Office etiquette is such a minefield. Is it better to stick to the rules, or bend them? How chatty should emails to your boss be? Back in 1929, writes Matthew Teller, one British Indian diplomat took his breezily informal approach a bit too far.
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On Christmas Day 1928, Mohamed Waris Ali arrived in Gwadar, a fishing port on the Arabian Sea, to represent the interests of His Majesty King George V, Emperor of India.
It is not known whether he was looking forward to the job, though he did note in one early report that his predecessor had gone mad and killed himself – due partly to “passport drudgery and other overwork”.
This can’t have endeared Waris Ali to his superiors, and before long one of them – the political agent in Muscat, Maj George Murphy – was writing bitter letters of complaint to the British resident in Bushehr, Lt Col Cyril Barrett.
“I think the gentleman needs… to be placed under observation as a mental case,” he wrote in one letter dated 8 June 1929. He went on to relate how Waris Ali had handed a bottle of urine to a British official passing through Gwadar “to have it examined in Karachi, as he thought he was suffering from hereditary gonorrhoea”.
But what particularly seems to have infuriated the Major was Waris Ali’s habit of writing as if they were equals. Waris Ali was addressing him as “Dear Murphy” – “with the ‘Major’ put in afterwards,” Murphy spluttered – and signing off with the outlandish line: “Love to Patrick”.
Tantalisingly, Murphy doesn’t say who Patrick was. Martin Woodward, a British Library specialist who has studied the file, is stumped.
“Perhaps he was a British member of staff with the first name or surname ‘Patrick’,” Woodward says. “Some of the British political agents were married and had families, so I suppose Waris Ali’s greeting could have been intended for a young son of Maj Murphy, if he had one. Or it could have been his dog. It’s just not clear.”
Whatever the circumstances, “Love to Patrick” was bizarrely over-familiar – a protocol-busting line for a junior diplomat to write to a military officer.
On 6 July Barrett consulted Waris Ali’s other boss, the Director of Telegraphs in Karachi, Lt Col G De Smidt. He noted how much Murphy resented the “Love to Patrick” line, and asked De Smidt if he was satisfied with the agent’s work.
De Smidt’s reply came almost immediately. Waris Ali was, on the one hand, “a dreadful fellow” with “verbal diarrhoea” – but on the other, his work was “distinctly good”.
De Smidt even joked with Barrett. “Murphy is behind the times I fear. Waris Ali is… an Indian gentleman, and there is nothing for it but to thank him for his kind message to Patrick!”
Barrett evidently agreed. In a personal letter to Murphy on 22 August he pointedly described him as a “conscientious worker” – and the personality clash disappears from the record soon afterwards.
Did Waris Ali know of Murphy’s fury? Was he, perhaps, even baiting Murphy deliberately – or making a poorly judged reference to the major’s Irish surname? We simply don’t know.
The following April, Waris Ali was transferred from Gwadar. Murphy left Muscat six weeks later, on 15 June 1930.
We can only wonder if they happened to be posted to the same place.