I flew to London last week. I arrived at Heathrow on a Tuesday afternoon, coming in from Hamburg, Germany.
The line for clearing immigration was not very long. For the non-European Union arrivals, there were two British female clerks behind their “desks.” They were blond yet androgynous. Only one of them was working – the other was leaning forward, with her head propped up on one hand, looking like she was doing on-the-job training with Quaaludes. She stared languidly, uncuriously in the direction of the other one.
The clerk who was working glanced listlessly at the American passport I passed over to her.
“Is this your first visit to the UK?”
“No, I visited England in 1977.”
She mumbled something or other.
“What is your occupation?” she asked.
“Journalist,” I replied. I had carefully printed that out in the admission form under the category “Occupation.” But since this woman worked for the government, maybe she didn’t read so good. Or maybe she was merely trying to catch me disavowing what I wrote down 10 minutes earlier.
“What will you be doing in the U.K.?”
“I am going to be interviewed by a television network.”
She showed a flicker of response.
“Which one?” she asked, as her monotone waned.
“Al Jazeera,” I replied.
Her head snapped back – her eyes went wide for about three seconds- and her mouth may have fallen open a bit, though I’m not sure about that last detail.
You would have thought that I had confessed to intending to urinate upon the entry guard booth at Buckingham Palace.
“Oh,” she finally said, looking as if I had just bounced a brick off the side of her head. I had the sense that this is not the usual answer she receives to this question.
She turned the form over and begin semi-feverishly jotting down notes, eyeing me warily. (A few months earlier, the British press had revealed that President Bush, in a 2004 conversation with Prime Minister Tony Blair, suggested bombing Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha).
“How long will you be in Britain?” she asks.
“Between two and four days,” I replied.
“What will you be doing in London after the interview?”
She may have hoped that her deft question would elicit a full confession.
“I might go around looking at the used book stores,” I replied. “Are most of them in the Strand area?”
After a terse pause, she replied, “There are used book stores all over the London.”
She waved the passport under the computer/laser “reader” several times – may have done something else – and then indicated that I was permitted to enter the country.
But it did seem to take an awfully long time for my suitcase to come through on the luggage carousel.