Sticking the Boot In

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Review of 'Refusal Shoes', Tony Saint, Serpent's Tail, £10

Watching the BBC's Asylum Day recently was a whole evening of incredibly depressing viewing. Apart from the refugees and liberal vicars making a brave stand against the gutter racists, the only other infrequent interruption to the myth promotion was the voice of a former immigration officer and debut novelist, Tony Saint.

His thriller Refusal Shoes goes a long way to transforming the image of immigration officers in the way the police have evolved over the years from the harmless, friendly PC Plod in Dixon of Dock Green to The Sweeney and the odd hard but stupid bastard in The Bill. And what a lovely number Saint does on the drunks, thieves, bigots and psychos who make up the staff at Terminal C. Anyone who ever believed that you could have friendly and fair immigration controls that didn't discriminate on the grounds of race can be put straight by Saint's hero, the disillusioned immigration officer Henry Brinks: 'At Terminal C, where people are segregated by nationality only, you're in the real world; it spins by you every day and you understand what really makes it go round. In the real world hatred is the only thing we do have in common. And the immigration service runs on it. It is character building when it comes to this kind of work; it is positively encouraged... Hatred breeds hatred, feeds off itself until the point where it engulfs you the second you walk through the door and you begin to carry it home with you. The art of the others is to take that hatred and redistribute it on the arriving passengers.'

A relative newcomer, only having spent five years as an immigration officer, Brinks tries to hold on to his sanity against a whirlpool of ambition, competition, drink and drug-fuelled disappointment, backhanders and bribes. Knock-offs (refusals) and bounces (putting those refused entry on a plane) need to be high to survive the immigration canteen culture atmosphere, higher still to progress to chief immigration officer or a more lucrative posting. If that doesn't get you noticed, you can always supplement your civil service pension with backhanders or, as in the case of another main protagonist Ed Thorogood, sell safe passage to a criminal gang. If you've worked in an office for any length of time, you'll recognise the 'cover your back at all costs' intrigue between Brinks and Thorogood that makes this such a fascinating thriller. If you've worn the wrong shoes and have the wrong skin colour as far as these excuses for humanity are concerned, then you'll probably recognise the characters who mete out the humiliation and racist abuse.

Refusal Shoes is also a very useful resource, quoting and explaining, as it does, salient pieces of the Immigration Act (1971), such as the section which gives immigration officers powers that 'would make your average South American generalissimo froth with envy'. Anyone coming into contact with an immigration officer 'can be detained without charge for an indefinite period, for entirely arbitrary reasons which do not have to be disclosed outside the environs of the service... Leaving the decision to withdraw somebody's liberty to as maladjusted a group of power-crazed bigots as these may seem perverse, but then nobody bargained for the fact that to detain, to bang up, has been a totemistic practice among immigration personnel, priapic proof of dedication to the cause. To them, the thought of one empty immigration detention space is an abhorrent vacuum. As fast as more spaces are found, as more detention centres are built, they are filled. The spillover winds up in prison accommodation, some poor bastard spending months behind bars without charge because an amoebic life form down the food chain of the public service decides on a whim that they would not comply with temporary admission.'

The whole system of immigration in Britain is perverse, and things have only got worse since Blair and Blunkett took the helm. Groan if you like, but this book proves that the lunatics are still in charge of asylum.