I was 18, asking my mum to explain the difference between Arrivals and Departures.
“But I’m arriving and departing?”
She nodded stoically, as if this were a reasonable quandary, a pretence undermined by the slightly strained look that had begun to creep over her face. This was the look she’d been wearing when we’d fed my French exchange partner a doner kebab. A look that said:
I’ve made a terrible mistake.
The following day, her worst fears were confirmed. I resurfaced from a suitcase to discover my passport had expired, two weeks before I would leave for a year of travel. After a brief surf online, I was optimistic about the prospect of a “fast track instant passport renewal.” This was, after all, a lifeline designed for people like myself – victims of bureaucracy. Its devilishly enticing description guaranteed a new document in a mere four hours, the only condition being, you survive the process.
Seven mind-crumbling hours, a violent frisking and one concrete example of why brutalism should be swept hastily into the architectural recycling bin later, I can confirm that this is not the “get out of jail free” service you are looking for.
My father had drawn the short straw, agreeing to drive me early the next morning to Newport, South Wales. Naturally, as midlanders, our closest passport renewal office was located in a different country, for convenience and the country drive.
By 5:00am we were already halfway down the M5. To give him credit, Dad had only tried to throw himself out of the driver’s window once. (I’d mentioned skipping on travel insurance.) With appointments only available between 8 and 10, alertness and organisation were paramount if we were to successfully infiltrate the complex.
If ever you do find yourself stuck for something to do on the M5 (which is not beyond the realm of possibility), why not spot these unfortunates for yourself? From the driver’s aura of despondency and a small forest of paper envelopes on the dashboard, you should be able to identify a victim of bureaucracy with relative ease. Across the nation, Ford Fiestas are tirelessly travelling to and from accessible locations such as Hugh Town, The Isle of Man, a wendy house in Slough and the city of Newport. Now back to the tale! HM revenue had set us our first challenge.
We arrived in the dark, the car thermometer recorded one degree Celsius as I shuffled into the city centre, paper envelope in hand. My father followed behind with the wheelable filing cabinet, in case they asked to see tertiary documentation such as my birth weight or shampoo preference. High above us, in a bulletproof glass bubble, I imagine the HM office staff were peering down and rubbing their hands together as we approached a signpost.
HM passport office – to the right, five-minute walk.
It took us thirty-five minutes, three street maps, a Sat-Nav and a rather truculent grocer to realise that we had misinterpreted the signpost. In fact, it rather provided the scenic route to “Ugene’s Hats and Tats” — a shop that boasted one pane of glass between three windows and a rather splendid cut-out of Elvis Presley. It was a while before we descended upon the genuine office, due to its camouflage as a leisure centre cum multi-storey carpark, a concrete 60’s atrocity, notably in a different location to on either street map.
By this time, less fortunate victims of bureaucracy had already fallen by the wayside, endlessly following street directions to a building that had changed location six months ago. “Ugene’s hats and tats” receives more custom than it’s ever had before, as helpless Brits tattoo themselves with the face of the UK passport.
Meanwhile, my father and I had reached reception, where a surly looking man in his late thirties was crammed behind the front desk. He was the sort of man who looked as if a life of administration had gradually taken something from him. I like to think of the following as the troll under the bridge stage:
“Hi, I’ve got an appointment for half-past eight” I said, out of breath.
“It’s ten past.” He pointed at the clock behind him.
“Yes, we’re quite happy to wait in the waiting room,” my father replied.
The man informed us that there was no seating available until twenty-past. He sighed to himself, more out of despair than sympathy, and retired to a storage cupboard where we assumed, he folded himself into a triple chin and disappeared. As the door closed behind him, the pair of us glanced through the glass pane at the empty phalanx of plastic chairs, stifling a “what the fuck?” before shuffling to the exit. Behind us, fellow unfortunates attempted similar pursuits, eventually following the trail of obscenities outside.
At twenty-past eight on the dot, the eyes of the foyer troll mechanically unglazed and as a group, those who hadn’t frozen to death, scuttled in from the cold.
This is where many realised, they could happily live the rest of their existence without a passport after all. In militarized ranks, shoes were handed over for the linings to be unpeeled and the soles scanned for explosives. Barefoot, the early birds (those having camped overnight in nearby fields) stood bolt upright on the sticky lino for fear of appearing overtly suspicious. In front of them, their belonging were scrupulously emptied into plastic trays while behind the desk, a hoard of sniffer dogs chomped at the bit, slathered with foam as they readied themselves to divulge upon a tissue or packet of twiglets.
My father took five minutes at the desk, methodically emptying his pockets of change, all the while an emotionless man in grey stared into his soul, perhaps hoping to find something of value there.
Dad sets off the overhead metal detector immediately. Another greying man sprints with surprising agility to frisk him with a luminous metal probe. Luckily, the ravaged corpse of the elderly woman in front was occupying the pack of Doberman and so he was, by default, allowed to remain. My turn followed:
“Do you have any sharp objects in your possession?”
“I’ve got a fork?” I said, holding up the Tesco’s bag of lunch we had brought, in the event of a return journey. This was quickly confiscated and handed over to the foyer troll. A sheet of red paper was attached to my files with the word “FORK” in block capital black marker pen. This safety precaution is reportedly due to the recent increase in cutlery-related crime. Considering the number of times they must have heard, “Renew the passport or I’ll spoon your eyes out like melon balls”, it’s almost understandable.
Once through security, if you’ve successfully avoided arrest for the possession of an AK47 or a cheese string, you are invited to complete a test of mental endurance. Handed a post-it note featuring a combination of letters and numbers, you must join the remaining candidates in the plastic-seating area, braced for an indefinite period of constant vigilance.
Every 5-10 minutes a broadcast will appear on a flickering screen above. When your combination of letters and numbers is released, you will have exactly three minutes to make it to the correct cubicle, in order to discuss your application. May I take the opportunity to stress the 3-minute timeframe.
“Person 03596cft4dh87jook attend cubicle 1”
At the sound of the intercom, everyone began to grip their seats, scrupulously nodding through each digit on their shred of paper. As ever, by the third digit some poor fool loses count and assumes it is not him, blissfully unaware that his dreams of ever reaching the end have been mercilessly crushed. Next to us, Tony from Berwick-on-Tweed gets up to attend cubicle 3 only to find out that his specified booth was in fact number 6. His application is promptly terminated.
Those who do recall their numbers may pass through. My father and I were among the lucky, waiting a fleeting hour and a half before sitting down in front of a young woman in a glass box. She was good at her job: don’t acknowledge the customer, face the wall, attempt to instil feelings of despair. It was 8:29. The meeting was concluded one minute later at 8:30 with a jerk of her head and a “come back in four hours.” In the minds of those salivating enviously from the seating area, doubts began to raise their heads — surely there must be a more efficient way? These visionaries are unlikely to make it home…
Three mugs of coffee, two hot cross buns and a potential sighting of Katherine from season 3’s Bake Off later, my father and I had survived four hours holed up in a Costa in the town centre. As we finally left, legs wobbling and eyes wild with a caffeine-induced frenzy, we cast a last backwards glance in solidarity with those left behind.
Slumped haphazardly over bags and tables, haggard men and women gazed glassily into their espressos, eyeballs flicking, as if independent of body, between watch and phone screens. Perhaps in ten years’ time, when students pick up their geography textbooks, a yellowing photograph of the high street will grace the pages: “Newport economy, the only in the UK to be sustained entirely by VOB” *Victims of Bureaucracy.
We stumbled triumphantly back to the HMRC. The air smelt sweeter somehow, less of cannabis. The spring in Dad’s footsteps said, “DAVE DIDN’T END IT ALL AND NOW HE FEELS EPICCCC!” We returned to the institutionalised soul in the glass box, and clutching the new passport, burst from the foyer doors, the wind in our hair and the waft of the foyer troll’s chip butty on the horizon. We let him keep the fork.
My father and I vowed never to repeat this experience, and have kept our promise to this day. I suppose I can only congratulate Her Majesty’s Passport Office for engraining in her citizens, the desire to always check the validity of important documents.