On April 29th last year we arrived at the County Hall in Kingston upon Thames for our citizenship ceremony, holding the invitations we’d been sent by mail, the tickets that would admit us to the ceremony that would make us British. So what was the first thing that happened when we arrived? They gave us tea, of course.
We drank our tea with about 75 other soon-to-be citizens, plus their guests. Most wore their Sunday best, all in the usual styles of the western world except for one elderly lady in a sari. The authorities had suggested we might want to wear our traditional national costumes “in order to to reflect the cultural diversity of the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames and of the United Kingdom”, but what’s the national costume of the USA? If you grew up watching beauty pageants in the 1960s, as I did, you probably remember how, year after year, the American entrants failed to impress in a “national costume” that generally involved a miniskirt and an astronaut’s helmet (carried, not worn). Somehow I didn’t think a shorts-and-T-shirt ensemble with fetching baseball-cap accessory, while arguably an American national costume, would fit the bill either, so I went with the authorities’ other suggestion: “smart casual”. My husband wore his Union flag braces—which in the US would be called suspenders. Over here, suspenders means a garter belt, and he certainly wasn’t wearing one of those.
After our applications for citizenship were approved, we had eleven weeks to get ourselves, in whatever clothes, to a swearing-in ceremony; if we didn’t, we’d have to start the whole process again from square one. I can’t imagine that this sort of thing happens very often, but I wasn’t taking chances, and immediately started looking for upcoming ceremonies nearby. We’d already paid the fee for the ceremony; it’s included in the fee you pay when you file your application, which you can take to mean that the ceremony is free, or you can take to mean that they manage to get the fee out of you even if your application fails. They’d be happy to accept a further fee from you for a private ceremony, too.
The venue closest to us turned out to be the County Hall in Kingston upon Thames. It won’t surprise anyone who has read my blog entry about our address to find that Surrey’s County Hall is not actually in Surrey. Kingston upon Thames used to be the county town (US: county seat) for Surrey, but is now a part of London. Guildford is now our county town, but some functions of county government still take place in the County Hall—a Victorian building partially bombed in WWII and rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s—which is now on the other side of the county line.
This peculiar arrangement began 45 years ago, which is no time at all by the standards of Great Britain, and the county boundaries could easily change again. The county of Rutland, for example, has a long history, but it winked out of existence due to reorganization in the 1970s, and recently winked back into existence again. The same shake-up that stranded our County Hall outside of our county dissolved the ancient county of Middlesex altogether, although the Royal Mail—a law unto itself, as we’ve seen—still considers Middlesex a county; yes, that means there are people whose official postal address is Middlesex, a county that does not exist. This doesn’t seem to bother anyone here. The British reorganize their counties—or perhaps that should be “we British reorganize our counties”—surprisingly frequently, a quirk that may explain why the political geography of the UK didn’t appear on the citizenship test. I can hardly imagine what kind of uproar there’d be if the US government tried to change the borders of the states.
In any case, I rang up County Hall to fix a date—difficult with my husband’s travel schedule—and got into some unexpected territory in that conversation, too.
“Will you be swearing your allegiance, or affirming?”
“I’ll swear and my husband will affirm.”
(pause) “You can do that.” (pause) “If you really want to.”
“Is that a problem?”
“No…” (pause) “It’s just that if you do that, you can’t sit together.”
It seems that everybody who plans to swear sits on one side of the hall, and everyone who will affirm sits on the other, so each bloc can say the words together. I’d chosen swearing because it seemed to me somehow more binding, or at least, more traditional, more English.
And so we arrived, prepared to sit together and to swear, 30 minutes early so that the whole troupe of new citizens could have a run-through of the ceremony before the real deal. And, of course, to have tea.
When everyone got there, we lined up in alphabetical order—no small matter for the registrar, who had to call out so many unfamiliar names. We filed into our assigned seats to practice the oath, first saying our names individually, going quickly down the rows—“I, Aysequl Al-Jurjani”…“I, Harrison Mwale”…“I, Harini Patel” and so on—and then repeating the rest of the oath together. Finally, the guests (each new citizen is allowed one guest) took their seats at the back of the room, and the festivities began.
The story of the ceremony will be the last item in this extended description of what the government calls the Journey to Citizenship. I plan to post the last installment day after tomorrow (Tuesday). I hope you can come back for the grand finale.