Tuesday, 27 September 2011

victoria and calixtus ii

While I was recently circumnavigating the globe to take in a Project Bamboo management meeting in Maryland followed almost immediately by the DCMI conference in the Hague, I started reading Lytton Strachey's biography of Queen Victoria.

When describing the opening of the Great Exhibition of 1851, Strachey recounts how a Chinese, in formal (Chinese) dress appeared, and no one knew who he was and where he had come from, but that he was co-opted into the opening procession on the ground that there was no official Chinese representative present.

The gentleman in question later disappeared without anyone being any the wiser as to his identity and whether he was indeed Chinese.

This instantly reminded me of the man who appeared at the coronation of Callixtus ii in 1119 claiming to be Archbishop John, Patriarch of India. He also was allowed to take part as he looked plausible and appeared to add gravitas to the proceedings.

Of course, in the world before the First World War, governments really had no way of identifying individuals with any degree of reliability given the near universal absence of passports or identity cards which made it extremely easy for people to travel and present themselves as other than they were - such as King O'Malley, one of the founding fathers of Canberra and quite probably in retrospect a complete shyster.

One of the things you realise reading English travel writers of the 1930's was just how new and imperfect this new world of passports was. For example, volunteers for the International Brigades from the UK simply bought an excursion ticket to Paris as no passport was required to buy or travel on that type of ticket. When they got to Paris they then made contact with people who facilitated their onward journey. Or indeed Laurie Lee who basically just bummed a ride on a boat to Spain - no documents, nothing.

The bureaucracy of passports and visas was very new - take for example the care with which Peter Fleming explains his difficulty with his exit visa from the Soviet Union to Manchuria and how he had to double back and leave by the route he first thought of rather than the more convenient one, or George Orwell explaining the bureaucracy of obtaining an exit stamp in civil war Catalonia - something that both writers clearly expected their audiences to be unfamiliar with.

This is now a vanished world - we are all too familiar with the joys of ESTA's, landing cards, exit cards and the like, and of course it would be almost impossible for someone to masquerade as something that they are not given that we all leave a trail of clicks and cookies behind us these days , and are much more monitored than we were even ten years ago ...

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