A SMALL CAFÉ IN CENTRAL LONDON, SUNNY SEPTEMBER AFTERNOON
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN GABRIELA AND NORMAN
I’m cautiously checking the recording equipment whilst apologetically glancing at my guest. The microphone was working just fine ten minutes ago, but now, that blinking, little red light is no-where to be seen, Sod’s law. Finally, I get it to work.
G: Thank you for agreeing to speak with me. As I’ve mentioned, I wanted to interview you as part of a research project I’m conducting called Dichotomies of Belonging. Sparked by a growing polarisation in politics, the recent Brexit vote and rise of anti-migratory rhetoric, I hope our conversation sheds light on the relationship citizens hold with one of the most formal and universal expression of national identity—a passport. Can you start by introducing yourself?
With pleasure. My name is Norman, and I’m a British passport. I’m biometric, I was issued on the 11 March 2012 by the Passport Office, as a part of the twenty-second series called Scenic Britain. I travel a lot—some even call me a “travel document” which frankly is quite a fitting nickname, as it seems like I’m always moving places. I do also spend a lot of time in a dark drawer.
G: Do you get bored in the drawer?
N: Yes, but I guess that’s the price you pay for leading an otherwise exciting life.
G: What words would you use to best describe yourself?
N: “Helpful”, “precious”, “potent” and also “secure”.
G: You say you’re British, does this mean you belong to a British person?
N: To be precise, I’m the property of Her Majesty’s government in the United Kingdom. A little fun fact: the Queen herself doesn’t actually need a passport since all British passports are issued in her name. Which to me is quite ironic, it means, technically, she owns enough passports to last her a millenia.
Norman laughs loudly and a middle-aged woman reading a book from across the room throws him a strange look.
N: I’m guessing, you were asking about my holder? She is indeed a British citizen, and I do, of course, help them to pass1 from one place to another… you could say I’m autological.
Passport [noun] from passe, imperative of Old French passer ‘to pass’ + port ‘port’. Source: Harper, D. (2016) Etymology Dictionary. Available at: www.etymonline. comindex.php?term=passport
Someone two tables away drops a cup of tea on the floor. I should have chosen a quieter place…
G: Is it fair to say that you know your holder quite well?
N: We have a strangely intimate relationship. I know her birthday, where she was born, her middle names—you know, the sort of things a best friend or a partner would know. I’m much smaller than my predecessors, only 88 × 125 mm, so I easily fit into her jeans pocket. I’d say we’re friends, we go on holidays together and I carry her picture everywhere I go.
G: And is this feeling mutual?
N: I think she’s quite fond of me, she always seems worried if she can’t find me. On some level, she hasn’t really had much say in me “becoming” her passport—and vice versa. In my early days I was just a sum of parts like any other passports produced in 2012. Then, one day, we were assigned to each other and just like that, I was hers and she was mine—call it fate, call it bureaucracy.
G: Do you ever worry about being replaced?
N: I worry about a lot of things—being stolen, forgotten, accidently left behind… I have heard terrifying stories about passports who were abducted, pulled apart, and stitched together with pages that didn’t belong to them. Can you imagine what it’s like losing the part of you that defines you? That gives you purpose? Poor fellas were never the same again…
There’s a moment of silence, Norman stares blankly ahead. He’s brought back to reality when a nearby coffee machine makes a strange noise.
N: Oh! And then there is also the issue of dual nationality.
G: An issue?
N: Yes, well, from the moment I am assigned to my holder, there’s a written agreement stating that our relationship will be valid for ten years. The working relationship that is. A little while ago, I overheard my holder telling someone, that according to her DNA test, she’s 39% Swedish. She hoped this was grounds for getting a dual nationality, saying something about the EU and a second passport2—I don’t know, I was sitting quite far away, but as a passport, I can’t imagine anything worse than competing with another one. And Swedish passports rank better than British3.
A surge has been recorded in the number of British people obtaining the nationality of another EU member state since the referendum, with German citizenship being the most frequently sought after. Cowburn, A. (2018) ‘Surge in British people obtaining EU citizenship since referendum, new data reveals’ Available at: www. independent.co.uk/news/uk/ politics/british-people-obtaining-eu-citizenship-passports-live-abroad-study-a8424276.html
According to Global Passport Power Rank 2018 (passports of the world ranked by their total visa-free score) UK’s score is at 164, whilst Sweden’s is 165, Afghanistan’s 30 and Syria’s 38. Available at: www.passportindex.org
Norman exhales heavily.
N: Then again, imagine being an Afghan or Syrian passport.
G: Afghanistan and Syria in recent years have been suffering from conflicts that caused large-scale migration. Although in both countries it is difficult to gauge the scale of human displacement as statistics are hard to come by, it’s fair to assume this affected their passport rankings.
N: These are among some of the worst ranked passports in the world, but what I’m getting at, is more about the relationship they must have with their holders. As a British passport, I enable entry to many foreign countries without needing a visa, and when I do, it usually requires a quick form filling. Being a Syrian passport must be diametrically different. If only my holder knew how much easier her travel is with me in her pocket, perhaps then she wouldn’t complain so much about queues at airports.
Norman giggles to himself.
G: Since you were issued in 2012, you still have over three years before you expire, but once this time elapses, a new series of navy passports will be brought into rotation. Do you have any strong feelings about this?
N: There has been a lot of talk in the media about the new post-Brexit passport. From my perspective, passports have changed so much in the last 120 years—particularly in the recent decades—I don’t think colour, frankly, will have much bearing on the travel experience. The urgent questions surrounding this are how much easier or difficult it will be to travel, and I don’t think a separate fancy queue4 is going to cut the mustard.
The PM wants separate lanes for British travellers as an important sign to voters that Brexit has happened and there are tangible benefits from it that everyone can see. Bickerton, J. (2018) ‘Brexit bonus! Brits MUST have own passport lanes at airports after we quit EU insists May’ Available at: www. express.co.uk/news/uk/997112/ Brexit-news-Prime-Minister-Theresa- May-passport-queues-EU-exit
G: What words do you think will best describe the new passport?
N: “Helpful”, “precious” and “secure”.
G: That’s not much different from how you’d describe yourself.
N: To be honest, other than the ease with which I travel, I don’t think much will change. Not straight away at least, but maybe I’m just being naive.
I pause the recording, as Norman asks me for a short break.