Patrick Middleton meets Simon Taylor, British Consul-General
“Already!” some might say. Surely we welcomed a new consul in these pages only a short time ago. Indeed we did. That was Hugh Hunter, an interesting man, former London firefighter and New York drama student, who had previously been consul in Miami. One startling fact he offered me was that in Florida the police arrested on average a hundred Brits a month, charging them with anything from mugging and shoplifting to rape and murder. That meant a lot of prison visiting. Maybe he found the South of France too quiet for him. Anyway, last August after only eight months here he decided to hang up his consul’s hat and move on.
“I’ve always liked the South”
His successor Simon Taylor arrived in January and already he’s sussed out some good restaurants in Marseille. He took me to lunch in a place well known for its steaks where you go in through a butcher’s shop and they show you your meat before it’s cooked. Over a very good meal I heard the Simon Taylor story. “I was born in Liverpool but conceived in Saigon. That’s because my father was in the Foreign Office, at that time in Vietnam, and my mother went home to Liverpool for the birth. For ten years – from the ages of eight to eighteen – my time was divided between Merseyside and foreign parts – Kinshasa and Warsaw, Tunis and Brussels. I went to school at Liverpool College and travelled out to be with my parents during holidays. A great life!” What did that globetrotting childhood do for him? “It made me very open to new places, new people. It was an education in itself.”
And after school? “I wasn’t especially academic but I did have a talent for painting and drawing and I spent a year at the Chelsea School of Art. I had a measure of talent but I realised I wasn’t good enough to make a living with brush and pencil so I took off for Paris. I already had an affinity for France – my maternal grandmother was French – and then I met a girl who was half English, half French, and I married her. And now we’ve got two boys – 14 and 17 – who are totally bilingual and bicultural. To cut a long story short, I took a temporary job at the British consulate in Paris which became permanent and I spent twenty years there which was pretty good training.” Why the move to Marseille? “The job came up and I took it. I’ve always liked the South and it’s an ideal place for a peintre du dimanche. Look what it did for Cezanne!”
What’s it like running his own show after being part of a big team in Paris? “Very satisfying. I inherited a group of six people who work very well together. Of course, I’d known them at a distance when I was in Paris so I wasn’t the unknown new boss.” How would he describe the work of the consulate? “As you know, the Foreign Office has been reorganising its network of posts around the world. Some have been closed, some have been slimmed down and made more focused. That’s the case with Marseille. Commercial and most political work has been transferred to Paris. We now concentrate on personal consular services for British residents and visitors. That can cover anything from helping a holidaymaker who’s had his wallet stolen with passport, credit card and cash to checking out a Brit who’s ended up in prison. It’s important for people to understand what we can do and what we can’t do and maybe you could try and make that clear.” (See Box.) One thing, by the way, I’d like to do is to work closely with organisations like the British Association in order to strengthen and integrate the possibilities of helping UK citizens when in need of any kind.”
“I want to get to know the community”
Simon Taylor is clearly a man who likes France and the French and understands the sort of difficulties which can arise for residents and visitors who are less familiar with the country. “I want to get to know the community really well,” he concluded, “and get people to understand that we are here to be at their service. I have to say we’re busy – we’re very far from overstaffed – but we’re always ready to listen to Brits who think we can be useful to them in any way.”
It can replace your passport in an emergency, advise on the transfer of funds, give help if you are a victim of serious violence, indicate (without actually recommending) local English-speaking professionals (doctors, lawyers and so on). The consulate can keep an eye on you if you are taken into custody and contact your friends and family in the UK if you so wish.
And here’s what it can’t do: interfere in any way with normal local police and prison procedures, give you legal or medical advice, pay your bills or lend you money or make any kind of travel arrangements for you. Staff will offer sympathy and try to point you towards other sources of help such as, in this region, the British Association. As he mentioned, Simon Taylor hopes to develop closer relationships with the B.A. and other voluntary bodies.
And here’s a warning: in an official document the Foreign Office makes clear that yobs need not apply: “If you are physically or verbally abusive staff may refuse to continue to help you.”