So, it’s been about ten days since the end of SXSWi 2005. Although this is not long enough to take a longer term view of the experience, I think it’s enough recovery time to allow me to write up the event with the beginnings of hindsight. During this week I’ll be posting my notes of each day, but today I’ll start with the story of how it very nearly didn’t happen at all.

NOTE: This is a story. For those of you accustomed to fasttrack blog-to-mind data interfaces, it may seem a bit LiveJournalesque. But I think it’s a pretty good story, so I’ll tell it as one. Feel free to wait until tomorrow if you want the SXSWi notes or the usual blogementary.

I previously alluded to some passport issues — namely that to visit the US, one has to have 6 months validity left on your passport. I only had two, but as I noted in that post, the UK Passport Service had a one day fasttrack service, so I thought I was sorted.


Simon and I had wandered over to Wales to the Newport office and even arrived early. We were expecting some problems with his application, for reasons I’ll leave up to him to explain, but had not imagined that I’d have any issues. So, fine, no problem, fill in the form, got all the paperwork, old passport still in good condition, photos all taken the right way, yada yada. Get to the counter and the lady explains she’s just got to look up my record to check that my existing passport is legit. So she wanders over to a computer and tries. No dice. I don’t exist in the system.

She comes back and explains that since I received my previous passports from the British High Commission in Pretoria, they have no electronic record of me in the UK. [As an aside, doesn’t that just sound like they’re crying out for a systems consolidation project??] They’re going to have to fax (!!) the people in Pretoria and just hope that they get back to us in time for them to issue the passport. At this point, there’s only really 3 hours left before the cutoff in the UK when they can issue the passport and only 2 hours left before the South African office closes (they’re two hours ahead and close pretty early anyway).

So now I’m panicking a little. Simon is too, for a different reason — turns out he needs someone with “standing in the community” who has known him for at least 2 years to attest that he is in fact who he says he is. After some discussion with the staff, it turns out that I can count as “someone with standing in the community”, because I hold a management position, so I sign his papers and that’s fine. Then the lady who’s been dealing with my application tells me that I’ll need someone to sign for me as well … and we can’t find any way to cut it that defines Simon in such a way that he can sign me forms.

So now I’ve got two problems — firstly, I need the South African office to send my files pronto and secondly, I need to dig someone up who’s known me for two years, has standing in the community and has nothing to do on a Wednesday morning and can get here. That last point is the most difficult, since most of the obvious choices (my colleagues and lecturers) obviously aren’t going to be able to get here in time. I press the staff on what the actual definition of “standing in the community” is and they eventually admit that anyone with a degree will do. Ah! This can work! I run through the list of PhD students I know, trying to think of one who’s known me long enough and probably won’t mind wandering over to Newport right this minute. I call Mead and even though I’ve woken him up, he agrees to hop on a train immediately and come sign my forms. Phew.

In the meantime my mother (bless her) has ignored the fact that I only asked her to look up the number of the South African office and has already been on the phone to them. Since she’s not the person in question, however, they won’t give her any details. I think that her trying helped anyway though, since when I get through I get about 2 sentences into my explanation of why I’m calling and the woman on the other end says “I think I just spoke to your mother. Hold on and I’ll try to get you through to the person on float”. Apparently this means that the next person I get to speak to is the person whose responsibility it is to actually get the records out, verify them and fax them off to wherever they need to go. I explain my predicament and she immediately displays the primary difference between the UK and South African attitudes:

Me : Well, you see, since my passport was issued there they don’t have an electronic record of me.
Her : OK, well I’m in the system now. OK, so you’ve had a child’s passport and an adult one issued here.
Me : Yes
Her : So what happened to your existing passport then? Did you lose it?
Me : Oh, I’ve got it right here, but that’s not good enough apparently.
Her : You’ve got it with you? So what’s their problem then?!?

I laugh at this and she evidently decides she likes me, as she agrees to get my file processed in advance. She cannot send it until she receives a fax from the UK office though, so I return to the counter to relay this. The lady there assures me that she will send the fax now (never mind that I was under the impression it had already been sent!) and that provided it comes in in the next hour or so that I will still get my passport today.

In the meantime, Mead is en route and eventually arrives just as the fax comes through from the South African office. In a blitz of form and photo signing, it appears that my passport is going to happen after all! Simon is still waiting on his documents to be faxed from London, so I rag him about the fact that Pretoria (distance: 6000 miles) has responded before London (250 miles) and then we go to lunch. Food in Wales appears to be both very good and rather cheap, so that’s enjoyable. When we return it appears that Simon’s passport is going to happen as well, so we wave goodbye to Mead and go wandering around Newport in search of a couple of hours of timewasting.

Finally around 4pm we return, Belgian chocolates in hand as a thank you to the ladies behind the counter who have gone above and beyond in their pursuit of a true fasttrack for our passports, and collect our passports. The final conclusion is two-fold:

  1. The UK Passport Service rocks
  2. I get to go to Austin after all!