Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Secret Origin of the Male Trailing Spouse

How does a nightmare begin? For Alexander Reynolds, journalist, newly posted to Thailand, it began at a few minutes past Seven on a lost Wednesday night. It began with the arrival of a strange book from a distant bureaucracy.

“DFIDSEA Bangkok Welcome Guide: A Little advice to help you through your first days and weeks at post in Bangkok.”

In the years to come, Alexander Reynolds would go back to where it all began. Many times.

"Welcome to Bangkok and Thailand. If this is your first visit to South East Asia you may be feeling a little shell shocked by what you have seen of the place so far and you may be concerned about getting yourself and your family settled in over the coming weeks." The Department for International Development South East Asia (DFIDSEA) Welcome Guide said that any problems adjusting to post or finding employment should be referred to the Community Liaison Officer (CLO) at the Embassy. "One of the main functions of a CLO is to help arrivals settle into post...I will answer your questions on any matter that may concern you from employment and education to the average cost of a taxi." 

I was suddenly relieved. I was a male trailing spouse. And in the stuffy milieu of the diplomatic service, I clashed against convention and my prescribed gender role. New to post, far from a place called home, there was no one I could talk to about the problems of career discontinuity, adjusting to the role of secondary breadwinner, reduced self-esteem, psychological withdrawal; the lack of employment assistance programs, language training and expat networks to deal with my presence in the host country. Maybe the CLO would help.

Thursday morning in Bangkok. The air was thick and the light was queasy. Cold season. Hot season. Wet season. It made no difference. Every day was a sauna.  The Gurkha guards in 1980s uniforms buzzed me through the cramped sentry box on Wireless Road into the Embassy compound.  There was a drab series of modernist buildings on three verdant hectares of space. Next to a flagpole and towering aloof, the Embassy residence -- a pillared, neoclassical structure with a faint whiff of Empire. 

I met the CLO. A comfortably shaped redhead with jam jar spectacles. She took me through a hefty, bank-vault door up to her grey office next to the DLO (Diplomatic Liaison Officer). I was professional and handed her my 2 page CV and relevant clippings. She raised her eyebrows at the particulars. I had worked, on and off, as a journalist since I was 17, was educated to postgraduate level, a member of the Labour Party (Kensington and Chelsea CLP), a member of the National Union of Journalists and a trained TA killer. I was, on the face of it, a member of the UK establishment. An irregular pillar of society.

I came straight to the point.

“What jobs are open to someone like me at the Embassy in Bangkok?”

None, she pretty much said.  But she had friends who worked for local magazines like Big Chilli and Farang. Low-paying, local hack gigs writing about Full Moon parties, jungle zip line rides and playing with tigers, monks and junkies in temples. No thanks. (I was already composing outlines in my head to email London).

I told her that I had written political stories about Thailand for Index on Censorship and The New Statesman. With my knowledge of the host country, and its historical narrative, I could be of some use to the Embassy press office.

“The Embassy has a press office, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” she said, “but all those jobs are taken by UK based staff members from the FCO.”

I told her that I was able to handle media inquiries on the phone, write press releases and had many contacts back home in the UK press.  None of this seemed to register.  She was implacable.  

“Like I said, all of those positions are taken by UK based staff members.”

She gave me the options. Clerical work at the Consular Section: stamping visas, reissuing passports to expats, replacing lost or stolen passports. The wage was low, £250 PCM. The CLO said that it was a stressful job and many FCO spouses who took up this work lacked the necessary interpersonal communication skills to deal with crazed sexpats and bar girls looking for visas.

“We get a lot of stupid people coming in here,” she said, “they shouldn’t be let out of the country.”

This was my first brush with the contempt the British Embassy had for the 50,000 Brits who lived in Thailand and the 870,000 taxpayers who visit the country as holidaymakers and backpackers every year.

The CLO said there were other jobs. The Embassy needed a librarian. Would I be interested in running the library for 10,000 Thai Baht PCM?

“No thanks, lady, I might have a GSOH but I got friends who are rock stars, Hollywood directors and supermodels (Pinteresque pause) what would they think?”

She thought I was joking.

The CLO sighed and took one last look at my CV on her desk.

“You might want to beef this up,” she purred.

I could not figure out if she was stupid or just plain rude. I was stunned but tried not to show it. So I put on the Kolchak hat to ask her some questions. 


Aged 37, she was an FCO staffer back home in London. Her husband had recently been posted to Bangkok with the Political Section. She had ample time, she said, to prepare for the move – had applied for the CLO position in advance and received intensive language training in the UK prior to posting. As a DFID spouse I was given no word on jobs or language training.  (Later on, months into post, it seemed to me –and many other DFID spouses – that FCO staffers always had inside information and first refusal on jobs at the Embassy).

I got a dime tour of the Embassy compound. With its bungalows, tennis courts and swimming pool it was a dead ringer for a Club Med resort.  The Embassy even had its own Social Club, “the Queen Vic,” named after the pub from the soap opera Eastenders. And just like the volatile characters in the long running BBC drama series, Embassy staffers spent much of their free time propping up its bar.

The CLO took me to the “British Embassy Purchasing Group” (the Embassy Commissary). It was a pokey, filthy little room stuffed and shelved with British delights -- Marmite, Paxo sage and onion stuffing, Bisto Gravy powder, Colman’s Mustard, jars of Branston Pickle and cans of Speckled Hen and Ruddles bitter.  All the comforts of home to cope with life in a hardship posting.

I looked on the shelves for Beluga Caviar and Bollinger champagne but there was none. 

I noticed that the plonk on sale was Australian, and not French.

I was moved to inquire, “Why no French wine?”

“Because it is too low in alcohol,” joked a blowsy woman in a crimplene dress, manning the books of the Commissary.  She was an FCO spouse and said that running the Commissary was a “right plum gig.”  

As we left, the CLO whispered to me, “The Ambo gets all of his wine from the Commissary at the Australian Embassy.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because they have a better Commissary than us and they stock French wine. His wife prefers French wine to Aussie.”

The meeting ended at the Gurkhas’ sentry box.  There was an official Limousine with a fussy looking figure seated in the back.  The CLO got jumpy.

“That’s the Ambassador,” she said, “we’d best get out of the way or he’ll run us over.”

“Eh,” she said, gawping at the cultural reference that went over her head, “what’s that?”

“Nothing,” I said, “thanks for all your help. I’m sure I'll figure something out.”

The Ambassador (who looked like the comic actor Leslie Philips) waved regally at the CLO as he drove out of the Embassy’s gatehouse entrance. 

“Am having a tea party,” she said, “I got your email, so I will send you an invite. You’ll be able to meet a lot of the other spouses there. Unfortunately, you will be the only man at the moment…”

Thanks for reinforcing my present state of alienation and disenfranchisement from the norm, lady.

“You will,” she continued, “be able to talk to other spouses about jobs going round, either here at the Embassy or teaching English…which is the usual, I’m afraid.”

For me it began with a posting, a DFIDSEA Welcome Guide and a short cut to a job that I never found. Maybe I would have better luck networking at one of the CLO’s afternoon tea parties? No. It was already too late for the male trailing spouse. The nightmare had begun.