The citizenship ceremony took place at three o’clock in the afternoon on a Thursday in the Gloucester registrar office, which sits on the edge of the town centre of the the Gloucestershire county seat. To describe the building’s large sash windows with mauve trim or the front portico’s three plaster wreath-topped columns makes it sound much grander than it is. The interior makes gestures in the form of elaborate window treatments and silk floral arrangements to acknowledge the significance of the civil ceremonies that take place in its rooms. But these co-mingle with other relics from the early eighties — abstract patterned ceiling tiles, green carpet, cheap wood paneled walls — to create an unmistakable municipal effect.
Still, the letter from the Home Office inviting me to attend left me some hope in the department of pomp and circumstance, promising as it did that a representative of HRM Queen Elizabeth II would be in attendance. This turned out to be one Major MTNH Wills, the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire and whose name I recognize because his family owns most the land around our Cotswold village, known simply as the Wills estate. I know this because of my acquaintance with D. the shepherd (I love being able to say I know a shepherd), who is actually a little more than a shepherd; he manages the entire Wills estate. Major Wills wears a grey morning coat with matching waistcoat and trousers with his comb-over. Add a top hat and he could be on his way to ladies’ day at Royal Ascot.
My fellow citizens to be don’t exactly look ready for Ascot but they’ve made a good effort. The mother of what I am guessing to be an Ethiopian family is in a dark purple suit with rhinestone and pearl drop earrings, and curly bangs tinted the same colour as her suit. An Indian man in a crisp grey suit and pink tie is accompanied by a male friend wielding an expensive looking digital camera. A little ethnically Chinese girl twirls in her classic little girl party outfit of cap sleeves, wide sash, and full skirt with patent leather mary janes. (I hate to admit this but the thought does cross my mind that perhaps I could interest her family in reopening a very well trafficked and recently defunct Chinese restaurant in our village). Even the fully covered Muslim woman has managed a headscarf edged with rhinestones. I am straight from work and dressed in black boots, black tights, a black skirt and a black wool jersey shirt brightened up with a splash of charcoal grey. I now feel both self-conscious and crass since my main concern up until now has been to get this show on the road; I only had enough change for an hour from the pay and display parking meter.
As we sit waiting for the ceremony to begin we are treated to a CD of some rousing classical music by English composers of the Dam Busters March and Elgar ilk. There is a large framed photograph of QE2 propped on a pedestal draped with purple silk to add further ambiance. After a few minutes, the registrar begins by introducing Major Wills and informing us that after the ceremony our designated dignitary would be happy to pose for pictures with us. Major Wills does not look like he would be happy to pose for pictures with us.
The Major then stands and slips on a pair of glasses before reading from a prepared statement about the glories of Gloucestershire — the countryside, the fine market towns, the soaring wool money cathedrals — and how wise we all are to have chosen to settle here. I can’t help feeling a little swell of pride. The registrar goes around the room as one by one we stand and take our oath. Then Major Wills calls us up and presents our naturalization certificates, shakes our hand, and directs us over to sign the register. It is over quickly and the new citizens are soon clamouring to take up the registrar’s offer for pictures with the Major. I consider getting a snap on my mobile for fun but am too embarrassed. Instead I slip out the door where a smiling lady from the registrar’s office offers me a cup of celebratory coffee or tea. I decline but say I’ll take a cookie to go. She looks at me confused. “I’ll have a biscuit,” I say, correcting myself, and receive for my efforts a napkin-wrapped chocolate digestive. It is an apt reminder that I have chosen well in becoming a citizen of a country that shamelessly disguises cookies in the vocabulary of gastrointestinal health aids. I feel right at home.