Diana Cooper, snapped in 1920 as herself, but in her passport posed as Cleopatra. Photo: APIC/GETTY IMAGES

"The most egregious little modernism": The best historical accounts of using passports

From DH Lawrence to Diana Cooper, extracts from memoirs
August 12, 2017
In 1641, John Evelyn recorded his arrival at the fort of Lillo, near Antwerp: 

“The Governor… demanded my pass, to which he set his hand and asked for two rix-dollars for a fee, which methought appeared very unhandsome in a soldier of his quality. I told him that I had purchased my pass at the Commissaries at Rotterdam, at which, in a great fury snatching the the paper out of my hand, he flung it scornfully under a table and bade me try whether I could get to Antwerp without his permission.”

Laurence Sterne in his novel, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, described his travels in France in 1762:

“When I got home to my hotel [in Paris], La Fleur told me I had been inquired after by the Lieutenant de Police—The deuce take it! said I—I know the reason. It is time the reader should know it… I had left London with so much precipitation, that it never enter’d my mind that we were at war with France [the Seven Years’ War]; and had reach’d Dover, and look’d through my glass at the hills beyond Boulogne, before the idea presented itself; and with this in its train, that there was no getting there without a passport. Go but to the end of a street, I have a mortal aversion for returning back no wiser than I set out; and as this was one of the greatest efforts I had ever made for knowledge, I could less bear the thoughts of it; so hearing the Count de—had hired the packet, I begg’d he would take me in his suite. The Count had some little knowledge of me, so made little or no difficulty—only said, his inclination to serve me could reach no further than Calais, as he was to return by way of Brussels to Paris; however, when I had once pass’d there, I might get to Paris without interruption; but that in Paris I must make friends and shift for myself.—Let me get to Paris, Monsieur le Count, said I—and I shall do very well. So I embark’d, and never thought more of the matter.”

The opening paragraph of AJP Taylor’s English History 1914-1945, states:

“Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police.”

Regulation 14c of the Defence of the Realm Act was passed in November, 1915:

“A person coming from or intending to proceed to any place out of the United Kingdom as a passenger shall not, without the special permission of a Secretary of State, land or embark at any port in the United Kingdom unless he has in his possession a valid passport.”

This wartime regulation, like many others, such as licensing hours for public houses, was not repealed when peace came. Many protested against the passport. It devoted a page to a description of the bearer, including age, date and place of birth, but also height, colour of hair and eyes and physical features.

A letter in the Times in 1915, read:

“Sir, A little light might be shed, with advantage, upon the high-handed methods of the Passports Department at the Foreign Office. On the form provided for the purpose I described my face as ‘intelligent’. Instead of finding this characterisation entered, I have received a passport on which some official utterly unknown to me has taken upon himself to call my face ‘oval.’ Yours very truly, Bassett Digby.”

Robert Byron, on his passport form: 

In the space asking for “Any special peculiarities,” “Of melancholy appearance” and in the space reserved for a photograph of the bearer’s wife drew a cartoon. The passport was refused.

A passport holder was required to indicate his profession. In Goodbye to All That, the poet Robert Graves observed:

“I am down as ‘University Professor.’ That was a convenience for 1926, when I first took out a passport. I thought of putting ‘Writer,’ but passport officials have complicated reactions to the world. ‘University Professor’ wins a simple reaction: dull respect. No questions asked. So also with ‘Army Captain (pensioned list).’”

In Paul Fussell’s Abroad, his study of literature between the wars, he observed:

“So small a phenomenon as the passport picture is an example of something tiny which has powerfully affected the modern sensibility, assisting that anxious self-awareness, that secret but overriding self-contempt, which we recognise as attaching to the world of [TS Eliot’s] Prufrock, and [Kafka’s] Joseph K. and [Beckett’s] Malone. There are are other unprecedented contributions to the modern neurosis: things like the numbers used in the modern world for personnel identification and coercion—social security numbers, taxpayer numbers, driving licence numbers, licence plate numbers. But the passport picture is perhaps the most egregious little modernism. One truly ‘modern’ question is ‘Do I really look as awful as that?’”

In 1929 DH Lawrence observed in a letter:

“I hate photographs and things of myself, which are never me, and I wonder all the time who it can be. Look at this passport photograph I had taken two days ago. Some sweet fellow with a black beard I haven’t got.” (His beard was red.)

Lady Diana Cooper’s passport through the 1950s and 60s showed her in costume as Tiepolo’s Cleopatra, photographed by Cecil Beaton for the Beistegui Ball in Venice in 1951. In her 1960 memoir she wrote: 

“The frontiers still let me through with that picture on my passport. When they won’t I’ll stay at home.”