Joseph McGonagle, Passports and Visas, Saturday, 20 June 2009

When we met to discuss my travels over the next few months, I had mentioned to John that I had only just managed to secure in time my visa for entry into Algeria before leaving first for Paris. John suggested I take a photograph of it for inclusion in Left Luggage.

Getting the visa proved a minor ordeal in itself. Without the time to deliver my application by hand at the London embassy and collect it in person the following week, I had sent the relevant forms and documents by post a month earlier. When nothing had materialised with ten days to go, nerves got the better of me. I reluctantly began ringing the phone number for visa applicants but to no avail: never quite able to reach a member of staff, either a recorded message would instruct me to call back later or instead I would be placed in a telephonic limbo – trapped in a system that had lost track of my call and couldn’t cope with the volume of callers. But perseverance eventually paid off. After ringing sporadically over three consecutive days, to my great surprise and relief I finally got through, and was assured by a very courteous member of staff that the visa would arrive in time. It was duly delivered the following day.

Although I have previously travelled a fair amount abroad, this has mostly been within Europe, and when I have left the continent it has been to countries – such as the U. S. and Morocco – where British citizens are usually given a visa waiver. Having to wait on tenterhooks for a visa therefore remains a rather novel experience for me, and provided a timely reminder that British citizens don’t necessarily have open access beyond all nation-state borders. But how stressful really was the wait? I had no reason to doubt that I would be granted my visa eventually, but simply feared that it had either never been received or had been sent already and lost in the post. If anything, I had been given a momentary and minute glimpse into the realities of life for citizens whose access is far more restricted and for whom international travel is seldom a foregone conclusion.

This made me wonder whether most British citizens don’t ultimately take for granted their relative freedom of movement abroad. The mere procedure of having to make a visa application well in advance of travel – although this time mercifully simple for me – made me think how straightforward even this is if you have the right passport. This contrasts sharply with the tales I heard last time I visited Algiers, when I couldn’t help but be moved when listening to people speak of their ordeals of rejected visa applications, interminable queues outside the French embassy for a tourist visa to visit family, the habitual refusals with which such requests are now met, and of the shameful and embarrassing questions even academics must answer when applying to do research in the U. K.. Perhaps it’s only by stepping outside the E. U. and looking from the outside in that you begin to grasp fully how closely its borders are policed and movement into it tightly restricted. It also serves as an acute reminder, were one needed, of how the convenient fictions of geographical borders and of the grand narratives of nation states can have very real consequences as soon as you wish to cross frontiers or travel elsewhere. But why – by accident of birth – should I be able to more or less come and go as I like, but not many of the people I meet?

If you look closely, beneath my visa you can just make out the word `Irlande’ and the symbol of a harp on the page. Although born and raised completely in the U. K., I finally acquired Irish citizenship when I turned thirty. This was not for any cynical reason – no `flag of convenience’ – but something I had often thought about in my twenties but never quite got around to doing.

My father is from Donegal and my maternal grandparents hail from Roscommon: they too migrated across the Irish Sea when young and my mother was born and brought up in Manchester. As a result, I am British by birth, ethnically Irish, and have a vaguely Mancunian accent. Perhaps because of this, I’ve often thought how much can hinge on an accent: think of how frequently the allegiences of British and English sportsmen and women, born or brought up abroad, are questioned – especially if their accent sounds foreign. An accent can work as an enduring reminder of someone’s alterity.

I also think that, if you don’t have the requisite accent, you can feel that difference emotionally and almost physically as soon as you open your mouth: while you belong `visually’ – look the `part’ at least – your voice always gives you away. And, although as a linguist I clearly have some ability as a mimic, I’ve never been able to imitate an Irish accent successfully – and after years of hearing my father’s one I have never not been completely deaf to his. A vaguely Mancunian accent is therefore my lot and any supposedly unproblematic identification I might have with Irishness is for the meantime indefinitely disrupted. But would I ever feel completely one or the other anyway? I doubt it: sometimes nationality or citizenship seems to me to resemble a convenient fiction: almost like a film script you’re not compelled to follow, as long as you’re in the credits… Dual citizenship ultimately seems like the best compromise, and in some ways a luxury: it allows you to feel in-between but also permits you to remain both at the same time. On paper at least.

© Image and text, Joseph McGonagle, 2009

© Text processing, tinting, and retouching, John Perivolaris, 2009


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