Passports, or a tale of trout and trains

So, baby A’s passports both came through, issued one day apart, and I now feel compelled to indulge in a spot of comparative iconographical analysis.

On the one hand we have her British passport (here is the official flickr gallery). It is a compromise between EU standardisation and old-style imperialism.  The burgundy cover is stamped with the royal coat of arms. Inside it reads, in phrasing that despite my small-r republicanism I find rather delightful, ‘Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.’

The US passport (image above nicked from Wikipedia) is navy blue, with the eagle coat of arms, ‘e pluribus unum’. Inside, its phrasing about the Secretary of State permitting a US citizen to pass ‘without delay or hindrance’ does the same job as the British without the antique charm or the offensive monarchist stuff.  The US one also has advice on safety and drugs and so on included both inside the passport and in a leaflet that came with it – we certainly should not allow baby A to buy souvenirs from an ‘unauthorized vendor’. Oh no.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Presumably in the name of enhanced security, both passports are covered in minutely detailed imagery on every one of their pages, and the choices are fascinating.

The US one is a barrage of patriotism. There are quotations: we start on the inside cover with the Star Spangled Banner, and move through the Declaration of Independence to Martin Luther King, ‘we have a great dream’,  Lyndon B Johnson saying that America ‘is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge’ and to Anna Julia Cooper (who?) telling us that ‘the cause of freedom… is the very birthright of humanity’.

And then there is the imagery.  As you can see above, the page opposite the personal details has a multi-colour representation of an eagle AND a flag AND a sheaf of corn AND an extra large quotation from the US constitution. Moving on in we get Mount Rushmore, the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty, cowboys, a steam train, spacecraft. There’s also a token totem pole and two buffalo. It feels spectacularly unreconstructed: this is frontier America, America inventing and safeguarding liberty for the world and, of course, acting as its breadbasket. The design has, in fact, been described as a ‘Republican coloring book’.

And what do we get in the British passport?

Meteorological symbols.

It is in some ways nice to come from a country so self-effacing that it represents itself as clouds, clouds with rain falling from them, and clouds with the sun peeking halfheartedly out behind them. But it seems a little bit sad too.

There is more than that, to be fair. There’s a series of British landscapes, with enigmatic titles such as ‘reedbed’ and ‘geological formation’. They have inset images of wildlife: a dragonfly, an owl and – actually it’s not a trout – on closer inspection, it’s a salmon. But it’s all effected in such intricately overlaid lines that much of it is hard to make out, in contrast to the unapologetically well-realised Mount Rushmore. There are some hints of more assertiveness about the national identity: a rather twee row of cottages inside the front cover, and a recurring oakleaf and acorn motif. But the rest is isobars.

I am left to derive my patriotic glow from one feature alone that makes the British passport inestimably superior to its American counterpart. The American one says the passport is not valid unless signed by the bearer. The British one has been preprinted, in view of baby A’s age, with the statement: ‘holder is not required to sign.’


About scepticalexpat

British 30something wannabe academic, moving to Chicago for three years in August 2010.
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10 Responses to Passports, or a tale of trout and trains

  1. Jane says:

    when will baby A be employing all these documents to come and visit her pining aunt J?
    PS love the blog.

  2. expatlingo says:

    I’m an American expat spending my last day in Cambridge, England. Stumbled across your blog and laughed out loud at (1) the description of the new US passport as a Republican coloring book; and (2) the fact that the UK passports have BBC-style meteorological symbols.

    Thanks for the laugh amid the packing boxes. Next stop: Hong Kong that strange fusion of China and Britain.

  3. Malte Zeeck says:

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  4. Marion says:

    HI Sceptical expat,
    I have been having a great laugh with your post! Namely the meteorological imagery pat 🙂
    I am the proud owner (who knew!) of a french and now american passport and reading through your blog is such fun. Somehow, a good dose of sarcasm is sometimes so hard to find within our American peers. After 5 years in the same company, my coworkers still could not tell half the time when I was being sarcastic.. Oh well! Being back in France for a little while and planning a return to Evanston at some point i in our life , it is fun to read through your experiences as a new expat in an environment that took me so long to like but that I now miss dearly.
    Interestingly, I found your blog as I was trying to get to know more about the birth experience at Evanston Hospital. Glad I found your blog.

    • So glad you enjoyed it! I seem to know a few French women who have given birth in Evanston and were able to reassure me before A was born.

      • Marion says:

        Oh! Well I might just have to get back in touch with you when we are back in Evanston. I lived there for 5 years but failed to meet any of them. I could have used a few “french connections” at the time. I am glad to see you had a decent experience at the hospital.(although quite long)

      • Yes, do – all the French people seem to be associated with Kellogg, don’t know why!

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