Seven mind numbing hours, a labyrinth of security and an institution of the most depressing human beings on the planet- Welcome to the Passport Games. Today i am writing to congratulate the Newport HM passport office for successfully ensuring the maximum human suffering possible for those who wish to acquire a new passport. Having realised my own was going to expire two weeks before I left the country, I was forced to enter into the dark world of “fast track instant passport renewal”-A tempting carrot on a stick that guarantees a new document in four hours…the only condition being that you survive the process.
For those who do not know, this test begins with the three hour pilgrimage across the UK to locate your nearest passport office. If ever you are stuck for something to do on the M6 you can spot these passport pilgrims from the driver’s aura of despondency and a small forest of paper envelopes on the dashboard. Across the nation Ford fiestas are tirelessly travelling to and from accessible locations such as Durham, Glasgow and Newport. For myself, a Midlander, a gentle five am wake up and drive to South Wales where HM revenue had set us their first test.
7:30am : We arrived in the dark, the car thermometer recorded one degree Celsius as we hurried into the town centre of Newport, paper envelopes in hand. High above us in a bulletproof glass bubble i imagine the staff peering down and rubbing their hands together as we approached a signpost.
HM passport office- to the right, five minute walk. It took us thirty five minutes, a street map, a Sat nav and a local Welshman to decide that this signpost was in fact wrong and was purely the scenic route to “Ujee’s Hats and Tats”- a shop that boasted one pane of glass between three windows and a cardboard cut out of Elvis Presley. However, with the help of said Welshman we were eventually able to navigate ourselves to the real passport office- a concrete 60’s atrocity, notably in a different location to either map. Less fortunate pilgrims have already fallen by the wayside, endlessly following street directions to a building that changed location six months ago. “Ujee’s hats and tats” receives more custom than it’s ever had before as helpless Brits tattoo themselves with the face of the European passport.
Meanwhile my dad and I had reached reception where a surly looking man in his late thirties was crammed behind a desk. The sort of man who looked as if a life of administration had slowly sucked the joy and humanity from his soul. This is your typical passport office employee- as accommodating as they are charismatic.. I like to think of the following as the troll under the bridge stage.
“Hi I’ve got an appointment for half past eight”
“It’s ten past.” He scowled, pointing at the clock behind him.
“Yes we’re quite happy to wait in the waiting room.” My dad replied.
“No you won’t. wait outside. There’s no room until twenty past.”
The pair of us glanced behind him at the empty room of chairs, stifling a “what the fuck” before shuffling to the exit. Behind us we could hear fellow pilgrims attempt a similar pursuit and fail, joining us outside. At twenty past eight on the dot, the eyes of the Foyer troll suddenly unglazed and as a group, those who hadn’t frozen to death, scuttled in from the cold as he waved us through.
Stage 3: Airport security. This is where many of the remaining few realise they could live without a passport after all, as they stand barefoot on a musty carpet and watch their belongings emptied into plastic trays. I imagine behind the desk a hoard of sniffer dogs are chomping at the bit, slathered with foam as they ready themselves to divulge upon a Kleenex tissue or packet of twiglets. My father takes five minutes at the desk emptying his pockets of change, all the while an emotionless man in grey staring into his soul. An overhead metal detector blocked his way like something out of a bad dystopian fiction. Of course he sets it off immediately, another grey haired man coming running to scan him up and down with a glowing metal stick. Luckily another unfortunate must be being torn apart by the pack of Doberman and so he is allowed to remain. It is my turn.
“Do you have any sharp objects in your possession?”
“I’ve got a fork ” I laugh, holding up the Sainsbury’s bag of lunch we brought in the event of a return journey. To my surprise this was immediately confiscated and handed over to the foyer troll. A sheet of paper was attached to my files with the word “FORK” in black marker pen. This safety precaution is of course due to the increase in cutlery related crime we are continually hearing on the news. The amount of times they must have heard “renew the passport or I’ll spoon your eyes out like melon balls “… it’s almost understandable.
Stage 4: Once through airport security, if one hasn’t been arrested for possession of a Ploughman’s, you face HM’s test of mental endurance. Handed a series of letters and numbers on a scrap of paper, your job is to remain constantly vigilant. When your collection of letters and numbers is called you have exactly three minutes to make it to the right cubicle in order to discuss your application with a human being. However, many do not make it this far.
“Person 03596cft4dh87jook attend cubicle 1”
At the sound of the intercom everyone grips their seats, scrupulously nodding through each digit on their scraps of paper like a room of bobble heads. but after the third digit some poor fool has lost count and assumes it is not him, blissfully unaware that his dreams of ever reaching the end have been mercilessly crushed. This man is destined to remain in the waiting room for the rest of his existence.
Those who do recall their numbers may pass. My father and I were among the lucky ones and sat down in front of a young woman with square glasses. She was good at her job…don’t acknowledge the customer, don’t look at the customer, attempt to instil feelings of despair. It was 8:29. The meeting we’d driven hours for was concluded one minute later at 8:30 with a jerk of her head and a “come back in four hours to pick it up”. In the minds of the weaker candidates doubts begin to creep in- “surely there must be a more efficient way? This entire one minute interaction will collectively cost me seven hours of my life.” But these people will not make it back.
Three mugs of coffee, two hot cross buns and a potential sighting of Katherine from season 3’s Bake off later, my father and I survived four hours holed up in a Costa in the town centre. After a while you begin to question how many of the surrounding people are here for the same reason. I wonder if in ten years time, when students pick up their geography textbooks whether a yellowing photograph of the high-street will grace the pages, captioned ” Newport town economy: the only one in Britain to be sustained entirely by HM passport office”
When we finally went back for collection it was with triumph. The air smelt sweeter, the high street less run down and the spring in my dad’s footsteps said- “GARY DIDN’T END IT ALL AND NOW HE FEELS EPICCCC”. They handed over the documents and we burst out of the foyer doors, the wind in our hair and the smell of freedom on the horizon. We vowed never to repeat this experience. Therefore I can only thank and congratulate Her Majesty’s Passport Office, Newport for successfully engraining in their clients the desire to always check the validity of important documents.