In this exclusive, expansive interview, Rezwan Hussain talks to Julian Francis, OBE, about his remarkable life and career. This is the concluding instalment
I don’t suppose you had a great deal of spare time. But what did you do when not at work?
There used to be a theater group here, called Dhaka Stage. I took part in some of their productions. Usually not prominent parts, as I was often out of town. Two of my favorites were Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
We normally staged the productions at the American School, or at the International School, ISD. Although the first night might be a fundraiser at the Sonargaon Hotel, with the next two nights at the schools. Unfortunately, Dhaka Stage folded about 10 years ago. I also enjoyed singing carols outdoors in the American Club with our group. That brought back memories of my childhood.
You used to sing as a child?
Yes, music was an important part of my upbringing. Every morning during the school term we would sing in Westminster Abbey. The Abbey had its own choir, of course, including that of the well-known Westminster Choir School, and for special events my school choir would join them. One event I remember singing at was Princess Margaret’s wedding, in 1960.
That year was also the 400th anniversary of the founding of my school, by Queen Elizabeth I. So it was fitting that Queen Elizabeth II came to commemorate it, accompanied by Prince Phillip. Their procession was making its way slowly to the school hall, when Prince Phillip, who was a jovial, informal character, saw me standing at the side.
“What are you doing there,” he asked me. “Sir, I have to know what to do in case of an emergency, and where the fire extinguishers are,” I replied. “Where are they?” he asked. So I opened the door to a classroom to show him, and immediately somebody rushed over to pull him away! After the event, as they processed out, I was on the other side from him. So he shouted out to me: “Thank you for keeping us safe!”
I remember a boy called Peter Asher used to sit to my left in the choir stalls. He and another classmate, Gordon Waller, eventually formed a pop-singing duo, called Peter and Gordon. They had three number one hits songs on the pop charts, with music arranged by none other than Lennon and McCartney! They got connected through Peter’s sister, the film actress Jane Asher, whose boyfriend at the time happened to be Paul McCartney.
Most people today are probably not aware of Peter and Gordon.
Their musical careers didn’t last very long. Peter suffered a bit from polio as a child, and walked with some difficulty. So he and Gordon often performed sitting on high stools. This was around 1964, just as live music was becoming popular on TV, and the audience liked performers who could move and dance around and interact with the audience.
So pop stardom was never really on the cards for Peter. But he stayed in the music business, and moved to Los Angeles, where found success managing singers and artists. Gordon tried going solo for a while, before moving on to other things.
But there was another boy who joined the school choir, a few years younger than me, who did go on to have a very long career in music: Andrew Lloyd–Webber, now Baron Lloyd-Webber. I remember he was extremely self-confident and full of himself, even at that young age at school!
You distinguished yourself in other ways. You are officially designated a “Friend of Bangladesh.” Can you tell us more about this honour?
I think someone from the Awami League government came up with the idea, in the 1990s, as a way to recognize foreigners who had played some part in the independence of Bangladesh. The original idea was to have four different categories of awards, but then the whole thing was shelved. They revived the idea in 2008, but this time with only two categories: the Bangladesh Liberation Honour, for government leaders, royal family members, and such, and the Friends of Liberation War Honour, for everyone else.
They started with a list of about 600 individuals, and then whittled it down to 337. Most awards were made posthumously, and not everyone could come to receive their awards, of course. Marshal Tito’s son, for instance, received the award on behalf of his late father, and the same with a number of sons of former US Senators. A significant awardee was the late Archer K Blood, who was American Consul in Dhaka in 1971 and who had alerted the US State Department of the genocide going on at that time. His daughter, Barbara, received the award on his behalf.
Two members of the team of Russian naval divers who had cleared mines in Chittagong Harbour were present; the Russian Ambassador collected the awards on behalf of the other divers, including, obviously, the diver who lost his life in the operation.
I was in the first batch to receive the award, with about 80 others. This was late in March, 2012. After the official ceremony, there was dinner and a reception hosted by the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the Sonargaon Hotel. It was very informal. I said to Sheikh Hasina: I’ve always wondered how you keep your sari in place on top of your head. She smiled and said she used a silver pin, one that once belonged to her grandmother.
Then in 2019, you received another honour, this time from the British government: the Order of the British Empire. How did that come about?
In a somewhat serendipitous manner, I think. One day, in the summer of 2018, I was invited to visit the PM, at Ganabhaban. I had been recommended for Bangladesh citizenship by someone who was close to the Prime Minister. She happened to be wrapping up a meeting with the British High Commissioner, Alison Blake, and British MP Rushanara Ali, who is of Bangladeshi origin, while I waited to be ushered in. When Sheikh Hasina learned that I was next to see her, she turned to them and said: Oh, it’s Julian! Then the two of you should stay.
So the high commissioner and the member of parliament formed an impromptu audience as I received the certificate of citizenship from Sheikh Hasina. A few months later, I got a phone call from the high commissioner. She had a question for me: Would I be willing to accept an OBE, for “services to development in Bangladesh?”
Did you go to Buckingham Palace to receive the award?
Yes, in June, 2019. Actually, you are given a choice of dates and locations for the award ceremony, and that was the one I chose. At the Palace, as I was waiting in line to be received, I heard a voice behind me that I recognized. It was Michael Palin, of Monty Python fame, who was to receive a knighthood. “And what are you here for,” he asked. So I told him. He said: “Well, at least one of us deserves to be here!”
Prince William officiated that day. He asked me how Bangladesh was doing. I replied that the country is facing challenges, such as the Rohingya refugee crisis and climate change, but that there had been some remarkable development over the years.
You have been an eye-witness to the entire history of Bangladesh to date. What are your thoughts now, as the country celebrates 50 years of independence?
I remember after the initial state of euphoria 50 years ago, reality set in quickly. Many seasoned officials were not optimistic about the new country’s future. In March 1972, Oxfam’s overseas aid director, Ken Bennett, submitted a report in which he concluded that, unless food supplies were ensured, and infrastructure rapidly improved, it was doubtful that Bangladesh could survive as a nation state.
A couple of years after Bennet’s report, thousands died of starvation, in the famine of 1974. Then came the turmoil of 1975. It certainly didn’t look good for Bangladesh in the 1970s. The pessimists appeared to be right.
But then the country turned a corner. Agricultural production went up. Investments in infrastructure picked up. The country returned to democracy in 1990. Of course, Bangladesh would have done better without the confrontational politics, and the corruption that followed. And there is now an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, which concerns many of us.
But the progress has been remarkable. Today, starvation would simply not happen. Local communities, the public at large, would not allow it. And the development continues apace.
So I am very happy that the pessimists of 50 years ago have been proven wrong!
Julian Francis, OBE, Friend of Bangladesh, what an interesting life you have led. To echo the words of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib all those years ago, thank you for what you have done for Bangladesh. And thank you for taking the time to tell us about your life and experiences.
It was my pleasure. As I have often said, I just happened to be in the right place (India) at the right time (1971) and my life unfolded after that.