Where does my annual tour of the United States begin? For Pam and Bob Byers it starts as soon as the previous one has finished. Enquiries build up and venues push to grab their favoured dates creating a giant logistical and personal challenge to satisfy everyone’s needs.
This is a part of the process that I sit out of (apart from answering occasional questions regarding travel, or would I mind performing three times in South Carolina on Tuesday and in California on Wednesday!).
As Pam and Bob move the cards around to make the dates work there is also another process rumbling on, this time in the offices of an immigration attorney, to prepare my visa application to present to the US Government.
When I started touring I was granted a five year visa, but post 9-11 the government have unsurprisingly been more careful who they let in and for how long. These days my visa is granted for the length of my tour and no longer and the process is complex and exhaustive.
Once again I am not involved until the INS has approved my petition, a document that allows me to actually apply for the visa Once the petition is granted it is time to fill in an online form complete with a picture taken within the last six months (in case my hairline has noticeably changed). I have to give details of my parents and significant others and give an account of all the countries that I have visited in the last five years, which with my cruise line work can sometimes be difficult to recall.
Finally comes THE list of questions – the ones that on the face of it seem ridiculous, but are there so that if I happen to act in a way that contradicts my answers the authorities can at least arrest me for lying on an official document. I have to carefully tick ‘NO’ when asked if I am planning to overthrow the United States of America, and if I am planning on operating a prostitution racket, and if I am planning (alone or in a group) any act of terrorism.
Form completed it is submitted to the Embassy and I am given an appointment date so that the application can be completed. In the past I have made my way into west London by bus and taken a short stroll to the impressive fortress in Grosvenor Square, one of the richest addresses in London. However grand the old Embassy was, once inside it was a typical civil service building, with fluorescent tube lighting and beige walls darkened by years of coats, bags, sweaty palms and heads of hair brushing against it.
But 2018 would see a new routine for me as the old Embassy has been de-commissioned in favour of a brand new, purpose built building in Nine Elms, south of the river. There was quite a flurry of controversy earlier in the year when President Trump announced that he was refusing to cut the ribbon at the official opening ceremony because the new building was situated in a horrible part of London, where nothing happens. He claimed that the move from Grosvenor Square was a bad deal (the real estate millionaire’s experience showing through) and that he would cancel his trip to the UK rather than visit this waste of money.
It was with a degree of interest that I set off on Tuesday 16 October to attend my interview.
The day began with a ride on the historic Great Western Railway into Paddington station. Recently GWR have re-branded their trains into the nostalgic dark green hues of a bygone time. The brand new streamline Inter City Express locomotives evoke the beauty of the record breaking Mallard steam engine, built and used by the old LNER organisation.
On arrival at Paddington the nostalgia continued, as the lattice of wrought iron so symbolic of the Victorian age creates a canopy over the bronze statue of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the engineer responsible for this network.
There is another statue at Paddington Station too, in honour of a young bear gentleman who introduced me to reading.
The London underground system took me to Oxford Circus and then beneath the river to Vauxhall, where I emerged into the light and began the short walk to the Embassy.
The location is beautiful! It is set right on the river bank with views across to the Chelsea Embankment where dear old Henry Fielding Dickens (eighth child of Charles Dickens and my great grandfather), was knocked down in 1932, giving him injuries to which he would succumb. My father wrote about that day in his memoirs:
‘…he had gone out for his usual walk on the Embankment. At about lunch-time there was an unexpected ring at the door. Diffused in the stained glass panel of the front door was the unmistakable outline and blue bulk of a large London policeman. There were urgent, furtive, whispers and I was bundled away out of sight and hearing. Pan-Pan had been crossing the road and had been knocked down by a motor cycle. He was now lying critically injured in hospital. He died a day or two later’
As I reflected on the scene a large wide-bodied jet meandered its way across the blue sky, and I realised that this is a view I had looked down upon at the end of many tours. If the winds are from the west then the flightpath into Heathrow comes right over London, taking in all the sights, over the Royal Chelsea Hospital, over Twickenham rugby stadium before finishing on the tarmac at London’s main airport.
A view that so often heralds the end of my adventures was today launching a new one.
The Embassy itself sparkles (at least it did on Tuesday) in the sun and is surrounded by carefully planted grasses and wildflowers. I have to say, Mr President, that it didn’t look horrible to me, and the amount of construction and development going on suggests that this is a part of London that is very much on the up.
At the old Embassy I would have to show my appointment letter to a clerk at a podium and then be told to stand at the back of a long queue, open to the elements, before shuffling to a security checkpoint, to be allowed to join another queue. I was astounded then when the clerk waved me straight into the building. The security check was quick, the only thing that caused concern was a silver cigarette case that I sometimes use as a business card case, which had been given to my grandfather Gerald by his wife Pearl.
The routine now was now a familiar one. Another clerk checked my details and gave me a number (N433) and told me to go to the 1st floor to wait. In the old building the waiting room was a cavernous, soulless, windowless room with row upon row of seats for bored or anxious (or bored and anxious) applicants to sit at. Although the new room is still huge it has been broken up by subtly lit dividers, so that each block of seating holds only 16 people (8 opposing), meaning that there is no longer the feeling of being a tiny number in the huge crowd. The lighting is hidden and stylish, enhanced by the huge picture windows that let in lots of natural light and which afford fine views of the River Thames and the London skyline (including a rather shy Houses of Parliament peeping out from between more modern edifices).
Television screens flashed up the numbers of each applicant as they were called, accompanied by a little electronic ‘ping’ at which everyone glanced up and straight down again to their books or phones. One person would rise clutching their documents and make their way to the particular window for the first interview. Everyone else continued reading until another ‘ping’ jerked the heads up again. For this first stage of the process the numbers are called in order, so my ‘ping’ would come after N432, but a terrible sense panic always descends over me and I become terrified that I will miss my moment. Am I truly sure that I have the number 433? What if it is 344, or 343 instead? So my reflex action changed from a simple glance at the screen to be followed by a check at my paperwork again – just to check.
Eventually 433 arrived and I duly went to window number 7 where a young girl greeted me cheerfully. She took my paperwork and then looked at my old visa and tried to establish if I had indeed submitted a new photograph. Every question was asked with a high laugh and the same greeted every answer. I noticed that on her desk was a mug decorated with the character Little Miss Giggles – never was there a more appropriate piece of china ware.
When Miss Giggles had finished her initial interview I was sent to sit down and wait to be called again. The second interview goes into more depth as an officer establishes what line of work the applicant is in, how long they plan to stay in America and any other pertinent questions.
As I sat waiting for my number to come up I could hear snippets of other answers: ‘Yes, I’m a professional….’ something or other; ‘I’m a team leader’; ‘I’m a vision mixer for a TV programme…..no, not a cameraman, a vision mixer. It means I mix the pictures together….’ The last speaker sounded weary as if he had needed to answer the same question, and provide the same explanation on many previous questions.
All of our details were now being looked at by faceless officers in unseen offices and because each one was being dealt with on its own merit the numbers were not necessarily coming up in order, making the ‘ping’-induced head twitches even more pronounced.
N430. N431. N432. All in order. Me next, but no! The next ‘ping’ was N434 then N435, then N500 and so on.
For some unknown reason it seemed to take an age before N433 appeared with ‘Window 18’ next to it, but no sooner had it flashed onto the screen it disappeared again, and the officer at window 18 looked blankly at me saying ‘No sir, I don’t have a case pending, please take a seat and wait for your number.’ Once more I was consigned to my chair whilst all of the applicants who had arrived with me an hour before cheerfully left the building one by one.
I was beginning to get a bit nervous about my prospects of successfully being welcomed to America when at last I was called. I have no idea what the delay was, because there was no probing interview, no searching questions. My officer simply asked what I would be doing in America and noticed that I had indeed been granted permission on multiple previous occasions. With a cheery ‘you’re set, have a great day’ my first visit to the new embassy came to an end.
I strolled along the path that winds through the waving grasses and around the pond that not only surrounds the building but serves it too. I walked along the bank of the river wondering to myself how the London Eye always seems to be where you least expect it to be and came to the conclusion that the new Embassy is indeed in a lovely part of town!
And now to the tour itself, and I am contemplating a couple of changes – but that is for a different blog post.