Monday, 13 September 2010

Heathrow immigration horror

Today I saw an awful thing. I was making my way through the passport control at Heathrow airport in the mental haze which normally engulfs me in this sort of setting: my brain goes into "hibernate mode", and I enter a sort of protective fog that muffles the relentless sensual stimulation that seems to be mandatory in the modern airport.

So I did not immediately clock the little scene that was playing out next to my queue. Indeed I was almost under the nose of the barrel-chested customs man, before I realised what he was up to. He was perched on the side of a table, arms crossed high up that expansive chest, belt shining, big bunch of keys hanging off the side (probably a squawking radio in there somewhere); in short, successfully giving that impression of being slightly oversized that comes so naturally to officers of the law, and their ilk.

He was gazing down at an unfortunate couple who'd obviously been dragged out of my queue for some irregularity. The first words I heard him say were "all I'm asking is for you to be honest with me..." The sort of on-the-face-of-it decent, reasonable request that is another speciality of officers of the law. Reasonable, that is, until you think what their request implies. What will happen if you're honest with this man? What will he do with your truth? If you've got nothing to hide, then you've got nothing to fear, right? So the (faulty) logic goes.

"I just want to know if you've been earning any money.... So you've been earning £25 a day, for the last nine years.... In a kitchen..." His volume as oversized as his chest, his voice rang out as my queue passed him by; I couldn't hear the responses of the couple - they were just ordinary-sized.

I didn't want to make them feel objects on display but, still, I turned as I passed to properly look at the couple. And as I saw them clearly for the first time - focussing on them not on the immigration officer - I suddenly felt sick. They were of South-East-Asian appearance, a man and a woman, in their forties I would guess. But it was the look on their faces that caught me; they were caught, and I could see the fear in the tight muscles of their face and the aliveness in their eyes, as they sought desperately for some escape.

I didn't hear them make a sound; I barely saw them make a movement. They weren't causing a fuss; I don't know what their story is. I imagine that they've spent nine years in this country making a very marginal living and now, finally, for whatever reason, they want to go home. But in trying to board that plane, they've crept out of the shadows and into the full glare of our immigration system, and now what they want and what they were planning is a matter of no consequence. Because someone noticed that they have an out-of-date stamp on their passport, now other people will decide what will happen to them. Other people who, god damn it, should not have the right.

I wanted to shake my head at what was happening, but I didn't want the couple to see and think I disapproved of THEM. I didn't want them to feel like the inhabitants of this island are as heartless and inhuman as the laws that govern them. So I did nothing and went on my way, sick and unseeing. I write this just a few hours later, and God knows where that man and woman are now. I hope with all my heart that they are on their way to their desired destination; I fear though that they are in a cell somewhere or in an interview room with a barrel-chested immigration man who just wants them to be honest...
* * *
I got to the front of the queue, was processed, and found acceptable. My reward: entry into the duty-free/ restaurant area that precedes the boarding gates. Everywhere there were people pulling their little suitcases on floors of shiny white tiles, browsing aisles full of single malt whiskey, or celebrity magazines, or high-quality leatherware. There was an oyster bar, and a steak house, one wall was covered with the picture of a naked lady (some actor; she looked familiar) sitting on a couch with her legs crossed and wearing huge green jewels.

I ate a sad dinner in a sushi bar where plates come round on little tracks, and the walls are covered with different ways of writing the characters "YO!". I walked past a Bulgari shop where I could buy a £7000 watch, or a £10 000 necklace with BULGARI written in big letters across the front of it. Shiny, shiny, shiny, people, people, people.

I remembered a documentary I watched a couple of nights ago about the swingers club Plato's Retreat. People who'd visited Plato's in its heyday were interviewed, and they told stories of wild nights eating, drinking, dancing and fucking at Plato's. A couple of people talked about "the mat room" - a big room with no furniture but an almighty great mat on which an orgy took place every night: dozens of bodies writhing around taking their pleasure any way they could get it. One woman, a regular at Plato's, said she found the mat room "a bit full on"; she preferred to take her men one at a time....

If Plato's Retreat is a metaphor for our big shiny consumer society, then that shopping area in Heathrow felt like the mat room. Take your pleasure any way you can get it. But God help you if you don't pass the entry test...

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