Back to Blighty

Time passes slowly on a cross-channel ferry. I find it hard to settle in a seat to read for more than about twenty minutes and impossible to sleep. Instead I wander around the decks, going in and out of the shops with their ridiculous and over-priced wares and passing through restaurant and bar areas that seem to be filled with people who are having an even worse time than me: an unquiet ghost, trapped for a few hours in some pale aquatic purgatory.

Last week, on the way back from Caen to Portsmouth, I drifted through the almost deserted snack bar a few times, eventually falling into conversation with the barman about the merits or otherwise of buying, out of sheer boredom, a croque monsieur. At their best, these are a delicious snack from a country that doesn’t specialise in snacks: at their worst – which seemed rather to be what we were dealing with here – they’re a small toasted cheese sandwich. This item retailed at €9 and was already curling under the lights.

I told him that even if I hadn’t eaten anything that day, I didn’t think I was hungry enough to buy it. He gave the croque a look which bordered on loathing and morosely shook his head.

“Moi non plus,” he agreed.

As I continued my wanderings around the ship it struck me that at least I was arriving in England by a legal method. Unlike others who were trying to make a similar journey, probably at this exact moment, I ran little risk of suffocation, drowning, hypothermia or heat exhaustion. This was my country; I was born here; I could leave and re-enter it as often as I liked and without any worries or delays.

That was before we got to Portsmouth.

The first warning bell was sounded about ten minutes before we docked when the tannoy declaimed that, “due to UK passport-control formalities”, delays might be experienced when leaving the port. It would be helpful if we could have our passport open at the photo page. Thank you for listening to this announcement.

For about ten seconds, I accepted this. Then I thought, why? Due to what aspect of UK passport-control formalities would there be delays? Against my advice when asked in 2016, the UK government had decided we would leave the EU. I could see that this might make entering EU countries more difficult but why should it hinder re-entering my own? If anything, it should be easier. A smooth return to Blighty without being tangled up with all those pesky foreigners should be one of the Brexit dividends that we’d all been promised. I certainly hadn’t encountered any others.

On thinking a bit more, I realised it was actually part of the general pattern of diminishment that’s been part of life for the last fifteen years or so. The financial crash, austerity, Brexit, Covid, the cost-of-living crisis, interest rates, Putin, the pursuit of net zero – each is used, often with no justification, as a pretext for something being done less well.

“Please note,” the announcement should have said, “that for various reasons everything will now be worse, slower, more expensive, more difficult and generally a bit rubbish. Get used to it. Thank you for listening to this announcement.”

This would have been supported by what happened as we queued to get to passport control at Portsmouth at about 11pm. Each interaction between motorist and passport officer seemed ridiculously prolonged. All the cars in front had UK plates and so presumably UK passports were involved. Scan them and up would come probably everything from your last tax return to your paternal grandmother’s blood group. However, the man in the booth seemed to be shooting the breeze with each motorist – “Hope you had a good crossing”,  “Been a bit cold here” or “That second Arsenal goal on Saturday was definitely offside”, perhaps. The reality turned out to be even more dismal.

“So, Brian,” he asked me after the photo-checking formalities were out of the way, “where have you come from today?” The tone was a strange mixture of artificial familiarity and slightly camp menace. I couldn’t decide if this came naturally to him or if it had been acquired on the job.

I wisely resisted the temptation to say “it’s Mr Quinn to you.” With one flick of a button we could have been next ushered into the bad person’s customs bay where they strip-search you and take your car to pieces and then leave it to you to put it everything together again.

It was in any case an asinine question. All of us on that boat had come from Caen.

“Caen.”

He gave me a slightly bored smile, as if by answering so literally I’d been wasting his time whereas in fact he’d been wasting mine. “Before Caen,” he replied, pronouncing it completely wrong.

This pissed me off. Most of the boats from Portsmouth went there. He looked like he’d been sitting in the booth for about twenty years. Surely he knew how to say the name of the place?

Penny and I both suggested a number of other towns in France we’d visited. He didn’t seem at all interested.

“And what was the purpose of your trip, Brian?” he interrupted as Penny was half way through saying “Perrusson”.

“Holiday,” I said.

“Holiday?”

“Yes.”

There was another pause while he considered this information.

“Has this car been modified since you bought it?”

“No.”

He nodded and handed us back our passports. “Thank you,” he said, disconcertingly.

Nothing had been noted down – though I suppose it might have been recorded – and so provided no useful information to protect our national security. As I drove away I wondered what the purpose of this pointless exchange might have been.

One possibility was that it was a traffic-management issue. Having too many cars racing out at the same time, briefly on the wrong side of the road after a fortnight on the continent, was unwelcome. “Slow them down”, was the message. “A bit of small talk for a few minutes and our motorways will be safe.”

More likely, I thought after a few miles, was that this was an occupational perk. Sitting in one of those booths must be an awful job: and, like being Home Secretary, only bad news could ever come from it – “look, Smith, last night you let through five suicide bombers, two drug barons and a convicted hedge-fund manager.” You need compensations for this kind of pressure.

One might be the steady drip-drip of delay and frustration that you heap upon incoming travellers. There must, for some, be pleasure to be had from the power of taking a couple of minutes from someone’s life that they’ll never get back. Nothing to which official exception could be taken, mind – just a series of small inconveniences visited on a large number of people that would, like adding ten pence to a piggy bank every day, eventually produce something that could be regarded as a worthwhile return for a lifetime’s work.

This reminded me of a far more surreal incident at Dover in the mid 80s when I was also coming back from France, this time as a foot passenger. My passport examination was interrupted by a man in a dark suit who suddenly stepped out of the shadows and took the document away as the officer was about to hand it back to me. He beckoned me to one side.

“Where have you come from, Brian?” he asked.

Being younger than I was last week, I didn’t so much object to this use of my first name.

“France.”

“Why have you been in France, Brian?” he asked in the same camp-sinister tones the guy at Portsmouth used.

“My parents live there.”

“Do they?”

There didn’t seem to be anything else to say except for “yes”, so I said it.

He flicked through the passport, page after page, and then stopped. “Oh dear,” he said slowly, then gave me a small smile.

Oh Jesus, I thought. I’d already had a bad journey from Nice, much of which had been spent bickering with the SNCF staff about my couchette reservation and then trying to ignore the stentorian snores from the man in the bunk below me. What fresh hell was this?

“You haven’t filled in the details of your next of kin.”

“What?”

“You should do that, Brian,” he said, stretching the pauses between each word almost to breaking point, “in case you have an unfortunate accident.”

Giving me a menacing smile, he handed back my passport. Then he stepped back into the shadows behind the officer’s desk as swiftly as he’d emerged.

It’s hard to know which of these two men – the one at Portsmouth last week or the one at Dover forty years ago – derived more pleasure from our encounter. I don’t think you could put a cigarette paper between the high each must have got from it. A brief moment of power over someone else can be a pretty potent drug. Give me a uniform, a badge and a quick course in sinister-camp diction and I might even get into it myself…

Brian Quinn

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