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The Throne Behind The Power

THE_THRONE_BEHIND_THE_POWERPamela O’Cuneen on diplomatic life from a spouse’s point of view

Not all spouses – in fact, not all diplomats – are born with a silver visiting card in their mouths. Not all of us even advance through the ranks, observing our seniors and betters as they pirouette expertly through the intricacies of the diplomatic dance.

Prior to finding myself married to a member of the diplomatic corps I had thought of diplomats as grey figures, involved in misty dealings in foreign parts – sort of James Bond without the gymnastics. And their wives? That was easier. Their sole occupation was attending cocktail parties, wearing little black frocks and pearls and sipping champagne from long stemmed glasses.

Then I became a junior diplomat’s wife. I met Reinhild on an African posting. Reinhild and her husband Mr D, the Head of Mission, were the acme of correctness in all things. They entertained with perfection and style.  Spending a ‘function day’ helping at the Residence my eyes were opened as to what was required of a Head of Mission’s wife. We prepared trays of canapés, stuffed hundreds of curried eggs, fried a million prawns in batter, buttered mini rolls to absorb the alcohol consumed by hungry guests, and arranged umpteen dishes of cold meats. Her job was to  plan,  think of the logistics, and keep an eagle eye on the food, the drink, the happiness and sobriety of guests, whether they number a dozen or several hundred. As the unpaid central co-ordinator,  the wife of the Head of Mission does all this, while looking immaculate, appearing to be making social chit chat.

Then my husband was nominated as Head of Mission. It was an Irish promotion, he always said, since the price was that his first posting in this role was in Angola during the Civil War. But promotion was promotion.

The first indication of how much life might change came when Reinhild arrived at the door, highly excited at the news. Smiling broadly she thrust a bouquet of flowers into my hands with the words: ‘Félicitations, Madame!’ She followed up a few days later with the offer of a coffee morning to ‘pass on some information’ about the new job. She felt there were things I might need to know. How right she was.

Reinhild produced an elegant silver tray of coffee and petits fours and a series of lists. Further coffee mornings followed and each session left sleepless nights in its wake. There were pages of notes on every aspect of protocol. Notes on the correct setting of tables. Notes on organising and running a cocktail party for up to 400 people. Notes on the seating of dignitaries and how to take care of ‘honoured guests’. Notes on the correct place to sit in the official car in all of its permutations – the position varying like chess moves, depending on whether one’s companion was king, knight or pawn. There were notes on welcoming guests, controlling bar staff (particularly those prone to drinking the dregs from guests’ glasses) and accepting presents (never). How much and what kind of charitable work to undertake. How, where and to whom to pay official visits and for how long, how to receive an official visit and what to do if someone who ought to pay a visit, doesn’t. Notes on the food that could be served to different nationalities and how to unobtrusively eject an inebriated VIP from a function.

And there were notes on what to wear. A diplomat should never be seen in a brown suit or a checked shirt, it seemed, and for some completely unfathomable reason now disappeared into the distant past, white shoes should not be worn by ladies. I have never found out why, but it has remained amusedly engraved on my memory. There were notes on when to take part in gossip or express a political opinion (absolutely never – you never know what hornets’ nests you might stir).

And then there was the equipment. Even in wartime Angola, formal entertaining at professional standards was expected. There was therefore a king’s ransom to be spent on table settings for 14 people, plates for buffets, equivalent cutlery and glassware plus 200 cheap glasses for cocktails. We would need table linen to seat 14, huge saucepans, fish kettles, flower vases, silver tea and coffee services, candelabra – the list went on. I learned the subterfuges to use in order to ascertain the religion or food taboos of invited guests, and the importance of reminding African guests on the morning of a dinner party, lest more important family events might have occurred meantime. I heard about the necessity of being prepared for guests to arrive minus wives, with two, not at all, or perhaps with four or five friends who happened to be visiting at the time.

This promotion would come at a price. I learned the importance of humility before almost everyone, other diplomats and their wives, local dignitaries and visitors from HQ, and the wisdom of always taking the last place even at one’s own National Day. In short, I discovered that my role was henceforth to be that of caterer, purveyor of endless repasts of professional standard, unobtrusive smoother of ways, beautifully dressed and acquiescent shadow of my husband at all times and echoer of his political position. I would also be a consummate interior decorator, arranger of flowers, purveyor of little gifts and soother of male egos nunc et in aeternum. It promised a whole new lifestyle, one I had never aspired to, and quite frankly I was terrified!

On the other hand, through the terrors and trials, there was a certain amount of diversion to be had.  Things happened, particularly in developing countries, that I would never have expected and it was usually better to laugh than cry, particularly when my first housekeeper  proved to be the housekeeper from hell.

And I was particularly amused when things went wrong. This could happen all too often in Luanda during a time when the country’s infrastructure was in shreds.

A particularly memorable dinner took place at the Chinese Ambassador’s Residence. He lived in an apartment in one of the better tower blocks (ie one that had running water).  The décor included an emperor-sized Chinese screen and two ten-foot-high fringed and carved lamps like mini street lights. The Ambassador spoke only Chinese (it was said). In attendance were his two interpreters, one for Portuguese and one for English. It was a formal 12-course Chinese banquet. Each guest had a member of the Chinese Embassy sitting at his or her elbow to ensure that food was served and eaten, that glasses were filled regularly with potent rice wine, and tossed back with the exhortation ‘Kampai!’ As a non-drinker, I found these multiple toasts a serious challenge and eventually compromised by just touching my lips to the glass. It was a choice between the Chinese tradition of hospitality, or a ferocious migraine the next day.

The conversation struggled as each remark was translated from Chinese to English, from English to Portuguese, and back again. When a joke was told, we all had to laugh three times. Phrases were translated into Chinese and emerged twice as long. Did I really say all that? By this laboured method the Chinese Ambassador grilled his diplomatic guests mercilessly. At the end of the evening there was a distinct coolness in Sino-European relations. One of the senior western ambassadors emerged from the evening saying: ‘Bloody hell! The bastard milked us all night and gave nothing away himself!’

And there was the wonderful moment when I asked one of the most senior ambassador’s wives how things were going with a high-ranking visitor from her home country, who was staying in the Residence. She looked at me for a moment, then burst out with ‘I hate ’im, I hate ’im!’ Incessant demands she could deal with, but the last straw was being asked to clean his shoes!

I do have to confess to a diplomatic gaffe of my own. Reinhild, in her coffee morning lessons, had made clear that there was only one meat that could safely be served to all cults, creeds and nationalities, and that was chicken. It was something I should have remembered. In Angola, chicken was plentiful. We ate it constantly.

Be that as it may, we were fortunate to have a house that was more or less functional, with food in the freezers. Not so fortunate was the Indian Ambassador who had been living in the Hotel Presidente for more than a year and was becoming ever more depressed and pessimistic. We decided to cheer him up a bit and invited him for a meal. I delved into the freezer to find something really special – not chicken – to give him a treat. It was only when I was about to serve up that I realised what I had done. I was about to serve fillet steak to the Indian ambassador. He looked at it, and at my dismay. Smiling, he said, with beautiful diplomacy: ‘Well, I’m sure it’s a foreign cow!’ And ate it.




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