By AiW Guest: Pede Hollist
Speaking at the Africa Writes festival in London in July 2015, Pede Hollist read an excerpt from a non-fiction piece he had recently written, reflecting on his most recent visit to London and the many meanings of home. The room was filled with appreciative laughter as Hollist read the piece, and so we are delighted that he has chosen to publish the full piece here on Africa in Words.
Marcel Proust observes that true discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in having new eyes. I found in my recent travels that it may be equally true that changing lands cause you to re-see yourself, especially in relation to place.
I have always regarded England as home. Between 1967 and 1973, I attended Cricklewood’s Child’s Hill primary and Whitefield School secondary schools; played, cricket, rugby, and tennis at nearby Clitterhouse Playing Fields; and played secondary school football at Barnet’s Copthall Stadium. In between these activities, the pubescent boy in me cut school to watch Jim Brown, Lee Van Cleef, and naked women in the nihilistic box office hit El Condor.
Thankfully, England influenced me in more wholesome ways. I watched television’s educational Blue Peter, loved the understated humor of Dad’s Army and Oh Brother! and the farce of Monty Python and Steptoe and Son. I read most, if not all, of the novels of Englishmen Richard Gordon and P.G. Wodehouse; watched 2001: A Space Odyssey somewhere in central London. First Hal, the film’s renegade computer and then Dr. Who’s Daleks kindled my interest in science fiction, especially robots. Later iterations, android Data and human nemesis the Borgs of U.S. television’s Star Trek, fascinated me.
I was not all bookworm and pop culture though. I bruised a couple of skinheads and a school tough-guy named Superman in neighborhood and schoolyard fights. I am perhaps the only person on earth who can say with a straight face that he defeated Superman without using kryptonite. But fights were the exception rather than the rule in my residential community of Golders Green, known then for its large Jewish and diplomatic populations. Inexplicably, for the area and my friends, I was a fan of West Ham United, and I am still one. How about that for English dedication?
I have a fondness for England, and I know enough English-ness presents in me today for friends, occasionally, to call my attention to it. Certainly, whenever I get the chance to visit England, I seize it, walking or driving through old haunts. These nostalgic excursions feel good, familiar, as if I am re-inscribing myself into a place I belong to, as if I am returning home.
Unfortunately, on a June 2015 visit, those sentiments changed to disaffection and alienation as I stood in a serpentine line of about 250 international travelers, served by three border control officers, at Stansted Airport. The officers worked conscientiously enough. In addition to inspecting passports and supporting documents, they seemed determined to engage in small talk with their interviewees. Unfortunately, such conviviality does not sit well when 100 plus people, toddlers in full-blown ADD outbursts, and sixty minutes are between you and your bus departure time for Gatwick Airport. See, America, Tampa, is my current home. I had flown in from Bayreuth, Germany, to Stansted Airport. My plan was to spend the night of June 6 at a Gatwick Airport area hotel, and the next morning leisurely make my way to the airport to board an 11:55 flight.
However, just as the molten-lava line picked up pace, a female officer of the border control corps grabbed her purse, roped off her station, and left with such purposefulness that even if the whole of China had been descending on that immigration line, she would not have turned back. Un-freaking-believable! She had to belong to a union and was taking her union-entitled break, Chinese invasion or not.
You have to love the English and their passion for labor rights. What the unionized border control officer did would never happen in America, I thought. A supervisor would have summoned other workers or authorized overtime to keep the line moving. For sure, my American brethren, always desperate for more hours to pay off mounting debts, would have driveled spit to work the stations and relieve the crush of international arrivals. Stansted’s apparent supervising core —that is, the officious-looking male and female officers who fleeted between the inspection stations holding open passports and other important papers—must have seen and felt the increasing irritation of the line, but they seemed not to care. Getting into England was a privilege, not a right.
Then the unthinkable happened: one of the two remaining officers closed shop, snapping the tape across his station with a finality that elicited a collective groan from the line and sarcastic comments in English, and those jaw-breaking East European languages. Though I could not understand what they were saying, sarcasm—in this case vexation mixed with indignation and powerlessness—sounds the same no matter the language. And just like that, there was one.
The lone attending officer, with the comely face of your best friend’s dad, soldiered on, questioning, verifying documentation, and having the obligatory chit-chat before waving the passenger on. If he felt burdened by being left alone to service hundreds of people, he showed no signs of it. With British resolve, he just got on with it. At this point I still thought of England as home, but now with the disappointment of a child whose parents insist on keeping their humongous old-school analog TV instead of buying an up-to-date high definition flat-screen.
Relief came after twenty minutes in the form of a cup-toting officer with a slight Silverback slouch and gait. He was responsive to our groans and murmurings. Twice he left his station, walked up to the line, beckoned and then shepherded into a holding pen mothers with their ADD toddlers, prompting one guy in a Midwestern American accent to quip that we should all behave like spoiled brats in order to get some attention. A more practical traveler suggested we should storm the border control stations. We could easily merge into the crowd in the baggage area, he explained. For one maddening moment the idea seem plausible. But the culture of international border control lines compels you to wait.
We Americans spend two to three years of our lives waiting in lines, says Dr. Queue—not his real name. The Stansted immigration queue was downright annoying. Don’t these Englanders know that there is a psychology to queuing and ways to make it easier on the queu-ees? Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson airport, the busiest in the world, uses innovative queue-management techniques. Its Time Line Tracker gives real-time information on queues and where they are longest; staff at Washington’s Dulles monitor queues and make real-time decisions to alleviate them.
Understanding and alleviating the stresses of queues is a science in America. I am pretty sure some college offers a degree in it. But the politics of queues concern me more, especially for African Americans. In our 2012 elections, People for the American Way noted that “Long lines at the polls constitute a form of voter suppression because they can compel eligible voters to give up on waiting or discourage people from even showing up at the polls.” As a black guy, (yes, I am black), I hate standing in queues; it reminds me that as a people we have still not arrived. But, you know, the English may not appreciate the agony of waiting. I bet the Irish do. The England I grew up in as a pubescent boy was morphing into a foreign country right there in that Stansted line.
England’s foreignness registered itself even more starkly at Victoria Station. See, I eventually got out of Stansted airport and boarded a bus to Gatwick, via Victoria Station. I arrived at the cramped and grungy-looking terminal at 23:30. Suspecting the off-schedule departure of my pre-purchased ticket might be a problem, I spoke to two representatives of the bus company. Each pointed me to Gate 9 and said I could board the 00:30 bus. But when I tried to, its female bus driver, backed by the male driver of the 01:30 bus, said my ticket had expired.
“Yes, mate, really. Your ticket is for Saturday, June 6. Today is Sunday, June 7.”
“You’re kidding, right.”
I tried to tell drivers 00:30 and 01:30 about Stansted’s unionized border control officers and long immigration line. Probably hard-core union members themselves, they would not, could not, hear me. They stuck to the contract of my ticket.
“Buy a new one, mate, because you ain’t getting on this bus,” Driver 01:30 said, in a cockney accent. By this point all English people sounded the same to me.
Suitcase in tow, I dashed into the terminal to buy another ticket. By chance I saw a brother who was also a security guard. I exhaled. I did mention I was black, right? I quick-stepped to the brother. Look, racial understanding and camaraderie are real. No matter that you think you don’t have a racist bone in your body, when you see a brother in Victoria Station at 00:25 a few minutes after two white Englanders have been unreasonable with you, he immediately becomes a blood relative and Marxist comrade.
“Hey, bro,” I sidled up to him. (Overseas, ‘bro’ functions like a microchip loaded with the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and every conceivable wrong white people have ever done to blacks.) “Can you please help me with buying my ticket? I want to catch the 00:30 bus to Gatwick.”
“No, mate. Jost follow dee in-strohk-shons. Dey are seemphul,” the percussive tones of Yoruba exploded in my ears, muffling a struggling, no, a freakin’ phony cockney accent.
Unbelievable. A real brother in New York would never dis me like that. Black or white, the English are unhelpful when they are not unreasonable! It’s that simple. I sped off to the ticket machine, only to find myself waiting behind two befuddled Asians trying to make sense of the instrohkshons on the self-pay ticket machines. Crikey!
By the time I returned to the parking lot with a new ticket, the half-full bus had left. I was deflated, totally estranged as I waited for the next bus. This was not the England of my childhood. I yearned to get back to Florida, to go home.
I eventually boarded the 01:30 bus and arrived at Gatwick’s South Terminal at 02:45. I walked up to the taxi stand, manned by an Indian-Arab looking guy behind a glass cage.
“I’d like a taxi to the Britannia Lodge please.”
He types something on his desktop keyboard.
“Which one? There are several Britannia Lodges in the area.”
“Eh, eh, the only other information I have is a booking reference.”
“Can’t help you, mate.” He turned the monitor over to me and pointed at some blue and red icons on a map display. “I need an address.” And with that he was done with me.
I trudged into the airport, found a pay phone and called home at £2 per minute to secure a street address. Around 04:45, I arrived at the Europa Hotel at Britannia Lodge. I laid my back on a bed around 05:30. Breakfast, a couple of hours later, at the hotel was typical British fare–eggs, bacon, and bangers. Someone please serve me grits, barbecue ribs, or chitlins, I screamed to myself.
I began feeling at home the moment I walked into the airy spaciousness of Gatwick’s North Terminal around 09:00. I confirmed this feeling when I saw it: a DIY (do-it-yourself), royal-blue check-in kiosk. Daleks transformed! Oh, oh, how sweet to see her pristine stateliness.
Hello, please check in here, the curvy monitor beamed at me.
I beamed back.
Choose check-in option. I did.
Insert passport face down. I did.
Her instructions were specific, clear. She indulged in no fake small talk. No matter if I turned the passport the wrong way or took too much time, she was patient, repeatedly showing me what to do, and waiting politely till I correctly carried out the task, with not so much as a scratch of her throat or exasperated gasp. She took no unreasonable tone or position. She was courteous.
She verified my particulars: age, sex, nationality, passport number, place of issuance, color of eyes, height, weight (and who knows what other measurement), printed my luggage tags and boarding pass, and cordially told me I was ready for further inspection–yes, you guessed it, by those intolerant carbon life forms (groan).
Thankfully, the carbon life form that inspected me and checked in my lone bag did not try to engage in small talk. She looked at my passport, glanced at me, and pushed a luggage receipt toward me. If she wished me a safe flight, I did not hear it. I was glancing back at the lady in royal blue.
My emotional sense of home intensified when, in one of the snack and magazine shops, I opted to pay for my purchases using the self-check-out machine instead of a smiling carbon life form. Then later, in splendid isolation, I opened my laptop, connected to Gatwick Wi-Fi, and for 45 free and uninterrupted minutes I trolled the Internet, sending email narratives of the horrible 24 hours I had spent with English carbon life forms.
Nine hours later, I walked into the comfort of Tampa Airport. The hotel-like passport control lobby had a wall lined with self-verification kiosks. They were a little skinny for my taste, not as curvy as Gatwick’s royal-blue ladies, but they were just as attentive and patient. The Tampa lady also wanted my particulars and even my picture. Like a skilled photographer, she self-adjusted to my height. Once we had achieved eye-to-eye contact, she winked at me and took my picture. Then she printed the ticket verifying I was a home boy. Then (groan) a carbon life form ushered me to a border control officer (GROAN). Neither looked unionized.
“How long have you been out of the country, sir?”
“Where did you go?”
“Germany and the UK.”
“When did you become naturalized?”
Really? The question reminded me that, apparently, I was an adoptee; that my connection to America was not organic. The memory of another encounter about belonging came flooding back
It was a mid-July 2012 evening, around 10:30pm: I was driving home after teaching a World literature class on Gilgamesh. Our lively classroom discussion had focused on the Mesopotamian hero-king’s journey to the Underworld and how it had brought him awareness that death was man’s fate and prompted him to change his governing style. Travel enlarges you; it broadens your horizons; it promotes intercultural understanding, I had professed that night.
Later, as I traveled home and made a right turn into a heavily Hispanic area of town, the red and blue lights of a police car flashed behind me. I pulled over into the dark parking lot of a closed convenience store, and, yes, waited. A few minutes later, a baby-faced officer, probably in his late twenties, walked up to my car.
“Driver’s license and registration, sir,” he said.
From my wallet I pulled out my driver’s license and handed it to him and, for the registration, reached over to the passenger-side glove compartment. Its door was jammed. After fumbling with the lock a few times, I straightened up. By then Baby Face had bent over enough for his face to be square with mine through the window.
“Do you speak English?” he asked.
I was born in Sierra Leone and lived there on and off till I came to America in 1983. My years in England and Halifax, Canada, account for my off-years. I don’t exactly know how my Sierra Leone-ness manifests in my worldly outlook and behavior, but I know that enough Sierra Leone-ness (or more likely foreignness and difference) presented to that baby-faced officer to prompt his question.
My encounter with him and England reminded me that home is not simply a place and not quite even one’s psychological or emotional attitude toward a place. Rather, it seems, home may be memories of fragments of equilibrium one achieves when the systems, operations, and processes of a place align with our expectations and needs. This view of home partly explains why those who have never traveled often complain their places (countries) no longer feel like home. Particularly in this age of jet travel, to be home requires a capacity to be motile, to cross borders, physical and psychological, and to adapt to new landscapes and changes in the old ones.
Pede Hollist is an associate professor of English at The University of Tampa, Florida. His work draws upon the African consciousness, showing through literature the experiences of those on the continent and the experiences of those a part of the African diaspora.