A former Shrewsbury School master and leading civic campaigner has published a book about his colourful life and career, including 16 years working in the diplomatic service during the height of the Cold War.
Selby Martin’s memoir ‘From Communism to Community’ lifts the lid on life serving as a British diplomat, handling often ‘tricky’ public figures and his fight to save some of Shrewsbury’s most important civic heritage.
Amongst his diplomatic charges were a rather ‘undiplomatic’ Field Marshall Montgomery, an independent-minded Duke of Edinburgh, who relished the chance to drive himself on excursions – “at considerable speed”, and Prime Minister Harold MacMillan during a controversial visit to Moscow.
Conversant in seven different languages Selby was destined for life as a spy, a diplomat or a teacher. Turned down by MI6, he was accepted for the Diplomatic Service instead and posted to Moscow, Bolivia, Pakistan and Bulgaria.
His book tells of dodging KGB security agents, resisting a busty blonde honey-trap, the nightmare of organising embassy parties for 1,500 people and looking after various British politicians.
Selby travelled widely, holding positions from private secretary to the British Ambassador in Moscow to British Consul in Bulgaria. In 1973, after 16 years in the service, he left to start a very different life as a teacher of modern languages at Shrewsbury School. He taught here for 24 years.
Selby’s passion for adventure and the natural world was always present. He also taught fresh water biology for a few years, founded one of the first UK school bee-keeping societies, which continues to this day, and led troops of pupils on character-building adventure training expeditions across the Welsh mountains.
Selby’s deep love of Shrewsbury saw him become a leading campaigner on many different environmental issues, most of them seeking to enhance or protect public amenities and defend the town from over or inappropriate development.
He was a key figure in the campaign to stop the industrial development of the site of the Battle of Shrewsbury, which the old Shropshire County Council had dangled in front of car manufacturer Toyota for its European car factory. And he championed the battlefield’s re-designation as a site of important historic interest, enlisting the help of the actor Robert Hardy, who travelled to Shrewsbury to boost the cause. As a member of English Heritage’s Battlefield Committee, Hardy secured the site’s protection as a ‘battle’ and not a ‘skirmish’ as it had previously been categorised.
Selby’s knowledge of environmental and planning issues saw him become chairman of both Shrewsbury Civic Society and the Shropshire branch of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE). He was also a member of the CPRE’s national executive, which met in London.
Selby retired from teaching in 1997. If it wasn’t for a guest speaker being delayed to give a talk to the Shropshire branch of the National Association of Decorative and Fine Art Societies 10 years ago, Selby may never have resolved to put pen to paper.
“The speaker was running late and I was asked whether I could fill the gap for 10 minutes,” Selby recalled.
So he stepped in, talking about his time working as a diplomat at the British Embassy in Moscow.
“After 10 minutes the speaker still hadn’t shown up, so I had to keep going. After 40 minutes I ran out of anything else to say. But it must have gone down well because the audience seemed delighted,” he said.
“Afterwards somebody came up to me and said I ought to write a book. It so happened that in the attic at home were all the letters I used to send to my parents when I was in the diplomatic service.
“Every week, without fail, I sent a letter home through the Diplomatic Bag with an account of what I had been doing. My mother kept all these letters, numbered them and stored them away. I felt I owed it to my mother to make use of them!”
These letters, along with extracts from his diaries, form the basis of Selby’s entertaining insightful book.
‘From Communism to Community: Memoirs of a Diplomat and Teacher’, by Selby Martin, is available from Pengwern Books, Fish Street, Shrewsbury, and online from Waterstones, Foyles, AbeBooks, Amazon and YouCaxton Publications.