It had been while. A good few years in fact since I’d last stepped upon these green (green?) lands and I think passport control at Stansted recognised that fact long before I did. As I stood, unsure of which queue to join, I fingered my passport uncertainly between nervous fingers. Many of the queues were very long. One appeared very short. Why was that I thought? Before I could decide, I was herded into the queue by a group of suits and found myself facing a slim woman, with a face that reminded me of the contents of a logarithm book.
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.
We left the Scanning Cabin and the passengers outside collectively moved aside, eyes accusingly focussed on my hand luggage (possible bomb) or my shoes (liquid bomb soles) or my eyes for those give-away signs of middle-eastern ancestry. "This way sir," the logarithm indicated with a gnarled index finger that looked as though it had spent a considerable part of its life up other peoples noses. I looked back up to the screen, where my face remained frozen from the last recorded image. The Red line had circled my face and the words REFUSED in a particularly ugly font appeared underneath. I was back in blighty. No mistaking the welcoming feeling.
2: The Shopping Experience: Part One
Hight St? What High St? It occurs to me that we need to redefine the Hight St, given most small towns have been bordered up as consumers have voted to shop by car on the outskirts of town in sprawling consumerist concentration camps. Where once the heart of a town would beat, there is little life other than the coffee houses or charity stores. This, on the surface appears no great cultural loss, yet the replacement of a diverse enterprise area by a monoculture of caffeine suppliers and second hand clothes says a lot about our collective priorities.
3: The Shopping Experience: Part Two
So in the absence of a high street we went to the commercial outskirts. ‘Malls' they are called in the states I am reliably informed. I found myself often using this word when asking for a coffee. What size sir? ‘Mall' I would say, refusing to describe my coffee in terms of height. It seemed universally understood for each time another bucket sloshed up on the counter in front of me.
Inside, people were moving around in packs, pushing trolleys and praying to the great God of Reduction. In a trance like state - brought on by the hypnotic lighting and the repeat shuffle mode of Boney-M tracks played throughout the store, I too signed up and shuffled along behind. As items were flung onto shelves - people, rather surprisingly I thought - dismissed the pack of 3 Nan breads for 5p but instead fought over the Tangerine and Liquorice Family pack of Giraffe-milk, soyaYoghurts. I gathered the cut-price items into my trolley. This was going to be easy-peasy.
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
All good things must come to an end, even consumption has its limits for a back water boy from deepest Andalusia. So after saying my goodbyes, I headed off to the airport. I had an early morning flight, but could only get a lift if I were to leave the evening before. No problemo - I said amazing all once more with my fluency in Spanish - I’Il put my feet up in the departure lounge and grab a quick siesta, forgetting momentarily that airports are internationally renowned for may things - silly uniforms, cling-film baggage nonsense, duty-free nonsense, shops that sell men things like hunting caps and tartan scarves - but rarely do airports provide customer information or convenience. The departure lounge was, inevitably, closed.
After 20 minutes of walking around pretending to know where I was going, I found a small space available beneath an advertising board. I slid under. The floor was made of marble and was cold to touch. I pulled out a T-shirt from my bag and lay down on that. Every 5 minutes more people arrived in search of a warm space. I wondered what would happen once the entire floor was filled. Would people begin to lay on top of each other? Would they occupy the Ryanair counter? Would the British finally revolt?
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
At 3 am the gates opened. In state of almost complete paralysis and with an icicle on the end of my chin, I limped over to the departure gates.
"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.
I looked down. 'Difficult to say in these fashion meshed - up times we live in officer, but I’d say shoes.'
'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.'
"Please raise your arms sir.”
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.
7/11/2013 09:40:01 am
Ha. What fun. Come back soon. Buttle out....
8/11/2013 06:02:18 pm
Entertaining post Paul. As an English person regularly traveling to Spain, I have never encountered the challenges you have at Stansted. In fact, I find the UK Officers a darn sight more friendly than those I encounter at Malaga. I love Spain but it has taken me a year to connect the 200 year old house we have completed renovating in Rio Frio to the electric grid, and yes I do try to speak Spanish. Spanish bureaucracy is just something else. I agree UK high streets are boring but try the smaller villages. You were in Canterbury and Brighton, both tourist traps. What about Sandwich, Deal or even Hastings? The grass is not always greener. By the way, how is Spanish TV and Radio coming along? Should BBC4 or Radio 6 be losing any sleep?
James - in no way was I indicating Spain was in any way better....Lord knows this country frustrates me on a daily basis. Your leccy store just confirms what we all know, But wherever I encounter incompetence and stupidity I will always highlight that event with humour - be it in spain or the UK. Personally, in 20 yrs of flickering in and out of the UK, Ive never had anything more than a smile from Spanish customs, whilst I seem inevitably pulled out on every visit to Britain as a suspect terrorist. Maybe that says more about me than the UK thinking about it! I wouldnt say either Brighton or Canterbury were tourist traps at all, in fact I really like both places. Sandwich and deal too - lots of ol memories in those places - yet there for me a sadness in finding little more than coffee chains when I visit a new town. TV and radio? Yes, Ok you have me on that one....I can't even begin to think of a response :) Anyway thanks for the comments...
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