AuthorMcIntyre, W. David
PositionBook review


Author: Neil Plimmer

Published by: Steele Roberts Aotearoa, Wellington, 2018, 315pp, $34.99.

What do diplomats do? A question often asked by people who see daily news about international crises or about endless negotiations and conferences, but who rarely meet anyone actually involved in them. And it is the nature of their profession that diplomats are, on the whole, discreet about their doings. So although historians and political scientists have covered comprehensively the evolution of New Zealand's foreign policy and have analysed the key treaties and documents, New Zealand diplomats are not the topic of biography and rarely give us autobiographies. Indeed, a deputy secretary of foreign affairs, John Larkindale, reviewing a book by a retired ambassador, suggested that 'the world has little to gain from the reminiscences of run-of-the-mill former officials' (New Zealand Review of Books, 24 February 2018).

There are exceptions; and it is worth noting a selection of these. Carl Berendsen, the pioneer of New Zealand's diplomatic corps and our first high commissioner to Canberra, left voluminous and fascinating multi-volume memoirs, which exist in typescript. And an abbreviated version edited by former minister Hugh Templeton appeared from Victoria University Press in 2009 titled Mr Ambassador. Some enlightening thoughts by New Zealand's third foreign affairs secretary, Frank Corner, and five others appeared in the Foreign Affairs jubilee volume in 1993, An Eye, An Ear, and a Voice, edited by Hugh's diplomat brother Malcolm Templeton. Gerald Hensley, who served from 1958 to 1989 and rose to head the Prime Minister's Department, wrote entertainingly in Final Approaches (Auckland University Press, 2006). More recently Gerald McGhie, who was ambassador in Moscow at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, has written in vivid detail of his activities in Balancing Acts: Reflections of a New Zealand Diplomat (Dunmore, 2017). And there is plenty of insight into what diplomats get up to in Joanna Woods's Diplomatic Ladies: New Zealand's Unsung Envoys (Otago University Press, 2012).

About a third of Neil Plimmer's memoir covers in some detail his nineteen years with MFAT and its predecessors. Joining the Department of External Affairs in 1961, assigned to the South Pacific Division, he was given the task of writing a review of the South Pacific Commissions constitution. Then, as third secretary in the high commission in...

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