The slow road to citizenship

Richard Lutz chronicles how he took the pledge and became British.

I never really knew what a sharkskin suit was, what it looked like, how to recognise it. Why would anyone want to wear clothes made from a fish? Albeit a fish with sharp teeth. But I figured it all out when two events blessed my life: I took an oath of allegiance and became British and I also found out how a man looks when suited up in sharkskin.

He was a fellow citizen-to-be, a tall African in the shiniest suit I’d ever seen. It glinted silver in early spring light. It shimmered and rippled. It resembled woven water. It flowed from his tall frame like…well, a sharkskin suit. My fellow applicant also had on a black shirt and a red tie. He knew how to dress, how to look sharp and good. I learned a valuable lesson that day in the registry office: If you’re going to take up citizenship of a small, dampish island, do it in sharkskin.

Now, I must get something straight. I’m not a refugee, not a victim of hate nor violence. I’m never knowingly stowed myself in the back of a lorry to find a better life. I have never lived in fear, in hunger, woken up with a cold gnawing sweat, been grabbed from a bed and thrown into a van.

I own a house. I have a car. I have a big flatscreen. I have holidays. I have a nice pension, that is, until the markets implode or some fat boss runs off with my money. But for all my time here, for 44 years, I was not British. I was an American. My ability to work, save, raise a family, enjoy an English summer day was based on a single thing. Not the stability of my job, not the warm bonds of my family. Nor what I had or had not in the bank. It was something else: A rubber stamp in my US passport that gave me “…leave to enter…” the UK.

Such an oddly phrased nod of welcome. In the States, the corresponding approval would have said something like “Okay bud, stick around and grab a chair”. Here, it is Leave to Enter. Which is strange. The two words mean the opposite. Am I leaving or entering? Or both?

For more than four decades, this stamp was inked into every US passport I owned. It opened the door to my whole British life every time I came back, even though it was smudgy, over-stamped and, at times, barely readable. Leave To Enter would inevitably default to “Lave o Ent….”.

It was always clear enough to get me home, back to Britain. Immigration officials, no matter whether at 4am in Heathrow or high noon at a Dover dock, threw me a brief smile, asked where I’d been and listlessly beckon to the next in the queue. Away I’d go. But something changed.
In about mid-Blair or so, things tightened up. It was 2004. I had a new unused US passport. I needed the stamp. But Immigration wouldn’t automatically issue it. “New rules,” the guy said. Then he listlessly beckoned to the next in the queue.

I now had to apply for it. In a Home Office satellite office. And pay. Lave o Ent was elevated to a cost centre. I had to go to an anonymous office clutching three pieces of domestic ID and £300. Even though a good career meant that cash was there, and even though I was ready to bury a man behind a desk in utility bills, bank statements and credit card approvals, there was still an edge. Still a doubt.

Could I be whisked into a small room and asked one too many questions? Could someone take my passport and disappear into another room ? Could someone scowl at a gas bill or bank statement, sigh and pick up a phone and begin speaking…without dialling? Would someone quietly ask me if I knew a Sean McMaster or an Ali Hussain? I watched as a middle-eastern family was quizzed by a man behind a thick glass counter window. No, the paperwork wasn’t right. No, your name isn’t on the telephone bill. No, we don’t take cash. No, we don’t accept photocopies. No, no, no….

You’re an immigrant. An outsider. You don’t belong. We have different rules here. We’re hard but fair. We’re British. You’re not Us. You’re Them. And if you want to be Us from now on, you don’t bring wrong paperwork, dodgy photocopies, a crumbled wad of banknotes, you don’t bring bills signed with someone else’s name.

I received my Lave o Ent. I paid. But something was different. This new stamp, this £300 one, had a twist in the tail. It said there was no time limit on my stay, “at present” A warning bell clanged. They want me – for now but maybe not in the future.

It was time to be British. And besides, my wife said I had no legitimate right to rant uncontrollably at the evening news as I was a welcome alien visitor who couldn’t even vote. I was a guest. Having UK citizenship would allow me to throw my shoes at the screen when another dumb move was made by our politicians. But not before.
I applied.

And then came the test. It was computerised, random, multiple choice and around the bend. I had to memorise a book trickily called Life in the United Kingdom (3rd edition). The whole exam was based on a 170 page paperback devised by a committee who lived in the dark beneath Whitehall, never glimpsed daylight while barely existing on a diet of Krispy Kreme donuts and caramelised sawdust. Any fact could be used in the test. So, I spent every Monday devouring my book, believing the minutiae was ammo to stop me.

There was history: who preceded Queen Victoria?

There was criminal law: what’s the maximum you can demand in a small claims court?

There was culture: what is the national dish of Northern Ireland?

There was sheer lunacy: what are the Five Values of British life?

I passed. Of course, I passed. I memorised the whole fucking book, didn’t I? I now know all about Mrs Pankhurst, the number of members in the Welsh Assembly and, most crucially, the national dish of Northern Ireland. I’m a rounded person with heightened knowledge of my adopted nation. I’m also about £1100 out of pocket for all the fees.

This ordeal by trivia all led to one place- the Birmingham Register Office in mid April of last year. Around me were the world’s New Britons: From Africa, the Middle East, from the Far East and every conflict zone that pockmarks this beautiful crazy planet. All there to take an oath to become citizens and loyal subjects of a monarch. It read in part: “I swear by Almighty God that on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors, according to law”.

It was then that it dawned on me that to enter into this universe of citizenship meant a change of psyche. To be British was to belong, to never second guess, never again have to shell out for a smudgy stamp which was only valid ‘at present’.

But things don’t really change. I still don’t understand cricket or Tony Hancock. I shake my head when Britons get all brass-necked and uptight about a rainstorm of problems: no, this is not a first rate country anymore; no, we don’t really need a new aircraft carrier when our schools are crumbling; no, we’ll never have summers like Spain. No, we are not like the USA. Yes, we are like the USA.

So, maybe I’ll always be a foreigner, American born. But like the man in the sharkskin suit who took the oath and maybe acquired safety and a bit of peace in a slightly worn country, just like the Somali family swathed in their finery for the citizenship ceremony, just like the Estonian who had to leave as fast as possible for her restaurant shift, I am an Us now. Not a Them.

And that means no more passport stamps, no more right to enter that can disappear anytime, no more £300 fee. And what I do have is the right to throw a shoe, whether brogue or loafer, at the next news bulletin that sends me nuts.

And, also, happily, the right to attack the big questions that engulf us. Why do Britons never look right in a baseball cap? Why aren’t they addicted to peanut butter and jam sandwiches like normal people? Why do they drive on the wrong side of the road? And why …just why….did I spookily receive my first UK passport on the very day we voted to leave Europe to slowly drift northwards, alone, rudderless, and untethered, towards the outer reaches of the Faroe Islands?

(This article first appeared on The WordFactory website)

8 thoughts on “The slow road to citizenship

  1. I am lucky I didn’t need to study the ‘being British’ book. I can’t answer any of the four questions. I’d make a guess at number 3, but if it’s Irish Stew, I’d feel obliged to write the recipe in the margin- scraggy mutton simmered with potatoes and onions, thyme or rosemary to flavour… if you have any. Not the phoney Irish Stew served up in the prefabricated Irish Bars you find plonked down in the likes of Dubai Airport.

  2. I have shared it with our Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, as a view from the other end of the immigrant spectrum.

  3. now that you are both a Brit and also a citizen of trumpville, you can watch Washington democracy erode each day by the wiles of free-market scullduggery and proto-fascist demagoguery

  4. This piece reminded me of the trouble the husband of a former colleague of mine had in travelling to the States. He used to enter the country quite easily until a convicted drug dealer and murderer went on the run from a US prison. Unfortunately they shared the same name and for years until the guy was caught, the friend that I know was not only stopped and questioned by US Immigration on each visit but also strip-searched… No wonder he doesn’t want to return.

  5. Only one part of the British Isles is drifting towards the Faroes…amd it isn’t Scotland

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