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Thursday 14 December 2017
Commentary

Trust, honesty and the traveller

Chris Morvan writes a weekly column for the Newsday. 

Thus sang Lee Marvin in Wanderin’ Star, a song by Alan J Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Marvin sounding as though a bomb had recently gone off in his throat.

It’s a jaded view of life designed to convey the here-today-gone-tomorrow existence of a drifter, and in truth there aren’t many people like that these days. Society doesn’t like it; people don’t trust you if you move around too readily.

In the days of the Wild West the drifter rode into town and nobody knew anything about him. He told them what might or might not be his real name and that was all they got unless they pressed him on the subject. He had no Twitter account, no Facebook page, no credit card, no mobile phone and no email address to follow him around in the absence of a bricks-and-mortar one.

I was once interviewed by the police in London (as a witness, not a suspect) and when they heard that I had had half a dozen addresses over the past three or four years their ears pricked up and they wanted to know why.

My answer didn’t convince them. I had no particular reason to stay in one place. If I found a job in a different part of the city – and London is a big place – I would move there, rather than spend hours on the tube every day. And the jobs didn’t necessarily last long because they were relatively menial ones, a young man’s way of paying the rent while he got on with the more important business of having a good time.

Give that explanation to someone who lived with his parents for 25 years in the same house in the same town and then got married and has lived ever since with his wife in another house in the same town, and your rootlessness is beyond his comprehension.

We are accustomed these days to having access to information about anything and anyone, just by doing a quick search online. Failing to find out all about someone in a matter of minutes arouses suspicion.

Being found somewhere you’re not supposed to be, such as in a building other than your own in the middle of the night, is known in some circles as “failing to give a good account of yourself.” In the age of instant information you could almost be arrested just for failing to have a plausible life story they can check out.

Thus a convert to Islamic radicalism, returning to his homeland and trying not to attract attention (no beard, no robes, so skullcap) can be flagged as soon as his passport hits the scanner. The electronics reveal immediately who you are and where you’ve been. Perhaps it is no wonder immigration officers are such an aggressive bunch wherever you go; it can’t be much fun to know that everybody who passes you, looking inconspicuous, is a potentially lethal troublemaker and you are the gatekeeper for the country.

But moving on is a necessary part of life for many of us. If you’re cut out for the life of a local shopkeeper or civil servant who spends 95 per cent of his life in the same square mile, good for you. But if you’re a wandering star who either wants or needs to keep moving simply to earn a living, there is nothing wrong with that either.

Ironically, even though the authorities know so much about us now, those who do move from country to country still have to pay for some documents that prove who they are. That’s paper documents, such as you might think were obsolete. I was recently required to obtain a new birth certificate (from the other side of the Atlantic, mind you) because the particular bureaucrats I was dealing with insisted on a document issued less than six months earlier.

And not just a standard local certificate, but one with the internationally-recognised Apostille stamp, which more than doubles the cost and has to be sent by courier, because you can’t trust important documents to the postal services of countries you don’t know.

And then there’s the police record certificate, verifying that you’ve been a law-abiding citizen while in their jurisdiction – that is only valid for six months, so if your immigration process lasts longer than that, you need another one of them too.

Whatever happened to trust? It’s a naïve question. Trust disappeared along with honesty, and that was as long ago as you care to look. It’s just that modern methods of checking up make the whole thing more severe and less respectful.

Maybe the footloose of us should heed Mr Lerner’s words:

“When I get to heaven, tie me to a tree
Or I’ll begin to roam and soon you know just where I’ll be.”

Editor’s Note: This is Chris Morvan’s final column for Sunday Newsday. We wish him all the best.

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