LIFE ABROAD – Part III: Ha, ‘English’ sangfroid!
Posted on November 22nd, 2012

Dr.Tilak Fernando


A crowded and confusing maze of corridors inside the Heathrow Airport did not pose a problem for me as hundreds of passengers after landing kept on moving towards immigration counters and baggage halls all the time (every three minutes either a plane takes off or lands at Heathrow). Metaphorically speaking, I appeared like a ‘lost lamb in a flock of sheep driven forward automatically without a shepherd’!

Immigration control was not sophisticated those days like now where separate lanes facilitate a quick turnaround for British/European passports holders to exit one by one as opposed to long queues for other categories including Commonwealth citizens.

It is only fair to say that the British immigration officers at the airport are highly professional and simultaneously courteous to visitors. I say this now with years of experience having lived in the UK for decades and travelled far and wide to and from UK to other destinations since my first visit. I feel I am entitled as a ‘foreign traveller’ to comment on my personal experiences how a visitor feels confronting the British as opposed to officials at other major international airports whom I have come across to be abrupt, suspicious, stern looking with frowned faces with no smiles at all, which give the impression to the visitor at the portal a country as unwelcome!

The Official entry permit from the British High Commission in Colombo, supported by a chest X-ray helped me to get through the immigration control with ease, but with an official endorsement on my passport as per Commonwealth Immigration Act which read: “The condition attached to admission to the United Kingdom is hereby varied so as to require the holder not to remain in the United Kingdom later than ……… (given a date).

Modes of transport

Generally student visas were granted on a yearly basis and renewals depended upon the confirmation from a seat of learning that the student had been diligently engaged in studies during the preceding year with proven attendance records. Visitors’ visa depended on the circumstances and the period of stay in Britain varied from three to six months according to individual circumstances.

Some Sri Lankans were often confused with the ‘entry permit’ issued at the British High Commission in Colombo (usually for six months from the date of the official seal on a passport) with that of an ‘imaginary’ notion of a resident visa to live in Britain, which was NOT the case. The decision on a resident visa was at the discretion of Immigration officers who were authorised to act independently by the Home Office in the UK, in accordance with Immigration regulations at the port of entry.

Three to four decades ago one might say it was ‘plain sailing’ as many travelled to Britain as bona fide students with requisite documentation while the professional categories migrated with official work permits for employment. Of late, things have of course changed with tentacles of travel spreading into many forms and shapes.

Travellers to the UK for the first time had to depend on someone’s assistance at the ‘arrival gate’ in London to guide and escort to any destination as a new comer could easily get lost in a concrete jungle. After getting accustomed to CTB or CGR train travel in Sri Lanka, one needed in London to get used to commute by different modes of transport where systems varied and appeared more sophisticated.

The London underground ‘railway line’ up to Heathrow airport had not been extended during my arrival, therefore had to use a coach service up to Victoria in Central London, a name of a town which I had read in books back at home from where one had access to London Transport Buses, Green Line country coaches, British Railway and the underground (Tube) trains etc.

Tube train will fascinate the new comer to London as this is a vast arrangement of underground railways running throughout London area, even crossing the River Thames and under the riverbed. It’s a meticulously worked out railway net work where one could travel from one end to the other, changing at various intersections and come back to the starting point without getting lost. Once on a BBC Sinhala Sandesaya programme interview (many moons ago) discussing ‘The London Underground Railways’ with the presenter Badra Gunatilake, I recollect how she introduced the topic comparing underground railway and stations that surfaced to the ground level from high streets pavements as ‘ant hills’ and the millions of commuters who kept moving in and out of those as ‘armies of ants’ during morning and evening peak traffic. That, I thought, was an apt description of what one could observe during peak period travel in London.

Various underground routes are identified on a conspicuous ‘London Underground map’ indicating different coloured lines with specific names (which will be dealt with separately in a different dispatch). These maps are available to commuters free of charge at ticket counters to help those who are not familiarised with the system to plan their journey.

Foolish act

Originally the London Transport operated buses with conductors and a driver to issue tickets but with the advancement of new technology and to minimise operational costs, provisions were made seemingly to have only driver cum conductor for an operation. Some buses in local routes had barriers to prevent passengers by-passing without possessing a valid ticket and for this purpose three pronged cross-bar type gates were fixed inside the bus near the driver.

One experience that embarrassed me most within days of my arrival in London was during travel in such a local bus on my own for the first time. On a busy morning, I waited at a bus halt where a conductor cum driver automobile stopped to pick me up. I hurriedly got in and paid the fare and obtained a ticket too. What I did not realise was that I had to push one of the protruding bars attached to the gate for me to proceed forward. Quite ignorantly and being nervous and excited, as everyone’s eyes were cast on me inside the crowded bus, I struggled to ‘squeeze through’ the tiny gap between the gate attachment rather than pushing a bar forward to get into the passenger area as quickly as possible.

The ‘English’ sangfroid I must say was at its height at that very moment as not a single mouth opened to advise, criticise or make fun out of my foolish act except the bus driver placed his palm on his chin with a wryly smile and patiently watched me with open wide eyes as I was struggling to pass through the gate. Finally, he gave a slight push to one of the bars of the gate to let this ‘idiotic boy’ pass through.

With all blood rushing to my face with embarrassment I kept my head down till the end of the journey. I was learning fast in my new environment and next experiment was to conquer the London Tube Train.

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One Response to “LIFE ABROAD – Part III: Ha, ‘English’ sangfroid!”

  1. Dham Says:

    Feel so sorry for you and Lankans.

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