My new passport is a twee jigsaw of fantasy Britishnessby Sam Leith / December 14, 2011 / Leave a comment
What do you feel when you get a new passport? Sad and excited—and also, intrigued. My old passport was nearly as old as this age of terror. It is striking how the intervening years—a decade of paranoia about migration and data insecurity—have stamped, so to speak, the replacement that plopped through the letterbox this week.
The new British passport addresses anxieties about identity in more than just the proliferation of embedded microchips, shimmering holograms and intricate, subtly-coloured, photocopier-thwarting details. A British passport is now, as for some time, a carefully prescribed variation on a standard European paradigm.
The very document that asserts your status as a citizen of a sovereign nation is becoming ever more global—an object metaphor, you could say, for the postmodern disposition of international affairs. We have come far from the old, large-format, black leather passports Britons touted in the 1970s—yet such nostalgia is felt for these that a brisk trade is done in passport holders gussied up to resemble them.
The passport itself seems to gesture at that anxiety—to try to compensate. The blank pages of my last passport are coloured in pastel greens and pinks in swirling geometric patterns, as if created by a computerised Etch A Sketch. The pages of the new one, in a similar palette, are themed. Each offers one piece of a slightly twee jigsaw of fantasy Britishness (or Englishness, as it seems more directly tilted).
In the front, “Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State Requests and Requires…” above a row of Cotswold cottages sleeping behind a neat border of shrubs. A purple butterfly roosts on an oak-leaf. Successive pages—if you rotate the passport through 90 degrees—are titled “Reedbed,” “Geological Formation,” “Coastal Cliff,” “Fishing Village,” “Beach,” “Canal,” “Village Green,” “Formal Park,” “Woodland,” “Lake,” “River,” “Moorland” and “Mountain.” In the details, salmon jump, owls roost and dragonflies hover. We see sundials, park benches, thatched houses and beach-huts facing the sea.
Over it all is—I suppose the thing we are famed for—the weather. Isobars snake across these designs. Integrated into the head of each page is a dinky weather-map icon: a plump schematic cloud with two fat drops of rain issuing from it, or bars radiating from one of its three lobes to indicate the sun coming out. Strange, what this implies. Everywhere you go, as Crowded House sang, you always take the weather with you: you carry Britain in your passport, a…