July 14, 2011

UK Border Agency tells foreign writers to naff off


Poet Alex Galper gives a reading somewhere that isn't England

It’s a terrible moment for cultural exchange in Britain. A brutal visa system introduced in November 2008 means that artists coming from outside the EU for short-term work face a rigorous application process that involves giving biometric data and evidence of savings, among other things. In response, more and more writers giving readings, touring musicians, film directors and so on are leaving the UK off their itineraries altogether. And who can blame them, with stories circulating about poor treatment by arrogant officials and people being turned away at the border? The Observer reported on Sunday about Alex Galper, a Russian writer travelling on an American passport, who came to the UK planning to give a poetry recital at a charity event. He was to receive no fee for his appearance. Sound admirable, valuable, the sort of thing nations should embrace and be thankful for? The UK Border Agency evidently doesn’t think so – Galper was locked in a cell overnight before being deported to Germany; just in case they hadn’t made their point clear enough he’s also being threatened with a ten-year ban from the country. Charming.

There’s been noise about this for some time. The civil liberties group The  Manifesto Club launched a campaign to scrap the system in February 2009, and their petition was signed by a list of prominent artists including Anthony Gormley. At the end of last month Salman Rushdie, Philip Pullman and over  a hundred other writers and artists weighed in to complain, too. Even Boris Johnson thinks it’s ridiculous, and he of all people should know what ridiculous looks like. Jonathan Heawood, the director of English PEN, has pointed out that it’s as frustrating for people in the UK as those abroad – even if they’re only inviting one artist to perform for one night, arts establishments have to pay sponsorship fees amounting to over £500. For small organisations that’s just too much.

It’s hard to see who’s gaining anything from this situation. Artists lose audiences while the UK becomes a provincial backwater. Even the scummy Daily Mailism about stealing British jobs can’t be invoked — these are people with unique talents to share. The border agency released a statement at the end of June along the lines that they appreciated the feedback, it had been stored safely in the bin, and now would everyone kindly naff off please? Perhaps this new wave of publicity will convince them that it’s worth paying a bit more attention.

Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.