When did the British passport become a middle England fantasy document?
I have always travelled on an Irish passport. But a condition of the Winston Churchill fellowship is that the fellow travel on a British passport. So if I want to travel to Peru this summer I must have a British pass. I duly applied.
I was pleasantly surprised this morning, when I received my new passport through the mail box, at the design. The first page, ‘Her Britannic Majesty etc’ (obviously as a citizen, and not a subject, I object to this, but that’s another matter) is richly illustrated with thatched cottages and acorns, the like of which you might find a bit strong even for a First World War recruitment poster informing you what you are fighting for. But there they are.
Amused, I turned the pages. A windmill, a dragonfly and a lush meadow appeared, followed by the White Cliffs of Dover, a fishing trawler, and a village green complete with rotten old bench. The only thing that was missing from the village green scene was the obligatory accompanying empty bottle of Buckfast / Special Brew discarded beside the bench. But then realism doesn’t seem to feature strongly in this design.
By the time I got to page 21 (a Victorian park with a rather pleasant sundial) I was beginning to hanker after a cream tea and a jug of Pimm’s.
Since when was the already overblown symbolism of lion, unicorn etc etc not enough? Since when did British passports give themselves over to this Phantasmagoria of thatched cottages and vicars on bicycles?
‘Cynic!’ I her you cry and, yes, I can imagine that the image of a drystone wall and moorland (page 29) would be of some comfort were one to find oneself thrown in a foreign jail on trumped up charges; and, I concede, conjuring up that corner of some foreign field that is forever England is obviously a lot easier when you have a splendidly plump owl peering back at you (page 31).
But I can’t help but yearn for a more basic – yet just as powerful – symbolism. I don’t know when the new passport design came in, but you can’t get much more ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ kitsch. And with the current aversion to immigration and Europhobia creeping into the political mainstream, you’ll forgive me for thinking it a bit cloying.
Then again, maybe I’m just a curmudgeon. After all, I may one day find myself yearning after the canal barges, cakes and ale emblazoned across my passport after all.
And as an exercise in a somewhat premodern escapism, it’s definitely a success.