Jeremy Clarke Jeremy Clarke

How I love England — despite the hellhole that is Gatwick airport

The passport checking hall resembled a Nuremberg rally but most of us used it as an exercise in British stoicism

The heart sinks: passport control at Gatwick airport [Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy]

At Gatwick airport, after an hour and 15 minutes in a snaking queue system apparently purposely designed to infect as many as possible with Covid-19, and our three bladders inflated like party balloons, we finally presented ourselves before an available passport control officer.

Early fifties, hatless, bald and recruited from the working class, he was the first English person on English soil I’d spoken to for 18 months. I formed the impression of a man who liked a drink. ‘And these two are?’ he said. ‘My grandsons,’ I said, looking at them besottedly in spite of us having lived together in insupportable heat for a week. ‘And you’ve come from where?’ he said. A trick question, surely, the answer to which I had to ponder for a second or two. ‘Nice,’ I said.

Nice airport had been a trial. In the departure lounge Grandad had noticed that he had suffered another brain failure while filling out the boarding pass details. I’d given the eldest grandson his father’s Christian name. I blamed it on a combination of heat and chemotherapy. Above all, perhaps Ron Kray’s psychiatrist’s description of his patient as ‘a simple man of low intelligence poorly in touch with the outside world’ applied to me also.

There were grumblers in the queue but the rest of us treated the ordeal as an exercise in British stoicism

I calculated that it might be possible to fork out to change the boarding pass name at the gate should the error be seized on by an official. Which appeared likely when this tall, intelligent-looking bloke appeared in the queue and started checking documentation in a Gestapo-like manner. But God answers prayer. He was about to check ours when his phone rang and he was called away on an urgent matter and he loped off at speed.

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