Bert Elson, who is diplomatically retiring after a 10-year stint in the part-time hotspot, handled a very difficult job with real flair and spectacular modesty. With his military background which included the Coldstream Guards – the oldest continuously serving regular regiment in the British army – and substantial experience as an advanced caseworker trainer for the Royal British Legion, Bert was always an obvious choice.
He was appointed in 2013 after a rather turbulent period for the British embassy in Pattaya. My own honorary consul retirement in 2010 at age 70, after 14 years which coincided with the British tourist numbers boom in Pattaya and the accompanying themes of unusual deaths, almost daily arrests and awkward scandals, had somehow led to a succession of replacements who failed to last longer than 12 months. On top of that, the Pattaya consular office which had opened in 2007 and was conveniently located near the Jomtien immigration bureau, had been closed as part of the British foreign office policy to terminate all provincial offices throughout Asia as a cost-cutting exercise. The Chiang Mai office later suffered the same fate.
Bert became honorary consul at a time when frontline embassy services everywhere were being reduced. There was much talk in foreign office documentation about the need to avoid “overservicing the customers” and to encourage those in distress to use social media and websites rather than to expect personal counselling as a matter of course. Particularly unpopular was the decision by Bangkok, in reality by London, to stop issuing letters of guarantee for UK pension income which was part of the procedure at immigration to obtain some kinds of annual extensions of stay. The problem, apparently, was that some Brits might be lying about their true cash.
From day one, Bert was destined for success. Always loyal to his superiors and already holding the BEM or British Empire Medal (not to be confused with the MBE), he carried out specifically the instructions of the consular section in the Bangkok embassy to contact distressed Brits – defined by them – and to represent the embassy in whatever contexts they saw fit. Never a media figure, he was rarely publicly photographed with police officers or politicians and largely avoided public speaking, even when pressed to do so. But he did maintain a useful commentary on Facebook covering such issues as the covid pandemic and how to stay out of trouble as a British tourist or expat. Sensibly, he never reacted to the public criticism on the internet and elsewhere that the embassy was/is “useless”.
As a director of Tropical Bert Holdings, Bert ran (and runs) a popular UK-style restaurant on Pattaya’s so-called Darkside for around 30 years with his energetic wife Pu. I seem to remember the very first eatery base they opened was in Duck Square. Bert has done a remarkable job as honorary consul as the role is now officially perceived. He has kept his head down and, for the first time in local history, has actually received a written retirement appreciation on the internet by the British embassy in Bangkok. His skillful combining of the resources of the Royal British Legion and the embassy has perhaps been the secret key for his success. To say he will be a hard act to follow is a serious understatement.