The Passport Pages

Sunday Star Times Competition

October 2022

“They’ll turn you back at Heathrow,” she said like a judge pronouncing a sentence. 

A mixture of emotions welled up in me: incredulity, impatience, even getting a tad upset. Here we go again, I thought, another brush with bureaucracy but this time really bad. I had a feeling that I was dealing with a dangerously deranged official. 

Still, there was something that gave me cause for pause – she had a Scottish accent. It wasn’t that I was in any way averse to the low growly-purry sounds she made or that I wondered how a Scottish woman should wind up in a passport office in far-flung New Zealand. It was simply that I was Scottish myself. Knowing the capable common-sense and no-nonsense rule book approach of such a bureaucrat with her kind of thistley-heathery background, I groaned inwardly. There would be no quarter given, and niceness would have as little chance of success as a convicted murderer trying to charm a hanging judge. I decided to summon up quiet but persistent reasonableness.

All I wanted, after all, was a few new pages in my passport which was still valid for two more years. Passports are expensive, not to be renewed if there’s still some life in your old one. Anyway, I had heard from a reliable source that new pages were possible. She was a former British High Commission employee who had checked, filled out and stamped many a passport at the self-same office. In fact, believe it or not, she had actually warned me about a Scottish woman there. Even armed with this auspicious information, I was uncertain as I’d already tried at the British Embassy in Tokyo, a city where I lived and worked. There I had  been brusquely informed no new pages could be issued, and that two weeks were required for a new passport. 

It’s remarkable the human capacity for self-deception in such situations. Something blindly optimistic rises up to dismiss any chance that all such offices everywhere in the world will have the same regulations. It’s the path of least resistance. One refuses to believe all diplomatic agencies will be uniformly thorough. It suited me therefore to think that the Japanese woman at the British Embassy in Tokyo was either that her flexibility had deserted her or she was having a bad day. Things would be different in New Zealand, a country I was going to soon, knowing I would be able to enter with ease, my being a Kiwi citizen with a passport that had many unused pages for stamping. 

One may well ask why I should want a British passport when I had a perfectly good New Zealand one. I wanted to go to the UK after New Zealand, and while the NZ passport was excellent for Pacific travel, the British one eased any movement in Europe to do with speeding through Immigration Control, avoiding the lines of “Other Countries’ Passports”.

So there I was on a sunny Spring day in early December in Wellington phoning the passport office of the British High Commission to inquire of one Hilda McConachie about the how and the wherefore of a few new pages in my full British passport.

The conversation began well although our obvious mutual Scottish origins did not soften her speaking tone as if she was addressing a dull and stupid schoolboy. I had fondly thought that people from the same country had potent points in common – they shared memories of the homeland and the living away from it, also the accent, in this case one with rolling purry-burry “rs”. Rhotic is the term for this from the Greek letter “rho”.  A friend in New Zealand hearing a Scottish person in full flow once told me that it was like being massaged by sound. Well, that’s as maybe, but I was now not experiencing much massaging. I had dealt with Scottish bureaucrats before, and felt I was up to this situation if I exercised calm and gentle jollying.


“I was just wondering getting some new pages appended to my passport. It’s full up but there are two years before it requires renewing.”  All my “rs” there got a big burst of the rippling effect. 

I wasn’t ready for her reply.

“You can’t have new pages, I mean you can’t get new pages.”

“Thank you, but there’s a further two-year validity. It would be great if I could continue using my passport to the end of its passporting life … can you help me somehow?”

“There’s no somehow. We don’t give new pages. You have to get a new passport.”

Strangely, I took some solace from the fact that she was giving information freely. 

I told her gently, “A friend of mine who used to work in the passport office told me that new pages were possible. One just had to ask.”

“That person was wrong. We stopped that years ago.”

“Oh, all right then. I suppose that means a new one … or maybe I could just travel to London on my existing valid passport and see what happens at passport control. I’m not averse to taking a chance on someone understanding my situation.”

“Aye, you could try. It won’t do you any good though. They’ll turn you back at Heathrow.”  

I caught the stress and the extra burr on the “–row” of the airport, a full bore “rho”, as if signalling finality.  

“So you mean to tell me that I can go all the way to London from New Zealand on a 28-hour trip, and not be allowed in?”

“That’s right.” 

I could almost hear her saying “laddie” after it. 

She continued, “If you don’t have space for stamping in your passport, they turn you back. They’re very tough on that kind of thing now.”

“All right, all right, how long to get a new passport?”

I was imagining something like a few days. Eight years before, I had received my passport from this office in less than a week. That was then, this was now. I should have known better.

She said, “It takes upwards of two weeks, and longer when we’re busy.”

I almost shouted, saying, “Two weeks! But I go to London next Thursday!”

She could have been gentler, I felt. 

“That’s what I said, two weeks. It’s a long process these days. A lot of checking is required, it’s impossible to rush things.”

“But you told me they won’t let me into Britain, so I won’t be able to get home to Scotland.”  

The reference a clever touch there, I thought.

“Aye, that’s right. They’ll turn you back at Heathrow.”


I winced. She seemed to savour that expression as if she had used it many times on people like me. Perhaps it had a particularly desired effect each time of putting enquirers in their place, no matter what reciprocal accents they had. 

I did not wish to be turned back after a long trip. I did not really want to buy a new passport. Above all I didn’t want to give in to this official with all the answers, none of which were helpful or pleasant. The worst thing was she was telling me bad news in my accent, with no fellowship of the “rs” at all. It would have been so much more acceptable to me if she had spoken in Queen’s English or even Kiwi. I felt betrayed, but it only served to make me more stubborn.

“So you’re telling me that it’s impossible to stick in a couple of new pages at the back? You must have some there, wouldn’t it be easy enough? It would take only a few days, a special request, someone in dire need.”  

The word “dire” got the full rhotic “r” treatment, as well as a suitable lengthening of the vowel.

“That’s right,” she agreed.

“That’s right meaning ‘can’t have’ or that’s right for ‘easy enough’?” I fired back.

“Can’t have.”

“And a new passport will take two weeks?” I asked again, ever hopeful.

“That’s what I said,” she said. 

“So they definitely won’t let me into Britain?”


“Ocht, I’ve never heard of anything so daft in all my life!”

“Well, there you are then!” 

I’ve always found that retort to be one of those fob-off expressions, up there with “It is what it is,” as if the statement of the obvious was dealing with a problem, as in “Them’s the rules, take them or leave them.”  No help, no creativity, no customer is king or anything like that. 

I was not as upset as I sounded. I had enjoyed the exchange with Hilda, especially as I knew I had the backstop of my Kiwi passport, so I’d still be able to enter Britain after being told my British passport was full up and please go back to where you came from. The whole thing had gripped me. I was staring officialdom in the face, and I was determined not to blink first. Did I see jaws opening to receive another victim? If I did, I was not worried because I was determined I would not be the victim here. 

Within five minutes I phoned Ms McConachie back, having had a minor brainwave. I had checked my passport to see the size of the typical British entry stamp, and discovered to my delight and surprise that there were no stamps! I had visited the UK a lot in the past eight years, and the authorities had simply waved me through after a glance at my passport. So that told me that no new pages were needed, just my full-up passport. 

“Hello again, it’s me, the new pages person.”

“Oh, yes,” she said a trifle warily.

“I have reason to believe that there’s no need for stamping on entry to the UK if you present a Brit passport.”  

I must confess there was triumph in my tone.

“Aye, they do! They have to!” said she as if she knew it all, as if she had always known everything there was to know about everything, and this all-enveloping knowledge would carry her through to a long and happy retirement.

I girded my mental loins and sought a more satisfactory reply. 

“I have good reason to think otherwise,” I said. “You see, I just looked through my passport to check on the size of the stamps done on entry to the UK, just to see if they were small enough to fit into the little space left in my passport, and you’ll never guess what I found! There are no stamps, not a one!”

“Are you sure?” she said more by way of reacting than anything helpful.

“Yes, I’ve been back to Scotland at least half a dozen times in the past eight years and believe me there are no stamps in my passport.”

Whether it was the shock of the statistic or the slight raising of my voice to re-inforce my observation, I don’t know, but there was the vaguest pause as if the seeds of some awful doubt had been sprinkled in her mind. 

“You don’t need stamping for Scotland,” she said, her attempt at a wee bit humour.

I was in no mood for this odd departure from her former official style, and saw it as another go at fobbing me off. 

“No stamping,” I repeated quite strongly. “So I can squeeze into the UK possibly with my existing passport and use up its remaining two years, making maybe a couple of trips home. OK? What do you think?”

She said, “Just a minute. I can check on that.”

Check on what? I wondered. Check on my passport not having stamps? For a moment the terrible thought crossed my mind that I was the one at fault for not being stamped, that I had made improper entries to Britain, but luckily I was also capable of more rational explanation even at this stressful moment. Still, what on earth was she checking? Was there some tome of biblical weight and authority that she was dipping into under the heading of “Unstamped Passports”? Was she asking another know-all just to be sure? Could there possibly be another person at the British High Commission passport section with more knowledge of regulations and facility with words than skills possessed by Hilda McConochie? For a brief moment I hoped he wasn’t Scottish! Was my rising hopefulness that I wouldn’t need to renew my passport about to be dashed? She was away checking, checking something, checking with someone else. I clung on to the receiver as if willing a favourable answer. The minutes passed slowly. Then she was back.

“Aye, it was as I expected – they check and put stamps on sometimes.”

Things were getting more unbearably ridiculous. How had I reached this daft stage? I had reported that my passport had no stamps. She had said impossible. Now she was saying they stamp sometimes. What? When they feel like it? If the stamper is to hand? If they don’t like the cut of your jib?

I retorted, “Sometimes! Well, I can tell you, not once for me in the many times I’ve returned home.”

“I told you ‘sometimes’!” she replied firmly.

“So what do you advise in my situation of a full passport and no extra pages and no time to receive a new passport with which to fly confidently and peacefully to Heathrow?” 

I gave the “–row” a solid “rho”.  

I now had a full grasp of the silliness of the whole thing. Even realising that I had brought it on myself. 

She said, “It’s your risk, you can take the slim chance of being turned back at Heathrow.” 

Gawd! How she loved that expression! 

She ploughed on, “Believe me, if they want to stamp you, and they see not enough space for their stamp, they will take steps to …”

I cut her off, unable to bear hearing the immortal words again. 

“I wonder if they would be able to supply a wee extra page at Immigration or Passport Control … would they?” 

“No, it would be way too late for that. You have to see to it before you go.”

I nearly passed out. What was she saying? Here I was indeed seeing to it. I had hoped it would be with her help but she wasn’t being helpful.

“How do you propose that I see to it?” I said as evenly as I could.

“I’ve told you everything I know and what you can do, within the limited powers and the time available to me.”

“Well, I’ll just have to try my luck, won’t I? I don’t have time to apply for a new passport according to you, so I’ll just be flying blind, so to speak, in the hope that my full passport will be waved through … as usual!” 

I wondered if Hilda had nothing more pressing to do with her morning, and if I wasn’t supplying some reprieve for her from the usual paper and passport shuffling. Suddenly she asked,

“When did you say you had to leave New Zealand?”

“Next Thursday.”

“What date is that?”
“It’s the 14th.”

Why was I answering these questions? We had already established that regulations stated that two weeks were needed to renew a passport, and today was the 10th. Perhaps something else was happening. Was she warming to my persistence, my evenness of tone, or was it the accent, the shared accent at last coming to the rescue? Or did she know that there was another way, and she had been debating with herself whether or not to unearth it, making amends for her previous adherence to crusty old regulations. 

“Well, we might be able to do it.”  

What? I was not only struck by the possibility but by the use of “we”, nothing to do with her you understand. 

“Do what?” I simply had to ask innocently, milking the situation. 

“Fix you up.”

“What? With new pages?” 

I couldn’t help being so plainly wicked, but this Scottish official deserved it.

“No, don’t be so daft! With a new passport … in time … before you go.”

I decided not to comment on her drop in style, noting though that the use of the vernacular was a bit over the top, especially in her position in the High Commission. Perhaps she’d had enough of the phone call, stretching now to almost ten minutes. 

“Oh, really? Is it in the realms of possibility that you can pull some levers or strings or whatever?”

“Aye, I think so. Just front up to this office as soon as possible with two recent photographs, your old passport, a completed application and 45.00 dollars and we’ll process everything by next week.”

I could scarcely contain my elation. I nearly pursued the pages bit again just to see if that could bring a change of mind, too. Why on earth had she not said this at the start? What bureaucratic game had she been playing? If she knew fine that it was possible to process a passport in a few days, why not say so straight off and save us blethering on about extra pages? 

I took everything to her within an hour. This resulted in a beautiful new passport delivered to me the same day.

Imagine if I had given up way back when she told me I would be turned back at Heathrow. I would have had to use my New Zealand passport and there wouldn’t have been this crazy story.

After my holiday in Scotland and return to New Zealand, I didn’t have the heart to call Hilda McConachie to tell her that I showed my flash new passport at immigration at Heathrow … and they waved me through. The thought had occurred to me at that point to ask for a stamp, but that would have ruined any evidence if I ever felt that Hilda or her ilk needed to be shown a stampless passport.