Our man in Nepal on being the face of Britain with a visible difference

Joe Shute
Richard Morris, centre, in Nepal - Richard Morris

Richard Morris is the face of Britain in Nepal. That his bears a visible difference – our man in Kathmandu was born with a port wine stain birthmark along the left side of his face – is something of which he is justifiably proud. But also it has bought about its own challenges in diplomacy.

There was the time, during a previous posting in Sydney, where a television film crew placed him on the opposite side of the interviewer in an attempt to obscure his birthmark from viewers. On other occasions at official engagements, he has noticed photographers attempting to pull a similar trick.

Elsewhere, when gathered together with other international envoys, he has been accosted by well-meaning protection officers of other countries rushing to his aid, presuming he is bleeding. Flying between diplomatic missions, sometimes over-attentive air stewards have made the same mistake.

“They are always mortified in all cases afterwards,” Morris says, smiling with the learned patience of a man well versed in dealing with such blunders. “All my life people point and stare. I’m completely used to it.”

Prince Harry accompanied by Richard Morris during a visit to Nepal in 2016 Credit: Danny Martindale

Morris has been in post in Nepal since November 2015, six months after the dreadful earthquake that decimated so much of the country and claimed some 9,000 lives. Such was the scale of the destruction that whole villages were wiped out and tents pitched on the lawn of the ambassadorial residence in Kathmandu.

As well as assisting with efforts to rebuild the country, he is the latest incumbent advancing a diplomatic relationship which stretches back 202 years. His work entails everything from accompanying Prince Harry on a tour in 2016 to boosting links with the Gurkhas.

In spite of the inevitable stares, he believes looking different has actually brought great advantage during his Foreign Office career, which started in 1990. “I have a memorable face,” he says. “When I’m among lots of ambassadors, the Brit is the one people remember because of the way I look.”

But the 50-year-old married father-of-three and high profile supporter of Changing Faces – which campaigns to break down stigma around visible differences, and the Telegraph is backing in its Christmas charity appeal – has not always been so comfortable in his own skin.

Born in Droitwich, Worcestershire, to a family of teachers and with a younger sister, it was only on his first day of primary school that he recalls becoming aware of somehow looking different. “I remember talking about it and having to explain to people and suddenly not being sure of my own ground,” he says. “But at that age, five minutes later and you are back in the sandpit.”

The local comprehensive, Droitwich High School, presented a far tougher challenge. 

Richard Morris with his wife, Alison, and children Credit: family photo

The cruelty that children have to endure was highlighted earlier this month, with the shocking video of a Syrian refugee attacked on a school field in Huddersfield, which prompted Home Secretary Sajid Javid to reveal the racist bullying he too suffered at school and how it stays with you later in life.

Morris is at pains to emphasise his experience did not fall into this bracket. “It wasn’t bullying in the sense of the same people long term,” he says. “Rather just an awful lot of people being thoughtless. People would call me names, tease me, or scream when they saw me, which isn’t a nice experience. There is a level of every day stuff you put up with… Probably I was the most obvious one in a group to have a pop at.”

In his early teenage years, he decided to undergo laser surgery in an attempt to remove the birthmark. Back then the techniques were somewhat rudimentary – and agonising. Morris received a local anesthetic while the laser moved down his face in lines. His mother accompanying him in the hospital room thought she could smell cooking before realising it was his face. The procedure was eventually halted.

“I realised then I needed to be comfortable in my skin rather than changing it,” Morris says, although he stresses that he totally respects the decision of others who do opt for surgery to address facial differences.

“I thought if I do this I would look like a version of me, rather than the whole of me. I decided then to try and get used to it and be happy with how I am.”

Morris was academically gifted, which he says helped distract him from the playground taunts. His family, too, were a rock of support throughout his teenage years, with his parents giving him emotional tools to deal with the day-to-day stares.

Some he continues to use today, such as stopping to explain what his birthmark is whenever he hears children loudly questioning their parents in the supermarket. “My parents used to tell me ‘You stand out, and “outstanding” sounds like that’,” he says.

He remains thankful, however, that he did not grow up in the digital era where bullies follow children home into their bedrooms via their computer and smart phone screens. “That must be very hard,” he says. “I feel for young people with visible facial differences if they are experiencing that.”

At times, adults proved similarly unthinking. Ever the diplomat, he will not divulge their identity, but someone once told Morris that nobody would ever marry him, and how that was a fact he simply must learn to accept. “I remember thinking: ‘Wow, that’s not the plan’,” he says.

Undaunted, he asked out various girls at school, dating some of them and, like any teenage boy, also receiving his fair share of formative rejections. One early girlfriend eventually became his wife, Alison.

The pair went off to different universities – Morris to Abersytwyth and then a year scholarship in Illinois – but resumed their relationship in their early 20s, and have now been married for 26 years.

Prince Harry and Richard Morris in Nepal Credit: Andrew Parsons

They have spent the majority of their adult lives overseas: before Nepal, Morris was the British consul general in Sydney, Mexico and also worked in the British High Commissions in Barbados and Ottawa. They have three children – Julia, 22, Charles, 21, and Luke, 15 – who remain in Britain, continuing with their studies.

Morris says his own painful childhood memories have helped with the advice he dispenses to his children. “I say to them nobody ever looks the way they want to. Everyone has their own hang-ups. You might as well and try and be comfortable in the skin you’ve got and also not to be limited by anything.”

He admits he is lucky to have been able to develop such robust perspective and, in between representing his country, he has also become an ambassador for Changing Faces in order to help support others living with visible facial differences.

As part of this work, he has invited representatives from the charity to Foreign Office events and spoken at numerous events in support of its campaigns. Most recently, he trekked to Everest base camp with his youngest son to wave a Changing Faces banner on the world’s highest mountain.

Despite his personal success, Morris admits there was no “filmic” moment in his own life where he suddenly came to terms with living with a facial difference.

“Instead of one big moment, rather it has been about the accretion of small victories,” he says. “The gradual realisation that actually this is going to be alright.”

Changing Faces is one of the Telegraph’s three chosen charities for our 2018 Christmas appeal. For details of how to donate, please call our charity phone line on 0151 284 1927, or visit telegraph.ctdonate.org