Something for the Weekend, Sir? As I leave the premises face-first, my ears ring with those oh-so-familiar parting words: “…and never darken our doors again!”
In my mind’s eye, I tuck myself into a ball and roll onto the pavement and allow the kinetic energy to bring me back up to standing. I turn around, trying to conjure a witty riposte but all I can think of by the time I open my mouth is “Ha!” A passer-by drops a coin at my feet, assuming I might be a particularly crap but evidently desperate street acrobat.
I’d like to think I learnt this rolling trick from karate lessons but I probably owe it to my snowboarding years. Snowboarders tend to get more snow on their arses than on their boots and you learn to get up quickly after face-planting. In theory, if you can choreograph the getting-up-after-falling-over into a continuous movement, onlookers might be fooled into thinking it was a trick you did on purpose.
Mme D asks me why I said “Ha!” just now and could I please get a move on.
Like Patrick Duffy in the shower, it was all a dream. None of the above happened. I am yet to enter the building. Phew!
It’s the city library. There is no bouncer scowling at the queue leading to the entrance; in fact, there’s no queue at all. I just walk in via the automatic doors to be met by kindly looking library staff brandishing clipboards and smartphones. I’m not asking for much but my worst fears are about to be tested: I am going to be scanned.
Here in France, it is no longer possible to gain admission into a public building without showing a pass sanitaire – a QR code that indicates you have received two anti-COVID vaccinations; or that you previously suffered from COVID but aren’t dead; or that you very recently took a COVID test which came up negative. You are given a printout of the appropriate code every time you get a jab, every time you catch COVID, and every time you don’t catch COVID.
That printout is going to deteriorate pretty quickly so it has been made possible to scan your QR code into the government’s anti-COVID tracking app and show your smartphone screen in eyeball-scorching full-brightness mode to officials who demand it. The health service has also begun emailing citizens with a custom link to download PDFs of their codes directly, along with a gentle suggestion that we should save them carefully, just in case.
Me, I keep several printouts handy and have backed up my codes – both the French and EU-border formats – to multiple offline local and secure (ho ho) cloud locations. No way is anyone going to catch me without my pass sanitaire. It’s their wellbeing I have to consider. You see, I have an anger-management problem with being denied passage through doorways that are supposed to be open – something I find hugely frustrating to an irrational degree – just as much as I dislike being subjected to the rubber-glove brigade in international departures.
Look, I’m not asking for much. But over the years, colleagues and family have expressed concern that I become overly antagonistic in both scenarios. While I have made great strides in addressing my attitude problem with the former, I remain unsure of the appropriate etiquette while a stranger is poking their fingers up your back passage.
Should I bend over without complaint? Strike up a friendly conversation, perhaps? No, better not: the last time I tried, I said to the prober, “That reminds me, how’s the family?” and it didn’t go down well. Maybe there’s a beginner’s self-help book I can consult to get my head sorted. Doorway Anger Management, for example.
As a certain skiffle combo once pointed out, there are many occasions when People = Shit. (RIP, Joey.)
Back to the here and now, the librarian at the door asks to see my pass sanitaire. I bring it on-screen, which sets it to full brightness, causing everyone to shield their eyes in alarm as it illuminates the entire library with the strength of five suns, burning one or two unlucky library visitors into smouldering shadows against the far walls. She scans my QR code, makes a note on her clipboard, and allows me to move on. Ditto for Mme D.
Wait, isn’t anybody going to check some form of corroborating identification? She’s seen my code, my name, my birthdate, and my inside leg measurement. Won’t she check any of these data for authenticity? I hold out my driving licence but no one wants to see it. A scannable QR code is all they wanted. I could have shown them anybody’s vaccination QR code and they would have accepted it.
Evidently I am not the only person to realise this: a black market in QR code crowdsharing has appeared virtually overnight. Rich gangsters and penniless university students have found that they can earn extra cash by renting their QR-Codes out to busy people who haven’t had their second jab yet – and indeed to those who refuse to get any. There’s no need to create a fake pass sanitaire: you just borrow a real one from someone else, with their knowledge.
I’m rubbish at pretending to be someone else, code or no code. I lack the poker face to get away with such a thing. At my first job, back in the 1980s, my loudmouth publisher once brazenly impersonated a celebrity so he and his gaggle of drunken sales dudes could get in to a posh restaurant without a reservation. Being tall, black, somewhat on the chunky side, and it being the 1980s, he convinced the doorman he was William “The Refrigerator” Perry, the celebrated American footballer.
They let him in. He wasn’t allowed to speak for the entire evening for fear of being unmasked by his obvious London accent. Apart from that, it worked and he was treated like a king – a mute one – by the waiters, ogled by fellow diners, and looked upon in reverence by the bouncers.
I’d love to try that. I’m not asking for much. But the nearest I ever got to being mistaken for a celebrity was when I was at school and my girlfriend’s best friend told her I looked like Norman Wisdom.
Obviously the way to stop The Fridge from gatecrashing my city library would be to run a photo ID check against the QR-Code, but how will the librarians know whether the photo ID is any more fake than the QR code? For a split second I wondered whether the answer might be automated face identification, but of course that will just misidentify William Perry as a drugstore gunman. Besides, the only AI-based image recognition system that has been proven to work reliably is the one they use in supermarkets to ensure that every punnet of apricots includes a mouldy one from the “Going Rotten” barrel.
On the other hand, the pass sanitaire entry restriction seems to be working already: there were more library staff in the library than there were customers. Result! Keep the punters out! Always messing up our nice library by fingering all the books and asking if that 1960s boob-filled Jodorowsky DVD has been returned yet. What are they like, eh?
Right, I have returned the books I borrowed last month, browsed the reference section and checked out my Jodo cult boobathon. Time for some lunch.
The restauranteur scans our QR codes and apologises that he has already filled the tables on the terrace. But if we don’t mind leaving a DNA sample and undergoing a CT scan at the door, we might be permitted to wait.
“Don’t you know who I am?” I enquire, trying my best to pull a miserable face to look as much as possible like my signature photo on The Reg.
After a few seconds, his eyes light up in recognition. “Oh but of course, please forgive me! We shall make space for you straight away!” And so we are led to our table.
The meal is fine but I could do without the noise from the kitchen. It’s as if they’re all laughing and shouting about someone called “Monsieur Grimsdale”. Honestly, I’m not asking for much, am I? (RIP Dusty.) ®
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. Back when I was a kid, libraries used to stamp a sheet inside the front cover of a book to indicate the date by which a borrower had to return it. My Mum had a rubber date stamp just like it at home and I once tried to use it to extend my loan period. On the (new) day of its return, the librarian immediately spotted a difference in the font printed by my Mum’s rubber stamp and duly insisted on me paying 15p. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.