The bad jokes of immigration officials

WHEN I first arrived in Australia I filled in a form giving my country of birth as Great Britain.

The woman at the immigration desk carefully crossed out the ‘Great’. Several times. With lots of lines.

After that I wrote ‘United Kingdom’ and the man at immigration wanted to know if I hadn’t heard about the fuss the Scots and the Welsh were making about getting their independence.

Do Australian immigration officials do this to the people of all nations. I guess they don’t.

What kind of pithy riposte can you make to someone who tells you they’re from France, or Namibia? And besides, there wouldn’t be the will. Aussies don’t have the same tenacious desire to bag the French of Namibians the way they bag the Poms.

Except, possibly, Kiwis, but there are only so many gags you can tell about sheep, and probably none that an immigration official would be game to use Although with Australian immigration officials you never know.

Not that it bothers me any more. I have an Australian passport now.

It’s a sombre blue-covered document that, if I may so, makes its English/United Kingdom/Great Britain cousin, with its red cover, look like something Chairman Mao might have written in. Except that he didn’t. No one has.

No one seems to write in passports any more. Not even me. There’s a bit at the back for next of kin and I keep forgetting to fill in my wife’s name. That, or she rubs it out again because she doesn’t want anyone to know.

But The Authorities don’t write in them either. I do a fair bit of travelling between England and Australia and at neither end do they seem to care.

They flip through the passport, abuse me in some subtle way that falls just short of being reportable, and hand it back disdainfully as if I wasn’t worth the bother. There was a time when you could collect passport stamps like postage stamps and show your collection proudly… Congo… Greenland… Tahiti… your level of worldliness could be judged by your passport stamps.

Now we are not travellers… we’re cattle in a very big cattle truck, with wings. You have to be a film star, or a terrorist, to get any attention.

I don’t want to be mistaken for a terrorist, but might I not occasionally resemble some minor film star, or someone from Neighbours?

The last trip I made, the closest I came was when the small boy in the seat in front of mine peered back at me and told his mum I looked like one of the Muppets.

Indeed, when you consider it, the entire process of arriving in Australia is designed to destroy your self esteem. They make jokes about your nationality, they spray you with disinfectant, and since foot and mouth disease they make you wash your shoes.

If you show the slightest interest in staying they will try to lose your baggage, and if that fails they throw you to the customs department, which tries to take it off you piece by piece.

It’s amazing what they don’t allow you to bring in to Australia. I brought in some juggling balls and they leapt on them as if they were a mad cow. It’s the seeds, you see, that the balls are stuffed with.

Today even a ham sandwich won’t get through.

I wanted to know what would happen if I ate it on the plane but didn’t go to the lavatory until I arrived in Australia, but I didn’t have the nerve to ask. That’s another thing the immigration people don’t allow into the country — a sense of humour.