Stopping culture at our borders
Posted by Henry Porter Saturday 11 July 2009
There are no words in the thesaurus of insult that quite do justice to the UK Border Agency and the minister for borders and immigration, Phil Woolas.
So let's just agree that new rules barring artists from visiting this country and so enriching our culture are some of the most contemptible ever devised, even by this narrow-minded apology for a government.
A few weeks ago I commented on the shameful treatment received at Gatwick airport by the Canadian singer Allison Crowe and two band members who were fingerprinted, held in cells then sent home under new laws that mean that artists have to submit to a set of expensive and time-consuming procedures to get their visa and further restrictions on their movements while they are here.
Now news comes from the Ledbury Poetry Festival, which is under way, that three poets who were due to appear have been barred from entering Britain. There could no more depressing example of the way in which this government's populist obsession with immigration damages artistic life.
Dorothea Rosa Herliany, according to the festival, is one of the most important poets writing in Indonesia today. She is a feminist, note the Muslim society in which she works, and has eight volumes of poetry to her name. Currently resident for a short time in Germany, she received this crushingly dim response to her application for a visa.
"You have provided an invitation to participate in the Ledbury Poetry Festival in the UK, however you have failed to provide any documents showing the funds available to you or demonstrating your current circumstances in Germany. I note that you only arrived in Germany in April 09, and have limited leave to remain until 30/07/09. I am therefore not satisfied on the balance of probabilities that you are a genuine visitor, that you intend to leave the UK at the end of your visit."
The festival only learned about the ban two weeks ago and did not have the time to make representations on her behalf. In the event she was given a visa for the day after she was due to appear. The only possible course for Woolas and the UK Borders Agency is to make an apology to Herliany and to the people who attend the festival, but we shouldn't hold our breath because there is clearly some kind of campaign against poets with strange sounding names and of Muslim origin who want to come to this country.
Also barred were Hassan Najmi and Ouidad (Widad) Benmoussa, two Moroccan poets who were due to appear today for an event entitled Moroccan Food and Poetry. The festival press officer, Simon Steven, outlines their credentials. "Hassan Najmi has published four collections of poems, one novel and two books of essays. He was president of the Moroccan Union of Writers from 1998 to 2005 and is presently director-general of the book and publications department of Morocco's Ministry of Culture. Ouidad Benmoussa has published two collections, including Between Two Clouds in 2006. Her first collection, The Imminent Root (2001), established her as a poet to watch."
Both were messed around by the agency that handles applications in a way that must shame anyone who cares about Britain's reputation abroad. It is a wretched irony that Margaret Obank and Samuel Shimon (who were to host the Moroccan poets) have been invited to Morocco for a literary festival this summer and they won't need visas.
Steven said, "This is like holding a dinner party and finding you have a bouncer on the door who is barring guests." Joan Bakewell, who is chair of the National Campaign for the Arts, emailed me yesterday with this comment. "I am shocked by what has happened at Ledbury. The NCA has laboured long and hard with the Home Office explaining repeatedly and in the greatest detail how much the arts are international and depend on the exchange of artists to fuel the great appetite people now have for work that sustains the human spirits.
For such worthwhile and peaceful events to be snarled up by slow-moving and inappropriate bureaucracies is a failure of values and competence."
We need to hear from Woolas, or his boss, Alan Johnson. It's time these nasty and absurd restrictions were lifted.
If you want to know about the new visa requirements, the excellent Manifesto Club has done much work on a campaign with the Observer. If you want to contact Woolas, the address and number given on his website, from which you can also email him, are 11 Church Lane, Oldham, OL1 3A. Telephone: 0161 624 4248.
I hope you can spare time to make your feelings known.