Maurice McPhail is sitting beside Big Ben, which, given that he recently retired as the British Embassy’s commercial attaché, seems nicely appropriate.
However, friends will be relieved to hear McPhail hasn’t deserted Costa Rica. This Big Ben isn’t beside the Houses of Parliament in London; it’s a slightly smaller-scale replica scraping the ceiling of McPhail’s house in the western San José suburb of Escazú.
“It was made by a local craftsman as the centerpiece of a British stand for a trade fair 10 years ago,” McPhail says. “Afterwards it stood outside the house for a while, but when we built the extension it had to come in and, much to my wife’s annoyance, this is the only place it fits.”
Finding a place for British things in Costa Rica has been central to McPhail’s work.
“It was really close to my heart – mixing foreign and local, and helping British businesses export to Costa Rica was something I took a real personal interest in,” he says.
During his 18 years as commercial attaché for the British Embassy, McPhail saw the embassy’s foreign staff shrink from seven diplomats to just two, “including the ambassador,” but after drumming up interest through trade missions and helping companies such as British American Tobacco, Unilever, Shell, GlaxoSmithKline, Cadbury and AstraZeneca ease into the market, McPhail saw British exports to Costa Rica rise from £11.5 million at the end of his first year to £40 million during his last (with a freak peak of £51 million in 2002).
This, despite the fact that “Latin America has been something of a forgotten area for Britain this past half century,” McPhail says, “and Costa Rica still has a negative image.
People think wrongly that there’s political instability and upheaval here, that it’s a kind of JurassicPark. But there are real opportunities here, and the businessmen who do come over are converted – shocked by the number of cars, businesses and hotels, the relative wealth.”
McPhail landed in a more laid-back Costa Rica 33 years ago, on his way from the Bahamas to the United States, and never left, claiming that it was “kind of fate.” Fate definitely works in mysterious ways, because no one back in the mining town of Stanley, CountyDurham, in the tough post-war years could have predicted he’d wind up enjoying retirement in Escazú.
“I was born into a large working-class family and hard times,” McPhail says. “My mother died when I was 7,my father was the town barber, and when I left school at 16, I was looking at a future in the coal mines.”
He worked at the mine for five years, but also studied electrical engineering at night school, signed up for the Royal Navy Reserve and escaped by joining the merchant navy at 22 as an electrical officer.
After switching to cruise ships and working in the Bahamas, he arrived in Costa Rica, studied business administration, picked up Spanish “en la calle,” met his wife of 30 years, Marietta, had four children, took a variety of jobs culminating in the embassy post and ¡ya está! A round trip, perhaps, but to the right destination.
“It was as if I was being pulled here,” he muses.
McPhail can tell many a tale about how Costa Rica used to be.
“The early ’70s in San José was a good period – the last few years of hippie culture and the beginning of disco, all long hair, flared jeans … there were always parties,” McPhail recalls.
Much of the expat activity, he says, revolved around the Little Theatre Group and Ye Pub, downtown on Avenida 7, now long gone.
There was also the great outdoors.
“I joined the Hash House Harriers soon after the Costa Rica chapter started in 1979 and was a regular runner for at least 10 years,” McPhail relates. “It was an excellent way of meeting people – in fact, it gave me an introduction to one of my jobs, working with a U.S. oil millionaire who took me on as his financial advisor.”
Hash runners have nicknames (TT, Jan. 26), and McPhail’s – Pin Bone – arose from a cricket injury that resulted in a six-inch pin sticking out of his shattered collarbone to keep it in place.
The British community is even stronger now and more organized than ever before, says McPhail, who, as a member of numerous organizing committees, including the Queen’s Birthday Party, Burns’ Night and St. Andrew’s, has to take a bit of the credit.
“There are so many ways to get out there, participate and meet people – although,” he insists, “my drinking and partying days are over. I’m more into Buddhism, and being with my family.”
Inevitably, not all changes during his 33-year residency have been positive.
“Costa Rica’s charm is still the people,” he says, “but society itself has changed. It’s now more the society of a developed country, a consumer society with more stress, more traffic and more crime. There was always petty theft, but the car-jacking and bank robberies, people being murdered for their cell phones – that just didn’t exist. I’ve got three daughters, and I worry about them out there.”
Full Speed Ahead
As far as the future goes, McPhail will be watching the events around the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) referendum with keen interest. Although a vote in favor of CAFTA won’t help British trade – indeed, it could well weaken links, at least in the short term, he says – McPhail believes it’s what the country needs.
“I agree with a lot of what (President Oscar) Arias stands for – he’s open and pro-business,” he asserts. “Costa Rica has been resting on its laurels for a lot of years, and it needs to reform and reduce bureaucracy and catch up.”
McPhail admits he’ll miss being at the embassy when it all takes place, as well as much else about his job.
“The atmosphere was always excellent, and I had a good group of co-workers,” he says. “Our families are close; our children grew up together.”
Above all, perhaps, he’ll miss wearing a suit and playing a role that comes naturally: the suave and debonair English gent.
“People used to say I reminded them of James Bond,” he admits, explaining he had to dress the part for meetings with businessmen, ministers or even the President.
Typically, McPhail’s “retirement” will involve more than his regular rounds of golf at Valle del Sol. Coming full circle with his first job here in the mid-1970s selling real estate – “I got out because I thought the prices were too high and the boom would never last,” he says, agreeing he may have got that one a bit wrong – he’s marketing a work-in-progress residential project for people with horses, “like a La Caraña (an equestrian club in Santa Ana) of Heredia.”
He’s also toying with the idea of a shop selling Marmite, HP Sauce, Weetabix, Liquorice Allsorts and the various other items of national pride that went in a flash to the desperate hoards scrabbling around the British Produce Stall at the Queen’s Birthday Party in April (TT, April 20). Even McPhail, who was volunteering there, missed out.
“But luckily the ambassador presented me with a packet of Liquorice Allsorts as a retirement gift,” he says.
So, Maurice McPhail, Stanley man, Pin Bone, James Bond, poor English lord and former commercial attaché, good luck in your next role, and all the best for a long, happy and occasionally restful retirement.