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Ruminations On Passports

December 23, 2017 Leave a comment

Given the huge virtual fistfight about blue passports this week, I started to wonder where my old one had gone, and found it buried amongst old exam certificates and random paperwork in the dusty corner of the study.

I’m not madly bothered what colour the UK passport is, to be honest, and given they apparently have to be redesigned every few years to prevent fraud and keep up with biometric advances, it’s not the end of the world if they end up blue/black again without costing any more money than it would anyway. It does rile me somewhat that this is being portrayed as a huge Brexit win against the evil EU in some places, given that we could have chosen any colour we liked (as Croatia has) but didn’t. (A bit like the mythical immigration that we “couldn’t control”, when Belgium and other countries already do place restrictions on free movement so we could have done the same, but OUR government decided against it.)

Anyhoo, the idiocy of Brexit is taking up far too much of my mental and emotional energy right now, and this piece is about the other things my passport means to me, namely that it’s a visual reminder of why I became so internationally minded.

My old blue passport was valid from 1988 to 1998, from the age of 17 to 27, and looking at it now, really shows the changes that happened to me and shaped me. Some I chose, some I did not, but I am very much the person I now am due to those things.

In 1988 I was studying for my A-levels, living at home in the suburbs of Leeds with Mum, Dad, and my elder brother Lee. An ordinary life, I was a mostly confident young lady with plans to be the first in the Clark family to go to university and make everyone proud. I imagined I’d go off to another city for Uni and then come back to my hometown of Leeds, maybe rent a flat with a friend and eventually settle down, after seeing lots of the world. Kids didn’t really factor in this imaginary life but a posh flat on the canal did, and a cool 1980’s yuppie lifestyle and definitely fantastic holidays.

By 1998 instead I was living and working in London, a city I had been to fewer than 10 times in my life, and you only have to look at the ’emergency addresses’ page to see what happened in the interim period. Tellingly, stuck over the original home address, with both parents in the same place, there’s a piece of paper with two new addresses on, one saying ‘father’, and one saying ‘mother’. Typed neatly, clearly expecting that state of affairs to also last, it then gets increasingly covered with scribbles and crossings out, and arrows backwards and forwards to track the location of my parents, which change multiple times over the remaining years of the passport validity.

First Dad stayed in Leeds, Lee moved in with his then girlfriend, later wife, and Mum moved to London. That’s OK, I was going to university soon anyway, so retaining my childhood room in a family home seemed pointless, as I had no intention of being there much, if at all. I could always go to the pub in Headingley if I wanted to see a few familiar faces when I popped ‘home’.

Then Mum’s London address is changed to one in Hong Kong, then an arrow back to London, then another scribbled change to Kuala Lumpur, then back to the UK in Weybridge. Meanwhile Dad moved from Leeds to Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire, and the arrows shows that during the time he too moved out and then back to the same place again.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that with all that domestic change comes emotional impact, both highs and lows. It was a decade of divorces, house moves, trauma, homesickness, tearful reunions and for me the gradual realisation that I no longer had a Leeds home to speak of, whether I wanted to go back to it or not.

But not all changes happened without my own input. Inside the passport pages are multiple stamps from different countries, from my madcap solo interrailing trip across Europe before university, my US work visa from the university summer holidays of 1991, and the entry and exit stamps from visiting my Mum in whichever country she happened to be living at that time. During that time I deepened my knowledge of language, and was exposed to people and places and stories I never would have expected.

These experiences too are filled with ups and downs. For one I started to hear the huge variety of interpretations of historic ‘facts’ that we in the UK hold true. There are moments of extreme discomfort when you realise that the ‘benign’ impact of colonialism that you are taught is anything but the truth, and that your forbears are at least in part, responsible for many ill-thought out decisions that still echo painfully in international politics today.

There are also moments of utter joy, when you see the the massive similarities that bind people across all those places. Family, friends, security, food, love, a roof over their heads.

These experiences, both good and bad, once seen cannot be unseen, or facts unlearned. This has driven my yearning for both a kinder politics and a more open heart to those who through circumstance were born on one side of a line that an old bloke drew 100 years ago, as opposed to the other.

It’s called growing up, and learning about the world. I was desperate to do it, it’s painful in parts, it’s also stimulating, exciting, frustrating, scary, and life affirming.

All with my faithful passport in hand, enabling and accompanying me across those painful, joyous and inspirational years.

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Letter to myself at 16

July 22, 2010 6 comments
Mel aged 16, astride a pantomime horse

Me aged 16, astride a pantomime horse on school non-uniform day

Having come across a few mentions of what you’d say to your younger self – from Ellyn Spraggins (only the Americans have names like this and don’t have to laugh when they say them) to a blog post by a friend of mine who’s now a Conservative politician (of all things!) James Cleverly, and it got me thinking about what I’d say to myself at 16 if I had the glorious chance of benefiting from hindsight.

It is a bit narcissistic and self indulgent of course, but quite therapeutic.

What would you write?

Dear Mel

Firstly, stop obsessing with that boy at school. Yes one day you’ll snog him, but it won’t lead to everlasting joy and you’ll waste far too much of your time thinking about him that just isn’t worth it (and miss spending time with a couple of really nice potential boyfriends as a result).

Secondly, you are NOT fat. You are curvy, yes, and your boobs are far too big which makes you feel self conscious (and believe it or not, other people jealous) but if you carry on sticking your fingers down your throat, yo-yo dieting and being needlessly worried about what you look like doing exercise, you’ll create such an unhealthy attitude to food and activity that it’ll become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Go back to dancing lessons, treat food as fuel and try not to think about it so much.

Despite this you are about to enter the time of your life when you are at your most popular with the opposite sex. Enjoy it, but don’t shag them all: crap sex really isn’t worth it.

I almost don’t want to tell you in advance, but I think it may help to be prepared for the fact that in two years mum will leave dad for someone she meets at Open University. It’ll be devastating at the time, and you’ll feel like the carpet’s been pulled out from under your feet, but I promise that it will get better over time. Once you have experienced a long term relationship yourself you’ll understand how rarely decisions are as black and white as they may seem at first. You will also eventually realise that 20 years of marriage is still a success, and be glad that your formative years were all spent within a lovely bubble of security.

While you’re at University (which you will *love*) you need to make a decision about where you want your future to go – is it music, or is it marketing. Whichever one you choose, you need to put everything into it, instead of “making do” at both, in case singing doesn’t work out and you have to have a profession to fall back on.

I now know that the people who do best financially at anything are the ones who love it, and would do it anyway for free. If you really want to sing for a living, then go for it – go to piano or guitar lessons so you can accompany yourself, learn how to read and write music, and give it a proper shot. Glorified karaoke is *not* particularly creatively satisfying, and you may wish you’d given it your all so at least you would have known what would have happened – even if you didn’t succeed.

For Pete’s sake, PLEASE do some revision before your finals.

You will never move back to Leeds, but you’ll be glad you’re a Yorkshire girl. You will end up living in London, finally married to a man who you knew immediately was the right one, and eventually with a daughter who you fall head over heels with. In the meantime don’t get down on yourself about not finding the right bloke – he is there, and you will one day gladly forget what it was like to be out there looking.

You will also still be very close to many of the friends that you have right now – with a few notable lovely additions. Treasure them, they will see you through a lot.

You will reach a place where you’re happy to not be rich and famous; your family and friends will give you a massive amount of joy and love, and the only things you’ll regret are the things you didn’t do.

So do them.