I recently returned from a fortnights holiday in East Africa, the denouement of which was the wedding of a friend in Uganda. Having omitted to read the small print on the invitation that suggested linen suits or similar heat-friendly garb as appropriate attire for the occasion, I set off for a 10-day holiday prior to the event with my usual kit which includes a very thick woollen morning coat, tartan trews (Im a proud Scot, but not one with kilt legs) and an ancient and somewhat threadbare waistcoat which has belonged to at least two previous generations of my family.
Having flown from Edinburgh to Heathrow quite without mishap early on the day of my departure for Nairobi, I was rather surprised when, as my suit bag passed through the X-ray machine, the countenance of the security man staring at the screen changed rapidly from its default setting of ambivalence to something closer to excitement. He beckoned a couple of colleagues over to have a look at the screen before asking me in an openly suspicious tone, Is there anything youd like to tell us about the contents of the bag, Sir?
With a well-practised expression of cluelessness, I assured them that there could be nothing untoward about what was in my bag and was therefore happy to oblige when they asked me to open it and take them through the contents. Starting with the morning coat and then moving on to blazer, shirts and finally waistcoat, they carefully felt every square inch of fabric. I became increasingly alarmed every time they asked whether I was sure I didnt want to tell them something until the reason for their meticulousness finally emerged. Handing me a corner of the front of my tattered waistcoat, the security officer asked what I thought the thin, cylindrical object concealed between silk and cotton might be. Intrigued and unnerved in equal measure I took hold of the waistcoat between finger and thumb, gulped a couple of times before observing, Gosh, it feels rather like a bullet! Yes it does, doesnt it, Sir, came the reply.
I think youd better come this way, the security officer said, as he confiscated my passport and led me off to an interrogation room, my incredulous travelling companion in tow as a formal witness to the crime. The Mannlicher .256 lead-tipped round responsible for the furore was extracted from the waistcoat, deposited in a plastic bag and sealed as evidence. I was parked in a very small room, informed that the police were on their way and told not to go anywhere, and was left to my imagination, which assured me that a fully invasive strip-search was a matter of routine in such circumstances. At this stage, I still had an hour or so until my flight was called and was therefore relatively confident the situation could be resolved to enable me to catch my flight. After a further 45 minutes, however, there was still no sign of the boys in blue and I was now certain that police protocol would keep me grounded.
A few minutes later, the police arrived in the shape of three friendly and courteous officers of the armed response unit. Presumably, having checked me out as a certified firearms owner with a Mannlicher .256 rifle on my licence, each shook my hand politely before sitting down and asking me to explain how the bullet had come to be hidden in the lining of my wedding waistcoat. Despite having worn the offending waistcoat frequently for several years, I had never previously noticed its illicit cargo and was therefore at a loss to explain the matter. The only logical answer I could conjure was that the waistcoat, and indeed the rifle, had belonged to my father and grandfather before me. At some point in history, one of them must have popped the round in his pocket having found it lying somewhere it shouldnt be. I liked to think that, embracing the ostentatious eccentricity of the era, my grandpa had been stalking in tails as part of an exuberant house party but I didnt volunteer that hypothesis.
Hardly believing my own explanation, let alone expecting highly trained interrogation officers to buy it, I was all prepared for sarcastic likely-story-Sonny-Jim-style comments followed by the invitation to remove my clothing and brace myself for an invasive search for further contraband. To my enormous relief, the officers were quite happy with this explanation and didnt seem to require too much more of my time. As it happened, one of the three had a busmans interest in ammunition and recognised the bullet by virtue of the type of brass case and the now highly illegal lead tip as dating from the early 20th century. My tale was therefore entirely plausible and, after a quick call to the station, followed by a brief statement and some cautionary words about being careful that I didnt conceal bullets about my person while attempting international travel in future, common sense prevailed and I was released to rush to my gate and just made my flight to Kenya.
Of course, I had to relinquish the antique bullet and, such was the interest shown to it by the officer who was able to age it, I suspect that it may have found its way into a glass case in a Hounslow semi rather than official destruction. However, this would be to cast aspersions on the professionalism of the officers involved and the point of this story is to congratulate the Metropolitan police for the polite and practical manner in which they dealt with what could have been a somewhat awkward situation. Such common sense is a real tonic in a world of ever increasing bureaucracy.