Baroness Meyer interview: ‘The Tube attack changed Christopher – it reduced him’

‘Survivors was a work of love that he was never to see published – that’s why I took it on and decided to finish it’
‘Survivors was a work of love that he was never to see published – that’s why I took it on and decided to finish it’ - Jamie Lorriman for The Telegraph
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“George W Bush was a really nice guy, caring and decent,” reflects Catherine Meyer, the widow of Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain’s former ambassador to the United States.

“And I can tell you, on Iraq, he was really concerned about the decision he was taking. He took my hand and said to me, ‘Look, I’m sending those boys. I hope I’m not making a mistake.’ His public image is very different from the private person.”

Married to Sir Christopher for 25 years, half-French, half-Russian Lady Meyer has played host to some of the world’s most high profile and influential people. Her husband’s sudden death in July last year at the age of 78 sparked an outpouring of condolences from around the world. It came four years after he was brutally attacked on the platform of a London tube station in 2018, prompting horror when Lady Meyer released horrific images of his bruised and battered blood-soaked face.

We are sitting in the plush Pugin Room in the House of Commons as the elegant 70-year-old, now Baroness Meyer after being nominated for a life peerage by Theresa May in 2018, gives me a potted history of her remarkable life as one half of a formidable diplomatic power couple.

Although the interview has been prompted by the imminent publication of Survivors, Sir Christopher’s last novel, which she finished after her husband died suddenly in July last year, she is happy to reminisce about the extraordinary period they spent across the pond.

The Meyers at the Ambassador’s residence in Washington DC
The Meyers at the Ambassador’s residence in Washington DC - David Howells

The other US president the couple got to know well during their stint in Washington DC from 1997 to 2003 was Bill Clinton. “Clinton, on the other hand, was a brilliant actor; suave. I’ve seen him on stage and he can make you have tears falling down your face because he’s so good at it. He’s got the memory of an elephant and a very good brain. But he also had incredibly coarse mannerisms. He could be rude and vulgar.”

How so? “Christopher used to say that he could swear quite easily. Like Mo Mowlam used to as well, actually.” She chooses her words carefully. “Clinton was not at all my cup of tea. I’m not a very tactile person but he touches you, he looks at you really intensely but then he’s on to the next one, he forgets you easily. One to one, George was the better person, but in a crowd of people Clinton was way, way above and that’s why he was so successful.”

And his wife Hillary? “She’s a tough woman,” is all Lady Meyer will say, as diplomatic as her late husband. “It’s not at all like the Ferrero Rocher adverts, you know,” she jokes, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.

Hillary Clinton arriving at the British Embassy alongside Sir Christopher and Lady Catherine
Hillary Clinton arriving at the British Embassy alongside Sir Christopher and Lady Catherine in 2001 - Greg Mathieson/Mai

When the pair were based at the Sir Edwin Lutyens-designed ambassador’s residence on Massachusetts Avenue in the US capital, they bore witness to three highly significant events in American history: the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in 1998, the September 11 attacks in 2001 and the Iraq War, which started in 2003. “When people ask me, ‘When were you in Washington?’ I always say: ‘We came in with Monica Lewinsky and we left with Saddam Hussein’.”

The couple were newly married when they arrived in America at the end of 1997, just three weeks before the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke in the US media. Clinton was 49 and Lewinsky, a White House intern, 22, when they began their 18-month affair in 1995. Clinton gave a televised speech in late January 1998, which included the now infamous statement: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.”

Lady Meyer recalls: “Just days after the scandal had broken, we had this big party at the embassy to celebrate our getting married and my birthday. So the great and the good of Washington came, plus quite a few people from London. The guests got on the plane and when they landed, Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was all over the front pages. It was the most incredible party because everyone was networking. [The journalist] Barbara Walters called and said: ‘Can I sit next to Vernon Jordan?’ [then Clinton’s closest advisor]. It was extraordinary. At that stage people really thought Clinton was going to fall.” Further investigation led to charges of perjury and to the impeachment of Clinton in 1998 by the US House of Representatives. He was subsequently acquitted on all impeachment charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in a 21-day US Senate trial.

“Oh we’d meet countless actors – so many I can’t even remember their names. Barbra Streisand, Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas. He’s super smart and very polite. I really enjoyed talking to him. Paul Newman. But the funny thing is, I didn’t really care about the actors. The person I really wanted to meet was Henry Kissinger. I sat next to him at a lunch once and he was absolutely charming, not arrogant at all.”

Indicating a preference for George W Bush over Clinton, Lady Meyer adds: “I’m not talking politics now – as people, for me there was not a doubt between George W and Clinton. George W, yes in public he mixes his words and mumbles or whatever, but in private, he was really amusing. The day before we left Washington, he hosted a tiny dinner party in his flat. I know that Condi Rice [then Secretary of State] said: ‘You can’t do that because if you do, all the other ambassadors will expect a goodbye dinner.’ I was seated next to George W and as usual he had his prayer before dinner and we all held hands. Then he was talking to me and asking me what I planned to do next, and I said I was thinking of maybe going into politics, and perhaps standing as an MP. He said: ‘Well, if you do, tell me and I’ll come and help you.’ And then suddenly he said: ‘Actually, no no no, I better not or else it will be the kiss of death.’”

Lady Catherine is now Baroness Meyer after being nominated for a life peerage by Theresa May
Lady Catherine is now Baroness Meyer after being nominated for a life peerage by Theresa May - Roger Harris

When the first hijacked plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan at 8.46am on September 11 2001, the Meyers were hosting former prime minister Sir John Major at the embassy.

“John Major and Christopher were having breakfast and I was working. Suddenly Amanda, who was our social secretary, rushed into my office and told me to switch on the television. We saw the first plane and said: ‘How weird.’ Then suddenly the second plane went in and Christopher took one look and rushed to the office. Then we started hearing there was a third plane. So we went up onto the roof and looked across to the Pentagon, and saw where the plane had gone in. Everything was burning.”

Did she fear for her own life at that point? “Yes, a little bit. It was quite scary. What was incredible was that after that, the city was completely dead. They stopped all the planes and everything just fell silent.” Major still went off to give his speech but was then stuck at the embassy for several days. Meyer adds: “Fergie [the Duchess of York] was stuck in New York. There were a lot of people who couldn’t get out.

“As soon as it was possible, I think three days later, we went to New York. Prince Andrew was there as well. We met with [the then New York mayor] Rudy Giuliani and visited the site. It was absolutely horrific. You could see this vast area completely devastated, fires were still burning and the firefighters were there trying to sort it out. We had reports that bodies had exploded, people living nearby had been finding body parts in their living rooms. Just awful.”

The former prime minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie arrived nine days after the atrocity and stayed at the embassy while visiting Bush at the White House, where Blair was invited into the Blue Room for a 20-minute private chat, where he is understood to have spelt out his plan for a ground invasion, as well as bombing of Afghanistan. The rest, as they say, is history.

Lady Meyer reveals that it was Sir Christopher who wrote the final line of Queen Elizabeth II’s address to the families of those killed in the attacks: “Grief is the price we pay for love.”

The mother-of-two has been taking comfort from that sobriquet as she continues to come to terms with the loss of her “true love”. “The one consolation is that he died in the best way anybody could wish to go,” she says. The couple were at their home in Megève in the French Alps when it happened.

“We’d played backgammon, eaten at our favourite restaurant and, when we came home, he decided to put a film on. He was watching the movie, then suddenly the laptop dropped to the floor and he was dead. As soon as I heard it happen, I knew.

“Obviously I’m on top of a mountain, so I had to open the windows and shout: ‘Help! Help!’ The whole thing was horrible. I didn’t get to say goodbye. But you just have to get on with it and stop complaining.” She pauses to fight back the tears. “Maybe I’m in denial or maybe I’m thinking, continue forward, I’ll meet him again.”

Sir Christopher and Lady Meyer in 2005
Sir Christopher and Lady Meyer in 2005 - Heathcliff O'Malley

The couple met in 1997 when Sir Christopher was the British ambassador to Germany, based in Bonn, and Catherine went to lobby him for help in her decade-long legal battle to gain access to her sons, Alexander and Constantin. After a whirlwind romance, they married later that year.

Although she was awarded custody following her separation from her ex-husband, Dr Hans-Peter Volkmann, he refused to return the boys, then aged nine and seven, to London following a summer holiday visit to his native Germany in 1994. Educated at the French Lycée in London, the School of Slavonic and East European Studies and the London School of Economics, Lady Meyer had by then built up a successful career as a commodity broker, but she was forced to channel all of her efforts – and indeed her life savings – into fighting to get her boys back. In 1998, she co-founded the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC) before establishing her own organisation, Parents & Abducted Children Together (PACT) now called Action Against Abduction, in 2000.

Having only had time-limited visits with her sons as they were growing up, it was not until they both turned 18 that she was properly reunited with them after Alexander, now 38, made contact, followed by Constantin, 36. Both sons still live in Germany but are now in regular contact.

“People would tell me: ‘Don’t worry, you’ll see them again.’ That used to anger me. The idea of sitting and knowing that you’re not there. On Mother’s Day, they have to do a drawing at school. What are they drawing? When they have nightmares, who comforts them? But turn the page to where we are now. I mean it took a while to rekindle a proper relationship. And I have to say Christopher was fantastic. They get on really well with Christopher’s two sons. And now that I’m on my own, they have been incredible. They call me and get worried about me. I’m on my own for Christmas but they are coming on the 26th. We have an unusual relationship but I probably speak to them more than other parents because we spent so long apart.”

Lady Meyer was with Constantin in the House of Lords, on her first day sitting as a life peer, when she received a telephone call to say that Sir Christopher had been brutally assaulted in Victoria station, leaving him with what a judge later described as “horrific injuries”. Lady Catherine released a photograph of her husband, covered in blood, to say “How dare someone attack my husband like that?”

Uxbridge Youth Court heard that a teenager, who cannot be named for legal reasons, got into an altercation with Sir Christopher at the Tube doors. The boy, then aged 16, lost his temper and rushed at Sir Christopher, pushing him from behind with both hands. He fell flat on his face and lost consciousness before being admitted to hospital, where he spent six days and underwent several operations.

The ex-diplomat told the court the attack had been “deeply distressing” for him and his family, adding: “The injuries I suffered may well leave permanent disfigurement. There is also a lasting emotional impact.”

According to Lady Meyer: “It really shook him. It changed his personality a bit. Instead of being the usual Christopher, he was more cautious. It aged him. It reduced him, as it were. He realised he wasn’t infallible, having always thought he was invincible.” Does she blame his death on the accident? “I think it played a role, yes.”

She points out that Sir Christopher did not want to prosecute, saying: “I hope this is going to give him a lesson not to do this to anybody else again.”

“He wasn’t a vengeful person. And actually, at his memorial service, which was packed, the number of people who wrote what a kind person he was… Young people wrote to say they’d emailed him for help and he’d agreed to meet with them. I didn’t know he’d done all these good deeds. After that, it made me even more determined to publish his book.”

Survivors draws its inspiration from the life of Lady Meyer’s mother, Olga, who was born into an aristocratic family in Petrograd, on the eve of the Russian Revolution, and found herself caught in a succession of revolutions, civil wars, invasions, massacres and conflicts. Having escaped the Bolsheviks, she was then forced to make the perilous journey across Siberia to finally arrive in Harbin, Manchuria, in 1920. When the Japanese invaded, she fled to Peking and then to Shanghai, before the outbreak of the Second World War saw her travel to Hanoi, Hué and, finally, Saigon, where at last she found love and security with Catherine’s French father, Maurice.

In 2015, a French historian published a book on the family’s epic history but Lady Meyer’s mother was not entirely happy with it. Before she died in 2017, she “persistently nagged” Sir Christopher to write her story in English and when he retired he decided to transform it into a novel, introducing fictitious characters and imaginary episodes into the narrative.

Lady Meyer says: “I can still see Christopher sitting on the terrace of our Megève flat, tweaking his manuscript, on the very afternoon he died. He could not let go of it. Survivors had become part of him. But it was a work of love that he was never to see published. That’s why I took it on and decided to finish it. For him, but also for my late mother. Her life story is one of courage and fortitude – a determination to survive.”

Lady Catherine’s family, upon whose story Survivors is based
Lady Catherine’s family, upon whose story Survivors is based

It seems the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. As well as finishing Survivors, Lady Meyer is also a force to be reckoned with in her own right, as the UK’s trade envoy to Ukraine and a tireless campaigner on issues like transgender ideology in schools.

“I’m horrified by the idea that parents are not being allowed to know what their children are being taught. It reminds me of the Soviet Union.” She was recently among a small group of journalists and politicians to watch a London screening of footage from the October 7 massacre in Israel. “It was beyond horrific. It actually made me physically sick. I had stomach pains for two days. But imagine the people who saw it in real life.

“Everything I’m doing is basically part of my history. And it’s about democracy. I’ve been to the Soviet Union, I know what it is to be under a Communist totalitarian regime, so we can’t have a situation where people are cancelled just for having an opinion.”

Lady Meyer turns 71 next month but has no intention of putting her feet up. “I love this place,” she says, pointing to her surroundings. “If I didn’t have my work after losing Christopher, I don’t know what I would do. It keeps me focused on the things that truly matter.”

Survivors, published by Whitefox Publishing, is out now. Available from, £19.99

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