Ladies and gentlemen, I know you all want your lunch, so I will be as brief as I possibly can to enable you to get to it, but I just wanted to say that I really do feel deeply touched that you should have asked me (although I don't think you realised that you had, I now discover!) to be with you today as we say farewell to the Overseas Service Pensioners' Association.
It is, I know, a poignant occasion for us all, inevitably tinged with sadness, but I am so glad that I have the opportunity before you go your separate ways to pay my respects to such a distinguished group of people and, above all, however inadequate, to thank each and every one of you, and all the members of Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service that have gone before you, for your remarkable, and often unsung, service to this country and the countries in which you served.
Now having been born in 1948 – and now very nearly 70 years old (much to my astonishment!) – I was brought up at a time when you, I'm sure ladies and gentlemen, were all carrying out your service in far-flung parts of the then Empire and Dependent Territories and I grew up with stories of these fascinating places from my parents and my grandmother and of course my great uncle Lord Mountbatten.
Her Majesty – and indeed, I myself, will never forget the extraordinarily valuable contribution, let alone the personal sacrifices, made by members of the Overseas Civil Service (and its previous manifestations) during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
You travelled far from home and loved ones to start a new life in foreign climes in often unbelievably difficult and lonely conditions. So many of your fellow members fell in love with those wonderful places and their people, made their home among them and never returned.
I do so hope that you can all look back with immense pride that your tireless, selfless efforts very much laid the foundations for the modern Commonwealth; a family of 2.4 billion people in fifty-two Nations.
The Commonwealth has been an ever-present cornerstone throughout my own life and I feel incredibly fortunate to have visited forty-one of its member states and, over the years, to have met or come to know many of the leaders whose own names resonate so strongly with Commonwealth members' shared history.
From the stories you have told me today, I know you have a treasure-trove of special memories. I only wish I could spend a great deal longer with you and hear more of these unique reminiscences... Believe it or not, I too, have some intriguing memories – from playing, for instance, with a bow and some rather deadly arrows given to me by Dr. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana at Balmoral when I was still very young, and firing them into several trees from which I could never extract those arrows, to asking the wrong question to President Jomo Kenyatta, 47 years ago, about whether he had ever visited Lake Ruldolf, now Lake Turkana (where I had just been) only to be met by an ominous silence until he let out a roar of laughter and said "yes – I was a guest of your mother there for some time!" To attending no less than three Independence balls in one night during the celebrations in The Bahamas and being danced into the ground – very nearly! – by Mrs. Pindling, the rather glamorous wife of the then Prime Minister. To the Independence celebrations in Fiji, where I became an expert in drinking kava – I don't think I've ever recovered from the after effects... To my time in the Royal Navy on the West Indies station over forty years ago when I encountered the incorrigibly sartorial Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis, Mr. Robert Llewellyn Bradshaw, in his top hat and tails and his vintage Rolls-Royce.
To finally, ladies and gentlemen, the handover of Hong Kong, now over twenty years ago, to my amazement, when my speech notes got totally stuck together in the tropical downpour during the final ceremony, and then we sailed away into the sunset in the dear old Royal Yacht Britannia. From all this, and much more, I have seen for myself the enduring bond and deep affection that we share with our Family of Nations. And the fact that there is still such a bond is in large measure due to the crucial role you all played ladies and gentlemen.
When The Queen launched the Commonwealth Charter in March 2013, she said that she hoped it would "light the path of all those involved in the work of the Commonwealth and of those who follow in our footsteps." None of us here is as young as we were – or perhaps as we might wish to be! – and there are now very many people following in our footsteps. Your legacy will live on through them and the millions of young people who live in Commonwealth countries. I very much hope that this gives you all enormous pride and satisfaction as you look back on your years of service.
I know that you have come from far and wide to be at this farewell event, and I am so pleased that it has given you such a special opportunity to catch up with old friends. It has been a great privilege to be with you this afternoon at such a memorable, and deeply-deserved, celebration of all that you have achieved together.
I can only hope that as you leave this place and we mark the closure of the Overseas Service Pensioners' Association, you will recall the words of Arnold Smith, the first Secretary General of the Commonwealth, who wrote back in 1981 that "100 years from now, I suggest, historians will consider the Commonwealth the greatest of all Britain's contributions to Man's social and political history." And if that turns out to be the case, then it will be your legacy, ladies and gentlemen, for which we owe you an enduring debt of gratitude.