As we approached the terminus of Grove End Road, our party was hailed by two official-looking soldiers armed with 9mm semi-automatic rifles and matching blue shrapnel helmets and flak jackets. A large sentry gun stood to their left, its barrel casting a shadow that stretched ominously from one side of the street to the other.
‘Pashportsh!’ demanded one man in a thick Abbiesque accent.
We willingly obliged. There had been six shootings across this boarder in the last three months and five of them were due to travellers being “uncooperative”. He took up each colourful little book and deftly scrutinized each picture before glaring accusingly at our faces - daring us to suddenly change in to someone else.
‘Americansh?’ he asked, pointing to two of my companions.
‘Er yes,’ I conceded, hoping that recent political events wouldn’t interfere with our holiday plans. It was dangerous to cross the border during the holiday season, but I knew my friends Lesley and Britton would probably never get the opportunity to come here again... while it remained anything more than a smoking crater.
‘There ish a ten euro out-of-continent chargsh,’ said the second soldier, stepping forward.
‘That’s ridiculous,’ I contested, ‘this country is surrounded on all sides by the British capital. Surely it makes no difference where someone’s from.’
‘No money, no entry,’ replied the first soldier.
I was going to argue more when Lesley grabbed my arm to restrain me. ‘It’s okay, we can pay,’ she said, a pleading look in her eyes.
I had intended to use my position as a journalist to curry favour with the soldiers, but it seemed senseless to risk permanent extradition, as well as possible kidnap and ransom. People in this land were always looking for a way to make extra money. Desperation and starvation forced the natives to find means to survive however they could. Our passports were stamped and we were waved through.
The second row of fence was only ten feet away, but before that was a Bureau de Change.
‘Eurosh?’ said a reedy man standing behind the desk.
‘No thanks,’ I said, speaking for my companions. ‘We’re only here to take a few photos.’
The reedy, Bureau de Change man took a stick from the desk and pointed to a grubby sign at the back of the stand: NO CAMERAS OR PHOTOGRAPHIC EQUIPMENT TO BE CARRIED THROUGH INTERNATIONAL BORDERS, it read.
‘WHAT?!’ I spat. ‘How are we supposed to get pictures of ourselves if we can’t take cameras with us?’
‘There ish an offishial photographer at the site,’ the reedy Bureau de Change man explained patronisingly. ‘You may leave your camerash wizh me.’
‘Right,’ I sighed, exasperated. ‘And I expect the official camera man will charge us, yes?’
‘It’sh ten eurosh for one photo or fifteen for two,’ the reedy Bureau de Change man grinned. ‘The exchange rate ish two to one. Thatsh two pounds per euro.’
I was on the verge of cracking, but we had come so far and travelled so long to get here, it would be futile to contest the rates now. We had been on the tube all morning and had had to make three changes, including through the District and Circle lines which take a bloody age, let me tell you. I accepted that the fault had been mine. Had I done my research and checked the British Embassy website, I would have known and brought travellers cheques. I handed over forty pounds sterling, deposited my camera with the reedy Bureau de Change man, and was waved through the second fence. A rickety welcome sign confirmed our location. It read: WELCOME TO THE GLORIOUS REPUBLIC OF ABBEY ROAD: TRESPASSERS WILL BE EXECUTED.
As the five of us shuffled out on to the street, blistering heat met our faces and the three layers of clothing that had protected us from the bitter English chill on the other side of the fence only served to suffocate us in this tropical climate. Around us were families crowded around small wooden shacks, presenting their wares to the tourist stream, trying to scratch out a living by peddling poorly scaled models of the Beatles moulded from asphalt stolen from the road, and wood cut from the branches of the recording studio trees. I’d heard that such actions could result in limbs being removed – a testimony to the desperation of these people. Not five feet from us, a group of children kicked a can through an open sewer, while their mother vomited in the only hole deep enough to be a toilet.
We took a couple of paces forward and another reedy man, uncannily similar to the first, approached us with a camera and a tripod. He shouted some syllables at us. It seemed impossible to know what the man was saying as he had only two teeth, neither of which granted him any assistance in communicating. He pointed to the world’s most famous zebra crossing and held out his hand for the money he knew we’d have. I gave him the twenty euro note.
‘That’s for two photos,’ I said loudly. ‘That’s fifteen euros.’
The man pointed to his wallet, mimed “cash” and shook his head. I surmised that he had no change. In an increasingly foul mood I crossed the road and directed my four friends to do the same. We queued behind a gaggle of tourists of all nationalities, while international traffic was forced to pay expensive tariffs to pass through the zebra crossing. Whenever there was a lull, a group of tourists would be allowed to strike the immortal pose of those four who made the album in the studio behind us, the only other source of income in this fetid country. Inside the walls of the studio the rich lived in the lap of luxury, whilst on the street the class divide only continued to widen.
When it eventually came to our turn, the man would not allow us to stand together. He held up his hand. Four fingers.
I begrudgingly allowed my friends to be captured in the first photograph and I exchanged places with Britton in the second. When we were presented with our photos, it became apparent that the cameraman had had his thumb over my position in the second photo. I argued that we deserved a free photo, but he demanded more money, which I sadly could not produce.
As we passed back onto British soil and the cold December air, I fumed at the injustice and corruption of this once great principality of our sceptre isle. I was incensed at the sheer nerve of those in power - that those who could have set up schools and built churches had only used their wealth to distort the nature of such a hallowed place for their own gains. But mostly I raged at the thought that I had paid all that money for a Beatles novelty photograph, when in truth I had always been a Rolling Stones fan.