Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Cucumber Sandwiches at the CLO's Tea Party

The Community Liaison Officer’s tea parties were noted in Bangkok society for their host’s exquisite taste that captivates her guests.

“It just occurred to me,” the CLO said, replying to my RSVP, “you will be the only male in attendance.”

I had heard about FCO male trailing spouses, living in the heathery wilds of the Embassy compound, but no one had ever bothered to introduce me to them. This is because I was a DFID spouse. And the FCO does not like DFID. The FCO nickname for DFID is “Dumb Fuckers in Dungarees”; the DFID nickname for the FCO is “Fucking Cunts Overseas.” Name calling aside, the FCO did not like DFID because they were a creation of Tony Blair’s Labour Government, and on their turf with a huge budget for projects. The FCO is the older, established bureaucracy, a conservative monolith that likes to maintain its monopoly on UK foreign affairs. 

Earl Grey and make it snappy 

But rival offices and international geopolitics are beyond the humble vista of a male trailing spouse. There were more pressing concerns in the spring of 2004 - what to wear for an afternoon tea party in the Tropics? Light clothes. No black: attracts the sun and Dengue mosquitos. I had a white suit but it made me look like a cocaine cowboy. Best dress safe for tea and go as a Graham Greene character. I slapped on the Paco Rabanne, bulled up the brogues, ironed the khakis and pressed the Turnbull and Asser Egyptian cotton shirt.

A pink cab took me on a back alley route from HQ to the CLO’s flat.  It was a high-rise, white block of concrete close to the British Embassy on Wireless Road. There was an inscrutable Oriental guard at the finialed gate. The designer stubble made him suspicious. He rang upstairs to confirm my invitation.

I was greeted by a pyramid of shoes outside the front door of the CLO’s flat. No heels. Just battered old flats and flip-flops. The door was ajar. I crossed the threshold and did a quick 180 of the room. There was a reproduction of the Mappa Mundi on the wall, and Lofty Wiseman’s SAS Survival Handbook was on the bookcase next to the complete works of William Shakespeare and the ubiquitous Lonely Planet guide. I imagined the man of the house, a lanky chap from the Political Section, to be a Renaissance killer who quoted the Bard over corpses. 

The CLO introduced me to the wives of the Embassy. They were marble white and Spam pink, Victorian engine sheds in jeans and t-shirts. I was expecting the cast of a US daytime soap opera but I forgot that we were English, and settled for Eldorado.

The teatime conversation was thoroughly neo-colonial. You never knew what the No.1 maid was saying about you in Thai to the No. 2 maid; the Commissary at the Embassy had run out of Angel Delight and the kids were crying coz they missed it; the surface of the tennis court needed redoing; there were too many leaves in the Embassy swimming pool; they didn’t like going to Pattaya because the beach was dirty and the men golfed too much, and so on. The FCO housewives had brought over the English tradition of whinging in the Diplomatic Bag. 

We spoke about the local lingo. I had been doing one-on-one lessons for some months. Apart from the CLO, I was shocked to learn that none of them spoke Thai. Language is power but they didn’t care about living at a disadvantage overseas. It was “a funny language” that was “too hard to learn” and “only useful in Thailand”. Apart from “numbers and taxi Thai” they were content to function as illiterates.

Thai cuisine is undoubtedly one of the best in the world. And Bangkok is home to many fine restaurants. One spouse, Drudge of Cleethorpes, thought the food in Bangkok was “dirty” and only went to English expat pubs because “Thai food is much spicier here than it is back home...and why do I wanna eat that when I can get a roast down the pub?”

The CLO went into the kitchen and reemerged with a plate of cucumber sandwiches. I noticed that the crusts of the white bread were cut off.

“Cucumber sandwiches in Bangkok, a sign of good taste,” chuckled one lady, an Entry Clearance Officer from the Visa Section.

“With these cucumber sandwiches,” said one guest, affecting a eurotrash accent to mimic the old Ferrero Roche ad, “you are really spoiling us.”

Tea and cucumber sandwiches may make England a closer place but the CLO was still fretting about me being the solitary male at her party. She was from Hereford. And gender must be an issue at tea parties in Hereford.

“You ain’t leaving till you’ve had some of this,” she said, pulling out a chewy looking Italian tart with an abracadabra hand.

Talk turned to England. None of the women hailed from the city. They were provincial, patriotic, white Anglo-Saxon folk and proud of it – qualities that made them ideal FCO spouses. But bits of chit and chat alarmed. A few were united in their dislike of the United Kingdom in the early part of the 21st Century. The place had “gone to rot,” was “ruined by multiculturalism” and “immigrants who refused to integrate.” It took me back and gave me pause to wonder -- was this an FCO tea party, or a joint affair with the expat housewives of the BNP and EDL

A phone call broke up the hate speech.

“That was the ambassador’s wife,” the CLO said, “she’s on her way over from a school prize giving!”

Almost in unison, the spouses crashed their teacups, saucers and afternoon scones down on the glass tables of the CLO’s flat.

“Am leaving right now,” snapped Drudge of Cleethorpes.

“Me too,” giggled Blousy of Tetford, grabbing her knock-off Chanel handbag and Nokia cellphone, “am getting the Hell outta here, no way do I wanna be in the same room as her!”

“Don’t leave me sitting here,” yelped the Shrew from Shrewsbury, the one who held her knife like a pen, “that one’s too lardy-dah for the likes of me.”

One, two, three, four, five, six women upped in file and fled the CLO’s party. So this was the modern day set up of an Embassy overseas. And English class conflict was alive and kicking in Bongo Bangkok Land.  I was anxious to meet the bogey spouse.

The Ambo’s wife did not disappoint.  She was the fragrant, elegant picture of womanhood. No wonder the housewives did a bunk. They were like characters from Coronation Street and Eastenders; she was a Diva from the age of Empire, slim and regal in the Joan Collins mold. And wearing a huge white hat and a long, striped Jim Thompson silk dress with a daring slit. Defying Thai custom, she had kept her heels on -- taking them off, unless you live in the English countryside, is such a lower-middle class habit.

The CLO had called up reinforcements from the Embassy. There were a group of men. They looked handy.  One of them, a tall, beady-eyed, skinhead from the Political Section, had Maori tattoos on his arms. A smaller and more dangerous looking chap followed him from the Defence Section. He put his hands on his hips like a gunslinger from an old western and clocked the male trailing spouse with a merry laugh.

The Ambo’s wife could tell that I was one of her kind (sort-of). But this did not hinder the old gal from talking kind of down and uppity at me. She noticed that I had a copy of the Telegraph Weekly the world edition of The Daily Telegraph.

“Oh,” she said, “do you mind if I look at that?  It’s the paper we take, you see.”

She was an FCO spouse and a reader of the Telegraph. I figured her for conservative with a small “c”.  She flicked through the pages with a theatrical air of half interest. The eyes of the tea party, after all, were solely on her, its most senior and glamorous guest. This was England even if we were overseas. And the Ambo’s wife was an incarnate reminder of the true social order back home. Posh people ran England. Not upwardly mobile bureaucrats from the sticks and slums.

It was time for me to leave the game. As soon as I got the Torygraph back (my Mum had an article in there), our man made his excuses and left the tea party. Because of Thai custom, you are often fumbling to get back into your shoes outside the front door.  People were careful in Bangkok not to slag you off too fast and furious when you left a house early. This soiree was no exception to the rule.

There would be no more tea parties for me with Embassy types after this.  I figured, there and then, that it was best to keep away from the soap opera shenanigans and backstabbing. Besides, there were other things to occupy a male trailing spouse in Bangkok…