Alison Boulton meets a woman who has a wealth of stories from an exciting life

Julia Miles is offering me a crisp, pistachio biscuit in her elegant North Oxford sitting room when the door bursts open and a muddy spaniel bounds in.

“Horace! Out you go!” she tells the dog. “Oliver, can you take him?” and our former British ambassador to Greece, Luxembourg and Libya appears.

With 28 years as a ‘diplomatic spouse’, Julia’s recent, immensely readable and witty book The Ambassador’s Wife’s Tale, reveals all about the difficulties she and others have faced while “propping up the image of UK Plc”, detailing the harsh realities of being sent to political hotspots.

As a British ambassador’s wife, Julia and her family have faced danger from unexpected quarters.

She and her four children have all been at risk. All this, Julia Miles has taken in her stride.

Perhaps her Oxfordshire childhood helped her face a life in the diplomatic service. Born in 1945 at the Radcliffe Infirmary, her father was Reader at Oxford University’s Department of Anatomy.

“We had a peripatetic childhood,” Julia remembers. Her parents rented a house from an artist in Long Hanborough, “freezing cold with slow worms on the kitchen floor”.

They had no car so Julia’s father commuted by bicycle, until Lord Goodenough’s car squashed it in Witney High Street.

“He pressed sixpence into my father’s hand, saying ‘there you are my good fellow’, but leaving my father unable to get to work,” Julia said.

Julia was sent to the Squirrel Nursery School and Oxford’s Southmoor Road became the family’s next home, living next door to writer Iris Murdoch.

“I used to be sent next door to borrow the lawnmower. Iris and John had a rowing boat on the canal which we thought terribly smart.”

Julia then went to Oxford High School which she found “positively Edwardian”.

“The discipline, the teaching, the prohibition of any contact with boys was draconian, the whole experience very dry,” she recalls.

When her father took up an academic post at London University, the family moved again. Julia opted to study at the London School of Economics, but having set up the Oxford Junior Council of Voluntary Social Service, aged 16, which recruited schoolchildren to help elderly people in their homes, Julia then worked as an untrained social worker in Tower Hamlets, one of the most deprived parts of London.

“I visited a young mother whose baby’s filthy nappy was navy blue and the walls were covered in faeces,” she remembers.

Meeting Oliver, a young diplomat, they married at London University’s Catholic Chaplaincy, followed by a reception at the Travellers’ Club in Pall Mall.

She took to her new role as a very junior diplomatic wife in Cyprus with gusto, recounting the more humorous anecdotes in the book.

She soon realised however, that as a diplomat’s wife, she was expected to take a full part in a demanding social programme wherever the posting – often without staff, supplies, or the right catering equipment.

“Instead of playing the role of gracious hostess, representing the best of your country, the junior diplomatic wife can become – in effect – a one-man-band domestic skivvy,” she said.

Julia gave birth to four children abroad – two in Cyprus, one in Saudi Arabia and one in Greece. Medical care was highly variable, yet she acquiesced to local conditions.

In many of the postings the Mileses experienced their fair share of danger.

After the killing of PC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan Embassy in St James Square in London, the repercussions in Libya were severe.

Julia faced a nine-day siege and emergency evacuation from the residence with their young family, along with the other British diplomatic wives and children.

In Luxembourg (an often overlooked member of the EU, NATO and UN), the city endured a year of unexplained bombings.

When posted to Belfast, Oliver decided to commute to Stormont, rather than ask his family to live with the daily uncertainty of the Troubles.

On a more altruistic note, in Saudi Arabia Julia introduced popular weekly soirees to get to know some of the local women and once the abiyah was removed, Julia discovered they were elegant fashionistas.

What did grate however was the lack of practical support for diplomatic families.

After their emergency evacuation back to the UK from Libya, the Miles family found themselves homeless.

After several nights spent on Julia’s mother’s floor in Oxford, Oliver appealed to Geoffrey Howe, the Foreign Secretary, to find them accommodation.

It was not the FCO who rescued them however. It was Oliver’s alma mater Merton College.

Julia finally decided to do something about it.

“When I spoke out, it wasn’t just for my own benefit. We all knew the problems, but I felt it important to protest. I wondered what jurisdiction, if any, the Foreign Office had over me. Oliver never tried to stop me,” she said.

As a result family allowances were then paid to every embassy family, while prophylaxis for malaria was made widely accessible.

Between 1986 and 1988 Julia trained as a social worker, commuting between Oxford Brookes and Luxembourg where Oliver was still ambassador.

It meant that when the Mileses returned to Oxford in 1996 on Oliver’s retirement, Julia spent seven years as a probation officer, and later trained as a psychotherapist.

Other projects included her campaign to reopen the Oxford Playhouse, harnessing a fundraising committee and helping its relaunch in 1991.

Now it’s her book, The Ambassador’s Wife’s Tale, which is taking up all her time. So what was her motivation for writing it?

“I wanted to explode the myth that ambassadors and their spouses are treated like fairytale kings and queens.”