Leigh Turner im Zentrum

What changes when you retire?

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

What changes when you retire? I finished as British ambassador to Vienna twelve months ago, 42 years after starting work. What have I done since then?

Retired diplomats have terrible life expectancy. Alarming numbers of ex-ambassadors and former first secretaries die within a year or two of retirement.

Leigh Turner lesotho
In Lesotho, 1980.

What kills them? Some say the diplomatic lifestyle is unhealthy – tough climates, frequent moves, stress, unhealthy diet and too much booze. According to this theory, the one thing keeping diplomats alive is the adrenalin – take it away and you’re a goner. Others say it’s the loss of status, from being someone who people respect simply because of your job (no matter how daft you may actually be) to being just another pensioner.

The good news is that many ex-diplomats survive the first year. I am among their number. What have I been up to in the last 12 months?

Still moving after all these years

Many people move house when they retire. I have actually moved house twice since retiring. I don’t recommend this. On the other hand, the place where I am now living is splendid, so I am not complaining. Visitors welcome! I do not plan to move again for at least a couple of years, but you never know.

A new thriller published

In May 2022 US publishing house “Immortal Works” published my Istanbul thriller, Palladium (you can read the first chapter at the link). To say I was thrilled by this – my first book released by a recognised publisher – would be British understatement. If you’ve read it, please write a review on Amazon today!

A new book written

In late 2021 Austrian publisher Czernin Verlag asked if I would like to write a book about diplomacy. I agreed, and started writing in December. I finished a first draft of the book, entitled The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy, on the 6th of June 2022. This was a big job (more British understatement). Did I spend too much of those six months researching and writing the new book, and too little time doing wild and crazy retired person-type things?

No. I loved writing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy, and can’t wait to see it appear in print. It is due to be published – initially in German – in spring 2023. Follow this blog for details, including of a potential English version!

A new book started

Earlier this year I made some new friends in the publishing world. They urged me to write a new thriller.

I started that thriller in June, during a writing course in the Greek village of Loutro, in Crete. Are the stakes high in my new plot? God, yes. I’m hoping it will be immense fun to write, and to read. I’ve written around 10,000 words. My plan is to complete a first draft over the next six months.

Commenting on a war

On 24 February 2022, President Putin ordered Russian troops to invade Ukraine. This horrific and unprovoked act started the largest conflict in Europe since the Second World War.

Leigh Turner diplomat
At work at the UN in Vienna as ambassador

Because I have worked as a diplomat in both Russia (First Secretary Economic in Moscow, 1992-95) and Ukraine (British ambassador in Kyiv 2008-2012) and have some background in the region, news outlets from the BBC to the Australian Broadcasting Company, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Sky News and Al Jazeera have asked me to discuss the latest developments. In all, I’ve done around 45 interviews for radio and TV.

Most of the interviews are short – from five to 20 minutes. But because I like to prepare as well as possible, each one involves several hours of work. I have also written several blog posts about the war.

A bit more travel

I had imagined when I retired that I would start doing an immense amount of travel, sweeping through Central America, exploring South East Asia and so on. In fact a combination of COVID, other commitments (see above) and inertia has limited my mobility somewhat. But I have enjoyed some travel – including visiting my family in Manchester quite a bit, lots of time in Amsterdam and London and wonderful trips to Cannes, Wales, Crete and Paros.

I hope to do more in future.

My new hashtag on twitter, #leighinmotion, highlights stuff about travel, past and present. I hope to use it more in future. I also use it on Instagram, if you prefer that.

What changes when you retire?

So, what changes when you retire? My main impression so far has been that I continue to live a life influenced by my decades as a diplomat. I probably spend more time at my desk writing than I used to, and less time out and about meeting people. But I hope to change that balance over the next twelve months. Can’t wait.

Perhaps most important, I have a lot of projects on the go, from writing the new thriller to publishing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy to promoting my existing four books. On balance, this feels good.

I’d welcome others’ comments on what changed when they retired – and any tips they have that may help others.

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21 Responses

  1. i love your comment.
    i feel the same way. lots of project and suddenly you are doing it for yourself i stead if soemeone else. Its great

  2. Tamas says

    Retired diplomats never die; they just change diplomatic corps (their very corps change substance) – the same refers to thoracic surgeons (talking about myself, my preferred topic). I cannot wait to read your new book. Many of us miss you at the Shakespeare Bookshop in Wien ( twin-capital of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy). Your insights into the present tragic events on the other side of the Carpathian Mountains are absolutely fabulous and a real English signpost (sort of Bill Stump’s stone from the Pickwick papers) to orientate ourselves in this dizzy world. ( Having told this I agree with you in 49,9% of things, but I am just a Hungarian and a simple minded chestcutter) Keep writing, informing us. Waiting for the film premier of the Bloody Summit – I just do not understand what the chaps are doing in Hollywood…

  3. The most valuable thing for a diplomat of your rank when he retires is your invaluable and incomparable experience in very many fields.

    As an associate university professor, you can teach the young diplomats and business students much more than an ordinary professor who is well versed in theory but has in real world no experience of real life and of the mentality in different countries…

    A big company would be more than happy to have you and your colleagues as advisors or speaker, even if only for a few weeks a year….

    When unofficial negotiations have to be conducted parallel to the official ones, former diplomats are worth their weight in gold for the Foreign Office because they have not to worry for their further career and with more than enough experience they can find the best solutions in the shortest time, for which normal diplomats need years because they are bound by far too many rules…

    You still have a lot of good things to achieve and write that will bring us all a lot of joy and a very healthy/active/happy lifestyle, Mr. Turner so there should be no reason at all to think about this bad statistic for retired diplomats…

    Can’t wait to read the book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy” in German and hope you will present it first in Graz/Austria!!!!

    1. Thanks Ilir! I’m not sure the Foreign Office would agree that former diplomats are worth their weight in gold! I stand ready to present “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy” in Graz!

      1. Unfortunately, bureaucracy was/is always part of any powerful organisation or form of government.

        A long-established monarchy can be compared to the “Hyperion” tree. It is the tallest tree in the world, has very strong roots in the earth, but partly a not so nice and healthy tree bark (bureaucracy).

        But it looks like a very positive change is coming….

        I am very pleasantly surprised that Prime Minister Truss has chosen Sir Tim Barrow as National Security Advisor (a former multiple Ambassador/Political Director) !!!!

        A powerful and very ambitious “Lioness” who forms a symbiotic relationship with an “Eagle” of diplomacy (“All birds seek shelter when it rains, but only the eagle avoids the rain by flying above the clouds.Problems are common, but attitude makes the difference”–A.P.J.Abdul Kaman) can be very difficult to constrain by bureaucracy, as without sight constraints, very many problems will be identified early and therefore many successful solutions will be available in advance, thanks to Sir Tim Barrow, for the current UK government.

        For these solutions,only the best/talented/most experienced people can be eligible and (active/ex) British Top Diplomats are definitely among them as the world’s best!

        I wouldn’t be very surprised if the major national/international issues/conflicts of the moment were followed by some very good/positive changes…

  4. Congratulations on surviving this first year! I am sure you will survive many more, because you keep yourself active, doing something you enjoy, and drawing from your previous experience. Graham Greene once wrote: ‘Retirement kills more people than cancer’, and he was absolutely right. If retirement means doing nothing and losing your adrenaline, you are dead. But he added ‘writers never retire’. You already were a writer while a diplomat; now, you continue with one of your activities, which you enjoy, and make other people happy reading your outstanding books.

  5. Interesring read Leigh but the first paragraphs are quite alarming!
    My first year seems busier than ever and I don’t know where I found time to work (although some may say I didn’t do much). I’ve spent a lot of time travelling around the country near my Scottish home. Visiting coastal villages and landmarks I’d never had time to do before. Some home improvements also kept me busy. I’ve also arranged some considerable overseas travel post pandemic and really looking forward to returning to Istanbul on holiday!
    Live long and prosper.

  6. We can relate, however my dear Executive GM Roger Bayliss from my years at the Australian Trade Commission has the better advice so I’ll shhh.


    I had ten consecutive overseas postings as an Australian Trade Commissioner and Executive GM based offshore. Now retired twenty years and never happier. As my dear friend Beliz has prompted me, here is my homespun advice, not in priority order.

    1. Some retirement work really helped our travel budget. Advice on managing “difficult” markets and cultures is always in demand. We found good assignments through groups like the Arab Chamber of Commerce and similar business groups. Your country knowledge falls out of date quickly but not your cross cultural skills. Our publication what to expect and how to manage yourself in Arab meetings proved popular.

    2. Get your house setup right. Avoid moving. Surround yourself with stuff you really like. Music, dogs, books, model trains.

    3. Get to know your best friends better.

    4. Cook well for small gatherings only, preferably with a round table. If you are not a good cook, friends will always help teach you. You have had enough meals at long rectangular tables. Add some light touches from your past experience – cuisine, music.

    5. Avoid talking about your past. Except for colleagues, nobody much is interested. Never become a “WENWE” person as in “When we were in Zimbabwe…” Keep asking other people about their experiences.

    6. Mentoring can be dangerous territory unless you enjoy a close relationship. Millennials think differently and simply don’t absorb advice the way we do. Use sparingly.

    7. Travel with purpose to places you have not visited. We spent weeks discovering and trying to understand the Balkans. Still working on it. Don’t go back to the same old joints unless a special occasion. We loved Bhutan, West Africa, Midwest US ‘flyover states’ and the Marquesas.

    8. Sleep in. Avoid getting up at the same time every day. Enjoy a luxurious bath with a fresh issue of the Economist.

    9. Avoid politicians and politics. They will not be interested in your views anyway. At least not for long.

    10. Join or start a mens book club. Men and women read different stuff. Our group only does non-fiction. Women mainly read fiction.

    11. Community groups can be satisfying but once again, handle with care. I love my little group, but these organisations have their moments.

    12. Dress well and have a stylish haircut regularly. Always buy a new brand of aftershave.

    13. Stay healthy and fit. Assemble a good range of medical advisers, trainers, physiotherapists. You will need them and history and continuity are invaluable.

    14. Go to the city for a nice lunch every month with a good mate.

    15. Walk. With a friend, a podcast, audiobook or a dog.

    16. Get dogs and talk to them all the time. Dogs understand you better than you think.

    17. If you like music, explore streaming services to construct thematic playlists. I do this on my deck, listening to sings and arranging them into mood pieces.

    18. Photography is great. And manipulating and processing photos has never been easier.

    19. We have always kept good photo albums. Over a two year period, I had them digitised (never do it yourself) then created photo books of our postings and travels.

    20. I created a family history book with a family tree of 100 people. Not a long list of names. I found stories about them and photos. Loved spending two hours a day on it for about six months, and pitched it towards younger members of my family, including them in the stories. Photo books are easy.
    21. If you are going to write, use IT a lot, set yourself up with a first class, dedicated office. Not shared. This works.

    22. Anyway this has worked for me. Plus a happy marriage.

    23. Boats.


  7. Lots of advice Leigh in the comments. My own conclusion 3 years ahead of you is simple “Cincinnatus had it right”

  8. Hi,
    I retired about two years ago, not my choice, no I wasn’t sacked, I am now a full time carer for my wife.
    However, I love being retired and I am trying to fix the years of self abuse as you describe, corporate dinners, work stress, booze, and lack of exercise. Do now live a far healthy life and feel great. Also have lots of projects but can always put off to tomorrow what I could have done today, but meeting friends trumps all. I also spent quite a bit of time tracking down old pal in the UK who I abandoned whilst living abroad, luckily a forgiving bunch.
    I highly recommend living the good life as soon as one is financially independent.

    1. All sounds good to me! And I am sure your wife appreciates your care.

      “Years of abuse” – I wouldn’t quite go that far but it is certainly good to step back eventually…

  9. Great tips, dear friends and colleagues!
    I would also add that academic activity is a fantastic way to enjoy retirement. If you have the chance to do it, do not miss it ! I teach Cultural Diplomacy at the University and the relation with the students is very refreshing.
    Patrizio Fondi
    Italian diplomat

    1. Thanks Patrizio. I tend to agree and am doing some academic stuff. Having contact with students must surely be a privilege that keeps your mind as sharp as is realistically feasible.

      1. I always enjoy your blog, Leigh. On this point: yes. Exactly. I spent four years or so on a PhD when I retired. It was a wonderful investment in my future sanity, and there simply wasn’t time to drop dead. The most enjoyable, and rejuvenating, aspect was being just another student, and accepted as such. I can also recommend a complete academic change from anything you’ve done before, although in my case it proved essential in getting a scholarship to convince my interviewers that evolutionary biology was pretty much the same thing as comparative philology. The odd thing is that now I sometimes believe it. I also took up the bassoon from scratch., getting my grade 5 (the single most terrifying exam I’ve ever faced: parched throat, ended up drinking the water I was soaking my reed in) at 62, and won an over-60 team bronze medal for the UK in the World Masters’ Athletics championships marathon (which also got me a sports scholarship for the first year of my PhD). I sometimes worry about being too goal driven – but then I read Cavafy’s Ithaca again. Lestrygonioans? Bring ’em on.

        1. Thanks Nigel – just seen this. Tx for the vote of confidence in the blog, and I hope your continued retirement is going as well as it was in November! Goal driven, shmoal driven – I love targets, graphs and recording achievements. Ten novels in, some of it must work. No sign of Lestrygonians yet but am keeping an eye out. Next landmark – the launch of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy”, in German, in April. Let’s see how that goes…

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