Fear and loathing in London

For the past few years I have tried to understand what makes me so fear the country called the United Kingdom. London, that great multicultural city leaves me incoherent with anger sometimes, confused many times.

Many of my friends love the place. I used to, but, over the years, I have found myself wanting to be there less and less.

Last week the UK denied me a visa to spend five days in the country. It was a first for me, for any country, including the utterly paranoid Russia.

I burst out laughing, at the lift, as I left the private company that now processes all British visa paperwork, the security guard looking at me with some compassion.

There was a kindly sounding letter in the sealed envelope that explained it all.

I was told that the commissioning letter from Conde Nast Portfolio magazine did not specify that it would cover my costs. I had no hotel booking. My bank account, as of August 15, had only $494 in it—it was clear to the person handling the case that there was no way I could survive London for five days without “recourse to public funds” or “looking for work”.

Her calculation of the “balance of probabilities” did not take into account my not-small salary from a well-endowed private university in the United States and the general health of my bank account. She did not see any useful clues to suggest that perhaps I could provide additional documentation to back up my claims—there was not enough positive benefit of doubt to call me for an interview.

To ensure I understood how unwelcome I was in the UK, the letter took care to lay out the only grounds on which I could appeal my case: if I felt I was being discriminated against as a black person by a public institution; or if the refusal threatened my human rights as laid out in British human rights law.

So, it was made clear to me that no possible explanation or rationale I could provide now would make me welcome in the UK.

I called around. A person who knows these things suggested that I resubmit the application, after seeing a lawyer, and write an affidavit. My English agents faxed off a letter to the High Commission saying oh, this man, this man is so amazing and good. Conde Nast, in some disbelief, resent the same letter it had originally given me to help me with such bureaucracies.

Years ago, when I had left South Africa, I had an idea that I would become a travel writer, one of those guys who send out dispatches from the rim of volcanoes, the middle of tribal rituals in New York City and so forth. It quickly become apparent to me that to do this well, to wear your khakis, grab your waterproof passport and dash off to Upper Ohio requires you to be a global cosmopolitan—a citizen of a world relatively free of borders.

Now, 10 years down the line, I find myself contorting horribly to keep my paperwork in a position to move.

In these dark days, when the United States seems so horrible to the world, it seems wrong for me to suggest that my experience there has been generally excellent. I have done several reading tours of the UK and hardly ever sell any books. The first time I went to the US, I sold 300kg of books in two weeks.

There is something powerful in a certain American idea: that you will not be punished for reaching “above your station”. My experience has been that people recognise and reward talent. The US is full of aggression. Let me call this active-aggression. If there is a problem, it will be clear to you.

In England I have never found this clear. The war the British have cultivated to perfection is the passive-aggressive war, often fought within the bound of “fair play”—which means “the rules”—which they set in advance in their own self-interest and peddle as universal fairness.

When people or institutions have a problem with you, they huddle behind words such as “standards” and “policy” and “rules”—from behind this shield, sharp little faxes and missives and bills are thrown at you—the battle can go on indefinitely.

If you are naive, as I used to be when I first went there, you start to think something is wrong with you. That you filled in your forms badly or said the wrong thing. Until you can read the codes and vague resentments—and understand that, even after many years of Labour, in Britain the highest assault is generated on those who do not know their place. It is a tolerant country, but just barely so.

Like many African or former Commonwealth writers, I have ended up shuttling between the US and home. In the past few years I have seen British resident African and Indian writers slowly make their way across the ocean, where it seems, even the grim trio of Bush, Cheney and Condi have not managed to break the spirit of a country that allows some to breathe without apologising.

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