It was under the worst possible circumstances that Harriet Cross arrived to take up her new diplomatic post – in the middle of a pandemic.
Like anyone else coming into the country, she had to be quarantined for two weeks.
She’s allowed into the office now, but like the rest of the staff she’s working from home two or three days a week. And of course she can’t hold cocktail parties to get to know MPs, or captains of industry, or the fellow British citizens for whom she works.
Nevertheless, thousands of people in TT already feel they know her.
One of the first things the new UK High Commissioner did when she arrived on September 1 was to tell Twitter about it (her handle is @harryvx). Since then she’s acquired a couple of thousand followers locally, and now has over 6,000 in all.
At first Cross was confined to the high commissioner’s Maraval residence, but she explored the grounds and tweeted from there, posting photos of an agouti, a corbeau, a lizard, even a spider. She enthused about the livestreamed concert by Kes the Band, and tweeted supportively about @redforce cricket (though she admits she doesn’t understand the game – yet).
Of course, she also tweets official information, such as the appointment of a new UK trade envoy to the Caribbean, MP Darren Henry (whose mother is from this country), or that: “Reading the TT news this morning about the murder of a young woman by her former partner, I can see work to help local grassroots organisations tackle domestic violence has never been more important.”
But there are some pretty personal details too, such as a photo of the gold shoes she wore to present her credentials to the President on October 6 (her shoes are so popular they’ll soon need their own Twitter account); or the scoby from which she’s going to brew kombucha, a kind of fermented tea that supposedly has health benefits. (A scoby is a growth combining bacteria and yeast, and looks as disgusting as it sounds. She’s a vegan – the first in the post.)
There was her “birthday horror story” last month: she went to the grocery early to buy cupcakes to share, and was only told later that she’d gone at a time reserved for senior citizens.
“I’m not at my best in the morning,” she tweeted ruefully, “but still…someone could’ve at least tried to deny me entry.”
So canny use of social media has helped Cross not just to work within the pandemic restrictions, but to turn them to advantage: she used the enforced isolation to let the population of her new post get to know her, and vice versa: “As a diplomat you meet a very narrow band of people, and you can’t know a country if you don’t know the people in the supermarket.”
Twitter has helped her learn what she calls Trini “lingo” – she knows what a steups is, though she still struggles with it. (Here the interviewer, the photographer and the high commissioner’s public affairs officer all steups in unison at the representative of Her Majesty’s Government to TT – for demonstration purposes only.)
Meanwhile covid19 conditions have made other aspects of the job easier, she says: virtual meetings among government ministers are easier to arrange than physical overseas trips; phone calls and Zoom meetings also make people more accessible.
“Lots of things will change for the better,” she predicts, though she’s convinced nothing will entirely replace real-world one-on-one relationships.
Since coming out of quarantine she’s visited a cocoa estate at Ortinola: “It’s great that they’re trying to reinvigorate the sector and take pride in local produce.” In the same spirit she’s visited a farm growing hill rice in Moruga. And now her status is official she’s begun rounds of meetings with ministers and media interviews.
Not the first time in TT
Cross didn’t come to TT by chance. She’s been here before, for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2009; she was based in New York, but came to Trinidad as part of the group managing the UK delegation. She met the queen for the first time at the official residence where she herself lives now.
So she had good memories of TT when the opening for a high commissioner here came up. Members of the UK diplomatic service, which falls under the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (formerly the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) apply for posts that appeal to them, then brief themselves informally, with the help of the FCDO’s research analysts and other experts, on their new postings.
“The FCO drops you in it,” though it does offer some courses on topics such as “How to be an ambassador,” she says. Otherwise, it assumes its staff are good at their jobs and at adapting quickly. Cross remembers her first posting in Morocco at 24, when she was nervous about tasks such as lobbying ministers.
“It’s a bit scary at first, but less so now,” she says breezily; in fact the high commissioner seems to thoroughly enjoy her work.
Postings from US to Morocco
Her last posting was as the UK consul general in Boston, one of the places hit hard when covid19 arrived in the US. The governor, a Republican but not a Trump supporter, acted quickly.
“At one point, we basically weren’t meant to go out except for essentials. Masks came in around early May, I think. So quarantine here didn’t feel dramatic.”
She wears a mask throughout the interview, and the high commission is dotted with wall-mounted hand-sanitiser dispensers and signs about anti-covid19 measures.
Cross has worked under a different kind of restriction in the past: she’s served in Morocco and – until embassy staff had to be relocated to Saudi Arabia because of civil war – was deputy ambassador in Yemen. There she sometimes had to stand in for the ambassador at very high-level meetings, and says as a diplomat she was treated with great respect.
But as a woman it was different: as a foreigner, she didn’t have to cover her head, but had to cover everything else in a black abaya (a floor-length robe). She wasn’t allowed to drive, and had to sit in a separate section in restaurants. She recalls going to meet her boss – the British ambassador – for dinner: he had chosen the best seats, but when she tried to join him she was “almost rugby-tackled by the waiters”: as she was a woman dining with a man who was not a relative, they were moved to a table at the back.
Strengthening trade, industry ties
As in her last posting, building trade and industry links with the UK will again be one of her priorities here, especially in light of Britain’s leaving the European Union: “We’ve already Brexited, but a trade deal is needed,” she explains. Prospects are promising.
“The trade stats are up 21 per cent since 2019. And that includes imports to the UK from TT.”
TT’s exports to the UK include gas (42.2 per cent); ships (40.6 per cent), according to the high commission, which adds mysteriously, “This is likely due to TT being a transshipment point”;
organic chemicals (13.7 per cent); electrical consumer goods (0.6 per cent); and consumer machinery (0.6 per cent).
“We want to build on that,” Cross says briskly. “We never turn down a trade and industry opportunity.”
Other priorities are energy, health and security. She plans to be vocal about renewable energy on social media, and to ask TT to set ambitious targets for itself. This country still seems fixated on oil and gas, despite talking about diversification literally for decades, but Cross points out: “Wind power and other renewables create jobs – they’re a long-term foundation for jobs and prosperity.”
In the area of national security, the high commission does a great deal of work at many levels: she knows the Government is concerned about human trafficking, for instance. The UK can offer expertise and report what it has learned from its own experience, as well as training for police and prison officers.
TT citizens with ISIS connections are another concern: “I know they’ve been speaking a lot about returnees and the protocols involved.”
A British diplomat’s work nowadays is often about co-operation rather than “giving chunks of money,” and a lot will depend on a good relationship between herself and key ministers.
She’s impressed by the efforts of her predecessor, Tim Stew, on gender-based violence (“Some brilliant work…it’s important to have male allies”) and LGBT+ rights.
“Equality is something I feel strongly about,” she says. There may be objections on various grounds, but her response is: “The message has to be that you’re doing it because it’s right.”
Also, she points out, equality of treatment can also lead to a more vibrant, creative economy, as it harnesses more of the skills of the potential workforce.
“If people can be themselves at work, it feeds into economic prosperity.”
Leaving her office to be photographed (next to a banner advocating equality), Cross points out, in the corridor outside, rows of black-and-white photos of her predecessors, dating back to 1962 – every single one of them a man. It’s surprising (TT’s first female US ambassador, for instance, was the formidable Sally Cowal, in 1991). But Cross says, “I think that’s a quirk. It just so happened there were fewer women in this grade. That’s changing.”
20 years of service
Cross has worked for the UK’s diplomatic service for most of the past 20 years. She studied French and politics at Warwick University, and joined the diplomatic service more or less by accident, because a friend was going through the application process.
As well as spells in the US, North Africa and the Middle East, she’s spent time in her native Yorkshire, where she helped her husband run a microbrewery and worked in the International Relations Department of the University of York. She also worked with what is now the UK’s
National Crime Agency, which deals with serious and organised crime. Cross was its international policy adviser, tackling issues such as online child sexual abuse.
Fan of Lovecraft Country, The Crown
But after two and a half years, she wanted to move on. She sometimes envies friends who have their roots in a single place, or regrets books or CDs she’s jettisoned in moves from one post to another. But although she enjoyed her sojourn in Yorkshire, she missed the variety and excitement of diplomacy.
So she went to Boston in 2016, representing the UK as consul general for New England, managing relations with different regions, mostly in terms of trade and industry (previously she had focused on policy).
Outside office hours, as well as making kombucha, Cross bakes sourdough bread (her starter doesn’t have a name, though); she’s a runner; and, she declares, “I have no shame in telling you I love television,” naming Lovecraft Country and The Crown among her current favourites.
Her husband will join her here, hopefully by the end of the year, as well as their two rescue cats. A former member of the Royal Navy, he’s looking forward to sailing, post-covid19, and as a brewer, learning about rum production.
As for the UK high commissioner, once the pandemic retreats, Harriet Cross is looking forward to going to the beach; visiting Tobago; and Carnival 2022 (“I suspect you can’t understand TT without having experienced Carnival”). And she’s eager to be able to sit at a bar after work with, of course, an ice-cold beer.
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