It was interesting to read a couple of recent stories; one about two men being escorted from an aeroplane after other passengers overheard them speaking in Arabic and another similar story about a family queueing for a ride on the London Eye being taken aside and put through extra security checks, again for being overheard speaking in Arabic.
Anyone of a remotely “Alternative” appearance, who’s had to deal with Customs and Security officials over the years preceding the current climate of Islamophobia must be silently sniggering to themselves these days and thinking “Welcome to My World!” It disnae make the whole experience any the less teeth-grindingly irritating, but at least the fact that crassness, stupidity and ignorance seem to be the pre-requisites for a job in Airport or Border Security, seems finally to be becoming public knowledge.
For did you not know that back in the 1980s and 1990s -long before Al Quaeda’s highly trained killers were secreting shit covered iPods in aeroplane toilets, or drawing attention to themselves by conversing loudly in non-English tongues [How dare they!] -similar terrorist threats from Irish Republicans and the like were being thwarted on a regular basis by our fine, steadfast and ever vigilant Customs men and women:
“Lovely suit and tie sir. Go straight on board”
[Person with mohican or spiky hair and leather jacket approaches desk] “Alright son. Put your bag on the table and empty your pockets!”
And yet again I would submit to having my personal possessions pawed through and my personal life probed into by some plankton-brained ‘bouncer’ in a peaked cap.
It always amazed me that the IRA, PLO, ETA et al apparently chose to dress their operatives as Punks, Goths, Bikers or Hippies. You’d have thought they’d have tried to blend in a bit more, wouldn’t you? -But obviously those involved in what is laughingly known as “Intelligence” know better. Hence every time I’ve travelled by boat or plane, or crossed a border over the past twenty years or so, I’ve watched all the ‘weirdos’ being taken to one side for a grilling, while the ‘respectable’ people in suits have been smilingly waved past, with barely a second glance.
If nothing else, at least the current climate of paranoia has democratised things and now we all get the chance to be treated like a criminal by some fuckwitt in a uniform.
So, in the finest spirit of “Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt” here are a couple of my own personal favourites from back in the day when only the freaks got frisked:
1: Late 1980s -Larne harbour, Ireland.
I have made one of my frequent ferry-crossings to Ireland to go and visit my Mammy for a couple of weeks. As usual, I have been singled out for searching and interrogation by the RUC, who man the Customs post. My bright red mohican and studded leather jacket obviously marking me out as a high-ranking terrorist. In those days, as part of the ‘security check’ you were given a green “Prevention of Terrorism” form to fill in while the neanderthals ploughed through your belongings. On this form you have to fill in such things as your name and address, the name and address of the person[s] you will be staying with, while in Ireland and other info such as nationality and purpose of visit. That last one’s really sneaky, isn’t it? I bet quite a few guerillas and ‘peoples’ liberationists’ have found themselves behind bars after unthinkingly writing “planting a bomb” or “smuggling guns” next to that one!
Anyway, on this occasion my crime was of a more political nature. Next to the box marked “Nationality” I wrote “Irish”. Now for those of you not in the know, back in the day, this was like a Red rag to a Bull to yer average RUC man, selected as they are [or were then] for their right-wing Orangeism and staunch refusal to countenance that Norn Iron was anything but “As British as Finchley”. So ‘Plod’ glances at my green form and then raises his eyebrows in astonishment and glares at me.
“What’s that say!” he demands, indicating with a pudgy finger the space marked ‘Nationality’
“Irish” I reply, whereupon he scrunches up the form and throws it in a bin beside the desk.
“I can’t read that!” he growls handing me another form “Fill it in again!”
So I fill in the form again as before and hand him it
“What’s that say!” he demands anew, indicating the same box on the form
“It says ‘Irish’” I repeat “Same as it did last time”
“I still can’t read that!” and once again he crumples up the form and chucks it in his bin [I wonder did he have it placed there especially to keep things tidy while he played this game with anyone foolish enough to not declare themselves “Right-Wing Orange Order Member” on the form? He hands me another form
“Fill it in again”
“What about your mate here?” I say, trying to be helpful and indicating the other copper “Can he read? Maybe he could help you out”
Plod puts his face up close to mine
“Don’t get fucking smart with me son, or we’ll keep you here all fucking day!”
Not an uncommon attitude, I’ve found, amongst this kind of petty official around the globe, although on Tourist Board posters it’s generally eschewed in favour of “Welcome to <Insert Name of Country> Where the Welcome is Warmer and the Smiles are Wider!” So I fill in the form again. This time making sure to print in block capitals in my ‘bestest’, neatest handwriting.
Of course this involves me filling in the form painfully slowly, but I’ve found that this kind of thing is a great way of annoying fuckwitts like this cunt. Since they live their life by the rulebook and the clock, their biggest weapons against anyone they cannae actually arrest for anything is the use of pointless hold-ups and unnecessary delays. So when you mentally accept the fact that they’re trying to wind you up in this way, you can easily turn the tables by using these tactics right back against them; making sure you show not the slightest irritation at the time this is all taking and instead acting as if you’re having such a terrific time, you’ll be almost sorry to be waved through and sent on your way.
Eventually I finish my third form and with a huge grin hand it to my porcine friend who, I am delighted to see, is now fidgeting a bit and glancing sideways at the small queue of other undesireables waiting their turn for humiliation, which has been slowly forming, whilst he has been toying with me.
“Can you read that one OK?” I ask politely
Without even glancing at the form, he adds it to the pile of ‘Accepted’ forms on his desk and his companion shoves my bag at me across the desk.
“Go on. Fuck off!” growls my charming friend indicating, with a jerk of his head, the Exit.
As I walk away from the desk, I glance backward and see the contents of the next victim’s bag being lifted out onto the desk for inspection. The owner of the luggage is leaning forward over the desk, writing on a green slip of paper, whilst the copper with the attitude problem waits in anticipation.
2: Mid 1990s -Manchester Airport
I am waiting to pass through airport security, on my way to Málaga airport in Spain, for a college trip to Córdoba. When it’s my turn to go through the metal detector, I take off my leather jacket and my bullet belt and hand them to the Customs official to check by hand, as I know they’ll set the detector off.
“What’s this?” she asks, holding up the belt [For lo’ t’was a she this time, proving -if nothing else- that fuckwitted stupiditiy is not an entirely male preserve].
“It’s a belt” I say
“You can’t take ammunition on an aeroplane!” she almost squeaks in her astonishment
[At this point I should point - out for those unfamiliar with what a Bullet Belt is, and who may be tempted to side with the Customs officer and chide me for a Fool and a Knave - that a Bullet Belt is a belt made by clipping together spent cartridge cases, which the MOD sells on to army surplus shops and the like. They are widely available in such shops [at a considerable markup] and -polished up or chrome plated- from various Punk and Alternative clothing ‘Boutiques’. They are “Ammunition” in the same way that an empty beer can is an “Alcoholic Drink]”
Anyway, back to the fun:
I lift up the belt and show the Customs Woman that the belt is made from spent cartrdges
“It’s not ammunition” I say patiently “They’re spent cartridges”
“Yes. Well they could be made back into ammunition!” she states firmly
“On an aeroplane!” This time I’m the one whose voice has gone up an octave in disbelief -my mind filled with the vision of myself sat in my aeroplane seat with a pestle and mortar filled with Sulphur and Saltpetre on one side of the fold-down table in front of me and a crucible full of molten lead on the other- trying to convert my bullet belt back into some kind of lethal weapon. God knows what I was supposed to be going to fire the fuckers out of tho’. Presumably she thought I looked capable of whipping up an Automatic Rifle from a couple of plastic forks and a complementary hot towel, too!
“Don’t you think someone might notice?” I continue, incredulously
“You can’t take ammunition on board the aeroplane” repeats the Customs Woman blankly. Falling back, at this point on another of the unwritten rules of the job; *“No matter how idiotic and illogical your knee-jerk reaction to a given situation is, you must never, under any circumstances, deviate from that position, no matter what. You are wearing a cap and badge - ergo you are always in the right”*
In the end I have to go and find a Luggage Storage kiosk at the airport, where I hand my belt over, for keeping until I return from my holidays. So I board the plane beltless, but in the company of several people carrying large bottles of Duty Free vodka, many of whom are no doubt also carrying cigarette lighters or matches. Presumably taking your own Molotov Cocktail components onboard being seen as posing significantly less threat to the aeroplane than a dented brass belt made of old bullet casings!
[As an interesting footnote: When I returned from Spain and went to reclaim my belt at the Left Luggage kiosk at the airport, I was presented with a bill for storage - Cheeky bastards! So, pretending to have no cash on me, I insisted on writing a cheque for the amount. Unfortunately I completely accidentally signed the cheque with a completely different signature to that on my cheque-card and the bank never cashed it. Ha! Ha!]
Late 1990s -Cairnryan port, Scotland
We’re waiting in our hire Transit van to go through customs on the way over to Ireland for my brother’s wedding; four of us, all of varying degrees of ‘Punkish’ or Gothic appearance - Myself, my girlfriend and my sister and her boyfriend -and of course Conor, my doggy.
A dour-faced Scottish policeman approaches the van and I wind down the window and smile at him.
“Morning!” I say in a friendly fashion. a firm believer in giving folk the benefit of the doubt, I’m always nice and polite to people, on first meeting - until they prove themselves undeserving of respect.
“This your van?” demands the copper, gruffly -presumably deigning someone like me doesn’t warrant a return greeting or any form of politeness
“It’s a hire van” I say. He looks through the window and sees the three of us sitting in the front of the van and the other passenger and the dog lounging in the back.
“Who you travelling with?” he demands. I raise my eyebrows in confusion [I mean he’d just looked and seen who I was travelling with!] and indicate with a nod of my head the other people in the van.
“Smart-arse, eh?” he growls “OK then. You just pull your van over there and wait til we’re ready to deal with you!” He indicates a parking area to the side of the Customs hut and hands me a bunch of those lovely green Anti-terrorism forms through the window.
What is wrong with these fucking people? - have they all got penises the size of chippolatas, or do their wives bully them at home, or what?
Anyway, I pull the van over to the side, while Plod and his friends attend to the other vehicles waiting clearance to go onto the ferry. As there are about fifty to a hundred of them, this will take quite a while. After a few minutes, my sister -who’s a bit hot-headed and not such a maestro of the “Mind Game” as myself, starts complaining loudly “This is ridiculous. What are they making us wait all this time for? They’re just doing this for badness!”
“Exactly!” I reply, reaching for a magazine and handing it to her “And when people are trying to wind you up, the worst thing you can do is let them see it’s working.” I hand her the magazine and [not without a bit of a struggle] finally get her to shut the fuck up with the complaining and pretend to be reading it. I grab another magazine for myself and make a great show of placing it on the steering wheel and am soon [as far as the casual observer could tell] lost in the reading of it. We also break out some crisps and snacks and start having a bit of a mini picnic.
“I’ve just said something really funny!” I suddenly announce.
“Eh?” come the replies and I’m greeted with blank stares “What?”
“I’ve just said something funny” I repeat, slowly and deliberately.
My brother-inlaw J&emdash;&emdash;, is the first to catch on, letting out a loud bellow of convincing sounding laughter. Soon everybody else twigs and for the next twenty or thirty minutes, while we are kept waiting, anyone passing within earshot of the van would think a mini party, with much jollity, was taking place on board.
Suddenly my sister K&emdash;&emdash; says “He’s coming back!” She’s referring to the miserable copper, who I’ve already clocked out the corner of my eye heading towards our van, having finally ushered all the other vehicles onto the boat and kept us til last.
“I know. I’ve seen him” I say, keeping my eyes firmly glued to my magazine, as if so engrossed in my reading, I’m not aware of his approach, even when he arrives right at the side of the van.
“You got those forms?” he demands. I look up, as if startled and adopt my best ‘Oh I didn’t see you there’ expression, trying with every ounce of my demeanour to convey the impression that he’s really done us a great favour by allowing us to stop and have a bite to eat and a bit of a read, before boarding the ferry.
“Oh!” I say in mock surprise “Yeah…” and we hand him the forms.
He glances through them and then walks round to the van, inspecting it and finishing up ending at the passenger side window, next to my sister K&emdash;&emdash;.
“Got anything in the back?” he grunts, sticking his head in through the window for a nosey. Bad mistake! -Conor the dog is the loveliest, mildest, softest of creatures; a huge jet black long-haired alsation cross [crossed with a Grizzly Bear we suspect!], the original gentle giant; fearsome to behold but lets children crawl all over him and flees in terror from Jack Russels and the like. He is however, extremely protective of the women folk. So when this copper’s head is suddenly thrust through the window, Conor, who’s lain there seemingly asleep for the duration of our Customs fun, suddenly leaps up and flings himself against the back of the seats, aiming straight at the copper, baring his rather large fangs and letting out a loud and unmistakeable “Don’t you come near my Auntie!” snarl
Plod beats a hasty retreat and moves back round my side of the van.
“OK. On you go” he says indicating the ramp up to the ferry. As I start the engine and roll the van towards the waiting boat, I’m sure I hear him say, without a trace of irony “Have a nice trip!”