Hardcover: 208 pages

Publisher: Eye Books (1 Jun. 2015)

ISBN-13: 978-1903070901

Product Dimensions: 20.1 x 13 x 2.3 cm

The Ambassador’s Wife’s Tale

Julia Miles

£12.99

"Required reading for anyone with an interest in recent 

British history and foreign policy” 

– and who likes a laugh.

Who really looks after British interests abroad? Behind the pomp of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, another powerful force is busily but discreetly propping up the image of UK Plc.

For 28 years, Julia was a ‘diplomatic spouse’, juggling a growing family while supporting the demands of one of the great Offices of State. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes terrifying, she reveals the truth of the realities of life as an Ambassador’s wife, ranging from food shortages to terrorist incidents to rubbing shoulders with the Queen, Mrs Thatcher and George Best – and rubbing knees with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Light-hearted in style, The Ambassador’s Wife Tale has a serious core message: that the diplomatic wife stands centre stage as the drama of world affairs unfolds.

Extracts

Foreign cookers often proved problematic. For an anxious hostess like me bottled gas was worrying because there was no way of telling when it would run out. Anticipating imminent pitfalls, I invited Matthew, the High Commission handyman, to demonstrate how to attach the rubber tube to a full bottle. Matthew was well meaning but none too bright and ran a lighted match round the top of the casing of one of the gas cylinders “to see if it was safe”. He had also hung my new curtains inside out, “so that people in the street could admire them”.

It was only a matter of time before I found myself in a chiffon evening dress rolling cylinders round the garden in search of a full one. I was conscious of the guests gathered in the drawing room, including the High Commissioner and his wife who were, I hoped, unaware of my struggle to cook their dinner, until I made a dishevelled appearance from the garden.

read more...

Extracts

Foreign cookers often proved problematic. For an anxious hostess like me bottled gas was worrying because there was no way of telling when it would run out. Anticipating imminent pitfalls, I invited Matthew, the High Commission handyman, to demonstrate how to attach the rubber tube to a full bottle. Matthew was well meaning but none too bright and ran a lighted match round the top of the casing of one of the gas cylinders “to see if it was safe”. He had also hung my new curtains inside out, “so that people in the street could admire them”.

It was only a matter of time before I found myself in a chiffon evening dress rolling cylinders round the garden in search of a full one. I was conscious of the guests gathered in the drawing room, including the High Commissioner and his wife who were, I hoped, unaware of my struggle to cook their dinner, until I made a dishevelled appearance from the garden.

Our Eritrean maid was the shop steward on the compound, so there was no question of dismissing her. Her face was set in a habitual expression of haughty contempt. Once I found her teaching the boys how to put plastic bags over their heads. She was a strange woman.

Some people hired local cooks and Oliver was keen that we should try one.

“He says he’s cooked for the British Army in the Hindu Kush.”

On

“Right Ali. What do you like to cook?”

“My speciality is…” – he paused for dramatic effect – “… spun sugar baskets. I put fresh fruit inside. Once I put in a live bird and all the dinner guests clapped.”

“Ali, I just need you to cook for the family.”

Andree had been in charge of American interests since the US had broken off diplomatic relations some years earlier. She had been left with the dubious privilege of owning the departed ambassador’s Cadillac which, after a recent highway contretemps, only worked in reverse gear. I never actually saw her backing up the street to a diplomatic function, but I gather that out of desperation she had actually done so. She did not arrive that morning. The first visitors were the Italian wives. “We’ve sold some of your freezers,” they reported. “To our ambassador.”

quotes

“A fantastic memoir: I raced through it in a day or two, laughing out loud several times.”

“It was only a matter of time before I found myself in a chiffon evening dress rolling gas cylinders round the garden in search of a full one…”

“Funny, personal, heart-felt and above all a revealing and unusual insight into a lifestyle that normally remains hidden.”

reviews

A world away from the usual "popular pastiche" of Foreign Office life 

(5* review)

At first glance, The Ambassador's Wife's Tale seems to belong to the predictable light-hearted, gung-ho Foreign Office memoir genre (think, for example Diplomatic Baggage by Brigid Keenan). It contains throwaway anecdotes about people extinguishing incendiary bombs in their pyjamas and singing madrigals in the desert. It's marketed accordingly, with a humorous front cover cartoon of a harassed woman juggling children, packing trunks, champagne glasses etc. Indeed the text is divided with a drawing of a cocktail glass. None of this, I think, does the book or its author justice and my concern is that it will largely be reviewed in publications whose readership enjoys the “popular pastiche” (as Simon Jenkins has put it) of diplomatic life, and that its more trenchant points will go unremarked.In short, Julia married Oliver Miles, a diplomat and Arabic specialist who regularly writes for the British press, in 1968. He had been in the Foreign Office since 1960 and the book recounts their married and family life. They were posted to Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Libya and Luxembourg and had four children. Most notably, Julia Miles was put under house arrest, then expelled from Libya with other diplomatic families following the break down in diplomatic relations after the death of WPC Yvonne Fletcher during a demonstration outside the Libyan People's Bureau in St James' Square in 1984.Miles is a good writer who skilfully outlines the changes in post-war diplomatic life and its demands on wives whose role became increasingly outmoded and frustrating as the twentieth century progressed. Alongside many others Miles told herself: “I didn’t graduate from the LSE to become an unpaid domestic servant…”

Entertaining and eye-opening 

(5* review)

A fantastic memoir: I raced through it in a day or two, laughing out loud several times. Julia Miles tells us what it was really like to be a diplomat’s wife in the 1960s, 70s and 80s – part privileged expat, part unpaid skivvy. These were not ‘easy’ postings: they included Cyprus, Saudi Arabia and most hair-raisingly, Libya at the time of the British Embassy siege. Mrs Miles is a brilliant storyteller with a gift for dialogue (“When will Madam’s clothes be arriving?” “These are my clothes,” I replied). The book is crammed with great anecdotes – from meeting the Duke of Edinburgh with her stockings around her ankles to being driven home from a Saudi wedding by a 10-year-old in his new Cadillac. But there’s a more serious side and you get the sense that here is someone who rocked the boat many times, not just for herself but for other diplomatic wives and families who otherwise were all too often forgotten. Recommended.

A rare and readable peek behind the veil of embassy life 

(5* review)

Funny, personal, heart-felt and above all a revealing and unusual insight into a lifestyle that normally remains hidden. This book is clearly meant to drive a coach and horses through the traditional stereotype of the "ambassador's wife" as an effortlessly suave and privileged lady of superior breeding and manners. And it does just that. It paints a picture of women drawn into a life of duty and commitment to their husband's career, forced to stay buttoned up, keep calm and carry on, despite being far from home and basically left to fend for themselves while trying to keep their family safe and sound.The author is clearly patriotic, but harbours (understandable) distrust and anger at the Foreign Office, which makes unreasonable demands, telling her to give up her job and forcing her to follow her husband to countries she doesn't like living in. In some ways you can put this dinosaur-like bureaucracy down to the very slow arrival of the sexual revolution in the fustier echelons of government. And it might be impossible to fully cater for the needs of a spouse and a family if you are asking them to decamp every few years to follow the breadwinner. But this book shows that diplomatic life depends to a large extent on unsung, resourceful women taking the initiative to keep the show on the road, with very little help from London.Julia Miles's experience makes me wonder if women who followed their husbands abroad throughout the British Empire have always had to cope with this kind of hidden hardship - putting a smiling face on a life that may be boring, difficult or dangerous. I suspect the answer is yes, and that this book is just the tip of the iceberg.

Required reading for anyone with an interest in recent British history and foreign policy 

(4* review)

The problem with memoirs by politicians and diplomats is that they are written by politicians and diplomats – people who throughout their professional lives have exercised such selectivity and economy with the truth that when you pick up the book you know you probably can’t believe a word in it. Juliet Miles is a diplomat’s wife and her approach is very different. Instead of seeking to set the record straight for posterity or settle old scores, she simply recounts what life was like in the countries to which her husband was posted. That was particularly interesting for me because I lived for three years in one of those countries (Libya) and I have spent (and still do spend) a great deal of time in another (Saudi Arabia). When you read what Juliet Miles has to say, you know that she is telling it exactly as she saw it and the insights into what went on behind the scenes are fascinating. Add to that that she has a sense of humour that informs the book from start to finish and you have a book that should be required reading for anyone with an interest in recent British history and foreign policy.

extras

ABOUT

Julia Miles

'When I was aged 10, I decided that I had to see everyone in the world at least once in my lifetime. I think that strange idea has remained with me and underpinned my life as a diplomat’s wife, a social worker, a probation officer and now as a psychotherapist. I like meeting people.'

Oliver, the Ambassador’s Wife’s husband, and I enjoy family life enormously and are fortunate enough to have four children and 10 grandchildren who provide excitement and volatility to what might otherwise be a dull and tranquil existence. Oliver regularly appears in the media and consults on Middle Eastern affairs. We both enjoy music and play in a trio with a bassoonist. Otherwise life consists of friends, walking the dog, reading, and visiting our beloved Greece whenever we can.”

selected works

more titles coming soon...

leave a comment