Hugh Leach in Choumert Square, PeckhamPhoto: Anna Katz
5:52PM GMT 25 Nov 2015
Hugh Leach, who has died aged 81, was a soldier, diplomat, Arabist, author, adventurer, circus impresario, and, as one writer observed, “the last of a dying breed: the great British eccentric”.
His exploits included working for Army intelligence in Oman, accompanying Freya Stark to the backwaters of Yemen and a spell as a circus ringmaster in Egypt. Later he entertained Wilfred Thesiger at his Peckham cottage.
In 1956 Leach, then a tall, fair-haired officer in the Royal Tank Regiment, was one of the first to land at Port Said, Egypt, during the Suez Crisis. It was the start of a lifetime of adventures in the area as, after retiring from the Army, he stayed on in the region, serving with the Foreign Office in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan. Some considered this to be a veiled MI6 assignment.
While pursuing his diplomatic career Leach concurrently had a half-share in a circus, which performed alongside the Egyptian State Circus in Egypt. “We had belly dancing on stilts, tightrope-walking and a man who stood on one leg, blindfolded, and threw knives around a girl,” Leach recalled. “British Envoy Joins the Circus”, announced the Daily Express.
Leach found the circus similar to the Army, he explained, because of the high degree of discipline that was needed: “If people muck about, someone will get killed.”
Hugh Raymond Leach was born at Abingdon on May 5 1934. His father was a printer to the clergy; his mother died in childbirth while delivering him and his twin sister.
Hugh attended Abingdon School and the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, being commissioned into the Royal Tank Regiment in 1955. He was appointed assistant adjutant and after tours in Suez, Libya and Cyprus began studying at the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies, the FO school in Lebanon.
Leach in uniform
Having learnt Arabic he took on intelligence gathering duties in Masirah and Nizwa in Oman. He described this period as among the best years of his life. “I lived with the Bedouin tribes there and they didn’t know any English at all,” he recalled later. “So unless I could say, 'Excuse me, I’d love a cup of tea’ in Arabic, I wasn’t going to get very far.”
He was promoted to captain in 1961 and on retiring from the Army five years later joined the Foreign Office, where he remained for the rest of his career. He received many celebrated visitors during his various Middle East postings, including Violet Dickson, the wife of the colonial administrator HRP Dickson, and Wilfred Thesiger, who would become a friend.
“All explorers, not least Arabian ones, have a sensitivity about others trespassing on their patch,” Leach said. “Wilfred had a special rancour reserved for women trespassing on his.”
During the early 1970s Leach toured the Hadhramaut and was introduced to the work of Freya Stark, who had written an account of her own adventure in the hinterland of the southern Arabia peninsular during the late 1930s.
In 1975 he turned up at Freya Stark’s villa in Asolo, northern Italy. “During a long afternoon and evening I found we shared many interests in common,” Leach recalled, “among them a deep affection for the Arab world, the poetry of Matthew Arnold and 1930s screw-thread Leica cameras.”
Leach in Yemen in the 1970s
Having told Freya Stark that he was soon to depart for Sana’a, on his arrival in Yemen he received a telegram: “Arriving Wednesday, Freya.” The peculiar pair – he was 41, she was 82 – toured northern Yemen together, an expedition that Leach later chronicled in his photographic memoir, Seen in the Yemen: Travelling with Freya Stark and Others (Arabian Publishing, 2011).
By the early 1980s he was working at the British Embassy in Khartoum. Bruce Duncan, a British military adviser to the Sudanese army, recalled: “He had rented a farm on the banks of the Blue Nile at Butri. Hugh was something of an eccentric and used to sound Last Post and Reveille at the appropriate times, standing on the river bank dressed in his white dishdasha.” In Cairo he would arrive for work at the Embassy in a pony and trap.
A shopkeeper in Sana'a, photographed by Leach in the 1970s
On his return from the Middle East Leach found that his expertise was in great demand. During the late 1980s he spent several years producing an extensive study of Islamic fundamentalism for the British government. He retired in 1989.
Leach’s domestic arrangements were as unusual as his career path. At some point in the 1960s he placed a personal ad in The Lady: “Retired former Army officer seeks temporary accommodation”. The response surprised him: “I got three replies, not offering a house, but asking for my hand in marriage.”
Rejecting the proposals, he bought a house in Choumert Square in Peckham where he lived for half a century. The 19th-century square, named after the Georgian landowner George Choumert, is in fact a small lane of cottages lined with gardens. Previous residents of the square have included a forger, a parfumier and a former chief justice of Zambia. Leach kept a second home in Somerset, where he enjoyed cycling on the Somerset Levels and took an interest in church affairs.
Friends noted his air of mystery and many quirks of character. He declined to enter the digital age and his interests ranged from early Christianity to photography and crystal radios. Motorbikes and vintage cars were another passion: he owned a 1926 Humber 9/20 Tourer called “Edwina”. For many years he also kept a Land Rover, which he called Martha. “Martha was always by my side through wars, insurrections, coups and rioting mobs,” he said. “She’s been bugged, shot at and even helped rescue royalty and politicians.”
Hugh Leach in later life
Leach was associate director of the Academy of Circus Arts and a council member and historian of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, of which he wrote a centennial history, Strolling About on the Roof of the World (2003). In retirement he led youth expeditions in Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan and inspired many potential Arabists by giving school talks.
He was appointed MBE (military) in 1961 and OBE in 1976. In 1998 he received the RSAA Lawrence of Arabia Memorial Medal.
Leach’s interest in the Arab world never waned. “My Arabic is still pretty good,” he said last year. “Something I love about Peckham is the mosque on Choumert Grove. I’ll often go down there for a chat. When I’m on a train everyone else will have The Times, and I’ll be reading an Arabic newspaper. I get some amusing looks.”
Leach was unmarried.
Hugh Leach, born May 5 1934, died November 14 2015
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.