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British Social Secretary Shows How 'We Can Work It Out'

By Nora Boustany
Friday, July 22, 2005

When four bombs ripped through three subway trains and a bus in London on July 7, it fell to Amanda Downes , the social secretary at the British Embassy here, to call 50 guests and cancel a dinner that evening.

"People said the sweetest things, and I almost lost it at the end," she said.

After more than 15 years on the job, Downes performed her role masterfully, proving as she had on countless other occasions that she is indeed a class act.

It was a day fraught with emotion. She heard about the bombings on the early morning news and later made frantic calls to relatives and friends. In spontaneous shows of solidarity at the chancery's doorstep, a local band showed up and played Britain's national anthem, men walked up offering bouquets of fresh-cut flowers and a man held up a poster to passing traffic: "Today we are all British."

Downes, who grew up in Gloucestershire and dreamed of becoming a ballerina or performing on stage, has become a formidable institution in Washington, a town where adeptly choreographing events and setting the scene are prized skills.

"To my mind, she has set the gold standard for the role of social secretary," Ambassador David Manning said at a reception for Downes on June 15. The event was held after she was decorated at Buckingham Palace for her contributions and was invested as a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

In Manning's words, Downes has served and "suffered" the "enthusiasms and foibles of five ambassadors" with whom she worked and whom she kept "on the straight and narrow."

"They say no one is indispensable. That is certainly true of ambassadors. But Amanda surely comes close to being the exception," Manning said to applause and cheers.

Manning, his predecessors Christopher Meyer , John Kerr , Robin Renwick and Anthony Acland and their spouses all came to defer to her on all matters social, official and delicate. She insists she is a "small cog in a huge machine" led by Britain's diplomatic cream of the crop. Her duties range from helping organize extravaganzas -- dozens of charity and cultural events, lunches, state and intimate dinners -- to being the den mother of visiting dignitaries.

She remembers the particular tastes and preferences of guests. Her memory for these small details, gleaned through years of experience, has helped avert awkward moments and has endeared the ambassadorial couple to the Washington community: So-and-so likes to bring his mother instead of his wife to the garden party; this one is deaf in his left ear.

"Ambassadors come and go, but she has had a unique and immensely valuable role," said Sally O'Brien , director of program development at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. O'Brien served as third secretary in the British chancery when Downes first arrived in the fall of 1989.

After she left school, Downes attended cooking college and embarked on a 15-year career as a chef, first working for a family in Gloucestershire and then cooking for weddings and social events big and small around the country.

This probably explains "how she manages to keep a dozen pots bubbling without any of them boiling over," Manning said, referring to Downes's knack for multitasking and teamwork. "Out of a blizzard of paper and Post-it notes in her cramped office comes order and harmony as she organizes breakfasts, lunches, receptions and dinners, directs visitors to their bedrooms, juggles seating plans and chases taxis down Massachusetts Avenue."

During a stint here as commercial secretary, Meyer, Manning's predecessor, sold Downes his beat-up red Plymouth. It had had three owners, traveled to Boston and been parked by the sea. The car kept breaking down, but that did not deter its fourth owner from traveling across the United States with it. By any mechanical standard, "it was a heap," said O'Brien, who was a diplomat at the embassy at the time.

When Meyer returned to town as ambassador, Downes plotted her revenge: She borrowed the little red monster from its fifth owner for one day and parked it in the residence driveway for his arrival.

After 16 years on the job, she'll never change, her friends say.

When a Beatles fan contacted her last year asking whether he and his friends could visit the embassy as part of a tour re-creating the path of the Fab Four during a 1964 visit to Washington, Downes offered an inspired response:

"Hello hello

"We can work it out. Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl and you have a ticket to ride to be a day tripper for a magical mystery tour. . . . Bring your yellow submarine, no revolver and no more than 2 friends . . . to 3100 Massachusetts Avenue NW, and ask Sergeant Pepper to direct you to the Residence where a blackbird sings in the dead of night. Lady Madonna will show you around at 10:30 am. . . .

"Goodbye, after a hard day's night,

"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company