The role of the British Embassy in Thailand, or any British Embassy in the world for that matter, is to work with the host government and the private sector to increase bilateral trade and investment. For many years some of this vital business intelligence work and lobbying was done over prawn cocktail, beef wellington and apple crumble at the British Embassy May Ball.
The May Ball was the highlight of the social calendar for diplomats and expatriates alike. The best excuse in town to dust off the tux and throw bread rolls at Bangkok’s distinguished filth -- prominent locals, British expatriate businessmen and opposite numbers from foreign missions.
Its social tractor beam finally caught us in 2006 with an invitation to dine at the table of the Ambassador’s son. We had made a conscious effort not to attend the event in 2004 and 2005. After the brief at the Old Admiralty Building in 2003 about drunkenness and fights at official functions, I was leery.
“When overseas diplomats tend to lose their inhibitions...they get into arguments… start fights at official functions, often causing a scene…if you cause a drunken scene at an official function, you will be immediately recalled to the UK.”
2.8 years into post as a trailing spouse (now with the UN and not DFID), I knew a little bit more about the species commonly known as “diplomat”. When sober: presumptuous, dismissive and supercilious. When drunk: loud, obnoxious and confrontational. They were the kind of Brits who’d spoil a Greek island.
Black tied and ball gowned, we marched up Soi 12 looking for a cab. Two old Bangkokians, motorcycle taxi drivers in dirty orange waistcoats, noticed the high society farang (foreigners of European descent).
One of them cranked his head to address the other in native tongue.
There was a bonny old turn out at the 2006 May Ball. The UK Defence Attaché exchanged fire with his opposite number from the US Embassy. The Ambassador and his elegant wife worked the room with smiles, handshakes and air kisses. The normally grumpy new CLO, the one who had organized the bash, was tonight not miserable but slightly pleased at her own efforts. Only the red-faced publican, who had provided all the free beer, expressed doubt over the grace and favor he would get in return from HMG.
“Nowt, I reckon.”
The publican would not be in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. But he had done his country a great service keeping the twin bureaucracies of the FCO and DFID afloat with brown bitter.
Other than diplomats murdering the dance floor with two left feet and taffeta-gowned females puking up in the bogs, the Balls of 2006 and 2007 passed off without much incident.
If only the same could be said of the last ever Ball on May the 10th, 2008.
I had just returned from the colonies (North America). The shoes at HQ in Bangkok were bulled to a parade shine and the dinner suit was moth free. The wife insisted on styling my hair. I ended up looking like Larry Fine from The Three Stooges (she has since apologised).
In our dash to the Ball, I had forgotten that the new Ambo, H.E. Quinton Quayle (Bromsgrove-Bristol-FCO) hated curly hair. I remembered this from a birthday party earlier in the year. Our Man in Bangkok, wearing a West Bromwich Albion football shirt, had complained about Martin Shaw’s curly perm in The Professionals.
We were on a table behind the Ambo. He took one look at my Curly Wurly hair and shuddered.
“Look at him,” I said to the wife, “told you he’d freak.”
“My dear,” she replied, “it was the reason why I did it.”
“Ah,” said an FCO chap on our table, “pay no mind to QQ. He’s as daft as a brush that one. His nickname at the Embassy is Mr. Bean.”
“Daft? Of course he’s daft,” said another, “what do you expect? He supports West Brom and they’re a shit team.”
After the rubber chicken dinner and self-congratulatory speeches by the FCO (they had managed to organize a piss up in a brewery) on rolled the cabaret. It was a Tom Jones impersonator and two dancing lovelies (Thai).
A red-bowed FCO lifer was on hand with the details.
“This guy is big in Pattaya.”
“Then maybe he should have stayed there,” said the bloke whose dad used to be the Ambassador.
“This,” shouted Ron Pompooey of the British Chamber of Commerce, “is the worst thing that I have ever seen.” His charming wife Superporn Cashpoint, a former bargirl from Isaan province, and a fan of the real Tom Jones, nodded in agreement.
Some rowdy guests began to jeer at the act. There was much shouting and the scene grew ugly. I stepped out for a cigarette (Turkish). I looked up and noticed an old chum from the FCO, storming out of the function room with the mighty swagger of an Angus bull.
“Al,” he said, “I almost had a fight in there!”
“Yeah, but X came in and sorted it out. Diplomatically.”
“Local or Embassy?” I asked.
“Local, I think.”
The following week we had a chat about the incident via email.
“There was some plonker in a black shirt, I had a run in with him on the dance floor, was he the bloke?”
“No,” he wrote back. “This guy had a white shirt and was bald…”
Right. That narrows it down for an E-Fit.
“He actually shouted out to Tom Jones, “Piss off back to Wales you fucking Welsh prick!” So I basically flew over to him and told him to tell Tom that to his face. At first he denied he was the one who had shouted out, but when I forced the issue he said he would tell Tom, but later. I then told him that I’d come back over to make sure that he did. I also told him that my Mother had heard his outburst and taken offence, to which he said he would apologise. X then saw me losing my cool and came over to intervene, using the diplomatic method. This was helpful as I had already told the bloke to go with me to the car park to discuss the issue!
To cut a story short, when Tom Jones had finished singing he realized that we’d had a small problem and when it was pointed out who it was (although we never told him what had been said) he beckoned the guy over to ask him if he had a problem with him. Of course the guy said, “No problem – everything is fine!” And that was the bit that made me more angry, as now he had proved himself to twice be a coward. A few minutes later I spoke to you, and as I said, when I looked around he had already gone by that time. I’m sure I’ll see him, again.”
The words of the FCO vetting officer rang like a bell in my head. It had been a close call for our man. After 2008 there would be no more May Balls for the British Embassy in Bangkok. The committee was inundated with complaints. It had been a thankless task. In 2009 organisers couldn’t be bothered to chase up sponsors. It was, we were told, all down to the age of austerity back home in Blighty.
“And what,” said an automaton of the FCO, in defence of its absence from the social calendar, “have we got to celebrate? We are NOT here to have a good time. We’re here for trade and investment. Nothing else.”