GLOBETROTTER

Me and my passport

My passport is a bit beaten up. It has done 10 years of hard labour, and has been to almost as many exciting places as I have. Every page is filled with stamps and visas, which is impressive in these days of Europe "sans frontieres". The photograph of me looks like me, but I was just a little skinnier then, without as much grey hair.

The old passport runs out in May, and it was looking forward to having its corners clipped and to living quietly in retirement in a drawer with its predecessors. Its only job in the future is to act as a reminder of the things that we did together along the way; a prompter for memories of the good times. Thinking back, I seem to recall that my passport's immediate predecessor had its career cruelly cut short when some officious diplomatic twerp refused to issue a visa because there was no page left unsullied. The country concerned would only put its precious visa stickers on virgin passport pages.

And so I had to get a new passport ahead of schedule.

I reckon that I have done pretty everything one can do wrong when travelling. I had been to the wrong airport on the right day, the right airport on the wrong day. I had even done the wrong airport on the wrong day. I once left my entire suitcase behind when setting off to a Grand Prix. I have forgotten everything at one time or another: toothpaste, underwear, sunglasses, you name it. On one famous occasion I even managed to leave a press room in the middle of the night after a race, without taking my computer.

I have also forgotten to take the address of the hotel at which I am staying.

I thought I had done it all.

My piece de resistance was to have bumped MYSELF off an aeroplane. It really is very simple. You just buy a ticket for a plane and then forget you have done it. Later you try to buy another and discover that there are no seats left. You have to book a different flight the day before you want to travel. All that is then left to do is to discover as the plane takes off that you have a ticket for the flight that you wanted to be on but can now never use.

Brilliant.

What is there left to do? When I leave home, I chant my little mantra: "Tickets, passport, money, racing pass".

If one has those four items, everything else is replaceable.

And yet, after the Australian GP, I discovered that my education is not yet complete. I was bound for Singapore with an invitation from the organisers of the forthcoming Grand Prix to visit the city and see the track. The Singapore government had figured out that that it might capture a few F1 journalists on their way through from Australia to Kuala Lumpur, and that we could do some promotional work for them.

Why not?

The problem was that some passports are more valid than others.

In George Orwell's "Animal Farm" the ruling pigs decide that "all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others" and, apparently, this is true of passports as well. A valid passport in Singapore is only really valid if it has more than six months to go before retirement. If there is under six months to go "on the clock", they will not let you in.

That made me laugh when they told me the news at Melbourne's tunefully-named Tullamarine Airport. I explained to the Singapore Girl behind the desk that it was a self-defeating policy to invite someone to your country and then not let them in, but she was "only following orders" and so the plane went off without me.

What the hell, I thought, it is all good column material. If they don't want free promotion, I am not going to fight them.

So I spent the rest of the day enjoying the delights of the British Consulate, which was very efficient. Six hours after my interview with Singapore Airlines I had a new passport, had had a decent lunch and a bit of a snooze, and I was only waiting for Europe to wake up to find a flight to get me to Kuala Lumpur in time for the big event.

Singapore was history.

With a day to think about it all, I concluded that the journalists who travel the world with F1, often paying their own bills, are little more than promotional men for the racing. We do it because we love it, not because we make vast profits. What keeps us going (apart from the fact that most of our friends inhabit this mobile village) is that we have a passion for the sport. We want to see it become as successful as is possible. We want it to be fair and, more than anything, we want the world to look at F1 in a positive way. Sometimes that means that we must criticise. We write things that appear to be negative, but really we are trying to make it better. Things do not change if people say nothing. People do not always agree on what is good and bad for the sport. We all believe different things and sometimes those beliefs are in conflict with one another. But let us not forget that it is the passion that binds us all together.

The other day I was asked to make a speech about Formula 1 to some erudite folk in Melbourne. I thought about it long and hard and concluded that, when one boils it all down, those of us who join the F1 trails are doing what every kid dreams of doing. We run away and we join the circus. There are lions and there are clowns, but it's the greatest show on earth, sprinkling its pixie dust wherever it goes.

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