“Refusal shoes” – the big joke among British immigration officers toward those dressed in business suits, striving to look important, but sporting garish footwear: “spats, patent-leather brogues, sneakers with flashing lights … [and] anything with tassels and you’re asking for trouble,” in the words of former immigration officer and author of the darkly comic Refusal Shoes, Tony Saint.
Whenever one thinks of Britain (mostly Americans), one may think of cream teas and changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, a place that can’t welcome enough people through its borders to breathe in its history and its unique culture (drunks flipping over traffic island cones, mostly). But the U.K. is much like the U.S. in that it has an immigration problem, with the numbers of people wishing to enter the country at record levels. Immigration at U.K. points of entries are routinely inundated with hard-luck cases – asylum seekers, or those who routinely wish to call themselves such, more like – and any reason, such as “refusal shoes” to “keep the darkies out” is good enough for most IO’s (immigration officers).
The novel’s protagonist is one Henry Brinks, a man of 28 whose been on the job for five years, but whose status of seniority within the ranks is nil. He’s very much subservient to the big bosses who are hard-drinking, sexually-repressed bullies. Even the women are tough. Sharon Barber, a sarcastic poison-mouthed slag, married her way up to the top. Her, combined with other unsavory characters with little compunction and no compassion, strive to make Henry feel trapped in a soulless spinning wheel of a career. Even if he were to get promoted, he’s not sure he wants it.
He regards his colleagues with barely disguised contempt. There’s Paul Speerpoint, the white supremacist with over 300 refusals a year to his credit. Guldeep Singh, the “poacher-turned-gamekeeper” Indian IO who loves nothing more than to refuse blacks, and Dave Niblo, who is keen to label anything that dares to move in his direction as a “toerag” or “scrote.” A Scotsman, Dick Foster, with an off-the-wall temper, taunts an Argentinian couple over the Falklands before admitting them with a contemptuous, “I’m finished wi’ ya,” tossing them their passports.
The Chief Immigration Officers, or “Chiefies,” are not much better. They are either blind to what goes on or complicit with the refusals. Even worse is Ed Thorough who admits a Chinese gang hitman into the country and is content to let Henry take the blame. Even when he eventually reports this to the head man, “the Bitch,” he is dismissed, then threatened.
The cast of characters is enough to make the reader agree with Henry Brinks that for the honest soul, immigration control is the worst job in the world, stipulated. But some of the immigrants you can’t help but feel deserve it: A refugee from Niger mocks the officers only to end up pleading for political asylum, which he undeservedly gets (sending Dave Niblo into a rage). An Australian backpacker tells an immigration officer, “I’ve just come for a while, check out the place. Just bummin’ around …” For those in Britain who believe that “no nationality walks into being refused like Australians,” she is a prize gift to the IO on duty who instantly refuses her entry. A drunk and belligerent American World War II veteran, still disgruntled after all these years at Roosevelt sending him into the conflict “to pull your limey butts out of the goddamn fire” gains entry through Henry, but you’re left with the feeling that if this despicable Yank had encountered Speerpoint or Foster, he’d be put on the next flight back to the States.
Henry eventually gets his revenge, but not in the way that you’d think. The novel leads you to conclude that Henry will bring the operation to its knees over Ed Thorough and his admission of the Chinese triad killer, but something even more delicious is in store. I won’t spoil it, but all I’ll say it that it involves Sharon Barber and “the Bitch.”
After five years dealing with Terminal C at London Airport (there is no such thing; you get the idea that the author is disguising Immigration Control at Heathrow or Gatwick), Henry is relieved of the cut-throat, soul-draining existence at the airport. He doesn’t retire, but he does claim a much sought-after position.
To find out what this position is and how Henry attains it, read “Refusal Shoes.” You may never board a flight to Britain with positive expectations ever again, but it is still worth the read. One hilarious read. Thank you, Mr. Saint.Powered by Sidelines