A few months ago two young Argentinian tango dancers, Ismael Ludman and Maria Mondino, had a bad experience at Glasgow Airport. Now what I don’t know about tango would fill several libraries, but I’m told these folk are big in the dance world.
Argentinian tango isn’t like the flouncy stuff you see on Dancing With the Stars. It’s exotic and erotic, sinuous and sexy. With their upper bodies welded together, the dancers intertwine, their legs making graceful arcs around them. It’s fascinating and beautiful, and Ludman and Mondino are two of the best exponents. They travel the globe giving workshops and they’re quite well-known in Scotland, apparently, which is why they were invited to tour a few village halls and other small venues.
Sadly, the UK Border Agency had other ideas. The couple were held at the airport, refused entry and sent home. Just two casualties of a new immigration system that is making a mockery of Britain’s claim to be a magnet for international culture.
I only know about this because I was in Kirk Yetholm on Saturday night, where a public meeting, chaired by my daughter, was held to highlight the problem. There were artists, writers, musicians, gallery-owners and film-makers, even a true-blue-blooded member of the House of Lords, and they were all concerned about a system that is threatening to turn Britain into a cultural ghetto.
In 2008, our government introduced a new points-based visa system for non-EEC immigrants. It’s similar to the one that works successfully in Australia, except that in Australia there’s a special category that allows short-term visits by artists, writers and performers. Australians think it’s important that their country’s cultural diet is enriched by the work of significant international artists. Yet, despite Britain’s claims to be at the heart of cultural exchange, when they brought in our new immigration law, the government simply forgot about the arts.
Big festivals, like the Edinburgh International Festival, are given special status, but smaller events, like a book-signing by an award-winning American writer at your local Waterstones, or an appearance by a international director at a film festival in Hawick, requires a “licensed sponsor”. No sponsor, no entry, and the cost of each licence and visa runs to hundreds of pounds.
Sometimes the artist would have to travel hundreds of miles to get a biometric test – a ludicrous expense if you’re just performing for one night at a village hall where a few people like to tango.
The situation is now absurd: an international writer or a photographer on a tourist visa faces deportation if they so much as open a notebook or take a single snap; an established artist can’t even come to visit his own exhibition of paintings.
Musicians and poets from Africa, artists from Russia and China, and now Argentinian tango dancers, have fallen foul of the rules, and the world’s greatest living pianist, Grigory Sokolov, has simply deleted the UK from his touring itinerary. These are people of genius, whom we idolize for their extraordinary creative talent, and then we let the staff of the UK Border Agency treat them like illegal immigrants. They aren’t stealing employment from us, we invite them to our shores to enthrall us with their art.
According to the meeting in Yetholm, the government simply needs to create an “artists and entertainers visitor” route to solve the problem, and yet, despite a crescendo of complaints from every part of Britain’s cultural establishment, Theresa May’s Home Office remains oblivious and Jeremy Hunt’s Culture department is doing nothing to help.
The Argentinian tango dancers have got their revenge, however. There’s a magical YouTube video of them performing around their suitcases in the airport, a tribute to our pointless bureaucracy and the jobsworth mentality of the UKBA. Do take a look, before you write to your local MP.