There are many hazards involved in doing school talks. Personally I think we should get danger money. Most of the stories in this blog have been brought about by untoward incidents while travelling to or from or delivering such events. But none has caused a major security alert at an international airport until today.
I was coming back from Belfast, where I'd had a lovely day being royally looked after and speaking to excellent audiences at County Antrim Grammar School. Ironically, this very day, when I'd shown my life-size, almost life-colour, life-weight model brain to one audience, I'd said, "One day, this will get me into trouble at an airport." And they'd all politely laughed. Later that day ...
So, coming through security in a very long queue, and I'm waiting for my bag to come through the weird bit where everything seems to disappear for longer than it should. It's some kind of vortex in there, don't you think? And I'm standing in my pink socks (because I'd forgotten that I'd have to take my boots off and reveal that I was wearing more than black tights. Obviously, I was wearing more than black tights but you know what I mean.) And I'm wondering why four security people are leaning over the computer screen and pointing and turning their heads onto their sides and Looking Concerned and calling more people over. Then a man comes up to me, pleasantly enough, and says:
"Is this your bag, madam?"
Man: Do you have anything unusually dense in your bag? (I am not joking. His exact words.)
Me: (immediately guessing the source of the problem and not realising that this is not the time for jokes) Ah yes, that'll be my brain.
Me: (realising belatedly that this is not the time for jokes): a model brain. I carry a model brain because I'm an author.
Man: Does that explain it?
Me: Well, I write about the brain sometimes and I've been doing school talks in County Antrim Grammar School (hoping that the detail will make me sound authentic, which I am, and trying to look really relaxed and possibly even flirtatious, which is not something I really do unless pushed, which I was being) and well, this is one of my props.
Man: (perfectly pleasantly and nicely) I'm afraid we'll have to search your bag.
When security people say they're going to search your bag, they have a different meaning of the word "search" from the one my husband uses when he says he's going to search for the correct place to put the kitchen sieve. Very different. Their version of search involves them taking everything out of my bag, and then everything out of everything that's in my bag. Now I, being a bit of a control freak and an ex-girl guide (see Of boots, escalators and photographers) tend to have some weird things in my bag when I'm away doing school talks. Even weirder than plastic brains. To be honest I'd prefer not to say some of the things that I had in my bag but if you were one of my fellow passengers, you would know. And you would be laughing. As they were.
Anyway, each item had to be swabbed. They even took my brain to pieces and swabbed every part. I now have the cleanest limbic system and brain stem in Scotland, possibly the world. I mean, who else can say they've just had their brain swabbed by security, or indeed by anyone else?
One item they found needed further explanation (and widespread derision). It was a foil-wrapped package, small, about the size of two flapjacks. The fact that it was actually two flapjacks was not enough for the security people: they had to ask me what it was. I said it was special brain food, my own recipe, a new variation on my world-famous Brain Cake (TM), called Brain Bars (TM). This is the literal truth but was not enough. They had to smell it. "Flapjacks," was the verdict. "With other stuff in. Bits, sort of."
"What do you do with that, then?" they asked.
"Er, well eat it. I plan to eat it on the plane."
"No, but how is it good for your brain?"
Well, they did ask for the lecture ...
Now, all this was done in the spirit of enormous hilarity. However, I would have been less hilarious-minded if I had realised that Easyjet (praise be to them for cheap flights and horrible uniforms and blamelessly egalitarian boarding systems, unless you are the last one to board) had in their wisdom decided to move the flight to an earlier time and not tell me. So, having endured fifty minutes of such hilarity and thinking I might have time for a quick coffee, I sauntered through to the departure lounge with my clean brain, only to discover that my flight had just issued a final call. And the gate was not exactly near.
Now, some of you may know that I do need to wear good boots for school talks and by good boots I mean good boots for looking glamorous in, not good boots for running through airports in.
Previously in airports, I have been the one who has rolled her eyeballs and frowned superciliously when some idiot is called by name to board the plane at the last minute. "Would passengers Stupid and Inebriated please proceed immediately to Gate 1078 for immediate boarding. Failure to arrive in the next five seconds will cause your luggage to be removed and you to be forcibly ejected from the airport to enduring public ridicule and ignominy."
I will never roll my eyeballs at such people again. All they were doing was carrying perfectly innocent, though possibly weird, items through security. They are the innocent victims in our sad mistrusting world. They are the ... Yes, well, anyway. They probably are sometimes stupid or inebriated but I honestly wasn't. But I was last onto the plane and people had to get out of their seats to let me in and it was very demeaning and I am just glad I'm not famous.
But what I'd like to know (granted that the security people were only doing their job and doing it brilliantly and actually were very pleasant and I have every respect and sympathy for them) is this: having established that the offending item was only ("only") an artificial brain, why did they still think that every damned item in my bag needed swabbing and sniffing? Is it the case that someone carrying an artificial brain and some flapjacks is in any way more likely to be an international terrorist? And why did they also take my perfume away and subject it to chemical analysis? Because I was carrying a plastic brain? Is it written somewhere that someone carrying a plastic brain is statistically more likely also to be disguising Issy Miyake as something dangerous? It's the rule book what's wrong, not the excellent staff. It's not well designed for catching people who really might cause damage, not flapjack-carrying unfortunates like moi.
And another thing I'd like to know: the security people said that next time, if I take the brain out of the box and send it through the x-ray uncovered (yeah right, I can really see me doing that - so, certain ridicule versus possible ridicule??) there'd be no problem. Apparently the problem is trying to hide a brain and to make it look like a thing that's trying not to look like a brain.
I do not pretend to understand such things. Maybe if I had a better brain ... Or maybe next time I'll just leave my brain at home.
But there is a happy outcome to this story. Prepare to be very, very jealous. You see, they called the head of Security Training - oh yes, the Head of Security Training - over and they have decied that my brain (not yours, MINE) is going to be used as part of their training manual. I said that I'd have to charge for this. They actually for several moments looked as though they thought I was being serious, but I decided not to push my luck and I quit while I was not really ahead. But anyway, yes, I am proud to tell you that it is now the case that my brain is part of the training for airport security.
Not many people can say that.
PS - when I told my husband about this and added that "I knew this would happen one day," his response was, "I told you so." How does that work as a useful response? Anyway, at least I know where the kitchen sieve lives. I have the right sort of brain.