In 1971, under the auspices of Pete Smith, for whom travel was a mind-expanding necessity, we applied to go over to the States on a student Visa. We had to go to the American embassy to get orientated. They told us stories about English people not understanding American gun policy and hence getting themselves shot.
We were told of one unfortunate guy who had his back blown out by a neighbour because he was climbing in through his own front window having forgotten his key. The neighbour mistook him for a burglar. An easy mistake to make. Could happen anywhere!
The American diplomat explained to us that Americans shoot first and ask questions later.
We were told not to walk around in certain areas or districts of the city. It seemed that every city and town had a no-go area and every American was looking for an excuse to blast you full of lead. We were warned about race hatred, religious fervour and swearing. Contrary to Hollywood films, it seems that many Americans considered it a shooting matter if sworn at.
It seemed to us that you could get shot for almost anything.
We were warned about the evils of drugs. It seems that one puff on a ‘reefer’ and you were hooked. Not only that, but it turned you instantly into an insane degenerate. All your values disappeared and you inevitably got gonorrhoea, pregnant and became insane. Not only that but you had to steal and whore yourself to get a further ‘fix’. Wow! I never knew that. Any hint of interaction with drugs would result in our instant deportation or worse!
We were warned about communists. Communists were seeking to undermine American values. They, under many guises, such as student visas, sought to get into the country and ferment insurrection. He looked closely at each one of us as if peering into our souls, seeking out the slightest hint of communist ideology lurking in the crevices of our minds. It made us all very uneasy. I’d never been involved with any communist party but I certainly believed in equality and fairness. I suspected that might well be sufficient to ban me, lock me up or even have me lynched. Fairness and equality were not fundamental American values – competition and capitalism were. This was the land of the survival of the fittest. Speaking about anything that smacked of socialism could get you shot.
We were told of all the wonderful American values and what the nation stood for and all the other activities for which we could be instantly deported.
It seemed an extensive no-do list. I was concerned that I might not even remember it all and inadvertently find myself booted out for some minor indiscretion or other – like not paying sufficient respect to the American flag or not taking the vow of allegiance seriously. I could easily become deported for grinning at the wrong time. It was quite daunting.
The diplomatic official, without any hint of irony, explained to us that we were being privileged in that we were being allowed a look at the free world in action.
It didn’t actually sound very free to me.
After we’d proceeded through the six months of paperwork necessary to enter the ‘home of the free’, we found ourselves on a plane bound for New York.
At embarkation, we were ushered along in a lengthy slow-moving line. When it came to our turn we were scrutinised by a solemn Customs Officer. He dramatically opened a huge black book and scanned down the names to see if we were included. This contained all the names of communist sympathisers, fellow travellers and political activists. It had trades unionists, who were obviously commie sympathisers, and druggies, criminals and miscreants. There were a lot of people who were not allowed to be free. Nobody ever knew how they compiled this great mass of names, the book was massive, but if your name appeared in it you were forbidden entry.
As we stood there in front of this official from the land of freedom, we couldn’t help running through the checklist of possibilities for our exclusion. There seemed an infinite number of reasons why our names might find their way into inclusion in such a tome. I was surely guilty and hence unworthy of entry into the land of purity and apple pie. I harboured thoughts of equality and real freedom of thought and mouth. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I might pollute an American.
We waited for the finger to come to rest as it trailed down the endless list of names. The enormous book was a full six inches thick. It was huge. We stood there in front of the man trying to look innocent for what felt like ages. The names were tiny and arranged in neat columns. There had to be half the world in that book.
I couldn’t help wondering, as I stood there, if they actually did have all of Cuba, Russia and China in there to start with.
I strained to see how many Goodwins his finger was progressing through. There had to be a lot. We were an awkward bunch. It was genetic, you see.
We were sweating. If your name was in the book you were put on the next flight back and refused entry. You had no recourse to appeal. You were not told the reason why your name had been put on to the list. That nice Mr McCarthy had decided that America could only be kept free if unAmerican ideas were completely eradicated from the country.
At last the customs officer seemed satisfied and closed the book. He looked at us with a stony face, his grey eyes piercing into ours like swords, obviously unhappy that he had not found our names.
‘Are you, or have you ever been, a communist?’
Incredible, I thought. If I was a Russian spy or a communist agitator I was hardly likely to answer yes. I felt like asking what he meant. Did he mean had I ever joined the communist party or did he mean to question my philosophy? Did I believe in equality and ‘To each according to their needs – from each according to their ability’, because if that was the case then I was obviously a communist. But then if he meant did I subscribe to the fascist totalitarian apology for Socialism as epitomised by Russia then I would have to admit to being more of a Menshevik. But then this was most probably not the time to enter into discussion regarding the semantics of politics, was it?
‘Do you know anyone who is a communist, or have you ever known anyone who was a communist?’
Of course, I had.
Reluctantly he let us in.
What rights does a gannet have as it clings to the rugged rocks of a windy cliff? As it hangs in beauty on the edge of the wind with its white feathers glistening in the sun? As it steals fish from the trawler’s nets?