Blessay 36: Passports to Near Oblivion

The first stamp in my first 10 year British passport was from Police Nationale-Calais and was issued in July 1973. I’d taken the boat, on a rough crossing, from Dover. I was 24, very excited to cross the channel and enthused by a D.H.Lawrence desire to escape the repressions of ‘Little England.’ Foreign travel excitement hadn’t been a part of my childhood (North Wales was the only other land I’d known) nor had there been family holidays (How dare they exist, according to my father’s tightness).

The dictionary definition of a passport is “the authorisation to pass from a port or leave a country or pass through a country” Being a Liverpudlian and living less than 4 miles from the River Mersey it was inevitable that I’d use a seaport, before an airport, to travel. On my first trip, my girlfriend and I employed a combination of train, boat and bus (The fabled “Magic Bus” with its hippy ads in Time Out) in order to reach Venice and then Athens.

The morning I received my passport I imagined sailing effortlessly round the globe.My idealistic voyager-side recalled 19th century seafaring stories where a young sea-charmed adventurer is always granted a letter of safe passage. However instead of the patriotic “And now on to England” it was “Get me out of the UK, before I go bloody crazy!”

The dark blue, navy stiff cardboard passport, with its gold embossed matey lion and unicorn, protectively hugging a crown, and the iconic symbols of its lands, appeared to have unlimited power. Yet my Republican rebuke of royalty was firm. For me The British passport’s authority was a somewhat queasy imperialistic delusion, which still maintained a concept of “safe passage”. Such colonial conditioning had the strong pull of gentlemanly honour. I was absurdly romantic, back then (Blame it on having read too many Arthurian legends of those chivalric “Knights of the Round Table” and imagining that they required passports, even more than Merlin’s magic, to travel over to Brittany in France).

My 1973 passport is a little worn, but still intact and cancelled by its right hand corner having been cut of by the authorities. My stamps are for France, Greece, Italy, Poland, Spain and Morocco. The most important looking stamp is for the granting of a Polish visa, by Henryk Purowski, Konsul in August 1980. Yet on leaving Warsaw in October 1980 I flashed his name at some official, by the airport’s currency counter, to no effect. My pockets where full of zlotys (£30 pounds worth) that couldn’t be converted back into pounds, dollars or anything! I’d spent £5 worth on airport cakes and drinks but couldn’t shift another zloty – the Communist merchandise in the un-glamorous airport shop looked far too forlorn to purchase. So I bit the bullet and handed over their money to my Polish friend to invigorate his bank account.

My 1983 passport no longer defined me as a British Subject but a British Citizen (that’s either an upgrade or an insult depending on your strain of nationalism). As for details of occupation, I’d gone from the vague label of a student to the more solid – a social worker. By its expiration in 93, I’d visited Spain, Finland, Cyprus, Thailand, France, Spain, Malaysia, Indonesia and India. India provided the largest stamp. A multiple entry visa with a warning that “Change of Purpose Was Not Allowed.” On the right, going down the page it warned me that this visa “Wasn’t Valid for Restricted/Protected Areas.” I understood that to be Kashmir’s volatile border with Pakistan.

Travelling 2nd class on Indian trains the passport elicited an over-emphasised “Sahib” from middle-aged railway guards. I’d only heard “Sahib” said in films. And though it is a polite form of mister, me being English its other meaning “Master” was troubling. “Sahib” was frequently repeated by the clerks at a post-office in Delhi. “The Master” quickly became a frustrated master who wished he’d answered them back. For I constantly had to show my passport when trying to buy a dozen postage stamps. Forms were filled in triplicate, my cards were weighed on scales, and large queues formed as “Sahib” struck again and again. Patience is crucial in India, especially when it takes over an hour to mail postcards. Finally I cautiously handed over the cards to the last clerk – if I’d personally mailed them in a street post box there was always the danger of someone stealing them for the stamps!

My other Asian destinations, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia were not so labour intensive and hardly ever required passport checks. But a pain potentially bigger than India occurred in Morocco in 1977. Two policemen asked for my documentation. As one examined my details the other sneaked behind me trying to plant dope in a pocket of my backpack. I realised what was happening, pushed them both off me and ran down the alley. They didn’t seriously pursue me. Later I was told by another traveller that this was only some ‘entertainment’ for a Friday night when bored cops tried to get money off you by promising to drop the charge of carrying drugs.

By 1993 I’m into the big decorative stamps of China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Behind them come the less showy efforts of Norway, Israel, Germany and Romania. China’s visa covers two-thirds of a page, is valid for 30 days and has the longest number – visa 051901. My passport is now a Burgundy wine colour, with a softer cover where the gold lion and unicorn have become mates of The European Community. It and my credit card, displaying a holograph of Shakespeare, hugely impressed a Chinese ticket collector on my Silk Road Route train, to validate my discounted train ticket.

Arrival and departure from Egypt gave me two shiny orange and blue Cairo stamp stickers. acting as reminders of the bright colours of the well-preserved tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

Laos was one of the gentlest and most relaxed countries I’ve ever visited. In 1997 I took the train overnight from Bangkok up to Nong Khai. Then a short ferry ride over to Laos. Their immigration stamp bears the border control words – Friend Ship Bridge. A name as invitingly laid-back as their lovely people.

Israel’s Ben Gurion airport proved to be the most intimidating. This was March 1996. A fortnight before travelling a bomb had exploded on bus in Jerusalem. Security was razor-sharp. All my belongings were pulled out and strewn across a metal table. Each item of clothing was minutely examined with such careful callousness to make you imagine they were looking for lice covered in gunpowder! I recall looking up and seeing the violinist Yehudi Menuhin standing a few feet away. He was chatting to an elderly porter holding his baggage. Menuhin asked about the health of the man’s wife. At that point my belongings fell, or were pushed off the table. “You can go!” snapped the security man. I bungled everything back into my backpack. After I’d paid for my tourist visa, the Ben Gurion stamp came heavily down on the page. It was red and shaped like a coffin.

No death symbol from Thailand only the obliquity of a square stamp for entry and a triangle for departure.

In my 2003 – 13 ID years it’s Japan, Turkey, Australia, South Korea (Seoul, a two night stopover), Hungary (no stamp) Sicily (no stamp). The Australian (Sydney airport) stamps are no-nonsense and efficient, placed at the very back of the passport and hovering over my photograph on the following page. I warmly remember them because the customs man sounded genuine when he greeted me with his “Welcome to Australia, Alan!” However a week later, at a local train station, 3 miles from Sydney, two policemen who thought I looked shifty, asked to see ID. My passport partially satisfied them. “Things seem alright.” they grunted to each other. The emphases being on seem as if to keep me anxious.

Japan had the most aesthetically appealing of landing permission stamps -such Narita airport symmetry and poise.

I’m now on my 2013 passport, valid until 2023. Passports bureaucratically document your ‘travelling life.’ Ten year slabs of global movement. This is now the biometric, digital era. Less immigration stamps – no record of holidays in Italy (Rome) Iceland or Spain.

My latest passport photograph appears ghostly under my government’s plastic seal. I look as if I’m about to vanish. On my details and observations pages there are now two images of me. They’re placed against an artist’s impression of the sea round the British Isles. The photograph in the holder’s details zone is the more distinct and lies, near the Bristol Channel, by the bottom half of the country, yet still managing to be right underneath Northern Ireland. On the official observations page I am indistinct. An eerie face, turning into a palimpsest drowning in the North sea. Underneath my neck, and near the spot where you might have found my torso, is a dark blue seagull pursued by a more realistic seagull flying over the Hebrides.

The indistinct Alan will be soon be covered by the pale green paper sea. Whilst the distinct Alan is fading adjacent to his name, nationality and date of birth. It’s a digital dualism or personality split where somehow the biometric strip, underneath its silver decoration, matters more than the image of my physical face, as I stare, body correctly angled, at cameras, waiting to be allowed to come in or go out of their countries.

Five months ago we voted for Brexit. In future I may have to pay £10/20 for European visas. As for my face, what will be the officially drawn background on the next passport? Today it’s bland illustrations of the island I live on. Reedbed, Geological Formation, Coastal Cliff, Fishing Village, Beach, Canal, Village Green, Formal Park (Formal?) Woodland, Lake, River, Moorland and Mountain. It’s a geographical somewhere. It must be better than nowhere?  As Prime Minister Theresa May said “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.” Don’t I Theresa? Return with me to 1973, please.

I was then emerging from the glorious spin and spirit of the 1960’s.The International Times, the counter culture’s newspaper, spoke of a young person as being, “A Child of the Universe”. This term jostled awkwardly with my passport’s “British Subject”, raising the problematic issue of identity that I am still to this day freely expanding.

I feel comfortably English and British. Yet also gentlemanly Celt (Welsh and Scottish ancestry), instilled with a Liverpool wit, a European shaped by their culture (French grandmother on my mother’s side), Americanized by old Hollywood and Jazz, made Asian-friendly by travelling and hoping to be re-born as a questioning child / citizen of the universe. There are passports and passports.


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