Monday, January 28, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“DIPLOMATIC LADIES – NEW ZEALAND’S UNSUNG ENVOYS” by Joanna Woods (Otago University Press, $NZ49:99)
“A WOMAN’S PLACE” compiled by Redmer Yska (Penguin, $NZ24:99)

I admit to approaching this very interesting book with some diffidence. I was almost put off by the front cover of Diplomatic Ladies. It has, against a pink background, the smiling photograph of a fashionably-dressed 1950s diplomat’s wife. In conjunction with that ambiguous word “ladies”, the image and design at once suggest something light, frivolous, gossipy and a little silly. Not my cup of tea. But I long since learned not to judge books by their covers, and I discovered that Diplomatic Ladies is not these things.

Well, not only these things.

Researched and written by a New Zealand diplomat’s wife, Diplomatic Ladies is an informal history of the wives and female partners of New Zealand diplomats, drawing on archives, interviews and the author’s own observations. As the subtitle, “New Zealand’s Unsung Envoys”, suggests, Joanna Woods has a high opinion of the women who have partnered men in New Zealand’s embassies, high commissions and special missions. In her introduction she declares:

As hostesses to prime ministers and princes, and witnesses to revolutions and war, diplomatic wives can … find themselves in the front line of international politics. Yet their role has been ignored by historians and their stories have never been told. The realisation that unless somebody wrote them down, many of these stories would be lost, was a powerful incentive to write this book.” (Pg.12)

She also implies some ambiguity in her attitude to the diplomatic service itself:

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has had no hand in writing this book, but in the interests of New Zealand’s external relations, I have tried to avoid any comments that might give offence to other nations. On the other hand, I have not minced words on the downside of a career in diplomacy – or of the perils of living on ‘the cocktail party circuit’ ”. (Pg.12)

Though there are some continuing themes in this book, most of what follows resolves itself into individual stories.

            The first chapter is a corker – the much-told story of the scandal that engulfed the daughter of William and Maud Pember Reeves. Here were the Pember Reeveses in London, officially representing New Zealand trade in an age before New Zealand had its own diplomatic service (all our foreign policy was then decided by London). Maud was busy promoting women’s suffrage. William was joining Maud in making big noises at the Fabian Society. Such progressive forward-thinking gradualist socialist people they were. And of course they laughingly criticised the puritanical social customs of the day. And of course they loved rubbing shoulders with the likes of H.G.Wells. And of course they thought it was good for their brilliant young daughter Amber to rub shoulders with him too. But – oh dear! oh woe! – how different their attitudes became when H.G.Wells, advocate of “free love”, got Amber pregnant. This was much to the chagrin of Wells’ wife Jane, who quite clearly didn’t share her husband’s enthusiasm for “open” marriages. Shock. Horror. Outrage. Apart from telling us what a self-justifying humbug H.G.Wells could be, this narrative continues to be a very funny example of intellectuals who never think through the consequences of their own attitudes; or who imagine that radical ideas are excellent for other people, but that they themselves are somehow exempt. Never construct a system of morality unless you are willing to be bound by it yourself, I say.

            Dare one comment, however, that Maud Pember Reeves, the “diplomatic lady” in question, isn’t really the central figure in the story?

            Jumping forward over thirty years, Joanna Woods then tells us in Chapter 2 of a very different couple, Charles and Jean Boswell, New Zealand’s first representatives in the Soviet Union after New Zealand’s own diplomatic service was set up in 1943. Again, this is an amusing chapter, although in a very different way from the first. It is clear that the ambassador and his wife were surrounded at the embassy by other and younger New Zealanders, who were more starry-eyed about Stalin and Communism than the Boswells were. (Among them was the duplicitous and dishonest Paddy Costello who - pace James McNeish’s over-generous book about him, The Sixth Man  - Joanna Woods seems inclined to think really was a Soviet spy.) Jean Boswell took her revenge, when she returned to New Zealand, by penning a series of newspaper articles about what life in the Soviet Union was really like – drab, pinched, poor, dictatorial and definitely unfree. Okay, so the articles were part of the earlier phases of the Cold War; but for accuracy they have stood the test of time far better than anything Costello and his buddies wrote on the subject. Comparing this chapter with Chapter 11, one is relieved to see that later generations of young New Zealand diplomats posted to Moscow were a lot more sceptical of the Soviet system than the gullible Costello generation had been.

            I will not annoy you by synopsising every one of this book’s 21 chapters, but I do note that these first two chapters set a high standard.

            Some chapters are very domestic in their focus. The account (Chapter 3) of Eileen Powles, wife of our High Commissioner in Samoa (before Samoan independence in 1962) does say a few things about the appalling reputation New Zealand had to live down in Samoa, after its colonialist mistreatments of Samoans. But it mainly concentrates on Eileen Powles’ refurbishing of the large, run-down residency, and her interest in organising Samoan women’s committees. Eileen’s husband was knighted, says Joanna Woods, “but Eileen received no such personal honours. Her reward was her husband’s happiness and the privilege of being the mistress of Vailima”. (Pg.53) This suggests values different from those of our age, as does the rather defensive chapter (Chapter 7) on the formidable ambassador’s wife Marguerite Scott, with her drafted code of conduct that offended younger, more feminist women in embassies in the 1970s. Scott was as shocked at her daughter’s extra-marital pregnancy as the Pember Reeveses had been in a similar situation sixty years earlier.

Just as domestic is the chapter (Chapter 6) which reproduces the letters of Moira Simcock, wife of the Third Secretary in Delhi, who wrote to “Dear Mama” on the difficulties of giving birth to, and bringing up, three small boys in our Indian embassy. The chapter (Chapter 10) on Janine and Don Hunn in Tonga does make wry comment on a failed New Zealand attempt to boost the Samoan economy, but is more concerned with how the good diplomatic wife dealt with the Tongan king and royal court.

Some chapters take me into a world I find more than a little alienating. To read (Chapter 4) of Lyn Corner, the art-collecting wife of Frank Corner, is like being at one of those tedious Wellington parties where awfully liberal people lead awfully privileged lives with government or academic connections. I have the same impression reading (Chapter 9) about the art-works of diplomatic wife Piera McArthur, even if I quite like her stuff, some of which I regularly see hanging in the home of a friend. The tale (Chapter 8) of Jane, daughter of Our Man in Canada Dean Eyre, and her friendship with Pierre Trudeau, is no more than a mildly amusing anecdote.

On the other hand, there are chapters where Woods conveys some of the dangers that can be part of the diplomatic life. In Chapter 5, there is the account of Alison Howell (wife of the Third Secretary) in Saigon at the time of the Tet Offensive. Chapter 12, about a diplomatic couple in New Guinea, may concentrate on the wife’s difficulties in running a household, but it also shows how fraught life could be amidst the “raskols” of Port Moresby. Joanna Woods gives own account (Chapter 14) of her time as wife to our ambassador to Iran in 1980s, when the war with Iraq was on and bombs were raining down. Barbara Hill, wife of Second Secretary at the New Zealand High Commission in Fiji, went through Rabuka coups in the 1980s (Chapter 17).   Chapter 21 concerns a diplomatic spouse in New York at the time of the 9/11 attacks.

Perhaps inevitable in an account of small diplomatic circles, there is some juicy gossip. The sex life of New Zealand diplomat Paul Edmonds gets a going-over at pp.76-77. The whole of Chapter 19 is devoted to the National Party mediocrity John Collinge who, purely out of political cronyism, was made High Commissioner in London in the 1990s, deserted one mistress for another, and managed not to be present when the two women fought publicly over him in a London courtroom. More serious in intent is Chapter 20, about homosexuals in the diplomatic service and the relatively recent extension to same-sex partners of allowances that were once reserved for spouses. As background to this, Woods discusses the career, in the 1940s and 1950s, of Alister McIntosh, the closet homosexual who essentially founded New Zealand’s diplomatic service (Woods cautiously raises possibility that he didn’t tell his wife-of-convenience of his other sexual activities. Certainly he treated her badly).

A chronologically-ordered set of stories can’t help showing how attitudes have changed in some ways. In the chapter on Marguerite Scott, Joanna Woods notes:

 “To the young women of the ‘70s, the notion that a wife’s social position depended entirely on the rank of her husband and that she had a ‘duty’ to engage in representational activities was like a red rag to a bull.” (Pg.105)

Chapter 13, wryly called “The Abolition of Slavery”, concerns the way diplomatic wives were, by the 1970s, gradually gaining the right to have paid employment of their own, rather than being unpaid entertainers and hostesses. This change is reflected in Chapter 16 concerning Jill Caughley, wife of a diplomat, with her own career as a Red Cross medico in stressful places like Cambodia and Afghanistan. Indeed, Caughley’s diplomat husband is hardly mentioned in the chapter. In Chapter 18, it is the woman, Michele Wood, who is the diplomat in Iraq with her husband Geoff trailing after her at the time Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

There are some tart observations. Woods would appear to be (in Chapter 15) as ambiguous about Ed Hillary’s “Official Companion” in Nepal – who later became Hillary’s second wife  - as were some of the other diplomatic wives. The “Official Companion” was awarded a QSM for doing things other diplomatic women did as a matter of course. In Chapter 18, as Joanna Woods tells it, David Lange is seen engaging in an awful piece of tactless bluster as he slagged off diplomatic staff in Iraq. Then there is that issue of some senior diplomatic postings going, as rewards, to past-it politicians. Relating to the appointment of Dean Eyre to Canada, Woods says:

 “To those who had spent long years learning their trade, the government’s practice of rewarding political cronies with top-level posts was little short of an insult, especially as such appointments were often used to dispose of those who were past their sell-by date.”  (Pg.117)

Only on the last two pages does Woods address the proposed government budget-trimming, which would abolish all allowances to spouses and partners (and in effect make diplomacy an attractive career only to the single, the unloved and the unlovable).

I cannot categorise Diplomatic Ladies easily as entertainment or serious history – it has elements of both and at least some of its contents are more whimsical than others. It does not make me like diplomatic circles as much as Woods obviously does. In at least some of the chapters there is the sense of a twittery and self-important in-group. But it is by turns interesting and entertaining; it had enough interest to keep me reading; and it is not to be judged only by its cover.

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Much more obviously than Diplomatic Ladies, a commentary on the changed status of women is the whole purpose of A Woman’s Place. Redmer Yska’s little compilation is meant to elicit 50% nostalgia and 50% chortles of disbelief. It is made up of a selection of New Zealand advertisements aimed at women, editorials concerning women and advice about women dished out by agony aunts from the 1940s to the 1960s. Most of the contents are extracted from the old NZ Truth, but with a few things from Wellington newspapers and old “home economics” guides.

So we snigger at ads for Colmans Mustard or Kruschen Salts or Palmolive Soap in which women are depicted as silly housewives, waiting for gifts from hubby or having their whole world-view altered by a clean oven top or rejoicing that their sponge-cake won the prize at the local fair. So patronising. So sexist. So funny. The copywriters’ words are doggedly non-PC by current standards, as are the quaint images. The expectations for women in 1963 are not those of 2013.

And yet…. And yet…. Incorrigible spoilsport that I am, I start asking whether the advertisements here resurrected are any more unrealistic or demeaning than the advertisements of our own age. Surely, in 2063, there will be as much chortling over 2013 ads selling products with images of super-models and brainless bimbos as there is now chortling over images of 1963’s brainless housewife. Ads wouldn’t work at all if they didn’t actually appeal to their market. Therefore, presumably, the lady who stressed over having the right brand of tea to give her neighbours was a social reality half a century ago. And advertisers have never been out to better the world. They simply want to move goods.

Anyway, slightly smug though the concept is, and dead easy as an object of satire, A Woman’s Place is an amusing bedside book for that last chuckle before lights out. 

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