:: Aldeburgh

Passports for academics and musicians

Tuesday, May 1st, 2018


This is an update of my previous one on the topic to draw attention to Peter Scott’s Guardian piece this morning (sorry subscribers…). The fact that the Professor of Higher Education Studies at the Institute of Education has to show his passport to do a visiting lecture shows just how absurd the system has become. I happen to know that he’s not the only senior academic in the IoE who refuses to go along with this enforced alienation of British citizens. The comments under the by-line are interesting too – plenty from academics and administrators who’ve fallen foul of the same rules but also an undercurrent of troll-like contributions from those who think the hostile environment should be the new (continuing) normal. In fact, one doesn’t have to show one’s passport – it’s just a convenient way for university administrators to apply government policy – and I have to say that on the occasions when I’ve been asked for it the relevant admin person has clearly enjoyed  being an enforcer and raising the question of non-payment. It’s gets doubly daft, as Prof Scott and several others point out, when you wonder who in the Home Office imagines that illegal immigrants live off the fees paid to visiting lecturers. For me, the assumption that I’m an illegal immigrant unless I can prove otherwise makes me a foreigner in my own country. A passport, whatever its colour, is a document that you use when wanting to visit a foreign country, not one that proves you live in one.

It comes down to trust. University administrators don’t trust academics on all sorts of issues, and that lack of trust is what underpins much of the admin structure. If you don’t trust your employees it’s not that difficult to become an agent of government. The government doesn’t trust anybody.



This was my original post:

The cruel and degrading treatment that the British government inflicts on those in the desperate situation of not being able to prove their citizenship reminded me of the spat I had with Aldeburgh some years ago. My problem was trivial, and in the first instance only involved one engagement,  compared with the appalling examples of long-term residents being deported or refused medical treatment. But it did involve my passport, and it shows that the government does not just suspect immigrants of being illegal but everybody.  It was the first time I’d been asked to show my passport in my own country, and I refused to do it. To cut a long saga short, I withdrew from the concert rather than collude with the Aldeburgh Festival’s collusion with the UKBA.  Rather than tell the government where to put their shameful policy, Aldeburgh felt they had to go along with it or risk losing the right to use overseas musicians.  What kind of government does this to its leading centres of culture? What kind of centre of culture acquiesces in such a policy? I subsequently discovered that braver souls in music promotion had no qualms about resisting the UKBA.  When Aldeburgh did Grimes on the Beach I wondered if the cast all had their passports in their pockets in case someone tried to sneak in from the sea behind them.


So musicians: keep your passports with you. Academics too. The government also requires visiting academics – British nationals giving lectures at British universities – to show their passports. The default position, as with musicians working for major promoters, is that you’re not who you say you are, and they treat you as a foreigner in your own country. If you read through my old posts you’ll see that I had a lot of support from some very unexpected sources and there has been some heartening  resistance in the academic world.  It’s yet another example of what Stefan Collini calls the ‘erosion of integrity’ in British universities, as they become ever more closely allied to the economic interests of the state rather than the educational needs and ambitions of  its people.  Stefan Collini’s piece takes as its point of departure the 1998 Bologna statement agreed by all European countries about the nature and purpose of universities, their autonomy and freedoms.


We are about to leave Europe.


Friday, April 26th, 2013


Aldeburgh – the saga continues

I had this from immigration specialist Steve Richard the other day:

Dear John – I have been in touch with Aldeburgh Music and have had a high-level meeting with the UKBA lately. The visiting officer and Aldeburgh Music between them managed to come to a tediously common misunderstanding on this matter. The fact is that the UKBA cannot compel any sponsor to take copies of people that are not employees. They can penalise companies for not being able to prove that employees are legal to work here. This sits on slightly dodgy legal ground when it comes to UK nationaals. The misunderstanding generally comes from the nature of the work you do. As far as I am concerned you are self-employed, not an employee of each venue / promoter you work with. Hence they do not need to sight your passport as employment / immigration law does not apply. I have had this confirmed by the current head of the UKBA’s work visa system and 2 senior policy officials. I just thought you’d like to know. Whether Aldeburgh change their policy is down to them – I’ve advised them they can do so legally.

This is obviously at variance with the Aldeburgh Music interpretation of the rules:

We completely understand why artists are surprised and annoyed about the new UK Border Agency (UKBA) rules. Following a recent UKBA audit we have been instructed to view and copy passports of all visiting artists and having taken advice we feel we have no option but to follow this new guidance, so as not to jeopardise our ability to invite musicians from around the world . It’s a huge administrative burden on Aldeburgh Music and feels like an invasion of privacy for the artists. It’s ironic that this is our founder Benjamin Britten’s Centenary year and he was a composer who did so much to further the causes of peace and artistic links across borders.

While we are not the first organisation to be asked to do this, it is likely to be something which more and more arts organisations will have to respond to in the near future. Hopefully the arts sector will be able to agree a collective view on this and common sense will prevail. In the meantime we have to proceed as instructed and hope that this doesn’t disrupt the exciting summer of music making that we have planned.

I emailed Shoel Stadlen at Aldeburgh Music for enlightenment but answer came there none. I’ve since discovered that not everyone has caved in to the UKBA, and a number of organisations for whom I have a lot of respect told them what they could do with their passports. It just takes a bit of courage.

Oi REF –Impact bites back!

Those of us who have fled academia (especially the Twitterati)  loved Paul Magrs’ piece in the Times Higher about his Impact letter. It’s gratifying that the government’s hugely successful attempt to make higher education a laughing stock doesn’t just produce cynicism but also some serious opportunities for humour. I have to say in defence of my own former employer that I haven’t had such a letter, but the scenario Paul Magrs describes is one being repeated throughout the land as academics waste vast amounts of time producing forests of fantasy waffle that completely miss the point about what they do. You’ve got to laugh otherwise you’d cry.  Seriously though – it’s such a breath of fresh air when someone has the balls to put into print what everyone’s thinking but no one dares say. I’m pretty sure he’d tell the UKBA what to do with his passport too.

The Dowland Project Night Sessions


Photo Jarmila Uhlikova

Thanks to Twitter I can tell you it’s in the catalogue! You’ll find it in here. You probably won’t have noticed that I’ve taken out the paragraph about the Dowland Project in my previous post. ECM weren’t happy with it. I shouldn’t really be censoring myself, but on the other hand I can’t be doing with all the hassle.  It doesn’t really matter whether I saw the album cover or know the release date –  I’m just glad it’s going to see the light of day at last, and I’m very happy for the music to speak for itself.  I won’t say any more about it, except that if listening to it you feel even a tiny fraction of the joy and excitement we had when making it, I’ll feel that I’ve done my job.


In the meantime I’m off to Helsinki to engage with a far more enlightened higher education system than we have here, and to hear CaboCubaJazz from CapVerde and Cuba roaring away at the April Jazz Espoo.  Can’t wait!



Monday, April 15th, 2013


Cambridge Festival of the Voice

Chris O’Gorman and I unleashed our latest Conductus offering at the Cambridge Festival of the Voice. A big thankyou to John, Louise, Selene, Nick and the team for a terrific time. It’s not easy music to promote or to listen to, but promoters and audience were magnificent. And what a wonderfully creative festival it is. Sorry to miss Encantar and Joel Frederiksen.

The Why Factor

I did a long interview down the line from Radio York for the BBC World Service Why Factor and  my ramblings on why we sing were eventually edited to a couple of soundbites as is the way of these things. Interesting programme though.  It’s always a bit of an adventure navigating World Service schedules, but I caught up with the podcast.

Sounnd & Fury

The proposed Gombert concert in Venice, scheduled for late May, has been postponed till September. We’ll still be getting together in June for a week of recording. We also opted out of a Monteverdi Vespers at the Frari (where Claudio now hangs out). A few years ago I’d have lept at the chance to do it there, but I’m just all Vespered-out.

Tampere Vocal Festival

The full programme is now available. This year’s festival, curated by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (who’s produced some of the most wonderful Finnish vocal music) promises to be the usual eclectic feast of inspired vocalism The ensemble contest features groups from the Nordic Countries, central Europe and Africa. Get on a plane and join us – Ryanair from Stansted is practically free! It’s one of the best things of the summer.

Spitalfields Festival

One of the other best things is in London the following week. Details of Ed Jessen’s REPLICA are up on the Spitalfields site. There will be two performances of this ‘visually sumptuous experimental music-theatre work for recorder quintet Consortium5 and the voices of tenor John Potter and soprano Peyee Chen’ on June 11th.

A History of Singing

CUP have confirmed that there will be a paperback, and it’s just a question of when. Neil and I were both staggered at the cover price of the hard back (our musings couldn’t possibly be worth that much…) and I can’t help thinking most of the target readership found better things to spend their money on. But hang onto your savings, there may be an almost-affordable paperback soon.

Aldeburgh postscript

I keep getting wonderfully supportive emails after the Aldeburgh/UKBA debacle, most recently from people who’ve just caught up with the Private Eye piece. Thanks again to everyone – I’ve been very touched. And Victor Lewis-Smith – if it was you who wrote that – thank you too.


I’m gradually getting the hang of it…@johnpottermusic

Reflections on the Aldeburgh border

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013


I should have been in Aldeburgh for most of last week, but suddenly found myself with lots of time on my hands having declined to show my passport at the Aldeburgh border. Old news now, but I’ve only had to cancel a job a couple of times in my life (and then for vocal reasons) so it leaves a mark.

Was it the right thing to do, or was I just being a ranting ego maniac (as the first few people to comment on Norman Lebrecht’s Arts Journal seemed to think)?  Was I completely mad to do myself out of a week’s work at one of the world’s most iconic venues with some wonderful musicians that I’d been really looking forward to meeting?

I did manage to use the time productively (though it has been a bit weird). We’re moving house in a few weeks so I’ve spent most of the time clearing out the attic and making lots of visits to my local recycling centre.  And on Easter Day we had a great family lunch. In between I checked my newly acquired Twitter account, so was able to keep up to speed with my would-be/erstwhile colleagues who were having such a great time in Suffolk.

I couldn’t help thinking back to all those token protests of my youth – refusing to sing in places with poor human rights records, not going to South Africa during Apartheid or Israel during the Intifada and so on. And then gradually realising that the only thing affected by my position was my bank balance, and that I was doing myself out of seeing some pretty spectacular places. I think I used to drive my Hilliard colleagues mad. I refused to sing in Turkey for years, but in the end couldn’t say no to a Hilliard gig with Jan Garbarek in the Roman amphitheatre at Ephesus, and it was downhill from then on. They’re all so far away, these places, and nothing I did was going to make any difference to anything…

But with the passport business I discovered that I do have a bottom line after all. I‘m glad Concerto Caledonia had such a great time (it was especially good that they weren’t doing the usual Easter stuff that the rest of the world was wallowing in) but in the greater scheme of things music is not that important. The problem for me wasn’t really the need to identify myself per se –  it’s that we’ve never had to do that kind of thing over here until very recently: it’s what happens routinely in all those countries I used to refuse to go to. The reason it’s important is not that we need to safeguard music (I’m sure Concerto Caledonia dutifully showed their passports just as every musician has to do at the Aldeburgh border and life went on as normal) but that we don’t want to lose a society where you can go to the recycling centre and have family lunches whenever you like. The loss of larger freedoms starts with the loss of small ones.

The whole experience has certainly made me think – and turn off the autopilot for a bit. I missed the music a lot more than I thought I would (not helped by Twitter, which seemed to show David McGuiness’ musicians as virtually the only people not in thrall to seasonal composers beginning with B). On the other hand I really enjoyed my trips to the dump, and the family lunch was sheer magic (at Guy Fawkes’ birthplace…). That’s really what I want the freedom to do.  Music is all very well, but if it means colluding with the far right, you can count me out next time too.

Aldeburgh and the UKBA

Thursday, March 21st, 2013



Thanks to all those who supported my previous post out there in the ether. It was both heartening to see so many people agreeing, and awful that so many people have had terrible experiences with the UKBA. To those who were offended by my reference to pre-war Germany: I wasn’t suggesting that there was a direct comparison between Nazism and the present-day UK, but trying to make the point that greater evils begin with lesser ones.

I’m sorry to be making life difficult for Aldeburgh music, though I hope that raising the problem might ultimately be a small nail in the coffin of what is an iniquitous system. Aldeburgh is legendary for its support of young artists from all over the world, and the fact that they have to treat UK performers as potentially foreign criminals is not their fault (as many have pointed out). There’s a response from them in the Comments below my previous post.  What makes the UKBA’s policy even more sinister is that it’s clearly aimed at young artists: a quick ask-around of non-UKBA sponsored promoters revealed that they rarely had problems with visas as these were organised by performers’ agents, which performers at the beginning of their careers are much less likely to have.

Although most people were either shocked by the actions of the UKBA or had already had dealings with them so knew exactly what I was getting at, a small number favoured ID cards and the like and had no problem with showing their passports. Some people, mistakenly, thought it was a security question (terrorism is taken care of very efficiently by our security services, and an efficient terrorist will be way beyond Passports 101);  one in particular (a fellow tenor, so maybe it takes one to know one) thought I was on some kind of  ego trip (and thanks to Alan Fairs for putting him straight!). There were also those who didn’t read it closely enough and thought I had literally  been confronted by a border guard in the dressing room.

I don’t have a problem with confirming my identity – for years self employed people have had to give their NI or TR numbers, and European promoters often require an A1/E101 form which asks for similar information. It’s a pain but you just get on with it. As several people pointed out (see Mark Swinton’s succinct comment below the previous post) there are plenty of ways to confirm identity which we’ve all been doing for years. But a passport is specifically to allow you to travel unhindered between countries – to get you out of your country, into another one and back again. It’s basically for use in a foreign country, so to use it internally is to make you a foreigner in your own country. That’s my objection.

I know it’s a small problem compared with the main work of the UKBA, which is policing overseas workers coming into this country, and which it does robustly (to put it politely – Google them). Their basic assumption is that anyone coming in, whether a teacher, student or musician, may be illegal, and with a bizarre kind of equality they apply the same assumption of guilt to UK Citizens. Surely a government department that reckons the entire population is potentially here illegally has lost the plot somewhere along the way.

Some people wondered what would happen at the concert next week if I’m not there. Firstly, let me apologise to David McGuiness and my wonderful fellow musicians. I know they don’t like the situation any more than I do and that they fully support Aldeburgh’s plight. They’ve also been touchingly supportive of my position too. It’s a freewheeling kind of event, and although it will obviously be a bit different if I’m not there, there are plenty of ways of doing it without me. It’ll be a great gig, and if it wasn’t already sold out I’d be urging everyone to go along.


Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

This is a slightly edited version of the original to make it (hopefully) a bit clearer. There’s a response from Aldeburgh in the Comments below.

Imagine the scene: one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world, you turn up at the stage door to rehearse and are met by a border guard who assumes you to be a criminal threatening the state unless you can show him your passport to prove otherwise. No passport, no entry, and presumably the risk of being detained indefinitely.

Kafka,  Orwell or John Le Carré maybe?  Germany before World War II, or somewhere in the Eastern Bloc after it?

Wrong: Aldeburgh today (or rather, next week). No entry for British performers unless you can prove you’re British.

I was booked for a concert on Easter Saturday with Concerto Caledonia, James Bowman and a whole bunch of fabulous musicians, but have had to pull out as I’m not going to show my passport to a concert promoter in my own country. It’s fundamentally wrong.

Aldeburgh Music is a ‘licensed sponsor of the UK Border Agency’. When I first got wind of this my  thoughts were along the lines of  what’s one of the country’s great musical institutions doing in cahoots with something I’d only heard of in connection with cruelty to children and pregnant women and the possible closure of London Met. Then it dawned on me that the UKBA assumes that EVERYONE IN THE COUNTRY is an illegal immigrant unless they can prove otherwise. This is completely mad – who on  earth dreamed up a scheme that assumed a whole country’s citizens to be illegal immigrants?

Towards the end of my time as an academic I was sometimes asked to provide my passport number when visiting other UK universities, and also to get the passport numbers of visiting lecturers at York. I just assumed this to be yet another example of the university not trusting its staff, another layer of pointless bureaucracy. But I now realise that ALL ACADEMICS ARE ASSUMED TO BE ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS unless they can prove otherwise. No wonder HE institutions throughout the land are terrified of losing their ‘highly favoured’ status and going the way of London Met.

We have to wake up. The comparison with totalitarian regimes is not an idle one – it’s the incremental undermining of fundamental freedoms that leads to the total erosion of  everything else. The Kafka and Orwell comparisons are apt too: we seem to have ended the Cold War so that the UK Border Agency can go to war against its own people.

There are things we can do. Academics: don’t go anywhere in the UK where you’re required to produce your passport; post your lecture online – students won’t be disadvantaged and your employer might begin to take this problem seriously. This especially applies to emeritus staff and people of my generation: we really don’t need to go along with this stuff.

Performers: I know musicians have to work, and the system perpetuates itself because we can’t afford to say no. Well, some of us can, and we should. Most concerts have several performers and will still work perfectly well with one missing (like the Aldeburgh gig). Only one person need make the gesture – an empty chair and some explanation to the audience will work wonders in raising consciousness.

Are there any benefits to being a UKBA sponsor? Yes, they get to employ foreign artists without their having to get visas in their own country. All well and good (though it’s a pity those countries don’t offer reciprocal arrangements, as anyone who’s ever had to go through the dreadful US visa process will know). And of course they keep out the undesirable Johnny Foreigner and producing your passport is a small price to pay for that, Daily Mail readers will say. Well it isn’t and I’m not paying it.  A British Citizen should have the right to work in his own country without having to prove he isn’t a criminal. Even the Daily Mail should get that one.

By the way, I’ve finally made it to Twitter: @johnpottermusic