Parallel Bureaucracies

So we go to the post office in South London. I’d put down my address as a place in South London on my visa form because that’s where Harriet’s friend Beth used to live and it’s where we stayed on our visit here last September, and though she’s back in New Zealand now, we needed to say we were staying somewhere, so my residence permit was mailed to and held at the local post office. They ask for my address in the UK, and Harriet scrolls through old texts to find Beth’s address. We get the permit. They’ve left off the “IV” from my name, which I wouldn’t normally consider a big deal except the “IV” is on my passport and a lot of confused Russo-monolingual border guards had called me “Peeper eev” this summer. Slightly more alarmingly, my residence permit lists my place of birth as “Anchorage, Alask.” So I need to get it fixed. Without a (correct) residence permit I cannot get a national insurance (NI) number, which is I think the equivalent of an SSN in the States, and without an NI number I can’t get a bank account, nor will most jobs be able to pay me easily.  I write an email to the ‘questions and corrections’ address they provide. They tell me my case is being reviewed and they’ll email me back with instructions in five days.


The great state of Alask is famous for its wildlife, like the mighty Grizel Bers, herds of Caribos, playful Harbor Eals, and of course the noble Mose.   

Meanwhile we find a great room in a great house. We need to contact a letting agency to allow us to get into the flat we found. Not that the agency has done anything, mind you — the people who put up the ad were the ones previously living in the room, and we dealt with them directly. But we have to pay the letting agency so they can add our names to the lease. This costs 200 pounds per person. I’d quip “hey, that’s some mighty expensive wite-out” but it’s not even a paper copy; it’s all electronically signed. We get clever and decide to say that only Harriet is moving in to save us 200 pounds. It turns out that part of the agency fee is a background check. They want three months of bank statements, and a utility bill from our current address in the UK. We call back and say, obviously, we’ve just moved here and we don’t have a utility bill from our previous address in the UK, nor do we have three months of bank statements which show we have regular income — we’ve been travelling for the past six months. They say we can use a guarantor instead. Can we use Harriet’s parents? No, they also have to be in the UK. We don’t really know that many people in the UK, we say. They suggest we use a guarantor company, which is something I’ve never heard of before, but apparently they’ll vouch for you. That service costs 200 pounds. The guarantor company wants three months of bank statements and a utility bill from our current address.

Harriet asks one of her friends who lives here if she’ll be guarantor to vouch for us, and her friend agrees. The letting company tells Harriet now that two people are involved, her and the guarantor, they’ll have to run two background checks, and therefore the fee will be 400 pounds.

Meanwhile we go to the other post office to get Harriet’s residence permit. Harriet applied later than me and put in her friend Laurie’s address, and it turned out that our Airbnb was in the same neighborhood, so it’s only a ten minute walk from our door. Despite worries about spelling challenges in Harriet’s four first names (Harriet Leah Marama Grainger) the permit turns out fine, and we sigh with relief. She rings up the ‘NI’ hotline and asks for her NI number. “Why are you applying for an NI number?” the woman asks. “Because I’m not a UK citizen and I just arrived on a Tier 5 visa and I don’t have one yet,” Harriet says. “But why are you applying for one?” the woman asks, opaquely. “Because I need one for work and to get a bank account?” Harriet says. “So you’re getting one for work,” the woman confirms. “I suppose I am,” Harriet also confirms. They tell her they’re sending her a form to apply for a National Insurance number. The form will arrive within a week. After she mails back the form, it will take up to six weeks to get an NI number. There is a number to call if there are any problems.

Meanwhile we start applying for jobs. I’m hoping to use my recent journalism experience at the Daily Sabah writing big fancy travel columns and turn that into a news job. It turns out you need a journalism qualification to get most news jobs here, and it turns out that a journalism qualification is a six-month course plus a test, and you have to know shorthand. I decide to apply for other kinds of jobs. Harriet, despite having a Masters’ degree in Classics and being all-around much more capable and smart than everyone, is struggling to find a job that doesn’t make her feel unqualified. Advertisements for ‘Office Assistants’ ask for three years of experience as an Office Assistant. We both wish to ourselves that we’d majored in Office Assistant in college instead.

Meanwhile the instructions for my residence permit correction come. They tell me that there’s only 16 character places in the Place of Birth section, so “Anchorage, Alask” stands. Leaving off the “IV” from the end of my name, however, needs to be fixed, and I should mail the incorrect residence permit to an office in Bristol. I should also include a “covering letter” explaining what is wrong on the permit and what needs to be corrected. When it’s received, they’ll send a corrected permit within five days. However, they explain, I should also allow five days for it to arrive. I write a very short letter: “Hello. My last name is wrong. Please fix it. Best to you and yours, Ernest Whitman Piper IV.” I sign it with a flourish. I am concerned that this isn’t clear enough. I include a photocopy of my passport and circle the “surname” part on it. I consider adding an arrow to point to the circled bit, but decide against it. There’s a number to call if there are any problems.

In Turkey, they used a bureaucracy of bluster and chaos in which the rules had been jotted down thirty years ago, half thrown out, and mostly forgotten. Nothing made sense, nothing worked, you had to scream and cry and lie and swear to move the system an inch. The UK by contrast has produced an impressive interlocking bureaucracy always in motion and functioning exactly right. There’s a place for everything, and everything is in its place, and nobody is thinking about anything at all.



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