The delicious impropriety of airport searches

John Walsh
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The Independent Culture
"IT WAS far too personal," sobbed Diana Ross. "I have been through all the airports of the world and never been subjected to such an intrusive search".

Goodness. If we hadn't known the facts, we might have thought it was far worse. Had they stripped her? Had they inserted a finger into the elastic waistband of her knickers and peered inside? Had they, in fact, spreadeagled her naked body over the airport X-ray machine and, with the aid of a pencil torch...

But we needn't go there. As the world knows, Ms Ross took exception to having a female security guard touch her bosom after a silver belt buckle had activated the metal-detector. It was, if we may say such a thing, "only" her breasts that were thus violated.

Was she right to be so annoyed? And was she right in saying that airport staff at Heathrow are unique in having the right to jiggle your tits in the line of duty?

It's a funny thing, being searched, somewhere between deadly seriousness and high comedy. When that little bell goes off as you're walking stiffly through the electric doorway, you know you're in for a minute or so of complicated theatre: you fix your expression into a rictus of amusement ("Hark at me, eh, the international terrorist") and try to look both peeved and helpfully submissive at the same time, while the chap doing the searching comes forward trying to look a) stern, b) like someone who's only doing his duty and c) as if he hopes you won't think he's going to enjoy this.

Because frisking has a small undercurrent of sex about it, does it not? You extend your arms, as if about to say, "Darling!" He moves towards you and runs his hands up and down your back. He is even trained to look into your eyes, to see if they betray a flicker of panic. And there you stand, two complete strangers locked in a homosexual embrace, one of you passive as a martyr, the other fluttering his hands over your trousers in that abstracted, professional, I'm-only-doing-this-because-I'm-being- paid-to air encountered among prostitutes and tailors taking an inside- leg measurement.

They order these things better abroad. With a hand-held detector machine, you can at least make a pretence of impersonality, as if you're waving a Geiger counter over a radioactive sheep.

Here, such devices aren't allowed (they don't meet with the approval of the Department of Transport) and you're stuck with hand searches. But they work because, I suspect, British people rather enjoy the combination of levity, smut and incrimination that's involved. They grant each other a licence to feel. (Not the willy, though. When frisking chaps, security guards merely gesture at one's Little Fireman, but never ever grab hold of it. It's just not done if you haven't been introduced.)

Ms Ross, however, does not grant anyone such licence. Although she describes herself as "a huggy person", she is about as huggy as Ann Widdecombe. She clearly regards her body as a temple. Her attitude to physical contact is like WH Auden's hymn to personal space: "Some eighteen inches from my nose/ The frontier of my person goes/ And all the untilled air between/ Is private pagus or demesne/ Stranger unless, with bedroom eyes,/ I beckon you to fraternise,/ Beware of rudely crossing it./ I have no gun, but I can spit".

Her breasts are the breasts of Aphrodite, and are simply not available to mortal touch. You could not expect the Heathrow police or Sally the security girl to understand this important distinction; and nor will they in the future.

The only advice I can offer Ms Ross is to acquire a pair of inflatable breasts - the kind worn by Paul Gascoigne and Jimmy "Five Bellies" Gardiner - and wear them over her natural features when next she passes through Terminal Four. Just do it, Diana; it's a British thing.