Kia Ora, welcome back to Brazen. The podcast featuring uncensored stories from unabashed women.
I’m Susie Ferguson and in this episode we’re going to hear from someone who was mentioned in the last episode. That’s British High Commissioner to New Zealand, Laura Clarke. Now another part of Laura’s job is that she’s also Governor of Pitcairn Island and every few months takes an arduous journey of days and days by air and sea to visit Pitcairn and check in with its population of about … 50.
Laura’s one of the youngest British High Commissioners in the world. She’s super smart, funny and an all-round incredible woman and sensibly she married a Kiwi.
Last time round we heard from justice advocate Julia Whaipooti, who amongst other things talked about Laura’s expression of regret for the Māori killed when Captain Cook arrived in Aotearoa. In this episode, we’ll hear about that from Laura’s point of view.
She’s also a mother of three, which as you’re about to hear can make working life … well shall we say interesting?
Laura Clarke: When I arrived, my youngest was three, I realised quite early on that I should never host an official function while wearing a wide skirt. It’s very hard to hold down a series conversation with a minister if you have a whole person hiding under your skirt. So I learnt that one. There was a time when my daughter hit a cabinet minister on the bottom.
Susie: Which cabinet minister?
Laura: I couldn’t possibly say. But he was very nice about it. It was a sort of faint blushing on all sides, but he was very nice about it. And then there was a reception that we were having around Halloween where my kids managed to put some severed fingers onto the tray of canapes.
Laura: Delicious. But mostly they’re an asset. And it makes them feel involved and part of it, which is really nice.
Susie: Is it helpful having other people to help you, be that family, whanau, nannies, whatever? Because one of the things I have often struggled with in my career is, if one of the children’s sick, how do you deal with it? What do you do? Because we always took the view that my husband would take the time off to have the day with the children, take the domestic leave, because it made him look like a hero in the office, and it meant that I could kind of sail on regardless. I wouldn’t have to take the hit. Have you ever thought about that kind of stuff?
Laura: Yeah we do, and the best advice we ever got, so we had our first two children in very quick succession. So our second was what we like to call uninvited but welcome. And at the time we had friends who had had three kids in a year. They’d had one in January, and two in December. I kid you not. I still remember meeting her after she’d had the scan for the second batch and her looking completely white and saying, “It’s twins.”
Anyway, their advice was, ‘you’ve got to build a tribe’. You should never think, actually you can just manage it with two parents. You’ve got to have a whole load of people that the kids love and trust. But you know, we often just find ourselves scrabbling around. Last week I was at Waitangi, our nanny was sick, Toby was stuck at work, and so I had to sort of scrabble round and find a solution for the kids after school, and that’s, sometimes it’s just them staying longer at school, sometimes it’s friends picking them up, and just muddling through.
Susie: Do they get clingy? Cause I know you both do quite a lot of travelling, and my younger one can often get very… she’s really plugged in to me, and if I go away somewhere it’s tears, it’s not quite her clasped onto my leg as I’m walking out the front door but sometimes it feels a bit like that. How easy or difficult is it to deal with the children and their expectations of you as their mum and dad in that sort of arena?
Laura: It is hard. They’re pretty good at it, they’re pretty understanding of my job. I really try, when I’ve been away I then try not to have too many evening things, I try and compensate or take some time out to be with them. We also have got Toby’s parents live in north of Auckland so they come down and help. So it’s really about having that wider group. But yeah, it’s hard. I think it’s just as hard on me sometimes as well. I miss them. They’re sort of just carrying on their normal life. But yeah, we just muddle through, I think.
Susie: About your job, are you the youngest High Commissioner that the UK’s got, or ambassador?
Laura: So probably not in the global network. I think I am the youngest British High Commissioner to New Zealand. But I think we’ve had younger High Commissioners elsewhere, sometimes in some of our smaller countries, yeah.
Susie: Cause I guess, achieving a lot at a young age can be a great thing, but I guess how do you view it?
Laura: So firstly I think I’m maybe not all that young. I’m well into my 40s. I think that the 30s are the crunch years. So in my thirties I had three kids in four years, I did a lot career-wise, we moved from London to South Africa to London to New Zealand, and quite frankly right now I’m just enjoying being out of that really hectic phase where, you know, I can now get enough sleep at night, things are a little bit more in order, and yeah, I think it’s about feeling that you can account for your time. But then seeing what opportunities come up next.
Susie: What opportunities do you think are next for you? Are you one of those people who makes five-year plans or ten-year plans?
Laura: Normally not. I did really want this job. So I went round and told everyone that I thought this job had my name on it. But normally, I think particularly in this line of work of being a diplomat and moving around a lot, you’ve got to be good at dealing with ambiguity.
So I don’t know what we’re going to do next. Are we going to go back to the UK, are we going to go elsewhere? All I really want to do is have a job that I find fulfilling, that I feel I can make a positive difference in some way, and that gets that right balance between my career, Toby’s career, kids, all that sort of thing. So within those parameters, I’m really always just open to see what opportunities come up. And I often think the longer you leave it, the more you get a sense of what the opportunities are.
Susie: Your husband’s a New Zealander, so is staying an option?
Laura: Well if you ask my mother-in-law, we’re definitely staying. Because we love it here so much that we will stay forever. If you ask my mother, it’s very important that we do a posting in Europe next. So we’ll have to see how it pans out.
Susie: Which of the mothers is going to win?
Susie: So I suppose, thinking about New Zealand, one of the big things that you were in the headlines a lot for recently was the expression of regret around the arrival of Captain James Cook. Where did that come from? Where did the notion of making that statement come from?
Laura: Well it came back from the iwi, from the Gisborne iwi and hapū, who came and saw me in, I think it was December 2018, and they said, we have been carrying this with us from generation to generation, we would like to have some process of reconciliation.
And so then I took that away and worked it through with my British system, and then we came back with this expression of regret, expressing regret for those deaths, being very clear that this is not how we would have wanted those very first encounters to have happened.
And for me it was quite a personal thing, it was very much based on those relationships, and on that very human need for acknowledgement, for that story to be properly heard and acknowledged, and for that pain to be properly heard and acknowledged. But it was also absolutely the position of the British government that this was the right thing to do, as part of our overall desire to have the best possible relationship with New Zealand. With the Crown and with Te Ao Māori. And so it was very much a personal commitment from me, but also a general position of the British government.
Susie: Were you surprised when the iwi came to you and approached you in the first place?
Laura: I’d had a bit of a heads-up, but I have to say, I didn’t know that history before I came here. It’s not something, and I think this speaks to the importance of learning our history, of teaching our history, and of course you learn about Captain Cook when you’re at school. You learn about all the explorers but you don’t necessarily learn about those first encounters that don’t go well. And I always think that, particularly as diplomats, it’s really important that we understand our history, we understand where we’ve come from, we understand what the UK or the British Empire was like in the past, and also how that is still perceived, and what narrative there is in the countries to which we’re posted.
You need to absolutely understand that in order to gauge your engagement right and be able to build the right sort of relationships.
Susie: And is that kind of uncomfortable? Especially from your perspective, where your job title explicitly acknowledges the Commonwealth, cause you’re a High Commissioner not an ambassador? And I suppose the Commonwealth reflects the empire, we’re going back into that. How comfortable a position is that?
Laura: I think it’s fine, because things evolve. And yet, you know, you need to know where you’ve come from, you need to know what the past is and you need to look at that with clear eyes and be aware where things happened that we wouldn’t have wanted to have happened.
But the Commonwealth is a very different organisation now. What’s really interesting is that countries really want to be a part of it. They see it as a really useful network. We’ve had the Maldives just re-join just very recently. We’ve got countries like Rwanda who weren’t part of the British Empire who have joined voluntarily. And so it has become, even though its roots are in that history, it’s very much now a choice that countries make to opt in, because they see benefits in terms of their shared values, shared language, shared history, and there’s this lovely thing called the Commonwealth Trade Advantage, which means that it costs 19% less to trade between Commonwealth countries because of that shared language, similar legal systems, all that sort of thing. So I think it’s about acknowledging where you’ve come from but working out what’s in it for you now. And I think that’s what most countries do.
Susie: There were hapū, there were iwi at the time who didn’t want to engage. I guess you just have to, to some extent, shrug your shoulders and leave it at that, but how did you find that? When there were some people who very much did want to be part of it and some people who turned their backs?
Laura: So the engagement was in response to a request from an iwi collective, three iwi, Turangi iwi, and the Ngāti Oneone hapū, and they all came together and made this request, essentially. So it was in response to them. And they I think together represented the descendants of those who were killed. And I think perhaps that’s why it kind of worked well. Because it was their opening request, and it wasn’t just about the reconciliation and looking at the past, it was also about a forward-looking relationship in terms of connection with taonga held in the UK, and we’ve been able to do quite a lot in that space as well. We did a delegation last year connecting iwi with the various cultural institutions in the UK. So it was very much a sort of partnership approach. And then what we did in early October was very much co-designed, so we very much worked through with the iwi, and on our side what our respective equities were and sensitivities and kind of designed it in a way that worked for everyone.
Susie: In terms of taonga, treasures, artefacts being given back or sent back, is Britain moving fast enough? Cause you go to the British Museum, and there are some things that are British in there, like the Lewis chessmen, although they’re Scottish so that might not be British for much longer, how far, how quickly should Britain move in that space? Giving stuff back.
Laura: Yeah, it’s a big question, isn’t it? And I think that what I saw when I was back and we went round all these amazing institutions, was a real appetite to engage, to have a really open dialogue, to share learnings, for them to learn from the iwi, and a big focus also on improving access, supporting scholarships, we’ve got three scholarships of students going from New Zealand over to study various taonga in the UK and then bring back the Mātauranga, bring the knowledge back. And also I know that some museums are going for a policy of long-term loans. So there’s an exhibition in Te Rawhiti Gisborne with a whole load of the taonga that left New Zealand way back in 1769.
So there’s definitely a desire to engage and an appetite to engage. What is the long-term trajectory? I don’t know. It’s kind of probably not for me to set. But what I’m happy about is we are able to make those connections and then form those relationships in a forward-looking way.
Susie: Because that history is kind of uncomfortable, walking through, to come up here, we’re sitting in the British High Commission talking to you, there’s a statue, or a bust I suppose it is, of Captain James Cook that you have in the foyer, and that’s kind of…I guess I’m interested in the colonisation factor and whether you see that as something that’s still going on in this country.
Laura: I think colonisation is not still going on. Certainly not British colonisation. But I think you can’t deny that there are some legacies and impacts that continue. Absolutely. And in New Zealand of course it’s very interesting constitutionally, isn’t it, because from 1840 and the Treaty of Waitangi it’s really the New Zealand Crown that you’re looking at, but either way you’ve got that experience of colonisation and some of those impacts being felt on an ongoing basis, yeah.
Susie: But for you it’s very important to bring in a Māori advisor. Again, did that all come as part of the expression of regret, as part of the engagement with iwi, or is that separate?
Laura: No, it didn’t. What was interesting was that predated the whole, all the, Cook and the 250 and the expression of regret work. That was simply that, when I arrived here in 2018, I realised quite quickly that we needed to be engaging in a more strategic way with iwi, with Te Ao Māori. You’ve got your channels to engage with the Crown, but in bicultural New Zealand, you need to be engaging more thoroughly with Māoridom. And so it was about looking at what we could do in the trade space, what we could do in the cultural space, building those relationships, looking at the people to people connections. And so that was why I did it. But it is perhaps particularly important given our history. But it just felt to me that, for the best possible relationship, you need to be engaging across the board.
Susie: Rightly or wrongly, the job you do, or the British public service I suppose, and perhaps the New Zealand public service too, I always think of in a kind of Yes Minister, or Yes Prime Minister type way, as being very much, for people who don’t get the reference, I guess a kind of an old boys’ network. Is that your perception of it?
Laura: I think there is still a perception that that is what it is. And there’s very definitely a perception of what an Ambassador or High Commissioner looks like. And it probably still isn’t someone like me. And when I first arrived here, I had quite a lot of conversations that went a bit like this; I’d be at an event and people would say, “Who are you here with?” Meaning, who are you married to. And I would say, “Oh, I’m the British High Commissioner to New Zealand.” “Oh,” they’d say, “You work at the British High Commission. What role do you do?” “I am the British High Commissioner to New Zealand.” “Oh,” they’d say, “You look too…“ and then they’d kind of, you know, just about check themselves. So there’s very much that sense. But I don’t know, I think in many ways it’s an advantage. You can stand out if you’re a bit different, and I’ve never felt any particular doors closing by virtue of not looking like the stereotype, so it’s kind of fun in a way.
Susie: Has your husband Toby ever been mistaken as the British High Commissioner?
Laura: Oh yeah, quite a lot. And then some of my colleagues have been mistaken for my husband. So it all gets very confusing. I’ve got a number of colleagues who are also white men with beards. But yeah, he has been, I think when I was travelling through Tahiti to Pitcairn recently, and I went on my second trip and got the same taxi driver and he said, “Why are you going to Pitcairn again?” And I said, sort of in French, I said, “Le gourverneur, c’est moi.” Bit of a joke. And he said, “Oh, I thought it was your husband, you know, the man with the hat and the beard.” So that happens quite a lot, but it doesn’t really matter.
Susie: It’s the unconscious bias though, isn’t it? That if there’s a bloke in the room it must be his job, and you must be his wife. I guess that sort of unconscious bias, that sexism which is what it ultimately is… when you get to the level that you’re at, do you still get people interrupting you in meetings, or owning ideas that you’ve come up with, or mansplaining things to you?
Laura: Oh, I get mansplained a lot. I probably don’t get interrupted in meetings so much, but I definitely get mansplained quite a lot on various topics. And then you have to choose whether you take it on. I get told a lot about what’s going on in politics in my country and what’s going to happen next on Brexit and why and all that sort of thing. Sometimes you smile sweetly and listen. Sometimes you engage. You just have to ring the changes.
Susie: It’s hard though, isn’t it, because I find it infuriating when someone repurposes an idea of mine in a meeting. And there’s that kind of internal struggle you have of, do I say, “Actually, I literally just said that five minutes ago,” or do you not, and then, it comes down to that wrestle of how nice you should be, I suppose.
Laura: But also it comes down to allies, doesn’t it, because actually you probably don’t want to do it for yourself, you don’t want to say, “Hey John, I just said that five minutes ago.” What you need is someone else in the room saying, “Yes, I think that was exactly Susie’s point.”
Susie: We actually have a group of us at work who do exactly that. “I think that’s just what Jen said.”
Laura: Exactly. And just those gentle reminders. I mean, one of the things that I still find amazing, I grew up in rural Essex, and I can’t tell you how many times, and it still happens, people say, “Oh, you grew up in Essex. You know what they say about Essex girls.” And of course it’s not anything particularly nice that they say about Essex girls. And I’ve actually notice how I’ve evolved, I used to just sort of smile tightly or just turn the other way or leave the conversation. My approach has evolved now. I look them straight on and I say, “What? What do they say about Essex girls?”
Susie: What responses do you get?
Laura: People then look a little bit embarrassed. Cause it’s quite hard to tell the British High Commissioner what you’re… you know, anyway. It’s amazing, that sort of low-level sexism that I think we’ve all just put up with on a day to day. That we’re actually collectively much less tolerant of.
Susie: Obviously you’ve had a career for 20-ish years now. The world has changed a lot in that time in terms of how women are seen in the workplace, and elsewhere generally in life. What do you think of the MeToo, the Time’s Up type movement and how is that, do you think, changing the way the world in some areas views women?
Laura: I think it’s really powerful and I think it’s extraordinary how even in just a few years it affects our perceptions of things. And the best example I can give is when you watch films from not very long ago and think, ‘My god, you wouldn’t make a film like that now’. And some, so we watched Back to the Future recently, and obviously that’s quite an old film, but my god, it’s really rapey. Or Grease, is really rapey.
Susie: Indiana Jones is really problematic, that we watched recently.
Laura: And I’m struggling to think of examples, but there are films from even ten years back, which have very old-fashioned gender politics. So I do think there’s this kind of reasserting. And there’s all sorts of things that we’ve still got to fix.
The fact that you kind of just accept as a woman that if you’re out late at night walking on a street, you’re looking over your shoulder. And worrying. So yeah, there’s still a long way to go, I think, but I think we’re very much at a time where people are much more comfortable with women in positions of responsibility and power and you get role models like Prime Minister Ardern who are really critical for that. And slowly, it’s slowly shifting perceptions. And then new generations coming through. I gave a talk last year at Wellington College.
Susie: Which is an all-boys school I should say, just for people who don’t know Wellington College.
Laura: And they asked me to give an ANZAC Day address, and I thought, to make this interesting, I talked about what it took to be a young man in World War I, and what it takes to be a young man now. So many differences, so many different challenges. And in many ways, there were far more certainties back then in terms of gender roles, class roles, religion. You had to fit into certain… and now there’s much more ambiguity and therefore opportunity, but also can be much more challenging in terms of mental health and things like that.
But one of the things I said in my closing points was “be a feminist”. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because I don’t think you’ll get by any more if you’re not.
Susie: How was that received?
Laura: Okay, I think. The trouble is you’re talking to a whole hall of boys, and they weren’t about to stand up and start disputing it. But I think that’s absolutely right now. And it’s very funny how some people still think feminist is a dirty word when essentially all it means is we all need to be treated equally and have the same opportunities.
Susie: Yeah, why do you think people sort of resile a bit from the word feminist, or feminism?
Laura: I don’t know, I think it must be a very retro hangover from the days where people associated it with real activism and protest and that sort of thing, but it doesn’t make sense to me.
Susie: Yeah, I remember having a friend when I was at uni, and she was also going through higher education, wanted to have a career, all of her actions appeared to be feminist, but she hated the word, wouldn’t call herself a feminist. I could never get my around that one.
Laura: No, exactly, because it’s a very simple concept really, and it’s quite a hard one to argue with.
Susie: Maybe she’s come round now, I don’t know. I shall ask her.
Laura: Ask her.
Susie: Yeah, I will. So as an Essex girl, you did go to Cambridge. Was that jarring, arriving in Cambridge? For university?
Laura: Was it jarring? It was daunting. It was very daunting to begin with, cause I’d been, I went to state school. I went to very good state schools. But it was daunting. I still remember getting my first ever essay set and going into a bit of a crisis. It was about a play called Woyzeck by Georg Büchner, a German playwright, and Woyzeck goes mad basically because of the stresses of the world and he ends up just eating peas. It’s a brilliant play.
Susie: Unfinished, though.
Laura: Yes, exactly. So it’s a brilliant play, but I remember, the essay title still stays with me, it was “Woyzeck Transcends the Specific to Illuminate the General Plight of Humanity: Discuss.” And I just thought, ‘No, I don’t know the answer!’ And so it was a real shock. But my god it’s a privilege to study somewhere like that. The beauty of the buildings, the education that’s on offer, the history. It’s amazing but it takes a bit of getting used to.
Susie: How did you get to that point? I mean, clearly, you’re very smart. But at what point were you kind of put on that path to that level of education, that type of university? Who encouraged you?
Laura: I think it was all a little bit by accident, really. When I was very little, I didn’t crawl and I didn’t talk and I didn’t do anything at all for ages. I think my mum even took me to a specialist doctor and said I think this child is backwards. I’m not sure you’d use the word backwards nowadays. So very low expectations of me generally, and I was very dreamy, spent a lot of time staring into space. But then slowly I kind of did okay at school and did okay in my exams and so, you know, kept sort of crossing the next bridge. But always slightly surprising people around me that I wasn’t just this dreamy thing staring into space.
Susie: On the subject of very personal things with your family, I remember seeing on Twitter that you posted that it was 20 years since your father had died. And I hadn’t known that about you. And I remember thinking, ‘gosh, 20 years is a long time when you’re a relatively young adult’. What happened there? What happened with your dad?
Laura: He got cancer. But it went really fast. I was 21, I think I’d just turned 21, and I remember he was diagnosed on the 13th of August and was dead by the 1st of November. So it was, I think it was probably classic case of him not being in touch with what was going on, not getting check-ups, so it was really sad and I think for me it was, that I never then had that adult relationship with him that can be so special. And he’s not met Toby and he’s not met my kids. And so that’s really, in what is an enormously happy and privileged and fortunate, just lucky, life, that’s my big sadness. And I miss him.
Susie: What do you think he’d think of you now?
Laura: Oh, I think he’d be really proud of me. And he’d be out here climbing as many mountains as he could. He was always, I remember him saying, “Oh, I think Laura’s going to do something international.” He loved travel, he loved going out into different countries, different languages, so I think he’d be delighted.
Susie: Do you talk to the kids about him?
Laura: Yeah, we do actually. I do quite a lot. And we’ve got photos up and things like that.
Susie: So they sort of in a way have a kind of a connection with him.
Laura: Exactly. They have a sense of him and what he was like. And yeah, we talk about him quite a lot. It’s so funny, I still, even now, have those dreams occasionally where, oh, he’s just come back, or… yeah.
Susie: There are questions that I would like to ask of my grandparents who are now dead, and I kind of kick myself and think, I wish I’d asked that question. Do you have things that you kind of think, I need Dad’s brain over this one, I want to talk to Dad about this thing?
Laura: Yes, sometimes. It’s more about experiences. Being on top of a mountain, being on a good bike ride, going along a canal, thinking he would have really enjoyed this. Being with the kids. And then you go to other people for… you have other relationships. I have an uncle, I have a wonderful father-in-law, I have my wonderful mother. So again, you build your own tribe, don’t you.
Susie: You do build your tribe, absolutely. Probably as a final thing, although it’s perhaps dependent on what you say, is there a question that you’ve never been asked, but one that you’d like to answer.
Laura: Yes! There is.
Susie: What? What do you want to be asked?
Laura: I spend my life talking about everything that I love about New Zealand, and it’s a really really really long list. I love so much about New Zealand, the people, the landscape, the culture, sport, everything. And no one ever asks me what I don’t like about New Zealand.
Susie: What do you not like about New Zealand?
Laura: Thank you for asking.
Susie: You’re welcome.
Laura: I can’t stand the way you don’t use duvet covers. And you have, in hotels and in houses, you have a sheet, and then you have a naked duvet, and then you have another sheet on top of it. And it all gets all muddled up in a mess, and I just think, what’s wrong with using a duvet cover?
Susie: You can get duvet covers.
Laura: But so often in hotels, you’ve got that weird sort of sandwich. You’ve got the sheet-duvet sandwich. Don’t get it. Don’t like it.
Susie: Here’s a weird thing, though. You can buy the duvet covers, but to go and buy one you have to go to a section of a store called “Manchester”.
Laura: No, that’s so weird.
Susie: I don’t understand that. Why’s it called Manchester?
Laura: No idea. That’s my pet hate, is the duvet-sheet sandwich.
Susie: Why do telegraph cucumbers come in plastic?
Laura: I don’t understand that at all. I’m not even beginning to understand what you just said.
Susie: No I don’t understand that either. Other things I don’t understand about New Zealand. Oh, that’s a long list. What else do you not understand about New Zealand? Or New Zealanders?
Laura: It’s mostly the sheet arrangements. If I think about it more I’ll come up with loads of stuff, but it’s mostly the bedding arrangements.
Susie: The Manchester.
Susie: Well I’m glad we all ascertained there that Manchester is indeed a town in the north-west of England, and not something you would ever put on a bed.
Thanks so much Laura. That’s British High Commissioner to New Zealand Laura Clarke. And thank you for listening. We really appreciate the support in this weird time. Especially with these episodes being released kind of sporadically. We will thankfully be able to resume our normal programming shortly. So expect more great stories in your ears, very soon.
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Brazen is hosted by me, Susie Ferguson, and was created by me, Lou O’Reilly, Vic MacLennan and David Cormack.
Brazen is produced and edited by Melody Thomas and engineered by William Saunders.
The theme is Be Who You Are by Edie.
The artwork is by Pepper Raccoon.
And our transcriptions are done by Emma Hart.
Ka kite ano.