On Nov. 23rd Becky Brooks and I departed from the Atlanta airport, here in the U.S., with the intention of joining our Happy Happy Birthday to Me labelmates Hotpants Romance for a 12-date UK tour between Nov. 26 and Dec. 12.
Sadly, that tour has now been cancelled, as Becky and myself were denied entry into the UK, a decision made by a lone British immigration control agent – a decision that could not be contested or overturned in any reasonable way.
The UK tour would have been the first international visit for our band and was Becky’s first-ever experience with overseas travel of any kind, first passport, first time on a jet airliner, etc. (I had previously traveled to England on a two-week holiday back in the summer of 1998, well before Cars Can Be Blue was a band).
Discussions concerning tour plans with Hotpants Romance began several months ago, following our enjoyable two-week States-side tour back in August. However, many details were left to the last minute, and it was a combination of bad luck and poor planning that resulted in our eventual denial into the United Kingdom.
I feel embarrassed by what happened to us, but I would like other touring musicians to take note of our misfortune so they do not make the same mistakes we did because the repercussions were more severe than anything I could have anticipated.
For one thing, Becky and I had just wrapped up 60+ dates of a U.S. tour, the last show of which was a rather unhinged, drunken house party in Atlanta replete with four bands, fisticuffs and splattered bits of birthday cake.
I called it a night and exited the festivities around 2 a.m., by which time the live entertainment had devolved into beer-besotted, free-for-all jamming. Becky continued raging until the wee hours, not that she had much choice.
I awoke the next morning, groggily throwing a scant bit of my own clothing into two small suitcases that contained 40 or so hand-dyed/silkscreened CCBB t-shirts.
We collected our newly-minted passports and got a lift to the Atlanta airport, arriving at 11 a.m., collected our tickets to Manchester Airport (via Chicago) at the American Airlines counter and passed through airport security.
Our flight was exciting (for Becky), but thankfully uneventful. We endured a two-hour layover in Chicago and then boarded Flight 54 for Manchester, UK, departing at 5:30 p.m. and scheduled to touch down at 7 a.m., British time.
I kept myself occupied on the seven-hour flight by reading Bob Zmuda’s Andy Kaufman: Exposed biography, eagerly anticipating our arrival and hospitality from the Hotpants girls, too excited for sleep.
After touching down safely on the Mancunian tarmac, Becky and I were handed a landing card by the flight attendants, which we looked over while exiting our plane. The card asked for our name, occupation and address that we would be staying at during our visit.
The latter proved an unexpected problem for us, as we hadn’t considered it, not knowing exactly which Hotpants Romance member we would ultimately be staying with.
When we arrived at the immigration counter, we quickly got off on the wrong foot with the assigned officer, asking to borrow a pen to fill out the card and were curtly directed to a separate counter. While the other passengers (primarily British) passed through, we filled out our landing card with our names, occupation (we both put down “clerk”) and left the address section blank.
From there, it was all downhill. We couldn’t provide the requested street address of our friend, nor the last name of the person picking us up (awful time to draw a blank on Laura’s last name, even though we knew the surnames of the other two HPR gals), couldn’t name her occupation, nor could I provide a flight itinerary proving we had round-trip tickets (I booked the flight through Priceline and neglected to print out the itinerary, although American Airlines hadn’t provided one either).
We were also asked about the nature of our visit. Thinking it would be better not to make mention of the tour or being musicians, Becky said we were intending on spending the holiday with our friends and doing some sightseeing. When asked where we were intending on visiting, Becky had no specific answer (I did express interest in visiting the site of the former Hacienda club, which apparently left no discernible impression on the officer. Not a Happy Mondays fan, I guess).
The officer also asked how much money we had on us. I had about $50 in cash, while Becky had about $5 on her person, although we also had our Visa debit card. These declarations did nothing to put us in good stead with our inquisitor.
Failing all of the above, we were moved into an adjoining room for detainees. It was quickly becoming clear that a nightmare situation was rearing its ugly head. The only bit of concrete information we had on us was Laura’s phone number, which I happily provided to the officer. I figured a phone conversation would sort everything out, that we really did have friends expecting us and that we weren’t trying to smuggle anything dangerous into the country or defect or otherwise illegally immigrate into the UK.
So, we waited. And waited. And waited. Two hours passed by before the officer returned, saying that she had spoken to our friends and that our baggage was going to be searched, which we responded to with a heavy sigh of relief.
Two airport security officers led us past the immigration counter, downstairs to the baggage claim area. We figured our baggage would be checked once more to make sure we weren’t carrying anything dangerous and then we’d be let through.
The security staff was considerably friendlier than our immigration officer, so we chatted happily with them while they thoroughly examined our belongings.
Upon discovering the CCBB t-shirts (and virtually no other clothing), we finally let it slip that we were in a band, which seemed to amuse the folks rifling through our luggage.
Satisfied that we were not smuggling any explosives or illicit substances, the security staff closed up our suitcases. We awaited our imminent release and reunion with our British friends, soon to be recounting our unlikely encounter with British customs.
Instead of leading us through the airport lobby, however, our caretakers led us right back upstairs to the detainee room, where we would wait another two hours.
This is the point where Becky and I truly began to panic. What was going on? We had not been offered even a phone call; we had no way of knowing what our legal rights were and were left sweating over the very dismal, but also very likely prospect that we had just spent about $1500, virtually every penny of profit from our U.S. tour, for absolutely nothing.
Jet-lagged and exhausted, going on 24 hours of being awake, malaise and depression were quickly setting in.
The immigration officer returned, legal pad notebook in hand, and asked us a few more questions, this time in reference to our luggage items. We had no clothes in our suitcases, she said. Becky said we had intended to go shopping during our stay, to which the officer rather rudely replied “with what money?” Well, fuck you, too, lady.
Next, she brought up our band t-shirts, asking where we had planned to sell them. Becky answered that we were going to try and play some open mic nights and give the shirts away, although sleep-deprivation had reduced these statements to a rather incoherent mush.
When asked why we hadn’t initially been up-front about our band playing music in the UK, Becky, looking a hair’s breadth from passing out, meekly stated, “I don’t know. I don’t remember. Right now, I’m really tired and confused.”
With that, the immigration officer said “right, then,” sharply retracted her pen and hastily exited the room, leaving us tired and defeated in the detainee room for several more hours.
After being left once more to ponder our eventual fate, the gravity of the situation was beginning to weigh heavily on me. Inside my head, an endless loop of “should-haves” flickered inside my brain. Should have printed out our flight itinerary, should have got the street address we were staying at, should have known everyone’s last name, should have researched common tourist spots in Manchester, England, and on and on and on.
And there we were, sitting in silence on a cheap airport bench, everything we had looked forward to suddenly slipping away – it was inevitable now. We were not going to be let in, and all because I was an ignorant moron. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
I had got two full-force shots in, before Becky grabbed my arm and hissed at me to stop it. I felt the lump growing just above my right temple and the dull throbbing gave me something else to focus on, something other than the fact that we had just pissed away $1,500 on airfare, would soon be canceling the tour, and subsequently our long-anticipated shot at international exposure.
Even more so, the sickening fact that we might not even get a glimpse of our friends in Hotpants Romance, let alone the nearly three weeks of fun we had planned with them.
We also would be missing Keith John Adams, Phil Wilson, all the myriad support bands and promoters who had agreed to help us with shows, folks we had met at either Athens, New York or New England Popfest, plus the clubs, pubs – the entire British travel experience.
The next time the immigration officer returned, it was with paperwork neatly explaining our denial into Great Britain, citing “insufficient reliable information” on our part, as well as us having “used deception” to gain entry and failing to give “satisfactory answers to the Immigration Officer’s enquiries.”
Also included was a rather pithy paragraph regarding the Immigration Officer’s assessment of Becky and myself. It is as follows:
NATHANIEL THOMAS MITCHELL – you have asked for leave to enter the United Kingdom as a visitor for three weeks, but I am not satisfied that you are genuinely seeking entry as a visitor for the limited period as stated by you because you initially could not name me anything you wished to see in the United Kingdom. You knew very little about your friend in the UK. You initially stated that you met your friend through another friend, but after your baggage search it transpired that you had met at a gig in the United States and were here to take part in open mic sessions and promote your band. The only luggage you hold are a stack of T-shirts relating to your band, which I believe you are here to sell. Furthermore, you have limited funds for a three-week visit.
Becky received the exact same paragraph on her paperwork, even though she had done the majority of the talking.
We were informed that our return ticket with American Airlines had been transferred, so that we would be sent back to Chicago on the next available flight, which would be Nov. 26.
We attempted some feeble protesting, requested phoning the U.S. Consulate, the British Embassy, any legal assistance we were due, but none of our requests were entertained in any way.
Instead, we were given the first of many pat-down friskings, taken into a separate room adjacent the detainee lounge, photographed and fingerprinted.
Closely accompanied by two security personnel wearing fluorescent vests over white shirts and dark ties, we were led by elevator to a separate detainee area, our luggage searched and inventoried, our meager cash counted, removed and signed for.
Photo Credit: Jacob Hunt
The room at Terminal 2 was a rather bleak affair. Bright fluorescent lighting, a television without controls blaring overhead, a few benches and desks, magazines and kids’ toys strewn about, giving the feel of an employee break room at Wal-Mart crossed with a waiting area at a walk-in clinic, minus the thick plexiglass separating us from the desk of security personnel scheduled to monitor us.
A payphone was available, although we had no British currency, although Becky was initially able to use our trusty debit card towards making outgoing calls, although even this privilege was short-lived. For reasons unknown, the card suddenly stopped being effective for placing calls.
I had no desire to communicate with anyone, and I immediately lay across one of the airport benches in desolate numbness. The television’s piercing banality was overwhelming me and I requested our wardens switch it off or at least lower the volume but was ignored.
Instead, I stuffed some toilet tissue in my ears and covered my head with a dark-colored sweatshirt, sleep staved off by the bright lights overhead and the muffled, noisy chatter of the television.
There I lay, awkwardly, across the molded plastic bench with the thinnest of cushioning. Becky had been able to talk to the Hotpants girls, who were doing their very best to arrange overturning the Immigration Officer’s decision.
Bleak as my mood was, I doubted any such action would have much effect in the allotted time. If we had traveled British Airways, we would be leaving on the very first flight back to America that same night.
I continued to lay down, crushed, heartbroken, despondent, dark thoughts of self-harm flickering up every now and again, unsure of whether to attempt legal recourse, or merely accept defeat.
In the midst of these downtrodden thoughts, one of the security officers entered and told me that due to our flight being scheduled for Nov. 26, arrangements were being made to transfer me to an all-male detainee center in Oxford.
Becky was now asleep on the opposite bench, waking up in time to see me being led out of the room by the two security watchmen. She frantically inquired as to where I was being taken, and I told her I didn’t know, although one of the guards produced a business card with information on the facility and handed it to her.
Briskly patted down once again, I reclaimed my cash and was led to a waiting transport van. The guards loaded me onto it and then we drove a short distance around the airport, where I was again patted down and then transferred onto a different van, reinforced with a thick metal grate.
Once inside the van, two other detainees – one with dark skin and a thick Jamaican patois, and a smaller, quiet man with vaguely Middle Eastern features – greeted me.
The Jamaican introduced himself and offered me a bag of crisps, which I accepted although I had no appetite. I provided a brief synopsis of my situation and he related his getting pinched by Immigration, noting that he had been confined to the van since 10 a.m. (by my estimation, it was now sometime between 9 and 10 p.m.).
We departed from the airport and began driving. At first I took interest in the motorways we were traversing, but quickly succumbed to nodding off.
I awoke to find we were pulling into a different facility, greeted by a large metal gate. We stopped in a concrete encased parking area and sat still for nearly a half-hour.
Eventually another male detainee was led onto the van. His appearance seemed European but he was oddly quiet when the Jamaican attempted to engage him in conversation, as if he was unable or unwilling to talk.
We continued on for about another 45 minutes, stopped for fuel at what appeared to be a Mobil station, and by this time, nature was indeed calling.
I requested use of the toilet, but the security officer informed me that I could only make use of the facilities at a jailhouse or detention center, testily adding that we had just been at a jailhouse.
My reply was that I was unaware of these conditions, wherein I was told I would just have to try and hold it until we arrived in Oxford, a mere 90 minutes away at this point. I gritted my teeth and prepared myself for a long, uncomfortable journey.
After an hour and a half of enduring the discomfort of a full bladder, we arrived at the detainee center in Oxford. The van pulled in front of an imposing, barbed wire-topped fence and sat idling for what seemed like an eternity of complete stasis. The Jamaican was much more vocal at expressing his frustration than I was, angrily making suggestions to contact an officer inside to open the gate, his suggestions either rebuffed or ignored by the drivers.
After nearly a half-hour of sitting idle, the gate was finally opened by two guards, one of which was leading a German Shepard.
Never would I have fathomed, when sitting in the coach of American Airlines Flight 54 from Chicago to Manchester, that I’d be led into such a sinister-looking facility as this. The whole situation suddenly started to seem incredible, unreal.
I secretly wished I had been caught smuggling some sort of explosive device, just so there would be some justification for winding up at what ostensibly appeared to be a prison, replete with armed security, barbed-wire fences and attack dogs.
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