Adam Bennett

Adam is a political reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Diplomatic wives' tales

Book reveals life of embassy spouse more than just cocktails, fine dining and servants.

Joanna Woods, wrote Diplomatic Ladies, based on her experiences as a senior diplomat's wife. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Joanna Woods, wrote Diplomatic Ladies, based on her experiences as a senior diplomat's wife. Photo / Mark Mitchell

When plans to slash $25 million from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade's budget emerged early last year, Joanna Woods' book Diplomatic Ladies suddenly became a lot more topical.

The author and Katherine Mansfield scholar - who is married to former senior diplomat and spymaster Richard Woods - was just finishing her book when the furore over the restructuring was building.

In early March as details of the restructuring emerged, including cuts to allowances for diplomats posted overseas, the women (and sometimes men) Mrs Woods calls New Zealand's "unsung envoys" spoke up for themselves.

Following an open letter in which they threatened to urge their husbands and partners to leave the diplomatic service unless the ministry backed off the cuts, the group had a "stormy" meeting with chief executive John Allen.

"This then made its way to the Beehive pretty fast," says Mrs Woods, and the next morning Prime Minister John Key made his first comment, saying the proposed cuts were "a bit aggressive".

Mrs Woods believes it was from that point that the ministry was forced to rethink its plans.

The incident provided a telling postscript in Mrs Woods' book about the the group's influence.

Publicly it sparked recognition that "the wives and spouses actually make a big contribution, that they were part of the team whether they liked it or not".

While it might have been useful in building the case for restructuring for the Government to encourage the perception that diplomats and their spouses enjoyed a cushy life of cocktails and fine dining and serving staff, "I knew that was not the story at all".

Yes, some diplomat's spouses had staff "but that's because the house is run like a hotel" with ministers and other VIP guests often staying and being entertained "at a very high level".

On top of managing that unpaid work, "a lot of wives had faced very real dangers and discomforts".

It was the stories of those women - and occasionally men - Mrs Woods tells in her new book.

"I knew all the wives who had been through the Fiji coup, who had been in New York on September 11, and through the Allende coup in Chile. These women were often witnesses to world events and they were half the story."

However it's not just diplomats' wives' tales that are told.

The book is positively racy when it describes the antics of some of New Zealand's diplomatic daughters, one of whom explored Fabian principles of free love with author H.G. Wells in Edwardian London.

Another almost froze to death after frolicking in the snow following a sauna with Canada's playboy Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

Diplomats' girlfriends also get a look in with a chapter about former National Party president John Collinge's escapades as High Commissioner in London, including the now alleged dining room table incident.

Mrs Woods devotes a chapter to a brief discussion of gays in the diplomatic service, beginning with its founder, Alister McIntosh, whose homosexuality probably cost him the job of first Commonwealth Secretary.

Mrs Woods, who is originally from Ireland, tells her own story, including her first meeting with her husband, Richard, in Rome in 1970 and their two stints in Iran - first the high life in Tehran under the Shah immediately before the 1979 revolution and then the far more austere existence under the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini.

The book also tells of how New Zealand came to own its embassy in Paris.

The famously opulent home, which Mrs Woods says is "a building no man would buy", was purchased and extravagantly furnished in 1949 by charge d'affaires Jean McKenzie with money paid by the French Government in exchange for New Zealand's support of its Pacific colonies during World War II.

However, it is earmarked for sale in the ministry's restructuring.

"I think it's incredibly short sighted to sell it, really heartbreaking."

- NZ Herald

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