Sunday, May 19, 2013

FCO Spousal Abuse

Three weeks ago The Times asked me to write (and rewrite!) a feature about my life as a male trailing spouse. 

“I’ve been on the hunt,” the Boss lady said, “for an expat husband who might write a funny piece for us about what it’s like following your wife’s career across the globe. We always hear about the expat ladies who lunch, but what about the men? Do you lunch, shop and get pedicures too? Does it feel emasculating and how do others react to the news that you’re the trailing spouse?” 

She wanted, “A humorous wry piece looking at the trials of being an expat husband, that subverts the stereotype of the expat wife – long boozy lunches, facials, clothes shopping – and reveals the male version of it." 

The story touched a nerve. After it was published (April 29th, 2013) I received poison pen letters from FCO spouses offended by my personal observations and refusal to take low-paid Embassy work in 2003. These patriotic housewives had all taken jobs as “Entry Clearance Officers” (passport stampers and bar girl interrogators) in the glass booths and stuffy rooms of the Visa Section (the Embassy furnace) “for a locally engaged rate” (not UK minimum wage even though the Embassy is UK territory).

An FCO staffer -who had worked at the British Embassy during our time in Bangkok - posted this message on my wife’s Facebook timeline.

“Maybe you can call your next piece Fifty Shades of Brown because that is the colour of shite which is the factual content of this article! However, enjoy your two minutes of fame and ten pieces of silver….two pages 8 years well done old chap!! My husband gave up his career for four years….there lies the difference the word career and he did take work in low paying jobs and in non paid jobs in HIV orphanages. He doesn’t remember eating cucumber sandwiches, fights at pool parties or the like. He remembers dealing with death during the Tsunami, comforting families in Phuket. Perhaps get your mate at the The Times to call him for a balanced account you STUD you!”

Cucumber sandwiches. Somehow I must convince a disbelieving world.

(Ed. Note: "Fights at pool parties or the like"  -- see last blog entry, "Tom Jones KO's the crowd at British Embassy May Ball." "Dealing with death during the Tsunami, comforting families in Phuket," For customer complaints and balanced accounts go to the NAO report or this Guardian article for quick reference).

“Enjoy your limited success,” said a former Entry Clearance Officer from the FCO,  “I see a more profitable future with The Daily Mail.”

(Ed. Note: The British Embassy in Bangkok does not like The Daily Mail. The FCO and the UK Mission in Thailand got hammered by the paper after the December 26th, 2004 Tsunami).

“Get a job,” said an anonymous troll from the FCO, “I mean a proper one.”

It comes to something when a “bona fide newsgatherer” (what it says on my NUJ card) gets pissed on by folks happy to work for less than minimum wage. In October 2003, at the time of our first posting to Bangkok, the UK minimum wage was £4.50 an hour. And, just like any other UK citizen, I was surprised to discover that the British Embassy in Bangkok was somehow exempt from UK wage laws. However, now that most of the administrative positions have been outsourced to Thai locals (ahem, PLA/MSS security risk?) there might be fewer complaints in the UK Press from high maintenance pricks like me.  In amongst the sound and fury, what they failed to notice was that this was written from my experience and my experience alone. But when you are a male trailing spouse the personal always makes it political.