Hugh Carless, who has died aged 86, was a career diplomat immortalised as the long-suffering friend who accompanied the travel writer Eric Newby on his famous “Short Walk in the Hindu Kush”, an expedition which produced one of the best-loved travel books ever written.
Carless was serving as Second Secretary at the British embassy in Rio de Janeiro in the spring of 1956 when he received a cable from Newby: “Can you travel to Nuristan, June?” When Newby received Carless’s reply (“Of course, Hugh”), he immediately chucked in his job in fashion promotion, recalling that “I understood what Sassoon meant when he wrote: ‘Everyone suddenly burst out singing’.”
The two men got together in London (Carless was by this time in between Rio and a posting to Tehran), and, after a brief weekend’s mountain climbing in Wales, set off for Afghanistan, where they planned to make an assault on Mir Samir, north of Kabul, an unclimbed glacial peak of 20,000ft.
Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, first published in 1958, has been described by William Dalrymple as the book that virtually invented modern travel writing, and was notable for its hilarious account of the disasters that befell the inexperienced pair as they floundered and bumbled their way across the Middle East and into the spectacularly beautiful wildernesses of Afghanistan.
After several tries, they eventually managed to come within 700ft of the summit of Mir Samir, only to realise that they would have to spend the night at the top and they had not brought their sleeping bags. “I’m afraid we wouldn’t last out,” Newby recalled Carless saying, before adding: “We can try if you like.” As they made their sad descent, Newby recorded: “The fact that we were roped together and had one another’s lives in our hands, produced in me a feeling of great affection for Hugh, this tiresome character who had led me to such a spot.”
The book ended, famously, with a chance encounter on the banks of the Upper Panjshir between the distinctly amateurish Newby-Carless expedition and the hard-as-rock explorer, Wilfred Thesiger. At the end of a long evening swapping anecdotes the two friends prepared to turn in on ground which was, in Newby’s account, “like iron, with sharp rocks sticking up out of it”. The book ends with the memorable pay-off line: “We started to blow up our airbeds. ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies,’ said Thesiger.”
The son of an Indian Civil Servant, Hugh Michael Carless was born on April 22 1925 and educated at Sherborne. In 1942 he took advantage of a Foreign Office bursary and spent a year studying Persian at the School of Oriental and African Studies. The following year he was commissioned into the Intelligence Corps and posted to the 12th Indian Division, part of the Persia and Iraq Force, in Tehran. Later he switched from intelligence to the infantry and served in Germany with the 6th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers in the closing months of the war.
After the war ended, Carless went up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, to read History, then entered the Foreign Service in 1950. The following year he was posted as “Oriental Secretary” to Kabul, travelling there by sea, then overland from Karachi. While there, he and an American colleague travelled to the Panjshir Valley to make a reconnaissance of Mir Samir, the mountain he and Newby would fail to scale in 1956. It was the letters which Carless wrote to his friend about such exploits that planted the seed for their “short walk”. Newby’s book would be dedicated to “Hugh Carless of Her Majesty’s Foreign Service, without whose determination, it must be obvious to anyone who reads it, this journey could never have been made.”
In 1953 Carless was posted as Second Secretary to Rio de Janeiro, where he distinguished himself by representing Brazil in a cricket test match against Argentina (the Brazilians were thrashed). Three years later he returned as First Secretary (Oriental) to Tehran where, among many other things, he tried to encourage the Shah to develop skiing in the mountains outside the city by arranging a visit by the skiing entrepreneur Sir Arnold Lunn.
After postings in London (including a stint as private secretary to Lord Dundee, Minister of State at the Foreign Office under Harold Macmillan), Budapest, Luanda and Bonn, in 1973 Carless returned to London as head of the Latin America Department of the Foreign Office, the department in charge of the long-running negotiations with Argentina over the future of the Falkland Islands.
As chargé d’affaires in Buenos Aires from 1977 to 1980, Carless became involved in the talks about the status of the islands which culminated in a visit by Nicholas Ridley, then Minister of State in the Foreign Office under Mrs Thatcher, during which it was agreed that the British government would pursue a “leaseback” option whereby nominal sovereignty would be given to Argentina but British administration would be maintained for a fixed number of years until the final handover.
In retrospect, the visit was something of a disaster. The proposals were howled down by MPs on every side of the House and are thought by many to have encouraged the Argentine junta to believe that, if they invaded the Falklands, the British government would not sail to the islanders’ rescue.
By the time the Falklands conflict broke out in 1982, Carless had left Argentina for a two-year secondment to Northern Engineering Industries. But during his last posting, as Ambassador to Venezuela from 1982 to 1985, the “Falklands factor” continued to loom large. The Venezuelans had been cheerleaders for Argentina during the war, and anti-British sentiment led to the cancellation of a number of potentially lucrative contracts and cultural initiatives.
In 1983, however, as its contribution to the bicentenary celebrations of the birth of the Venezuelan national hero Simon Bolivar, the embassy formed a coordinating committee with the British Council which arranged for a major exhibition of works by Henry Moore in Caracas, followed by a visit by the London Festival Ballet — events which, Carless recalled, “restored great warmth to our relations”.
After retiring from the Diplomatic Service, Carless served as executive vice-president of the Hinduja Foundation (1986–97) and vice-chairman of the South Atlantic Council (1987–97). In the early 1990s he got together with the then Argentine chargé d’affaires in London to stage a series of conferences which helped to smooth the way to a resumption of full diplomatic relations. He served as chairman of the British Committee, Argentine-British Conferences, from 1994 to 1996.
Hugh Carless was appointed CMG in 1976.
He married, in 1956, Rosa Maria Frontini, whom he had met during his posting in Brazil. She survives him with a son. Another son predeceased him.
© Telegraph 21st December 2011