Posted in Travel

Passport to Bureaucracy

Photo Booth
Image by kenjonbro via Flickr

There comes a point when you have to give in and get your passport photograph taken.

I realised in January that my passport was due to expire on 16th December 2010.  All year I’ve been hoping that by some miracle, I would wake up one morning feeling exceptionally photogenic. Cleaning my teeth, I’d look in the mirror, be delighted by what I saw and think “Yes, today’s the day!”

By25th November, it hasn’t happened, so I throw vanity to the winds and head for the photo booth in Tesco’s.

“You’re not allowed to smile any more,” says the lady ahead of me in the queue.

I look aghast.  Is this another government cut?  All fun has been cancelled?

“They’ll reject it if you smile.  Your photo.  At the Passport Office.  Or if you wear glasses.”

I remove my glasses and try to think serious thoughts.  While I’m waiting for my turn, I brush my hair to undo the damage caused by the hat necessitated by cold weather.  I lean forward, squinting at my reflection in the photo booth’s tiny mirror.  I’m not optimistic about the outcome.

My previous passport photo was a triumph at the first attempt.  It was taken on a sunny day, in a summery frock, not long after I’d met my future husband. I was flashing a big, sunny smile.

“You look all loved up!” commented a friend when he saw it.  It took years off me – and ensured that every immigration officer checking my new passport ever since would greet me with a broad, friendly smile.

These days you get three attempts at getting a decent photo-booth photo, for no extra charge.  God bless the inventor of digital photography that makes this possible, I think, fidgeting on the tiny, rotating stool.  If the design brief for the stool was to make people feel ill at ease, the designer did a very good job.  It’s hard not to look shifty when the seat beneath you is on the move.

I follow the instructions on the screen, twiddling the stool till my head is under the line on the window and my face within the white oval.  (Is anyone’s face really oval-shaped?  And what dwarf raised the seat quite so high before I came in?)  I gaze sternly at the camera and try to not to blink as it flashes.  The fact that I managed not to blink is the only good thing about my first photo.  Sighing, I hit the green button for a second shot.

A moment later, I’ve turned into twins.  I’ve been cloned.  Two shots of me pop up on the screen side by side, like a spot-the-difference puzzle.

“Try again?  This is your last attempt,” the machine taunts me.

I’m distracted by the realisation that my face is extremely assymetrical.  How come I’ve never noticed this before?

The machine beeps impatiently, thinking I’ve nodded off.

I decide not to risk it and press the “Finish” button.

As I loiter outside the booth, waiting for the printed verdict, I wonder why they’ve banned smiling.  Surely anyone who scowls at an immigration officer is asking for trouble?  It goes against all instincts not to smile.  Even the most innocent of travellers must feel the tiniest bit nervous when presenting their passport.   We’re asking the official to judge us.  How can we be not expected to give a little nervous grin?   So why not let us smile for the camera in the first place?  It will certainly make the passport officer’s job a little easier (not to mention more pleasant), as we’ll be a closer match to our photo. After all, the face is not a fingerprint: it’s expressive, it has character, it has moods.  Banning the smile is like forbidding us to feel.

But the die is cast.  Several days later, I hand my passport application, photo and cheque to the Post Office counter clerk to be weighed and stamped before posting.

“Want to send it recorded delivery?”

“Not really,” I reply.  “It expires in a few days anyway. I’m not bothered.”

“I would if I were you,” he advises. “It might well go astray in the Christmas post.”

Now there’s a vote of confidence in one’s employer.  It’s almost enough to make me  want to leave the country – except I’d have to show my passport.


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You don’t need me to tell you that the autumn colours have been fantastic this year.  Each day late October, early November, I kept thinking “I really must bring my camera with me next time I’m out”. Everywhere I went, breathtaking treescapes of gold, amber and bronze, dramatic as fireworks, rose out of rich, dark, newly-ploughed hills.  Then, overnight, they disappeared.  Strong winds stripped the trees bare, leaving muddy heaps of compost at their feet. It was as if a herbicidal maniac had been on the rampage.  Suddenly it was winter. The clocks had gone back.  And it was dark.

My sense of loss at this overnight tragedy made me less dismissive than I might otherwise have been when a day or two later I spotted my first Christmas tree of the year in the front window of a house near my mum’s.  Not only had the occupants put the tree up on the wrong side of Remembrance Day.  They’d also sprayed lavish drifts of fake snow on the windowpanes, as if egging on the winter to do its worst.  The shiny red stars and golden bells were a garish echo of the subtle russets and auburns of the departed autumn leaves, but boy, was it a cheery sight.

All at once I found myself looking forward to the rash of Christmas lights that would inevitably follow.  Nothing cheers me in winter as much as bright lights.  In a former life I must have been a Druid.  For the rest of the year, my usual mantra is “Put that light out!” (So maybe I was once an ARP warden?) My husband and daughter treat our household like a Christmas tree all year round, in terms of lighting, and for the rest of the year, I go round turning unnecessary lights off, muttering disapproval.  But when it comes to midwinter, I need a burst of light to stop me hibernating.

Certain local routes round here provide a real tonic at this season.  Last year, the white-lit Christmas trees, hung proudly like flags above the shops through the centre of Tetbury, were as cheering to me as any Olympic opening ceremony.  And who can resist the uplifting annual switching on of the Christmas lights?  Passing by the Arboretum, I’ll slow down to savour the “shop window” for the Enchanted Wood, which revitalises bare trees with coloured floodlights.  And just a little further down the Bath Road, there’s an ever-growing beacon that takes many by surprise.  The first time I passed that way after dark, I was convinced that I was about to come across a major conflagration on the road ahead.  I listened out for sirens, but there were none.  Rounding the bend, I discovered it was actually just Willesley’s cattery and kennels in all their electric glory.  Their furry residents must feel ever festive by Christmas Day.

In the past, I’ve shied away from too lavish a Christmas lighting scheme at my own home.  Think Ikea candle arches, and you’ll get the picture.  But this year, in the depths of this dark winter, I feel the need to throw caution to the winds.  That’s appropriate enough, as my electricity comes from the wind-powered Ecotricity in Stroud.  If their profits suddenly go up next quarter, you’ll know the reason why:  I’m planning to splash out this year on the festive lighting front.  Now, can anyone tell me the best place in Tetbury to buy an illuminated reindeer?

Wishing all Tetbury Advertiser readers a very merry Christmas, and a New Year filled with light.  Let it glow, let it glow, let it glow…


English author of warm, witty cosy mystery novels including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the Gemma Lamb/St Bride's School series. Novels published by Boldwood Books, all other books by Hawkesbury Press. Represented by Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agents. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. Course tutor for Jericho Writers. UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors. Lives and writes in her Victorian cottage in the heart of the beautiful Cotswold countryside.

One thought on “Passport to Bureaucracy

  1. They mostly throw away the pictures we bring in and have you pay again for them to take it – but you have as many tries as the line is willing to put up with. I guess people weren’t good at filling in the oval so you’d get your passport rejected for the photo. And really – do they look at the picture?

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