Sunday, January 3, 2010

Leaving the black

I'm on my fourth cup of tea, trying mostly unsuccessfully to overcome my London hangover. Before my grandmother fires off another e-mail accusing me of being a drunken no-good, I should stress that the hangover is not alcohol-induced; yesterday I had only a bottle of beer. And a pint of beer... And a gin and tonic... But the hangover -- this headache, sore throat, dry mouth, sore body, muddled brain and exhaustion -- has come as a result of spending a week in what is arguably the world's greatest city.

For the benefit of those who have missed out on much of season 33 in the Chris Narrative due to a writer's strike (and it's a pity because you missed that whole cross-promotional story arc with NCIS, in which Ziva and I had a child together), I have been stuck on the Island of Rain over the holiday season thanks to the UK Home Office's brilliant anti-terrorism measure of just sort of letting immigrants wander about without identification for several months. Nothing stops a terrorist more than enforcing annonymity.

Back in October I compiled every little piece of information about me and shipped it off to an office in Durham, all for the sake of being issued a new visa. And one of those pieces of information about me was my passport, the little collection of papers that bureaucratically facilitate what my great aunt Johnnie refers to as my "jet-setting playboy lifestyle," the little collection of papers that one aspect of UK immigration law insists I must have in my possession at all times -- overuled, apparently, by the aspect of UK immigration law that insists I send the thing to the grim North.

In addition to my passport, I had to send along a lengthy questionnaire which contained such baddie-filtering interrogatory statements as: "How much money do you presently have in your current account?" and: "Do you own a business?" and "Are you a financial genius who could turn around the economy and save the election for Labour?" and: "Have you ever been convicted of genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity?"

The first and last of those are actual questions; the other two are implied. What I have learned from the UK's immigration system is that devotion to British values is far less important than a fat wallet. I am tickled to think someone would answer "yes" to the genocide question: "Ah, well, you know, we all do silly things in our youth. My girlfriend at the time did a lot of cocaine; and I slaughtered 9,000 religious minorities. But, hey, we all make mistakes, and since two wrongs don't make a right I'm certainly not going to lie on this visa application."

I'm not exactly sure what the chaps up in Durham do with one's passport, but apparently it takes them a whopping great long time to do it because I still don't have mine back. I mean, honestly, how long does it take to run a Google search on the terms "Chris Cope" and "war atrocities"?

Actually, I fear that the internets may be to blame for the delay, specifically the wee corner that contains my Welsh-language blog. The immigration system may noy be built for digging through a Welsh speaker's internet presence. I would assume that part of the background check is delving into one's internet presence, searching for certain key words and terms. But it's possible that no such software exists for Welsh. So, they've brought in some bloke named Dai, who's from Margam and really only has A-level Welsh, and he's presently poring through every Welsh-language post. Right now he's somewhere in 2007 and has written in his report for the 54th time: "Really likes women's breasts."

While Dai is at it, I am sans passport and not allowed to travel beyond this island's shores. In November I was called in to give biometrics, which is a slightly Total Recall-sounding term for "fingerprints and eye scan," and asked when they thought I might yet again have freedom to wander. I was told my passport would be returned in "roughly four to 14 weeks."

"So, I'm not going to see my family for Christmas, am I?" I huffed at the woman in Cardiff's biometrics office.

And in one of those moments that reminds me of why I moved here in the first place, the woman dropped her governmental tone and looked at me with that almost-maternal warmth that all South Wales women seem to possess.

"No, James. I'm so terribly sorry," she said. "But do you know Monknash? Down by Llantwit Major? There's a pub there, the Plough and Harrow, that does a lovely Christmas dinner."

As it turns out, the Plough and Harrow didn't serve Christmas dinner on Christmas Day, but I was saved from spending Jesus' birthday alone (well, just me and Him, I suppose) by my neighbours, who are the sort of people who make it difficult to think seriously about moving. I often think that I would like to live a bit closer to the areas of Cardiff where Welsh speakers are most oft to be found, closer to cafes, closer to the Chapter Arts Centre, but then it occurs to me that I quite possibly would not end up with neighbours half as good as those I have now. So, Christmas was spent with a proper family, including a grandfather who dismissed America as "kind of a young country."

But as the new year rang in I was on the banks of the Thames, in Britain's capital city, with a bottle of Champagne in hand and hundreds of thousands of people shouting out into the cold, crisp night. After the fireworks reached their climax, as the crowd began to push away from the river toward pubs and Tube stations, snow began to fall and everything in the world felt right and good. The beam of light shot out across Greenwich and we were all connected.

I spent a week in London, and, as happens to me every time I visit the city, I spent the majority of my time telling myself I want to move there. But London is not a place; it is a thing. Mrs. Phin once brilliantly described it as the most intense lover you've ever had: it ignites your soul but also holds the power to destroy you. London can take everything you have to give; it will never get its fill of your energy, your hope. London is that Twilight vampire, but it shows no restraint as it sinks its teeth into your veins.

And one of the things they don't mention in tourism books about London is The Black, the soot that lurks in London corners and seeps into your every part.

Years ago I saw a piece featuring Ruby Wax on the top of a tourist bus with Lisa Kudrow, in which Kudrow stupidly commented on how London is cleaner than she had imagined. Ruby Wax then succeeded in drawing out that Kudrow, who had never been there before, had imagined a kind of Dickensian coal-dusted misery in which coughing rag-adorned hordes collapsed in the street from consumption. Many Americans have this sort of view. We expect heavy, miserable skies pissing acid and woe. But, in fact, the weather is quite often agreeable and there are days where you would rather be nowhere else in the world. There are days when the sky is so blue it almost hurts your eyes and the air is so clean you feel like you're flying.

But beneath the ground, in the ground, lies The Black. After a journey or two in the Tube you notice flecks of black -- ink black -- when you blow your nose. It works into exposed skin, slips beneath fingernails, and robs clothes of their colour.

In the past week there have been museums and art and theatre and good food and warm pubs and laughter, but constantly moving around the city has overexposed me to The Black. It has sunk into my lungs and cut at the back of my throat.

And so I am ready to be back in Cardiff, back in the Old City. I am ready to be back in my old routine. I am ready to be back trying.


Jenny said...

You're so right; leaving London was the worst break-up I've ever had.

Also, here's a gross fact - The Black stopped appearing in my handkerchief after I'd lived there for about 3 months. Your nose must stop filtering it out after that.

Afe said...

When a man is tired of blowing black stuff out of his nose, he is tired of life.

Linda said...

Ychafi! I visited London many times as a child , and clearly remember those black stained tissues.

Annie said...

good post

Annie said...

even though I can't agree with you on all that good stuff about London

Sarah Stevenson said...

Yes, the nose-blowing. Ugh. But I love London. I think my cousin's there right now visiting her boyfriend, which makes me very jealous. The London part, not the boyfriend part.