Before i Forget : Simon Jones's blog

October 2009

GeneralMonday, October 26th, 2009, (1:05 am)

My friend Becky is an American citizen from the Pacific North Western city of Seattle. She is not currently, and has never been, on the FBI’s most wanted list or indeed in any trouble with the authorities whatsoever. She’s your average honest hard working American girl. However, to the UK Border Agency Becky Lewis is a criminal who must be deported!

Becky LewisBecky has been traveling across the UK over the summer, enjoying a little time out of her ordinary day-to-day life with money she had been saving for just such an adventure. Along the way she’s been couch surfing and volunteering on non-commercial organic farms with an organisation known as WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). It’s been an exciting year for her, but thanks to UK immigration her time in Britain came to an abrupt and unpleasant end.

Her ordeal started when we recently returned to the UK from Croatia where we had enjoyed a few days of late summer sun in on the Istrian peninsula. My brother has an apartment in Rovinj so the few days we spent in Croatia was a cheap escape. However, had I known what lay in store for us I would never have gone.

As we stood in the immigration line to re-enter the UK we joked with one another about how surly faced the gate agents looked as they inspected passports of the people who stood before them, treating them with the usual kind of contempt that anyone who has been to an airport can attest to.

I always try to be pleasant with immigration officials, but most of the time they come across as disputatious little people itching to issue punishment for even the most minor of infractions. Their mean disposition probably comes from the lack of job satisfaction that must go along with being the traffic wardens of a countries border, uniformed drones programmed for only the most mundane of duties.

A gate agent motioned for us to approach him. Spitting commands at us in his thick Indian accent the agent sat on his throne behind the safety of a sheet of plexiglass. Perhaps feeling like he was keeping England safe he coldly ignored my attempts at pleasantries in a miserable manner similar to the weather that had welcomed us back to this rainy little island.

He waved me passed with little more than a grunt and I assumed Becky would be grunted back into the UK a few moments later, but no. Apparently her passport had not been stamped by the American immigration department when she re-entered the U.S. after a trip to the UK earlier in the year. This oversight by the American authorities was a “red light” to the uniform wearing unarmed gatekeeper.

Excited at the break in the monotony of his dreary job the gate agent started to ask Becky further questions about her the time she was spending in the UK. Where had she been? How was she affording a six month trip? And what had she been doing? Being an honest soul with nothing to hide Becky answered his questions in the belief that this was simply a minor delay, but unfortunately her honesty was her undoing.

She told the uptight immigration official that as part of her trip to the UK she had done a little volunteer work on some non-commercial organic farms. Perhaps sensing that he might have an opportunity to excursive the little power that his position afforded him the agent asked her to clarify this.

As part of her self funded trip to the UK Becky had set up joined an organisation called ‘WWOOF‘ through which she did unpaid volunteer work on small scale organic farms. For her trouble the ‘farmers’ provided her with a place to stay. To be clear, this DID NOT involve any kind of financial compensation and was something Becky did only to meet interesting people across the country.

Unfortunately for her the immigration officer felt that this constituted “work” and therefore was outside of the bounds of her general visitors visa. She was then detained for further questioning whereupon it was decided that she should be deported, not back to the United States, but to Croatia because this is where she had just come from!

Yarl's Wood Immigration Detention Centre (Jail)Before she was deported she was taken into custody and jailed in an Immigration Prison called Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. The UK border agency are sensitive about Yarl’s Wood being referred to as a ‘prison,’ however with it’s high barbed wire topped walls and lock-up wings it is only not a prison by name. Indeed the facility comes under the authority of the HM Inspectorate of Prisons!

Photographed, fingerprinted, and searched numerous times, Becky was processed into the controversial immigration jail where she would stay for two nights before being taken back to the airport and put on the first flight back to Croatia.

To say that I was furious with the heinously draconian decision to deport her would be a master of understatement. Becky had at worst made a small mistake which could have been dealt with by issuing a verbal or written warning. She was only seeking to enter the UK for two more weeks before leaving to travel to Nepal where she would be teaching children in an orphanage.

Documentation of her onward flights and Nepal trip, and even documentation proving that she would be in the U.S. for Christmas were ignored by chief immigration officer Tony Simon who was to be judge and jury in her case. Rather than using his discretion and treating Becky, a U.S. citizen and therefore a friend of the UK, with the respect and consideration one would expect a friend to be shown, he decided to jail and deport her regardless of the effect.

According to WWOOF UK recent changes to UK immigration laws have confused the issue of ‘wwoofing’ in the UK. Indeed immigration officer Tony Simon apparently told Becky that even couch surfing would be considered a violation of a visitors visa to the UK as it allows a visitor to “extend their stay” in the UK. This statement is at the very least contentious and would seem to reveal something of the legalistic and obnoxiously disagreeable attitude of Stanstead airport’s chief immigration officer Tony Simon.

Angered by the outrageous decision but unable to effect it in any way I felt I should purchase a ticket back to Croatia on the same flight Becky was to be deported on so as to be there for my friend. I collected the luggage she had left at my house and organised another apartment for us to stay at in Croatia. From there we spent a rain soaked week reorganizing her onward plans.

I remain shocked and ashamed at the way Becky was treated by UK immigration. Chief immigration officer Tony Simon undoubtedly wasted tax payers money putting Becky through this ordeal that was, for us both, extremely costly, stressful and time consuming.

In the end, while I doubt we’ll be seeing her return to the UK again any time soon, I’m happy to report that Becky was able to rearrange her onward travel plans and make it to Nepal as planned. I will be writing to the UK authorities to express my anger at the way she was treated, though I have little faith that there will be any redemption in this story.

I’m not a crook (Becky’s blog about this)
A Yarl’s Wood detainee speaks out
Britain looks to jail more visitors
UK to build Europe’s largest immigration jail
WWOOF advice on UK immigration
C4 News – Confusion rife in UK border agency removal cases
Inside Yarl’s Wood: Britain’s shame over child detainees
BID – Bail for UK immigration detainees
HM Inspectorate of Prisons report on Yarl’s Wood

Photography and TravelWednesday, October 21st, 2009, (7:00 pm)

Feeling the need to escape the impending gloomy winter that was about to descend upon the UK, I decided to abscond to Rovinj, on Croatia’s picturesque Istrian peninsula, to steal the remnants of an Adriatic summer like a pirate hoarding treasure from a ship stranded on rocks.

Rovinj, Croatia

Rovinj is a charming old fishing harbor on the Adriatic Sea with enchanting narrow cobbled streets that weave there way through ancient mediterranean colored buildings. Popular with tourists the winding streets are peppered with small shops, hidden away restaurants, and galleries where local painters produce and sell their art. It’s an unhurried place, perfect for those who want to recline into days where the only plan is to have no plan.

After another dismal summer in the UK it was a pleasure to find Rovinj basking in warm mellow sunlight under clear blue skies. With the main tourist season over the streets were as quiet as I remembered them from when I visited here in 2007 with my brother.

Rovinj, Croatia

Traveling with my friend Becky from the U.S., the pair of us lazily drifted through our days as if carried by a gentle Adriatic current. We sauntered along the pretty streets wandering aimlessly, stopping to take pictures, explore small shops, and browse tucked away galleries.

We learned how to say ‘hello’ (Bok), ‘thank you’ (Hvala), and ‘goodbye’ (Dobar dan) in Croatian just so we could feel a little more local and pretend that this place was home and our real life. My pronunciation was often askew, but the locals always smiled in appreciation of my effort (or perhaps sympathy at my butchering their language?).

Rovinj, Croatia

Staying at my brothers cosy vacation apartment on the old town street of Montalbano, our days would start slowly with a relaxing breakfast in the sun at one of the many restaurants along the harbor. Sipping hot lemon tea with honey and watching passers by, we would guess their nationalities based upon clues provided by their clothing and behavior. Germans always seemed to be on point, working toward some defined goal, Italians were often easily identified by their chic appearance and musical tones, while the English would frequently seem politely hesitant and mildly indecisive.

We discussed the possibility of venturing beyond the town. Maybe renting a scooter and riding off somewhere, snaking around the roads like true Europeans, sounding the horn and making animated gestures for effect. But in the end that required more effort than it seemed either of us were willing to engage in at the time, this was a vacation after all, or “praznik” as they say in these parts.

Rovinj, Croatia

One exertion that was absolutely worth the effort was climbing the rickety wooden stairs of the 206 ft (63 metres) belfry of the church of St. Euphemia. Based upon the belfry of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice the tower has been an enduring landmark on the Rovinj skyline for over 300 years. From there you get a fabulous view of Rovinj with it’s patchwork of tiled roofs alongside the shimmering waters of the Adriatic Sea.

Rovinj, Croatia

The church itself has a history going back as far as 950ad. Inside there are statues of St. George, St. Rochus, and St. Mark, along with the alter of St. Euphemia. On the ceiling there are two beautiful paintings showing God or perhaps saints, and heaven.

There I decided to light a candle in memory of my late sister-in-law, Kate. She had been especially fond of Rovinj and it was mainly down to her influence that my brother bought the apartment that Becky and I were staying in. Mindful of the fact that Kate wasn’t especially fond of religious people I placed her candle separate from the others so as to give her a little space from those religious types. If nothing else I hope that from wherever she is now that gave her reason to smile.

Rovinj, Croatia Rovinj, Croatia Rovinj, Croatia
Rovinj, Croatia Rovinj, Croatia Rovinj, Croatia Rovinj, Croatia
Rovinj, Croatia Rovinj, Croatia Rovinj, Croatia Rovinj, Croatia
Rovinj, Croatia Rovinj, Croatia Rovinj, Croatia Rovinj, Croatia

Of course, when you’re on vacation you’re supposed to treat yourself and indulge in good food and drink, that’s a rule, I’m quite sure it’s written somewhere. So Becky and I made sure we carried out our duty spoiling ourselves with fresh seafood, pizza, beer, wine, and ice-cream.

Each evening we would watch the sun fall from the sky igniting the horizon and turning the clear water into a glistening sea of gold. Silhouetted against the burning sky like a scene from a picture postcard, lone fishermen would stand in small boats tending their nets as natures awesome daily finale reached yet another rousing crescendo.

Rovinj, Croatia

Rovinj isn’t a big town. An enthusiastic tourist could dash around and pretty much see everything in a day. But this isn’t a place that lends itself to dashing. The richness of Rovinj is only revealed when you’ve walked down a familiar street only to see it anew in the ever-changing light. The colors and tones transform throughout the day in striking ways that often lead you to take the same pictures time and again in this most photogenic of places.

Rovinj, Croatia

On our final day in Rovinj we planned to take a boat tour around the islands, however due to the leisurely pace of our breakfast we missed the departure time for those tours and instead took a cruise along the coast to the Limska Draga Fjord.

According to the Lonely planet, the Limska Draga Fjord is the most dramatic sight in Istria. After reading that I checked Google maps to make sure we hadn’t visited somewhere else because it wasn’t that spectacular and anyone expecting a Norwegian-style fjord would be disappointed.

The four hour cruise included free wine which, to me, tasted more like a mixture or paint stripper and chemical waste. However, the German ‘Saga louts,’ who jollied the boat along, were happily guzzling the stuff down proving that there’s really no accounting for taste.

The boat stopped for a while in some inconsequential little place where the ‘Saga louts‘ disappeared without trace. We had a bite to eat then I managed to miss the departure of the boat leaving Becky and I to comically stand on the bank of the Fjord waving and calling it back. I couldn’t help but imagine how my brother, a highly scheduled and efficacious charachter, would have been annoyed at my totally lackadaisical approach to catching (and nearly missing) the boat.

Rovinj, Croatia

Becky LewisWe decided to have (what we thought would be) our last evening meal in Croatia at the quirky little Neptune restaurant. Our friendly waiter served us a complimentary glass of some potent local drink. He motioned that we should just down it in one, so we obliged. I have no idea what it was, but adapting a well known saying I decided to take the approach that when in Rovinj one should do as the Ronijians do.

Taking a final unhurried stroll the through the dimly lit cobbled streets, we indulged in some late night Gelato ice cream. I’m not a huge fan of ice cream but Italian style Gelato is devilishly sumptuous and perhaps even more dangerously morish than chocolate. It is perhaps fortunate for my waistline that I did not discover this sooner.

Rovinj, Croatia

On the morning of our departure we headed out early for a final alfresco breakfast by the harbor. I felt a little sad that my brother had agreed to sell his apartment to an Italian woman, but more than that I’m just grateful that he so graciously shared it with me.

After a typically lazy breakfast we returned to the apartment, gathered our luggage, took one last look around then left. We closed the door behind us for a final time and walked down the steep stairs to the narrow street below where I looked up at the window and saw a picture that just had to be taken.

My last photograph of this place would be of the window to Pete’s apartment reflecting the shuttered window across the street. It was a fitting farewell I thought, and with that we both turned and left to meet our ride to the airport to catch a plane back to the UK.

As small and familiar as Rovinj is, it’s most certainly a place I would be happy to come back to. Maybe I will, but I rather think that I’ll take the sale of Pete’s little apartment as cue that there is a whole lot more of the world out there to be explored.

Visiting Croatia
Rovinj’s tourist information
Rovinj on Flickr
Video : See a high quality version of the video above
Video : For Kate

PoliticalFriday, October 9th, 2009, (5:01 pm)

President Barack Obama has been awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. Apparently the Nobel Committee awarded the US President the honor because of “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples.” Not that it really matters, but surely it’s a little premature to be giving President Obama a Nobel Peace Prize?

Britain's barbecue summer.

If you ask me I think that there is another story behind this decision. I think perhaps the judges all got together and had a wild night of strippers and booze then through the heavy haze of a hangover they just came up with the first name of someone ‘important’ that they could think of.

I don’t know about you, but the reason for the award sounds like something of an excuse, not dissimilar to those I used to offer my school teachers when they asked me where my mysteriously absent homework was. “Oh yeah, well you see, I was on my way to school and there was this old lady that had lost her white stick so I rolled up my English homework and gave that to her to use as a white stick.”

I like the President, really I do, but shouldn’t we at least wait for him to produce a little peace in the world before we give him a prize for doing so?

I suspect that Mr Obama himself is probably wishing that the judges had chosen someone else from their list of 205 nominees. The award will undoubtedly lead to a media focus on what the President has actually achieved (or not achieved) so far in his first term.

Such is the state of the modern political machine that any President would struggle to bring about rapid change. This truth is especially harsh for President Obama who used ‘change’ as a key feature of his election campaign.

Could it be that the prize has come from the global sense of relief that President Cheney Bush is no longer the “leader of the free world” (by the way, I absolutely detest that overblown phrase)? Such was the international distaste for that man that I can understand why a committee of international types might want to give the new President a prize, if for no other reason than for having the balls to step into the mess left by eight long years of President Bush.

If that was the case though, could we not have come up with a new award? Something like the ‘International Balls of Steel award’, which could itself lead to a very interesting trophy and acceptance ceremony. Surely such an award would then give us reason to create a similar accolade for the ‘Worlds Biggest Dick‘ whereupon a committee decide who has been the biggest dick of the year. At least awards like these would be a little more entertaining and not feel like saccharine political bullshit.

Perhaps we should just merge the Nobel Peace Prize with the MTV video music awards. At least that way Republicans like Joe Wilson could clamber onto the stage, Kanye West style, and ruin the ‘Barack Stars’ acceptance speech with an awkward ode to a some bemused white Senator sitting in the audience trying not to look mortified.

Maybe I shouldn’t make light of this. The Nobel Peace Prize isn’t supposed to be a prop of showbiz bling. Previous winners have included Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. But at the time of writing this several polls showed that most people feel that President Obama doesn’t deserve the prize, yet.

So, what do you think? Was there someone more deserving of the prize? Does this even matter? Who would you give the award to if you were on the Nobel Committee?

The Wizard of Oslo
SNL lampoons President Obama (Video)
In Defense of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize
The Obameter: Tracking Obama’s Campaign Promises
Thank God that’s over