I always approach those metal-detecting machines in airports with a sinking heart, because at some time in my life I changed from being one kind of person to another. There are two kinds of people in airports. The kind that goes through the metal-detector arch without activating any high-pitched noise, and the kind that always provokes some sort of reaction, no matter how many precautions.
I used to be the first kind. I used to sail through the arch without disturbing its slumbers. Now, however careful I am, I provoke shrieks of danger.
I always take the precaution of having no pacemaker, no left-over bits of shrapnel in my leg and no metal plates in my head. I take the further precaution of emptying my pockets of anything that even looks like metal and dumping it in the saucers they leave, like little begging bowls, for the purpose. In fact, by the time I get out all the spare change and the keyring and the penknife with corkscrew and my spectacles and the other keyring and a couple of audio cassettes and a pen, and my wife has said "No wonder your pockets sometimes collapse", well, I am fairly certain that I have got rid of anything metal, but I still know that I will cause the metal-detector arch to make the noise and that a bored but grim-looking man will approach me and make the international signal for "Get your arms up in the air while I run my hands over you as if you were an unripe series of cheeses and I were a chef hoping to find something ready for this evening".
And I know that he will find nothing and make me go through the arch again, and it will make the noise again. Maybe it's those iron tablets I've been taking.
In an Italian airport they once found a paper-cutting knife on me and took it away, presumably in case I should burst through the cockpit door shouting: "Take this plane to Albania or I will cut all your flight documents into such little pieces that you will never be able to tape them back together again!"
They also confiscated a laser light from my son, a little gadget he had bought in a Rome street market that enables you to train a small spot of bright red light on an object 40 feet away. This, I suppose, was in case he burst through the door shouting: "If you do not do what I say, I will make little red spots on the clouds and the passengers will report seeing unidentified flying objects, and you will have to turn back! And if you still do not obey me, my father will come and cut up all the free Italian newspapers you are giving out!"
The only person I know about who devised a way of beating the metal-detector arch menace was Peter Ustinov. He claimed that he learnt how to imitate the sound made by a metal detector, and would make it as he went through, knowing perfectly well that he was metal-free. They would search him, send him back, hear the noise again, search him again and send him back, and so on, until one side got tired of the game.
(The only person I know who was doomed always to lose the game is my brother-in-law Keith, who is a tip-top chef in Toronto. If there is any chance he may be doing some cooking while on his travels, he always takes his best chef's knives, and great big sharp things they are, too, wrapped like the best silver in a cloth that he keeps about his person. Before the present regime, this raised a few eyebrows; now, it would have him carted away as a mad knifeman.)
It's not just airports. The last time I went to Broadcasting House, in London, they made me put my bag on the table and have it searched. Out came everything: papers, books, tapes, magazines. Then everything else, including lots of things I had been looking for for a long time. Finally, they looked inside every secret pocket and zipped-up compartment. In the last one of all, they found a small transparent bag of tiny metal objects, like some sinister kind of needle.
"What are these?"
I had no idea. Things for tattooing with? Something for injections? Then the mists cleared and I remembered buying them in a shop in Buxton months before.
"They're gramophone needles for 78rpm records."
They looked at each other. They shrugged. They nodded.
"OK, you can go through."
I sometimes wonder how dangerous a 78rpm needle can be. I imagine bursting into a cockpit and shouting: "OK – I've got a 78rpm needle here, and if you don't obey me, I shall..."
But I never manage to think of an end to the sentence.Reuse content