Britain: What not to do at passport control

August 15, 2009

What is the smart thing to do when you are travelling through a major international transport hub and are asked to "step this way" by someone in a uniform or a Marks and Spencers suit to answer a few questions while they rummage through your luggage?

It is to be as deferential as possible, subtly implying that you are grateful for the difficult and useful job they are doing defending the nation against mad bombers and drug smugglers.

The really, really stupid thing is to harrumph like a teenage denied their mobile phone and make it obvious that they are a damned nuisance.

A few days ago, I plumped for the latter option. Reflecting on the matter, this was a bit of a misjudgement.

Still, it was a valuable insight into the minds of "our" Special Branch as some people probably call them.

"Sir, looking at your passport we see see you've been to Syria,Jordan, Egypt and Morocco. What did you do there?"

"Holidays" says I, realising that what up till then looked like evidence of a jet-setting playboy lifestyle resembled something else to your average secret cop.

I said what any Irish passport holder would say in similar circumstances — "if it puts your mind at rest I'm planning to be in the pub by 9pm".

Now it's funny how your mind can go blank. So when they asked what I did and where I went in Syria, they wanted a bit more detail about the Roman sites that I visited. What did come to mind while visiting the Roman remains was a need to be within 10 yards of a toilet at all times.

The name of the place had gone completely so I said "Persepolis". An inexcusable mistake and if they had watched the Boris Johnson programs about Rome they could have tripped me up immediately and off to Paddington Green I'd have gone.

Neither geography nor classical history seem major requirements for the job, though. One of them asked about the Namibian stamp and gave a good impression of believing that it's some sort of Al Qaeda related-place near Lebanon.

After I'd explained that you go there for the scenery and the wildlife, he did his Lady Bracknell impersonation substituting "wildlife" for "handbag". "What wildlife?"

Despite having eaten a fair bit of the local fauna, the only two African animals that I could recall were giraffes and monkeys. But this seemed to satisfy.

At this point, the one with the more developed social skills asked if I intended to visit Iraq. The obvious reply to that is "not until there's a chance of coming back alive".

This may have been the attempt to lure me into a discussion on the war because he followed it up by saying, "there's a lot of interesting history there too — it's a shame they, or we, are destroying it".

A sophisticated ruse, but I didn't fall for it.

As someone who would actively struggle to correctly name my nephews and nieces if shown photographs of them, the next set of questions about where I'd stayed during my holiday was a bit tricky. (Sorry kids.)

I'm confident I got the names of the larger towns right and maybe a couple of the hotels too.

This little farce took about 45 minutes and used to be commonplace when travelling between Belfast and London. It was apparent that once I'd been stupid enough to show my displeasure about having my reverie involving a cup of tea, a shower and a pint interrupted, that their system checks had told them that it was worth updating my details. There's a lesson there.
The more serious point is that if I had darker skin, a name like Hussain and the same stamps on my passport, you can bet that I would not have been on time for that 9pm appointment.

It's also worth speculating on what places they approve of you going to. If I'd been returning from Germany, would they have asked about SS war graves? If I'd been in Spain, would they have probed my views on the armed pro-independence Basque group ETA?

And now that Greenland is making noises about independence, they'd be asking about meeting the local separatists.

One thing may reassure you. When they were done, they asked if all my belongings were present. "Not unless someone's nicked something" said I. "Oh no sir. That's more than our job's worth."

So while they can blow your head off on a tube train or kill you at a demonstration, they won't steal your camera. Isn't that a comfort?

[Reprinted from]

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