Passport's tyranny of time

23:28, Jan 09 2014
Joe Bennett
Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.

It happens perhaps half a dozen times during a life, and every time it's like a mini death. It happened to me last month. My passport expired.

Fine word expired. It conjures an image of the passport going limp in the arms of an immigration officer while flights of angels pluck at harps. But anyway the thing was dead.

A passport isn't just a licence to travel. It also provides us with an official image and an official identity. But I put off applying for a new one because of the forms. Show me the man who does not dread forms and I'll show you a corpse. Then a friend told me I could apply quickly and simply on line. You even submitted your photo by email, she said, though you still had to go to the chemist to get it.

The chemist cheerfully lined me up against a cream-coloured door, and shot my head and shoulders. As he did so I recalled my first passport photo taken in 1973. I had hair a foot long, a neckerchief and a cheesecloth shirt, all of which I considered to be the height of cool. Sadly that opinion did not last the year out. The passport, however, was valid for 10 years. How slowly those years passed.

The reason they passed slowly was that I was young and they were eventful. During the lifetime of my next passport, however, I grew older and they became less eventful, so the speed they passed at moved from a walk to a trot. And these days, when next to nothing happens in any particular year, time gallops. If the authorities aren't quick, my new passport will expire before it arrives. The chemist didn't help by emailing me the wrong pictures. But there was an amusing side to his mistake, as I told him when I phoned to let him know. At that moment some gargoyle was looking at my mugshots and thinking to himself that the years had been kind to him. I meanwhile was saddled with pictures of a man who looked as if, between bouts of axe- murdering, he kept his hand in with a little child-molesting. His face was carved like a glacial landscape. The ravines on his chin and cheeks resembled those clams that traditionally seize the legs of scuba divers.

"It's not unusual," said the chemist, "to dislike one's passport photo at first. But you'll grow used to it," and with that he hung up. I went straight to the bathroom mirror and stared.


I am not yet 60 years old but I knew how Thomas Hardy felt on his 80th birthday. "I look into my glass," wrote Hardy, "and view my wasting skin." How had I failed to notice it before?

I suppose we all naturally resist the notion of ageing. It is such an unconscionable existential threat that our instinct is to believe it couldn't happen to us. So when I got my first passport I remember doubting that its expiry date would ever come around. Ten years seemed such an improbably long time, and the thought of being 26 impossible. But the years duly passed, the impossible happened and I was obliged to adjust my sense of myself.

It is the same with our visual image of ourselves. Our sense of how we look is housed in our mental photo album. But photo albums only record the past, and they do even that dishonestly. They discard the grim images and keep just the ones we like, the ones that flatter us. So a passport photo not only brings our mental image cruelly up to date, it also constitutes an image that we have no choice but to accept. It is time made pixels. Which is why everyone without exception hates their passport photo.

Having uploaded my mugshot I had to verify my identity online. I wasn't sure what to expect from a website called I will profess to never having been quite sure who the real me is. In any given book I can recognise myself in both hero and villain. And in the coward who keeps out of the way. And in Whitman. "Do I contradict myself?" wrote Whitman. "Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes."

The website however had no such doubts. It professed to know exactly who I was and promised that it will soon send me a document to resurrect me from my mini death. Though these days they've grown distrustful. The resurrection is for only five years at a time.

The Southland Times