Friday, 11 May 2012

How my brain caused an airport security incident

Some people ask why there is a picture of an artificial brain to the side of my blog. Well, I travel with it when I do school talks about the brain. And once, that got me into a great deal of trouble. I wrote about this trauma on a previous blog which I let go dormant. I have pasted the story below. Every word of it is true.

In which my brain causes a security alert at Belfast International Airport

I was coming back from Belfast, where I'd had a lovely day speaking to excellent audiences at County Antrim Grammar School. Ironically, this very day, when I'd shown my life-size, almost life-colour, life-weight model brain to one audience, I'd said, "One day, this will get me into trouble at an airport." And they'd all politely laughed. Later that day ...

So, coming through security in a very long queue, and I'm waiting for my bag to emerge from the weird bit where everything seems to disappear for longer than it should. And I'm standing in my pink socks (because I'd forgotten that I'd have to take my boots off and reveal that I was wearing more than black tights. Obviously, I was wearing more than black tights but you know what I mean.) And I'm wondering why four security people are leaning over the computer screen and pointing and turning their heads sideways and Looking Concerned and calling more people over. Then a man comes up to me, pleasantly enough, and says:

"Is this your bag, madam?"
Me: Yes.
Man: Do you have anything unusually dense in your bag? (I am not joking. His exact words.)
Me: (immediately guessing the source of the problem and not realising that this is not the time for jokes) Ah yes, that'll be my brain.
Man: Sorry?
Me: (realising belatedly that this is still not the time for jokes): A model brain. I carry a model brain because I'm an author.
Man: How does that explain it?
Me: Well, I write about the brain sometimes and I've been doing school talks in County Antrim Grammar School (hoping that the detail will make me sound authentic, which I am, and trying to look really relaxed and possibly even flirtatious, which is not something I really do unless pushed, which I was being) and well, this is one of my props.
Man: (perfectly pleasantly and nicely) I'm afraid we'll have to search your bag.

When security people say they're going to search your bag, they have a different meaning of the word "search" from the one my husband uses when he says he's going to search for the correct place to put the kitchen sieve. Very different. Their version of search involves them taking everything out of my bag, and then everything out of everything that's in my bag. Now I, being a bit of a control freak and an ex-girl guide, tend to have some weird things in my bag when I'm away doing school talks. Even weirder than plastic brains. To be honest I'd prefer not to say some of the things that I had in my bag but if you were one of my fellow passengers, you would know. And you would be laughing. As they were.

Anyway, each item had to be swabbed. They even took my brain to pieces and swabbed every part. I now have the cleanest limbic system and brain stem in Scotland, possibly the world. I mean, who else can say they've just had their brain swabbed by security, or indeed by anyone else?

One item they found needed further explanation (and widespread derision). It was a foil-wrapped package, small, about the size of two flapjacks. The fact that it actually was two flapjacks was not enough for the security people: they had to ask me what it was. I said it was special brain food, my own recipe, a new variation on my world-famous Brain Cake (TM), called Brain Bars (TM). This is the literal truth but was not enough. They had to smell it. "Flapjacks," was the verdict. "With other stuff in. Bits, sort of."

"What do you do with that, then?" they asked.

"Er, well eat it. I plan to eat it on the plane."

"Yes, but how is it good for your brain?"

Well, they did ask for the lecture ...

Now, all this was done in the spirit of enormous hilarity. However, I would have been less hilarious-minded if I had realised that Easyjet (praise be to them for cheap flights and horrible uniforms and blamelessly egalitarian boarding systems, unless you are the last one to board) had in their wisdom decided to move the flight to an earlier time and not tell me. So, having endured fifty minutes of such hilarity and thinking I might have time for a quick coffee, I sauntered through to the departure lounge with my clean brain, only to discover that my flight had just issued a final call. And the gate was not exactly near.

Some of you may know that I do need to wear good boots for school talks but by "good boots" I mean "good boots for looking glamorous in", not "good boots for running through airports in".

Previously in airports, I have been the one who has rolled her eyeballs and frowned superciliously when some idiot is called by name to board the plane at the last minute. "Would passengers Stupid and Inebriated please proceed immediately to Gate 1078 for immediate boarding. Failure to arrive in the next five seconds will cause your luggage to be removed and you to be forcibly ejected from the airport to enduring public ridicule and ignominy."

I will never roll my eyeballs at such people again. I now realise that all they were doing was carrying perfectly innocent, though possibly weird, items through security. They are the mere victims in our sad mistrusting world. They are the ... Yes, well, anyway. They probably are sometimes stupid or inebriated but I honestly wasn't. But I was last onto the plane and people had to get out of their seats to let me in and it was very demeaning and I am just glad I'm not famous.

But what I'd like to know (granted that the security people were only doing their job and doing it brilliantly, and actually were very pleasant, and that I have every respect and sympathy for them) is this: having established that the offending item was only ("only") an artificial brain, why did they still think that every damned item in my bag needed swabbing and sniffing? Is it the case that someone carrying an artificial brain and some flapjacks is in any way more likely to be an international terrorist? And why did they also take my perfume away and subject it to chemical analysis? Because I was carrying a plastic brain? Is it written somewhere that someone carrying a plastic brain is statistically more likely also to be using Issy Miyake as a disguise for something dangerous? It's the rule book what's wrong, not the excellent staff. It's not well designed for catching people who really might cause damage, not flapjack-carrying unfortunates like moi.

And another thing: the security people said that next time, if I take the brain out of the box and send it through the x-ray uncovered (yeah right, I can really see me doing that - so, certain ridicule versus possible ridicule??) there'd be no problem. Apparently the problem is trying to hide a brain and to make it look like a thing that's trying not to look like a brain.

I do not pretend to understand such things. Maybe if I had a better brain ... Or maybe next time I'll just leave my brain at home.

But there is a happy outcome to this story. Prepare to be very, very jealous. You see, they called the head of Security Training - oh yes, the Head of Security Training - over and they have decided that my brain (not yours, MINE) is going to be used as part of their training manual. I said that I'd have to charge a fee for this. They actually for several moments looked as though they thought I was being serious, but I decided not to push my luck and I quit while I was not really ahead. But anyway, yes, I am proud to tell you that it is now the case that my brain is part of the training for airport security.

Not many people can say that.

PS - when I told my husband about this, adding that "I knew this would happen one day," his response was, "I told you so." How does that work as a useful response? Anyway, at least I know where the kitchen sieve lives. I have the right sort of brain.



  1. Had me laughing out loud. Thank you!

    My only airport thing was when I was coming back to live in the UK after being in the States for 4 years, I thought I'd come in in style. I decided to wear a black jumpsuit and my silver leather boots (please remember this was 1979). Coming back to the land of my birth I was taken off to a room and questioned for 4 hours... yes, I said 4 hours! Apparently I looked like a member of the Bader Meinhoff gang. Well I don't know about you, but if I was a terrorist I sure don't think I'd want to stand out by wearing a very fetching, but rather loud, pair of silver boots, would you? Sadly that encounter with security was not amusing at all, nor was I asked to lend my boots for training purposes. And quite frankly if they'd asked, I'd have said no after what they put me through!

    1. Wow, that must have been very scary and unpleasant.

  2. LOL, Nicola, what a great story!

    I've had my tampons scattered across the desk while my rucksack's been rummaged through but nothing more exciting than that. They are welcome to my tampons for training purposes, if they want them.

  3. Your brain story made me laugh... I did try to take a pair of scissors on the plane to Dublin once - they made me throw them in the big bin full of knives - and got a very suspicious list of questions at the other end.

    By the way, you've got my bathroom floor (writer at work pic) - you don't work in the bathroom, do you?

  4. Easyjet (Squeezyjet, Sleezyjet) almost prevented a groundbreaking trachea transplant when they got sqeamish about another body part! (Google 'Martin Birchall and Easyjet'). I heard the story from the professor himself.

    1. Ah, I know that story, because I heard it from one of the Prof's colleagues, who told it to me in the very kitchen referred to in my reply to Katherine's comment above! Small world!

    2. It is indeed - what I meant to add was that MB's version was a lot funnier than the version printed in the paper.

  5. Excellent story, Nicola.
    Sue Black, Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology at University of Dundee, is a popular turn at crime-writing festivals. She's spoken about bringing a prostitute’s head in a bucket all the way back from Italy as hand-luggage, not once being challenged to actually show it to anyone. So, make it a real brain next time and maybe you’ll not have a problem.

  6. Blimey! That's a cautionary tale! I'm about to set off tomorrow morning on a train to Newcastle with a rubber brain in my bag! I've not planned for any of the contingencies you mention... perhaps i need to factor in a couple of possible delays.

  7. I once had to fly to Melbourne. I was staying with a friend overnight. Her mother gave me a fruit cake to take to her. The fruit cake was well wrapped in plastic inside a paper shopping bag. I went through security and the alarms went off. The cake had first been wrapped in cooking foil! Of course her mother had not said anything.
    I must have looked as startled as the two security men. I had to stand to one side while they saw all the other passengers through the system. We eventually worked out what it was and they actually laughed, popped me and my bag on a luggage trolley and ran for the gate!

  8. On one holiday abroad with my fella, he was being very secretive and wouldn't let me go into his rucsac at all in the airport. We'd been together for some time by then, and a teensy little bit of me thought (hoped?!)he was planning to propose. Maybe he had the ring about his person? When he was stopped at security and had his bag searched (but not before sending me away so I couldn't see what was in it) my hopes escalated even further.
    All was revealed a day was my birthday; he'd baked a cake, decorated it and stuck it in a metal cake tin so it would travel. No wonder security was alerted.
    I had to wait another four years for the ring...

  9. Oh this story made me laugh! I once travelled with several framed family photos (old, slightly yellowed, convex glass in the frames) and no money. I still have a tendency to go around with no cash but the framed family photos are on the walls of my home where they belong.

  10. Thank you so much for the sharing this x-ray training


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