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Swellboy on… passing through customs

Our man from Havana receives a rude awakening

Swellboy on… passing through customs

Image: Brijesh Patel

November 30 2010
Nick Foulkes

On occasion I have been stopped by customs officials, but nothing prepared me for the reception meted out on landing at Farnborough Airport. I was fortunate enough to have been given a lift back from Cuba on an aeroplane chartered by a cigar-loving friend – a very spoiling experience – but stepping onto the tarmac at Farnborough was as sinister as the trip had been sybaritic. Two immigration officers of sober mien formed the welcome committee at the bottom of the folding steps of our Dassault Falcon 7FX. My use of the term “welcome” is of course loosely interpretative rather than strictly literal.

I suppose they had a bad case of Monday morning, probably not helped by the sight of me skipping down the steps in a lilac linen suit by Rubinacci, worn with a delightful apple green cable knit from Holland & Holland, a lettuce green linen shirt by Brooks Brothers, a vintage lime silk pochette of uncertain origin and a pair of Pepe of Marbella’s lightest moccasins. I had woken rested after a perfect night’s sleep on a bed more comfortable than my own and felt not a scintilla of jet lag; I can only imagine that my relentless chirpiness and my fondness for green got their backs up.

They watched with gimlet eyes as the luggage was handed off the plane and when their gaze alit upon a packing case, containing a box, containing a limited-edition humidor, containing a few cigars, they pounced.

The invisible bonds of officialdom began to tighten and we were asked to take all our bags into one of the arrivals lounges. The cars that had come out to meet us were put into “quarantine”, and we were placed under police supervision while our welcome committee disappeared. It was a fairly safe guess that they had not withdrawn to look for a red, pink or even vaguely roseate carpet for us.

Instead we waited and we waited; eventually a group of three utterly charming men from Customs turned up – they had apparently come all the way from Heathrow to attend to this serious border incident. Then things took a slightly farcical turn as they asked to see the “vase”. We had bought a few souvenir ashtrays, but it appears that they had been alerted to the presence of a highly important antique piece of crockery in our bags.

Perhaps they were expecting a piece that matched the Qianlong-dynasty piece that recently sold for £53m. Maybe word had got out in the Customs and Revenue community that I had spent much of the early part of this year writing the official history of Meissen porcelain (it is true), but on balance I thought it wiser not to engage them on the subject of the development of European porcelain by the alchemist Boettger who was in the service of Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland at the beginning of the 18th century.

As they had come all the way from Heathrow it seemed churlish not to let them rummage through our luggage and they could not have been nicer about it. In the event, one of my friends was charged £42 duty on a few Partagas Culebras (an interesting trio of cigars plaited together and bound with string) while another friend had to part with, if memory serves, £205. Much in the spirit of the festive ditty about partridges and pear trees, it had taken one police officer, two immigration employees (not counting their boss with whom we had a little chat afterwards) and three customs officers almost three hours to net this valuable extra income for the exchequer. I bet the champagne corks were popping at No 11 Downing Street as George Osborne celebrated this deficit-busting windfall.

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