. A Rural Childhood.

3. Wartime Schooldays.


4. The Groves of Academe.

5. The Foreign Office.

6. Land of the Morning.

7. English Interlude.


8. The Athens of the Americas.

9. The Purple Land.

10. On Top of the World.

11. At the Court of the Lion of Judah.


12.10 Downing Street 1967-68.

13. UN Reform: The Study of the Capacity of the UN Development System, Geneva and New York 1968-70.


14. In the Shadow of the Atlas.

15. Chile: Democracy Subverted.


16. New York I: UNDP Headquarters 1974-78.

17. New York II: The Department of Technical Cooperation for Development (DTCD), 1978-87.

18. Special Missions and Thwarted Ambitions.


19. In Vienna Woods 1987-92.

20. Debt, Development, Democracy and Disasters.


21. The Lands at the End of the World 1992-93.


22. Life After the United Nations.


List of Acronyms.


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

‘What a life! She strode - and occasionally stumbled - across Development, the UN and the men in her life with a style, intelligence and curiosity reminiscent of those extraordinary Victorian women explorers. With a brief detour to Harold Wilson’s Downing Street, her career was spent as Advisor and UN Representative in some of the world’s most exotic, difficult and dangerous places. She is one of those redoubtable Englishwomen for whom England was always a size too small.’ Mark Malloch Brown, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme

‘As a leading international civil servant, Margaret Anstee has lived with the great themes of post-war history: poverty, conflict and the unending difficulty of limiting either. But she also writes of romance and travel, friendship and daily incident - even about making herself a ball-gown out of a parachute and dancing the night away.’ Onora O'Neill, Principal, Newnham College, Cambridge

‘An intelligent and courageous human being, Dame Margaret Anstee is also a wonderful writer. She vividly presents for us the adventures she has experienced, the battles she has won and lost and the fascinating people she has encountered along the way.' Gerald J. Bender, Professor (and former Director), School of International Relations, University of Southern California, and former President of the African Studies Association

‘The preamble of the UN Charter announces the commitment of the Peoples of the United Nations to, among other things, "reaffirm the faith in the fundamental dignity and worth of the human person" and "promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom". No one has lived for these principles more selflessly or diligently than Margaret Anstee. Her life of service to the global community is inspirational, and her story is highly recommended to anyone interested in the remarkable development of the UN since 1945.’ Jimmy Carter, former President of the United States of America

‘Margaret Joan Anstee is a true pioneer of the international community. Her career spans more than half a century’s service across four continents. The first woman to be appointed Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, she has made an enormous and enduring contribution to the UN family – and continues to do so to this day. With this memoir, she offers an account of a rich and fascinating life, as well as the kind of insight only the insider can provide into the nature of conflict, development and the work for peace.’ Kofi A. Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations

‘Margaret Anstee’s memoir provides insight into the problems women face in the man’s world of the United Nations. Yet the real world is at least half a woman’s world. Women, as she says, have a great deal to contribute.’ Rt Hon. Shirley Williams, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords

‘To succeed as a woman in the upper reaches of the UN you need to be intelligent and rather stubborn. As Foreign Secretary I knew that [Margaret] Joan Anstee was both. I could guess at the difficulties with which she wrestled in the labyrinth of UN Headquarters and later as she struggled on behalf of us all to bring peace to Angola. But until I read this dramatic book I had no notion of the earlier struggles which brought her from a village green in Essex through Cambridge, the Foreign Office, the Labour Party and Downing Street, to the centre of international life in the UN. Anyone who doubts the usefulness of the UN should read her book – as should anyone who believes that modern diplomacy is boring or unnecessary.’ The Rt Hon. Lord Hurd of Westwell CH CBE PC (Douglas Hurd, former UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

‘[Margaret] Joan Anstee’s varied and exciting career in national and international service has been primarily a search for the economic and social sources of greater security and equity in the world. Her book also provides an unusual, and refreshingly specific, account of the United Nations in action and of its unsung but significant achievements as well as its better known shortcomings.’ Sir Brian Urquhart, former Under Secretary-General of the United Nations

‘Margaret Anstee’s memoir recounts the life of a distinguished international civil servant in an era of dramatic change. It is an engrossing story, told with deep conviction as well as a sharp eye for describing a wide range of societies and people. A personal - as well as a political - adventure story, Dame Margaret’s memoir paints a revealing portrait of life on the frontlines of the engagement between the developed and developing worlds.’ Chester A. Crocker, Professor at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University, Washington, and former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs

‘Margaret Anstee has been a witness to many of the momentous events that shaped the last 50 years. As a woman in what was still very much a man’s world of power broking and top level diplomacy, her various posts in the United Nations took her to hot spots such as Chile, where she witnessed the carnage of the Pinochet coup; Ethiopia where many of her friends died when the Emperor was overthrown; and to Chernobyl, one of the most alarming experiences of her life.

During 41 years of UN service she visited 130 member states and always her strong sense of adventure comes through. Not for her the stuffiness of maps and reference books, this is a writer who sets off up rivers, into the plains, mountains and deserts to get to the heart of a country. This is a remarkable story told by a remarkable lady.’ Rt. Hon Peter Hain, MP, Secretary of State for Wales (Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 1999-2002)

‘Dame Margaret Anstee has made an outstanding contribution to development, peace-keeping and conflict resolution over four decades. Her achievements are truly inspirational.’ The Rt Hon. Jack Straw MP, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

‘A truly absorbing account of achievement and adventure, by a remarkable woman trail-blazing in the once pinstriped world of international diplomacy. Margaret Anstee wisely never learned to type – but she certainly knows how to write in a way that engages and holds the reader’s attention from beginning to end.’ The Rt Hon. The Lord Howe of Aberavon CH QC (Geoffrey Howe, former UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Deputy Prime Minister)

‘An extraordinary book about an extraordinary life. Dame Margaret Anstee’s story begins in rural England and describes the breaking down of the barriers of gender discrimination in a man’s world, of facing the challenges of development in the third world, especially in Bolivia, and of conflict resolution and peace-keeping in the globalised world. A story written with wit, charm and affection about a life devoted to the evolution of the United Nations where she achieved the position of Under Secretary-General. Thank God she never learned to type but learned to think and care!’ Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, President of Bolivia

‘Margaret Joan Anstee is the first woman to have headed a United Nations peace-keeping mission and her experience for over four decades in the UN is unique.

Her book Never Learn to Type is a remarkable and entertaining account of her adventures in many parts of the world.’ Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former Secretary-General of the United Nations

‘I am very pleased to have a new opportunity to express my gratitude to Margaret for the remarkable services she rendered for 41 years to the United Nations. In my 10 years as Secretary-General, my experience with her was extraordinary. Her affection, intelligence and strength to achieve her goals always had my admiration and support. On many occasions her actions as Secretary-General’s Special Representative were very successful and helpful for different countries.

Even though I always had very good reports of her, I only met her for the first time in 1982 when I became Secretary-General of the United Nations and I wanted her to be my Chef de Cabinet. Unfortunately this never happened, but I personally gave her different responsibilities, especially in Latin America, a continent I knew she loved and where she had lived for many years having very good work experiences.

In 1987, as she describes in these memoirs, when she took the post of Director-General of UN Office at Vienna she became, with all my support and pleasure, the first woman Under Secretary-General. I know she had hard times in Vienna especially because, as an additional responsibility, she was in charge of reviewing the UN programmes on drugs and social development, but at the same time I am sure she is now satisfied with the results of her work along the years.’ Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, former Secretary-General of the United Nations

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