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Yale 62

Sir John Dixon Boyd

Sir John Boyd at the British Museum in front of an Easter Island statue in 2001. GILL ALLEN/THE TIMES

BORN: January 17, 1936
DIED: October 18, 2019

John Dixon Iklé Boyd was born in 1936, the eldest of four sons of James Dixon Boyd, who became professor of anatomy at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Clare College, and his wife Amélie (née Lowenthal), a medical doctor. His brothers are Sir Robert, the former principal of St George’s Hospital Medical School; Stephen, a retired professor in Osaka; and Richard, an Oxford don.

He was educated at Westminster School and, “after messing around a bit,” read modern languages at Clare College. “I hadn’t thought particularly about the Foreign Office until my last year at Cambridge,” he told the British diplomatic oral history program in 1999. “It hadn’t been in the family culture.”

In Fall 1960 John came to Yale on a Clare Fellowship and affiliated with our class. He was a member of Berkeley College where he was in The Players, Collegium Musicum and the Russian Chorus. He did graduate level work in foreign area studies and learned Mandarin.

Prior to his years at Yale John had already begun his varied and challenging career in British Society. At Clare College, Cambridge he earned at B.A. in modern languages, was fencing captain and active in the Music Society. He also served two years in the Royal Air Force and was a pilot officer at his discharge in 1956.

He joined the British Foreign Service and in 1965 he was posted to Beijing, recalling how China was “still recovering from the ‘Great Leap’ and all that followed that – the famines and the huge difficulties, which, however, brought with them a good measure of social relaxation.” The British diplomatic presence in those days was a small-scale operation and he “lived in a genuine Chinese one-storey house, in a genuine Chinese mud alley.” In the summer the diplomats only worked half-days. “It was a very relaxed life-style,” he recalled.

By 1967 he was back at the Foreign Office for a couple of years, serving in the northern department. That was followed by four years in Washington at the height of the Vietnam War before his second period in Beijing, as first secretary in what was still a small mission. The worst of the Cultural Revolution was over and China was beginning to find its place in the world; it had taken its seat at the UN and President Nixon had made his trailblazing visit.

Anglo-Chinese relations were also easier than during his previous posting – Britain had appointed its first ambassador in 1972, having hitherto been represented by a chargé d’affaires. “I got back the same cook that I had before the Cultural Revolution, which was very important to me,” he recalled.

In 1968 Boyd had married Gunilla Rönngren, who worked in the Swedish diplomatic service. That union was dissolved during his second tour of duty in Beijing and in 1977 he married Julia Raynsford, who worked at the V&A Museum and is the author of several books including Travellers in the Third Reich (2017), which won the Los Angeles Times book prize for history.

She survives him with their three daughters, Jessica, who is a barrister, Olivia, a former journalist, and Alice, a primary school teacher, as well as two children of his first marriage, Jonathan, a financial editor, and Emily, who is professor of sustainability studies at Lund University in Sweden.

His other postings included economic counsellor to Bonn (1977-81); handling economic and social affairs for the UK Mission to the UN in New York (1981-84) at the time of the Falklands conflict (“a fascinating show for us to watch”); and as political adviser back in Hong Kong (1985-87). He then returned to London as deputy undersecretary of state (defence and intelligence) followed by chief clerk to the Foreign Office (1989-92). “I have never had a boring posting,” he said, “though I am quite sorry that I never served in Africa [and] I am deeply sorry that I never served in India.”

Boyd’s final position was in 1992 as ambassador to Japan, at a time when the country was booming. Although his only knowledge of the language came from “six weeks part-time Japanese study at an establishment at Oxford Circus” he had a full command of east Asian politics. Here his economic experience helped him to get to grips with the word’s second largest economy at the time, his interest in people got him actively engaged with Japanese business, his academic interests won him intellectual respect, and he fished, sang in choirs and eyed Japanese antiques.

In 1995 he was involved in a visit to the country by Diana, Princess of Wales, who delighted executives at a children’s hospital in Tokyo by delivering part of her speech in perfect Japanese. “The princess came across extremely well,” he said in his usual diplomatic way. “Japanese is one of the most difficult languages to learn.”

Retirement the next year led to several new careers, including as a chairman of the British Museum and master of Churchill College, Cambridge. He recalled suffering a stroke not long after his arrival there. “Others I knew in Cambridge or elsewhere had been pretty much waved goodbye by their colleges when they got seriously sick,” he said. “So, one of the most human and lovely things the college did was to tell me, ‘Take your time, we want you back.’”

Latterly Boyd lived in Victoria, central London, often enjoying the company of his many grandchildren. Having played the violin to a respectable standard he took his music seriously and was a regular at Wigmore Hall. Until recently he ran an ad-hoc choir in London.

Yet Boyd never forgot the lessons in being prepared that he had learnt as a young diplomat. At a seminar in 2006 to mark his retirement from Churchill College, he offered several quirky tips to present and future ambassadors: in a revolution fill the bath with cold water; don’t be swept off your feet by a lunatic politician; and don’t get locked in your cipher room.

In our 25th Reunion Book Sir John recalled his years at Yale “as training experience – all I ever needed to know about survival as a Brit in strange, challenging and fun places! And with intellectual effort: a place of intense thought, reading and enjoyment under the great Whitney Griswold.”

In its obituary, the Times of London reported that John, who was noted as much for the warmth of his personality as for the sharpness of his intellect, was, according to one colleague, “someone whom it was impossible not to like.” Wherever he went he could always be spotted by his prominent chin, and he was blessed with the lanky, craggy looks of Abraham Lincoln, though without the beard. With typical self-deprecation, he compared his looks to those of an Easter Island statue. The Times then proved his point by printing a photo of Boyd at the British Museum in 2001 in front of an Easter Island statue.

John was, to best of your scribe’s knowledge, the only member of our class knighted by the Queen. He was KCMG, Knight Commander of Order of St. Michael and St. George.

Sir John died of pancreatic cancer on October 18, 2019, at the age of 83.

This essay is based upon the witty and engaging report in the Times of London published on October 25, 2019. Your scribe has left the English spellings in place.


– Robert G. Oliver