The queue at Heathrow snaked around the whole of the Passport Control hallway, then spread out down the corridor. I walked to the end of it to find another corridor full of people stretching into the distance. At the end of that, another corridor was rammed with angry tourists and business travellers, seemingly on the verge of mutiny. It took minutes to walk to the end of the line. That was the day I learned that an Englishman should never be too smug.
I had just arrived back in the UK from a trip to India. The airport in Delhi was horrific. It was that curious mixture of chaos and pedantic officialdom which the Indians do so well. The queues were long, unruly and badly organised, but everywhere men with extraordinary moustaches and army uniforms slowly picked through people's luggage. It took a very long time indeed and any visitor would instantly have been able to spot several ways in which the process could be improved. Throughout the ordeal, I made various dismissive statements to my Indian travelling companion about the obvious limitations to her country's rumoured world power status – namely that it cannot organise even the most basic of arrangements, no matter how quickly its economy is growing.
Eight hours later, we were in Heathrow and I had to eat my words. The queue at the airport looked like it would take several hours. It was late at night and we both had work the next morning. There was a very real possibility we would spend all night in the airport and then go straight to work from there. Instead, we took a gamble and waited in the UK and EU passport holders' queue (my travelling companion had a multiple entry Indian visa). That queue took a mere hour, at the end of which we convinced the border staff to allow my companion through with me even though she was technically in the wrong line.
I still remember the faces of the people in the non-EU queue. They were angry, baffled and exhausted. Behind them, like a conscious mockery, was a series of huge colour photographs of stereotypical British characters – cabbies, beefeaters etc – all smiling with the words 'Welcome to Britain' emblazoned above their head. Nothing could have been more apt. A family of American tourists looked appalled. An oriental student was aghast, shaking her head with disbelief. Fair enough. I've travelled through many third world countries and I've never seen anything like that.
No-one cared of course. This was before Theresa May's border security row, which anyway discouraged sensible practical initiatives to fix this problem. With any luck, the Olympics, which won't rejuvenate east London, might at least provide the spark to correct this problem. Those queues humiliate us in the eyes of the world. They stand as a testament to how far we have allowed our neurotic obsession with immigration and cost-cutting to become self-defeating. It's a shame we need the Olympics to fix something which is so patently damaging to our country, but there you go.
Nevertheless, that queue taught me something important. An Englishman should never sneer at anyone else's country. Chances are, we will find a way of conducting ourselves in a manner which is far more hapless than they could ever dream of.