Where is Richard Morris?

The former British ambassador to Nepal has been missing near his home in UK for the past three weeks

Richard Morris ran the Everest Marathon on 29 May 2019 raising funds for Changing Faces the UK charity supporting people with a visible difference on their face, of which he was an active trustee.

Who would have thought it, such a nice, modest man. A quiet, measured man who would be astounded at all the fuss -- police searches, global press and media swarming around his home in the pretty Hampshire village of Bentley. 

A polite, gentle, professional man commuting by train to the Foreign Office, due to start in July as High Commissioner to Fiji, and until last November, British Ambassador to Nepal. On 6 May at 1030am, Richard Morris took one of his regular runs into the Alice Holt Forest, a vast woodland that spreads between Hampshire and Surrey, and never reappeared, vanished.

Richard is unforgettable due to the distinctive port birthmark on his face. You could not ignore it or pretend it was not there, but the strange thing was that after the initial shock, his charm and intelligence trumped the wine stain on his cheek. You never noticed it ever again. We never talked about it, of course, but his sponsored long-distance running proceeds went to the Changing Faces charity of which he was an active trustee.

The weekend after they arrived in Nepal, we invited Richard Morris and his wife Alison to the Doctor Strange shoot in the heart of the earthquake damaged Patan Durbar Square. It was early November 2015 when we first met, before he had even presented credentials, surrounded by lights, cameras, extras and all the paraphernalia of a movie set.

I had arrived early and been startled to find myself standing next to the unpronounceable star of Kinky Boots, Chiwetel Ejifor at the crew’s Himalayan Java coffee stand. He smiled shyly dressed in some outlandish medieval costume, swallowed his expresso, and stooped through the durbar’s low lintel onto the set. 

Working with the production, we brought a few select guests to watch the shoot and be thanked by the Hollywood team -- the British Embassy had helped with handling the English stars on the Boeing charter, and a handful of ministers, generals and police chiefs without whom we could not have made it happen. The education ministry had rescheduled local exams in order to clear the palace precincts. 

The Americans were super-supportive of the Disney Marvel razzmatazz featuring Nepal in a blockbuster, especially so soon after the earthquake devastation. The US Ambassador was there that day, her son having secured a leading role in a crowd scene. That same heady weekend David Beckham was kicking a football around in Bhaktapur for a UNICEF documentary.

The Doctor Strange logistics were complicated by blockade fuel shortages, hundreds of local actors, and police cordons sealing the Durbar Square as we had underestimated the rampant popularity of Benedict Cumberbatch. The lanky British actor turned out to have a huge fan base in Nepal, made famous as an enigmatic Sherlock in the classic television series. Ever since Benedict was first spotted in Pashupatinath, crowds had gravitated to the sets – Thamel, Indrachok, New Road, Swayambunath and now Patan. 

Wandering over between takes to say hello to the waiting VIPs, politely corralled in a corner of the square admiring the action, Benedict passed a flagstone where he could be glimpsed by his followers from behind the guarded barriers, resulting in a chant of admiration: “Benedict, Benedict.” He paused, took a step back, and the fans screamed their appreciation. “Ah, I’ve found the Benedict stone!” he grinned, namaste-ing Richard as we weren’t allowed to touch his tramp-like makeover.

After the chaos of the shoot, I walked with Richard and Alison through the peaceful back streets of Patan, excited to see their fresh, first-time reaction to the temple shrines, concealed courtyards and hidden corners of the historic city. I showed them earthquake restoration sites and a couple of the Cosy Nepal homestays, meeting some of the innovative owners who introduced them to Newari heritage. 

Richard and Alison’s tenure in Nepal was characterised by that engagement with local people at all levels, and admiration for the Valley culture. They endeared themselves to British expats by reviving the traditional Embassy carol service, even inviting us afterwards into their home for hot rum punch and mince pies. Popular with Nepalis, their wide-ranging circles included Richard’s weekend jogging, running and marathon fraternity, unusual activities for Her Majesty’s representative. Alison, quiet and capable, managed the residence, endlessly entertained, book clubbed, and was a stalwart of the Cultural Studies Group of Nepal.

Richard was quick to offer help and got me out of a couple of tight spots. When our house was disrupted by post-earthquake renovation, we moved a long-standing dinner party of generous Hong Kong British philanthropists into his elegant Residence. 

“It will be a pleasure, Lisa, no trouble at all,” he reassured me. That evening, relishing a fine dinner served by gloved waiters off silver platters, bone china and cut glass, I raised a silent toast to Richard in thanks down the acres of the polished mahogany dining table, beneath the steely gaze of the Queen’s portrait. On another occasion I returned the favour with an arrogant English public-school principal who arrived 45 minutes late for lunch without a word of apology to His Excellency.

“Would you mind popping by the office – I need a bit of advice on planning a rather important visit.” Normally we met on the pale sofas in the bay window of his home to evade the daunting security of the chancery building. This time I was relieved of my phone, hung with a guest pass, and ushered through the heavy security doors past the rogue’s gallery of former heads of mission to the inner sanctum of the ambassadorial office. Kapindra nodded me through with a smile. “It’s still a deadly secret, no one knows except the foreign ministry, but you’ve handled so many royal visits over the years at Tiger Mountain and …” 

Prince Harry’s Nepal tour was a huge success, achieving world coverage and much glory for Richard. The bearded Prince was welcomed by five virgins, toured earthquake areas, and sat cross-legged with master woodcarvers in Patan palace,  escorted by Rohit Ranjitkar of Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust and Pratima Pandey MBE of the Nepal Britain Society. Behind an unfriendly white picket fence, HRH met many of us one fine afternoon on the embassy lawn, before heading to the hills for some hands-on building-back-better.  

Undoubtedly the most extraordinary and memorable event with Richard was one hot evening last May, the high Embassy windows spilling open onto the tented garden terrace. The New Zealand and British governments had jointly marked the 65th anniversary of climbing Mt Everest with an embassy reception on Sagarmatha Day 2018. It had been a jolly affair with an eclectic mix of government, diplomats, Gurkhas, Hillary and Tenzing Norgay family, tourism industry, mountaineers and media. 

The Kiwi-Brit party on 29 May 2019 to celebrate Sir Ed Hillary’s 100th birth anniversary proved to be an even more riotous affair, and another huge success. Climbers back from Himalayan peaks drank the bar dry, Rt Hon Helen Clark (former prime minister of New Zealand and former head of UNDP) was chief guest on her way back from a Himalayan Trust trek in the Khumbu, and Nims Purja was there in the midst of his seemingly impossible speed summits during his Project Possible rampage, accompanied by a lovely long-suffering wife draped in a soft yellow sari.

But the undisputed star of that evening, exactly one year ago, was Ambassador Richard Morris, ruggedly bearded, hastily showered and just back by helicopter from completing the Everest Marathon that morning. A couple of years earlier we had choppered up to present the prizes in Namche, and Richard had thrilled the spectators by running a symbolic 8,848m. This time, he raced the entire gruelling 42km along the trail from basecamp to Namche after days of acclimatisation. 

That same evening on the British Embassy veranda, never had any of us seen Richard so animated by achievement, flying high on pure adrenaline and total exhaustion. And that is how I like to remember our missing runner Ambassador, giving a masterly diplomatic performance, just back from Everest, tired and triumphant, and full of the joy of being alive.

Lisa Choegyal