Refusal Shoes By Tony Saint

Anything with tassels and you're asking for trouble
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The Independent Culture

Can it really be as bad as this? Reading Refusal Shoes, you wonder whether the immigration officers at passport control are as racist, homophobic, sexist, corrupt and dysfunctional as those in Tony Saint's comic thriller. Saint's characters are undeniably offensive. Yet the author has done the job for 10 years, so presumably he knows what he's talking about. Alongside the savage humour, Saint makes some serious points.

Refusal Shoes comes on like a cross between Airport and The League of Gentlemen. The misfits and no-hopers of the Immigration Service regard their wall of desks as the white cliffs of Dover: the last line of defence in a siege which lasts 24/7. Those decamping from the Third World are termed "asylum seekers". No one uses the word refugees because it implies "an unnacceptable level of sympathy within a system designed to flush the majority out as economic migrants".

Henry Brinks has been at Terminal C for five years and loathes it. At this reactionary outpost of the civil service, immigration officers are either lags or sprogs (veterans or novices). The scrotes, toms and duffers are anyone they want to keep out. These men and women spend their shifts covering their backs and watching out for Double Gloucesters (imposters travelling on someone else's passport), checking that travellers have a Julius (Caesar - visa) or humiliating some sad Salvador (Dali - Somali). They believe half the globe exists solely to vex them with forged passports, multiple identities, bogus marriages and fraudulent asylum claims.

Life, Henry observes, seems driven by hate. Arabs hate Jews. Gulf Arabs hate Palestinians and North Africans. North Africans hate anyone black, as do Eastern Europeans and Orientals. Black Americans hate black Caribbeans who hate Africans. The Japanese hate Koreans. Belgians hate each other. People from Portsmouth hate people from Southampton. And Henry hates himself.

Henry, a graduate, landed his job after an ill-fated venture in wedding videos saddled him with heavy debts. Anti-social hours and sociopathic colleagues have made Henry incapable of walking down the street without mentally classifying passers-by into ethnic groups. And things are about to get worse. A Chinese Triad killer with a dodgy passport lands at Henry's desk. But he has muddled Henry with another immigration officer taking bribes to supply documents to illegals.

Saint provides fascinating insights into this hidden world where refugees always arrive on Sundays (when flights are cheap) and investigations into convenience marriages are called "mattress sniffing". There is something authentically Kafkaesque about the bureaucracy. The Immigration Act (1971) gives Henry draconian powers to detain someone without charge for an indefinite period, for arbitrary reasons which don't need to be disclosed outside the service.

Saint writes some very funny dialogue and offers sharp observation. Take the notorious refusal shoes. Stone-cold knock-offs always turn up in inappropriate footwear: spats, brogues, flashing sneakers, white plastic boat-shoes trimmed with oversized tassels. ("Anything with tassels and you're asking for trouble.") Saint's also very good at describing that state of fatigue bordering on hallucination. ("He can hear the sound of stubble creaking its way out of his skin.")

Saint is relentlessly un-PC, and like a cartoonist delineates people with a few grotesque traits. After a while the characters begin to merge, and their nastiness to pall. Even so, he has shed light on a highly topical and largely unexplored area. Henry hopes to erase the last five years. He wants his soul back, to leave immigration behind. Perhaps Tony Saint does too. Let's hope Refusal Shoes is his passport out.