I Was an Embassy Hostage

By Horne, Alistair | The Spectator, June 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

I Was an Embassy Hostage


Horne, Alistair, The Spectator


DOES the bonhomous United States ambassador Admiral Crowe (pronounced like Slough) have, I wonder, any notion of the repository of broken dreams, the sheer hell-hole, that resides at the bottom of his elegant embassy in Grosvenor Square? (But then does any ambassador know what goes on in the nether reaches of his empire?)

Recently, I found myself in the American embassy `Visa Branch' when trying to get a 'J-1' visa in order to give a couple of paid lectures at the University of Texas. It was, I discovered, rather more onerous and considerably more disagreeable than obtaining a visa the previous month to go to Burma, that pariah now cast into outer darkness by the American Secretary of State, Madeleine Allbright.

There was, admittedly, a concatenation of mishaps. First of all, the Texans were leisurely in getting off the essential `IAP66 (3 copies)' form. Then their US express service contrived to put their letter through a dead-letter box in my village, with the result that the vital bureaucratic conjunct sat there for a week unretrieved. Then there was Easter Week intervening, confronting me with the realisation that, were they posted, I would not get my passport and the precious visa back in time before departure.

What to do? In desperation I sought a contact in the embassy, who kindly fixed an appointment for me at Visa Branch at 9.30 the next morning. It would, however, mean waiting, he warned me. I took my lecture and a laptop along. But first of all I had to make a special visit to Barclay's bank, with 13.75 in my fist, to get a stamped receipt of fee paid (US consular officials, apparently, not being trusted with real money).

At 9.30 there is already a 50-yard queue reaching down Upper Grosvenor Street, marshalled by a roughish Aussie who has the line-up of applicants already terrorised into a suitably submissive frame of mind. We pass through the security check. A Crocodile Dundee figure in front of me causes the alarm to beep repeatedly. Finally it appears that the fancy rivets in his topboots are setting off the machine; he takes them off and proceeds barefoot. I am told I can't use my laptop inside. Twice I am asked, `Have you paid?'

Another security torpedo-lock, supervised by a red-necked US Marine corporal, straight out of central casting for A Few Good Men, who is installed in a kind of glass tank and directs me to `Window No. 1'. I am given a ticket, number 188.

I sit down and wait. It all reminds me rather painfully of another wait, back in that grim summer of 1940, when, along with several hundred other British evacuee children, I queued for a visa in order to be taken in by a generous American family. That lasted most of the day, in the stifling confinement of the Grosvenor House ballroom. But then, one felt, the Americans were quite right to be cautious: after all, a five- to 13-year-old British schoolchild presented an even better disguise for a Nazi fifth columnist than the mythical nun in hobnailed boots.

After a while, bingo-like, my number comes up on the screen; go to Window No. …

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