Chatham House Rule

Chatham House, or The Royal Institute for International Affairs, is a non-government global think-tank, based in London, whose mission is to analyse and promote the understanding of international issues and current affairs.

The Chatham House Rule, originated in June 1927 and outlines that anyone who attends a meeting held under the Chatham House Rule, be free to use information from the discussion, but not be allowed to reveal who made any comment.

It is designed to increase openness of discussion.

Chatham House

I attended a talk recently at Chatham House, on “Preventing Genocide” and while nothing inflammatory requiring protection of the Chatham House Rule was said from the panel of speakers, one can easily see how international diplomacy and political relations can be bound by many competing tensions:  on the one hand one can know that leaders,  governments or a regime may inflict violence upon their own people and yet one must stay out of the affairs of other nations and not meddle.

In many cases, international agencies and consortia such as the UN can only seek to entreat leaders to peaceful solutions and if ignored, place pressure on their leadership with trade embargos, vetos and exclusions from community. Even this is seen to be imperialistic and meddling. Military intervention is the line of last resort.

The tension between the Chatham House Rule to protect the freedom of opinion and speech and the need for political restraint and political correctness in the search for international peace, binds people who have seen and heard things too horrible for humans to consider, together.


This tension reminds me of another involving international relations.

The sweeping back drop of history, war, politics and economics have long been the canvas upon which epic narrative plays out. The Iliad is set against the events of the Trojan War, Herodotus recounts the Graeco-Persian wars and many of Shakespeare’s greatest works Julius Caesar, Henry IV, Henry V, Macbeth feature monarchs and their wars.  Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace recounts Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and  of course countless stories of the Great War and Second World War abound.

A favourite, The English Patient, recounts the North African/Italian Campaigns of World War II.


The story is asynchronous, moving between the events of the Second World War on the Italian front, and to events just prior to war among a British cartography group mapping the North African desert.

The ‘English Patient’ is an unrecognisably burnt man cared for by a Canadian nurse in an abandoned Italian villa and only carrying with him a tattered version of Herodotus’ ‘Histories.’ He tells Hana, his nurse, between morphine injections, the the story of his life.

He was an explorer and member of a British cartography group exploring the North African desert where he fell in love with Katherine Clifton, the wife of Geoffrey Clifton a team mate. Surrounded by sites of ancient significant including an eerie Cave of Swimmers, the ‘English Patient’ walks in the footsteps of characters of myth and legend.

Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed exhibited 1830 by William Etty 1787-1849

The English Patient, we learn is an Austro-Hungarian Count, Laszlo de Almasy.  One evening in the desert before a campfire, Katherine recounts the doomed tale of King of Gyges who looks upon the nakedness of the wife of Candaules, the King of Lydia, and who later kills the king and usurps the throne.

The story taken from Herodotus’ ‘Histories’ forebodes the tragedy of Laszlo and Katherine’s love affair and giving it an epic fatality.

The Gyges story is set within the narrative by Herodotus to establish reason for the fall of the Lydian kingdom and the later rise of the Persian Empire. Similarly, Almasy and Katherine’s love affair can only end badly.  Katherine cuts their love affair short when she fears her husband will lose his mind should he find out. As war breaks out, Almasy finds Hungary on the wrong side of geo-political lines, in alliance with Nazi Germany, while he himself supports the British.


The expedition breaks up with the coming war and Geoffrey offers to return Almásy to Cairo on his plane. However, the small bi-plane crashes in the desert killing Geoffrey and badly injuring Katherine.  Almásy leaves her in the Cave of Swimmers and treks for three days to British controlled El Taj for help.  However, when he arrives, he is detained as a spy because of his name, despite telling them about Katharine’s predicament.

In grief and utter desperation, he trades confidential maps of the desert with German spies in exchange for release and he returns to retrieve Katherine’s body from the cave.  Later team leader Maddock commits suicide thinking that Almasy all a long was a Hungarian spy.

It is while flying back that he is shot down over the desert, leaving him burned and unrecognisable in a British field hospital and later cared for by Hana.

The English Patient

What makes war, the complex interplay of history, geography, politics and economics both so tragic and yet a canvas for the epic events of great narrative? Tension is the fuel of stories, and the deeper the tension, the greater the epic.

Perhaps, just as international relations needs the twin poles of political correctness and moderation to work towards peace, but also requires The Chatham House Rule to allow the freedom of speech without recourse, so too narrative needs the twin fuels of epic levels of tension with the freedom to speak of the wonder and poetry that moves there as humans live and love within a crucible of life.

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