What does Britain offer that can genuinely be described as unique to the world? Returning from a four-day jaunt, the Gazpachomonk re-defines his relationship with the mother ship after 3 Challenges are laid down at his feet: First to enter the country without raising suspicion, secondly to feed an entire city from one visit to ASDA and just 50p in his pocket, and finally to get out of the country again with no more than a boarding pass on his phone. Simple? Think again...
- 1: That Welcome Feeling.
She looked me up and down, in search of my missing suit I expect, and then ju-jitsued me into a cabin, instructing me to lay my passport face down on the scanner and stare directly at the camera in front of me. This I found more of a challenge than I had expected, partly because my passport was a bit creased over the years and kept springing up from the scanner screen, and partly because of the large television above that I - and the rest of the airport staff, passengers in-transit and undercover customs officials - had our eyes fixed upon. My face appeared nervously on the screen.
"Look at the the camera sir," the logarithm book insisted. I looked away from the screen and back down to the lens, but then looked up to check on the screen if I was indeed now looking down.
"The camera sir!”
My eyes darted nervously everywhere. A green square appeared on the screen chasing my flickering pupils from side to side and back to front. I twitched and began to sweat and looked back at the logarithm face.
Suddenly an alarm went off, the green square flashed red and the exit doors to the cabin slammed shut.
I looked up awaiting the glass ceiling to shatter and the marines to drop down on ropes from the helicopters above. "Buttle?" Someone would ask.
Instead Logarithm stepped forward and with the skill of an accomplished ventriloquist she explained with out the slightest facial movement that I would now have to accompany her.
2: The Shopping Experience: Part One
And about those coffee shops. How is it, with just 3.50 in my pocket I can go into a pub and have a full English (including coffee) - or - pop into one of the zillion coffee houses and purchase one polystyrene enclosed drink and a sherbet fountain. Where's the economic sense in that? Maybe we are just spoilt in Andalusia where coffee is about 1.10, and it even comes with coffee in it. It is not simply a bucket of frothy milk. If it want it stronger I ask for it stronger and it comes stronger. There is no additional charge. If I ask for small I get small. What I’m not offered is “tall." When did that happen? When did the sizes change from big or small to Tall, Bucket or Bath sized?
3: The Shopping Experience: Part Two
We had gone to the ‘Mall' in search of ASDA. I had been told that there were bargains to be had. That there were certain aisles, where certain products at certain hours of the day would appear for next to nothing. We entered the store on a cold, wet and dark afternoon. The challenge we had set ourselves was to test the crisis priced supermarket foods and to try and feed the city of Canterbury with just 50 pence.
As we shuffled collectively throughout the store, I spoke to quite a few other worshippers that belonged to my branch. They were a great bunch of people, motivated only in part by deep and bitter poverty. For at play here too was the need for a meaningful, social and rain-proof outdoor activity. Bowling alleys were just too expensive they told me and the local church couldn't compete with the fine sound track, fluorescent lighting and cash-back facilities on offer. We got to know each other quite well that afternoon. We set up a Whatsapp group to share aisle changes or a distribution hours. It was a fine afternoon and one that reassured me that Britain may be on its knees, but it is comfortable in so doing.
4: Information and Convenience
Apart from 15 branches of WH SMITHS and COSTA COFFEE - all heaving with drifting souls - there was just a handful of seats occupied by fortuitous travellers armed with sleeping bags and portable pillows. Strolling between the closed check-in booths I saw hundreds of people - in a scene out of a bomb shelter in a London Underground tube - curled up, propped up or wired up to their devices.
Such thoughts prevented sleep setting in and fortunately so, for a large woman appeared in a uniform and placed a yellow triangle in front of me: 'Cleaning in Progress' the sign said. She looked at me under the counter, then nudged it with the toe of her boot in my direction and strode off, tutting.
A flashing light appeared, and a man on an electric cleaning vehicle swept by, his swirling brushes caught up plastic water bottles, a flask of tea, the shoes of the snoring teenager to my left and a half finished prawn cocktail sandwich that rested alongside a dozing Spanish couple.
The driver tutted too. My bottom froze. I looked at the time: 11.30 - my flight wasn’t due for some considerable time. I snuggled further under my counter and zipped up my jacket. It is cold in the UK in November. Particularly in vast halls and on marble floors. I felt myself on the point of nodding, dreaming of a world where Tuttle and Buttle would be safe from harm and Terry Giliam would be duly elected as Emperor when a voice announced that the fire alarm system was due to be tested but that no one should be alarmed, for it was simply a test.
I peered out from under the sign as a loud siren began to wail, and everyone awoke instantly. Then a voice announced that a fire had broken out in the airport but that we should not panic. Stay calm and prepare for an orderly evacuation, the voice said. People, everywhere jumped to their feet and began to pack up their sleeping bags and portable pillows. Some looked most confused.Where was the other half of their sandwich? Their flask of tea? One person hopped about in search of shoes.
I shivered and tried to move an increasingly numb back-side. It was now 11.47. As people scurried towards the exit doors, the flashing lights of the cleaning vehicle re-appeared as did the big woman with a broom the width of a cricket pitch. “Thats better” she mumbled as she swept past my frost-bitten body.
5: Safe Journey And Come Back Soon
"Boarding pass sir?”
“It's on my phone”. I replied
"Just scan the phone over there sir.”
I looked around for 'Pupil Recognition Screens' or Logarithm faces but found none. I hesitantly placed my phone on the scanner, worried it would extract my itunes account password, or start my apps to jiggle forever on the home-screen. A green light appeared in front of me and a door opened.
"Go ahead sir.”
Dazed and suspicious, I dragged myself onwards. In the distance I could hear the call of the departure lounge seats.
The Final Furlong
"Empty all liquids, and metal objects into the tray sir."
What about my belt?
"Empty all liquids, and metal objects into the tray sir.
Is that a yes?
“Just liquids, and metal objects into the tray sir.
I’ll take that as a yes then, shall I?
"Is sir wearing shoes, trainers or boots?"
'Is sir wearing jewellery, pacemaker or has had metal plates inserted into sirs head recently?'
'No. Neither is sir pregnant should that be the next question.'
'Any laptops or tablet computers in the bag sir?'
'Nope. What about my phone?'
'Just liquids, and metal objects into the tray sir.'
'Not the phone then?'
'Just liquids, and metal objects into the tray sir.'
I looked at the customs officer quizzically. The phone was in my hand, hovering over the tray...then back towards me…then back over the tray...The officers expression remained inscrutable. Logarithms I thought. I knew you wouldn't let me get through that easily. I tried again...
'Though it is not a tablet, my phone does has a touch screen, internet access, and a mediation timer app...'
'Just liquids, and metal objects into the tray sir. Move on now.'
I looked ahead. On the other side of the electronic gateway was a gigantic blue-shirted ex-wrestler. He had his fingers tucked into his belt and was swinging gently back and forth on his feet having listened to my conversation with the logarithm woman. From somewhere distant I could here the sound of Ennio Morricone. He beckoned me towards him.
I stuffed the phone into my pocket and tried my best to look unsuspicious, immediately arousing suspcion amongst the wrestling community awaiting me. I stepped though. The alarm sounded.
What he wanted to say, and what he meant to say was "Put Your Arms Up". Or more accurately "Stand and Deliver". For whatever he finds is his. Whatever he wants he has. I raised my arms. He squeezed me all over. Intimately. My bottom had still not thawed. Despite the massage.
"Could you empty your pockets sir?
I pulled out my phone.
"Should have gone in the tray sir! Please remove your boots.”
“Boots? They are shoes! Look they have laces and things. They don’t even reach up to my ankle!”
He held out his hands. Ennio Morricone came back on the speakers. I looked him in the eye. Then I got distracted by the sheer size of his shoulders and looked down. I removed my “boots”.
He took the “boots” and handed them over to his partner who immediately whisked them away to be questioned. I stood in my socks as the wrestler pulled out a long black item with a circle at the end. It looked like a big ice-cream scoop. I wondered what parts he was preparing to scoop. Slowly, and caressingly, he ran the object over every inch of my body. My arms were still held up, in a position of surrender: Surrender to the indignity, the humiliation, the public suspicion (How many times did I hear during the next few hours: 'hey, wasnt that the guy in customs that got his boots questioned?').
It was 3.10 am. Without a belt my trousers kept slipping down, my feet were cold without shoes on and my arms were throbbing - on any other occasion I would have been happy to engage in a little isometric exercise - but right now I was feeling just a tad tired.
"No. Nothing", the wrestler reluctantly admitted to his partner who had returned without my shoes. "Cant find anything". He turned to me. "Want to try the alarm again sir?"
I lowered my arms and passed back through the gateway. Where were my shoes? What indignities were they suffering in some shady quarter of Stansted airport? Would I ever see them again? I never even got to say goodbye….I stepped through the alarm gate.
"Thats what I like to hear sir. Silence. Thank-you for your coperation. You boots will be waiting for you over there.
I looked over to where he had indicted. My shoes were there, but they looked tired, a little bruised perhaps but proudly defiant. They hadnt buckled under pressure. They were still in one piece. Alongside was my jacket, my belt, my phone, my money, my toiletries and in the distance, the far far distance I could just make out the disappearing tones of Ennio and the call of the departure lounge for a weary backside.
Britain: Land of defiance, out there on the fringes of Europe, on the fringes of sanity alongside Dr Who, ASDA and airports officers who cannot differentiate a shoe from a boot. What a heritage, what a country.