MEET U.S AMBASSADOR MATTHEW BARZUN
In an exclusive interview with The Resident, the US Ambassador to the UK shares his thoughts on living in London and the American embassy’s move to Nine Elms. Words by Will Gore
Something pretty strange is going on. I’m with the United States Ambassador to London and we’re standing over a record player, talking through his vinyl collection. When politicians talk about loving rock and pop music, it usually doesn’t end well.
His record box, which sits next to a turntable in the lobby of Winfield House (the grand Ambassador’s residence in Regent’s Park), is split into three sections representing the UK, US and United Nations. Albums by legendary British bands, including The Beatles, Rolling Stones and The Clash, nestle alongside those by Bill Callahan and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.
‘When I moved in there were only 20 CDs here and 17 of those were in a Bee Gees box set and with no disrespect to the Bee Gees, I didn’t think that was representing the US and UK music. So now we are building our collection,’ he tells me. To achieve this, the friendly and energetic 43-year-old politician has been raiding record shops in Soho and Camden and he says a trip to Honest Jon’s in Notting Hill is up next.
As the he puts it, he has not been having a dull time in London since arriving in August last year, having followed the path to the ambassadorship by being a key fundraiser for the US president, working on Barack Obama’s election campaigns. His first ambassadorial role was in Sweden in 2009, before that he made his fortune as an internet entrepreneur.
When the opportunity arose to come to Great Britain, Massachusetts-born Barzun was delighted to accept the post and, along with enjoying the London music scene, he, his wife Brooke and their three young children have been throwing themselves into plenty of other aspects of British life. When one first arrives in their adopted family home, it’s clear the Barzuns have made their mark – and a very tasteful one at that.
In each room, striking pieces of carefully-chosen contemporary art demand the viewer’s attention in amongst the grand old décor. ‘My wife, Brooke is the [art] expert and I’m a willing and curious student of it,’ admits Barzun, ‘what I have discovered, is that with the work on display we have a great mixture of living British and American artists.’
The family may have quickly settled into Winfield, but adapting to British culture has required a little more work. Barzun jokes that he’s been trying hard to ‘master the art of British understatement’. And in his first step in helping the family to absorb true ‘Britishness’, he took them to a football match. ‘The first weekend I arrived here we got off to a good start by going to watch Fulham play at Craven Cottage, a hopeful beginning for what turned out to be a disappointing season,’ he says.
The life of a US ambassador to Britain is, of course, not just about going to the football and whiling away time in record shops. And when talk turns to the job at hand, Barzun switches to politician mode seamlessly. ‘I didn’t know what the job of the ambassador was really like before I took on the role in Sweden,’ he says. ‘There’s a stereotype out there of it just being about going to a bunch of cocktail parties, but it is a small part of what is a fascinating job. Trying to understand the country you are in, and making your country understood there is the job, I think.’
Barzun’s typical working day involves discussions with British politicians in Westminster, work on trade and investment agreements, press engagements and outreach work at schools across the UK.
Another major aspect of his current job is to oversee the move of the US embassy from Grosvenor Square in central London to a state-of-the-art new building in the Nine Elms development, south of the river in Vauxhall. The move is expected to be completed in 2017. ‘The decision to move predates my arrival. I get to go and have fun doing the ground-breaking ceremonies but there has been lots of hard work done by my predecessors to make it all happen,’ he says.
This month Barzun will be hosting a celebration of American Independence Day and this bash is one cocktail party he’s definitely looking forward to.
The theme will be ‘New Orleans’ to mark the anniversary of the end of the War of 1812, with the city’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band flying over to provide the soundtrack for the evening (the band will also travel by Routemaster bus to play an open-air concert near the site of the new embassy in Battersea Park).
He sounds positively delighted with his choice of theme. ‘You can’t have a New Orleans themed party without having great music, food and drink,’ he says. And, speaking of food and drink, he tells me that he hasn’t failed to notice the capital’s recently discovered obsession with American grub. Five Guys and Shake Shack in particular have had one happy customer in the US ambassador. ‘I go to them embarrassingly often,’ he says.
I wonder out loud if he gets some kind of ambassadorial pass to the front of the queue, but with the kind of calm diplomacy which surely also gets utilised at far more important junctures, he assures me he waits in line for his cheeseburger and fries like everyone else.
The move to Nine Elms
Matthew Barzun offers his thoughts on the embassy move to Wandsworth:
‘Lots of the enjoyment of the new building will happen once I’m gone, but it is exciting to be investing in the new London skyline, and to be committing to this new place.
There is also a level of sadness to be leaving Grosvenor Square. Even though we are excited to be moving the Chancery across the river, and the neighbours in Wandsworth and Nine Elms have been incredibly welcoming and also understanding, it’s loud. You don’t build a big building like that without being a disruption and so we are very appreciative of our neighbours.
Part of America will always be Grosvenor Square, with the statutes of Ronald Reagan, FDR, President Eisenhower, the Eagle Squadron. The new space will give us a chance to move into the 21st century.’