"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

24 Dec 2013

Guest Contributor—Angela Morgan Cutler

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Thanks to my wife, Angela Morgan Cutler, for letting me persuade her to post this piece from book in progress, working title Windows, (one of several 'Windows on Bettie'). When the narrator's son leaves home she becomes more aware of the people passing the other side of the window where she sits and writes. Principle among these is Bettie who tramps the same pattern of streets around the City each day. The gossip is that when Bettie's son Finn died, her loud and ceaseless lamentations caused the landlord to evict her. As well as her usual wanderings, Bettie keeps up a daily vigil on the stoop of their former home. Bettie has few words of English, and so no one knows any more of her story, or where she returns to each evening. Because of her increasing preoccupation with Bettie, the narrator arranges to interview officers from the City's CCTV control room; not specifically to surveil Bettie, but to understand the process and protocol of mapping the movements of those who regularly tramp the City.

Window on Bettie 

'Poverty is considered a virtue among the monks of civilized nationsin America you spend a night in the calaboose if youre caught short without your vagrancy change. […] They pick on lovers on the beach even. They just dont know what to do with themselves in those five thousand dollar police cars with the two-way Dick Tracy radios except pick on anything that moves in the night and in the daytime on anything that seems to be moving independently of gasoline ’       Jack Kerouac 

      Henry is known as H. H is the guy who works with Stan. You forget Stan’s real name but have to anonymise, so for now let’s say that H and Stan work in the CCTV control room in the city. You go there with some vague notion that if you meet up with the men who surveil for a living then it might somehow inspire or get you closer to mapping the routes Bettie takes each day. You tell them about Bettie as soon as you meet, as if it’s an obligation of sorts, as if she is written all over you. In truth, you cannot imagine how it all sounds to them, if they think Bettie is all fiction or feasible enough; your eye on her, something they might take for granted in a job like theirs, their electric eyes in the sky, their job—to watch over the public, scrutinise across larger and larger geographic areas, all capable of being knitted together. In the name of protection they say, until someone cares to turn the technology to a different kind of observation. The history of surveillance is an evolution in technology. You read that somewhere, scribbled it down—from spy planes to satellites, ambient intelligence, the pole mounted camera embedded in our everyday. Biometrics, Stan says, will soon replace the human eye of the operator. Algorithmic systems that are already bedded in place, software that can recognise faces, gait, posture, rituals, especially habits, sometimes deviant, all designed to keep our streets clean and safe, he says; probe images that built up multiple templates of an individual, facial pose, even software to detect potential suicides: stationary people standing on the subway platform, letting three trains pass before they jump. The machine learns to read the stationary blocks of colour on shabby underground platforms, real time incident detection reading patterns of behaviour that equals real people saved. On a wider scale there are even satellites that detect mass graves, track birds and rates at which things like animal flu is spread. In some countries there are massive accumulations of data, magnification, duplication and whatever meagre guidelines, if any, circumvented routinely. There are already computer systems that read people’s eyes, the rate at which blood passes through veins. Hand geometry, signature recognition, heat sensors, palm readers, and not the tea leaf kind. People tagged and microchipped. The old, the criminal, those who are in love with the technology who chip themselves so their programmed bodies turn off the lights, turn on the TV, activate the kettle to boiling point.  

      Stan says that the current CCTV systems they have do not capture or record sound, although it is technically possible, the guidance states: for non covert surveillance, CCTV must not be used to record conversations between members of the public as this is unlikely to be justified and is highly intrusive. For the purposes of crime prevention and prosecution of offenders, the people behind the cameras will monitor people for as long as required. Crime cameras can generally zoom in so that a complete person fills the screen. There are even security cameras available now that people fit to their homes with the zoom capacity to allow them to see directly inside their neighbours houses. If you were that way inclined, Stan says. H thinks that voyeurism and surveillance come from the same place, just a different angle, like the cameras tilted this way or that. Surveillance, he says, seems to be more objective, voyeurism more invasive, more about the details, little personal things, a change in emphasis between the watcher and the watched. 

     You think about Bettie’s face enlarged to the size of a cinema screen, the blown up detail of microscopic wool, hair and skin. You consider again her voice, her half closed eye and scars, what feels to be a constant temperature and warmth to her skin, her white teeth more perfect than any gift horse and her palm opening and held up is not to be taken as a signal that allows you or others to think they have the right to press it into ink, to see the tips of her fingers turn blue, the patterns that make her distinct and traceable held inside small square prints. Bettie’s biometric profile, odour recognition, Bettie’s perfume, her particular lovely gait, the way she keeps her feet close to the ground, hands in her trouser pockets, how she strides, takes her time. Does she even recall how many times she’s been body scanned or would she remember the faces of those who have peered right into the flesh and bones of her; those others who have asked her to hold out her arms, to make the sign of the cross, those whose hands have patted her down, pushed their fingers through her hair, opened her mouth wide, kicked her feet apart, turned her around; frisked her again; to ransack Bettie’s body and still not find the unnamable thing we are longing to probe, jam-jar and keepsake. 

     There are people who are already banished, Stan says, the banished are not allowed into the city. If we surveil them, if we see them, we remove them immediately, it’s so easy now. Old barriers and walls replaced by computer controls; voice recognition, intelligence, wedding, weeding, embedding, more knitting, coloured immersed networks. Sometimes there are not enough eyes to man the amount of cameras so we pay people to look on our behalf: Look, here we are, still a little behind in all of this, but it’s on its way, for sure. They show you papers, articles about other’s paid to sit at home and oversee other cities from other parts of the world—it’s all done from an armchair thousands of miles away, that’s their job—to sit at home and keep their eyes open to anything untoward. The future’s remote, Stan says, the future’s software, automation, data-derived, routine, normal and day-to-day filled with monitoring stations; even telephone software that’s already ‘unbundling’ the queues, separating the ‘pond life’ or the ‘scavenger class’, the less-than-best-effort given to and by sorting out the ‘marginal’ from the ‘privileged’, the profitable and the premium, from those who actively impede, those we call the ‘failed consumers’. He reads the following, running his finger carefully over each line... ‘It should not be forgotten that in many cases suspicion aside, risky people aside, the threatening and the abnormal aside, these software programmes have an entirely justifiable and caring aim’. 

     You think of Bettie’s DNA—that delicate helix and number of given genes that are even a secret to her and what she will never know of her conception: where, when, what time of day or night, what consummation, what cries of happiness; her mother and her father who have most likely passed away; what they passed her way: temperament, determination, illnesses to come, flight or fight, nature or nurture. 

     There are hot spots in a city, Stan says. Certain places where people vanish or turn up sometimes when they are not supposed to. Sometimes they need to be moved on or removed. Sometimes you have to scan a lot of faces to find the ones who shouldn’t be where they are, H says, or you feel the absence of the ones that have gone missing from where they should be. You hear them laugh, hear them agree that in the name of fear—that we all need to be looked after. That’s the way. That already we are getting used to being approached by strangers calling out our name. If something goes wrong then the public are the first to want the reassurance that it was all proven and provable on tape. Except it’s all so advanced these days, high tech, wall to wall digital footage; they work through the night here, a continuous loop of eyes and recording.

    You haven’t seen Bettie for some days. This happens. It’s inevitable that you are not always in the street or in the front room window and in your absence you have to assume she is still passing by. 

     It’s squally out. Is that the word? When you meet H for the first time we discuss the weather in that wonderfully British way. It is you who instigates this by way of your umbrella or what is left of its broken frame rolled up tightly being taken off you, shaken out and parked at the foot of H’s desk butted up tight to Stan’s so they always face one another. The umbrella is one of those that is shaped like a mushroom, clear plastic that allows you a view, prevents collision with the uneven pavements, the public or the dog mess. Imagine if they were designed like two way mirrors, H says, where you could see out but people could see nothing of you. Like those old fashioned cameras that people concealed in their canes, hats or books: Horace Engle, born 1861, engineer / inventor, took photographs from a concealed camera hidden in his waistcoat pocket or with a lens attached to a decorative tie pin; Paul Martin 1880’s, six pound box shaped camera wrapped in paper; R.D. Gray, 1886, concealed vest camera; who’d have noticed an eye in the heel of shoe; the Countess of Castiglione caught weeping into her handkerchief. Now the cameras are no longer concealed, Stan says, but few remember too look up. 

     You soon drop the weather forecast for the beauty of the room of screens. When you finally enter and stand before Stan’s grand finale, one hundred monitors wall to wall placed tightly one beside and above the other, both sides of the small control room. You wish Bettie were here. You wish she could see the streets she walks all lit up over the walls. Traffic scenes one side, the other side: community safety, so called, that monitor people through one thousand and twenty two cameras positioned at jaunty angles to each other with their own distinct view of the city. Programs that run continuously. Others that cycle through sets of cameras and hold a scene for five second intervals depending on the time of day and priorities. Traffic and people juxtaposed—there’s a word they like to over use—moving as one, the flow of cars and bodies theatrical, graceful; the public, oblivious, or at least content, or at least resigned, forgetful, none the less controlled, for sure watched over ad-infinitum some might say—depending on your attitude and altitude, concerns for liberty and welfare—all those unknown people passing the other side of the screen every so often lit up and captured by passing cars or street lights and then lost again to shadows or rain blurring the cameras as if those big electronic eyes are full of tears.

     Sometimes dramatic things occur, H says, usually at night, often in the tunnels, like vehicles on fire, lit up in flames or huge tanks of petrol about to explode. Imagine! And all in a confined space like that. The tunnels have the most cameras per square feet. Sometimes there are stray dogs and people drunk and zigzagging. Sometimes there are horses. The horses loose and lost, running down the roads of the tunnels. Something catches the eye, H says, that’s how it works, the eye is trained to see beyond the bigger picture as it were, to recognise the nuance or when something unexpected appears like the horses; years of staring at the screens, your eye senses quicker than most, opens to the fact that the worse you can imagine does happen, kicking that fraction of a delay before your eye makes its judgement, the boot in someone’s face and spine, the repetition of a leg pulled back and that split second delay between you noticing and knowing when and what and if to intervene when so often all you can do is watch. There are comical moments too, don’t get me wrong, he says, like seeing grown uniformed men running all over the tunnels trying to catch a stray dog that won’t be caught, or men trying to gather in a stubborn sheep. The horses are rarely funny, you worry for them and what they’ll do and every-time you see them in the tunnels it’s an alarming sight.     

    There are people, Stan says, who contact the department and request copies of our surveillance of particular areas. Stan types in an example and we stare at a street view. A few parked cars, bare trees, people and business come and go; lights flicker, still no one looks up. We used to be obliged to provide them with whatever they requested, he says. Whatever copies they wanted. Particular views of particular streets over particular days, weeks, months of footage sometimes that naturally costed us more, but still we had to provide it. The person requesting the surveillance had no obligation to say why they wanted it, who they were, well, if they did, they could have been making it up; the press often lie about who they are. There were some regulars who’d request the surveillance we had of their street, their homes or local corner-shops, so they could check if they were being kept an eye on. There were regulars you got to know, those who’d watch hours of film of their house, of themselves, then complain that their freedom was being breached. You know the sort. No one says the obvious … Let’s say we had to satisfy someone’s requests, a fortnight’s worth of surveillance on a particular road that contained a body, a man that we briefly follow and lose ... camera 287, we all have our blind spots, our myopia, but there’s no need to worry, the main thing to know is that there are always other cameras we can rely on and marry up with, shop cameras .... you see. They protect us and we protect them, the shop-owners and us—we help each other out, H says. Cover corners we might otherwise have missed as we watch again and follow the same man for long enough to realise that the man is now feeling faint; that he suddenly finds himself on the floor and all we are able to do is to watch, get our bearings, decide if he genuinely needs help or is putting it on, it happens all the time. Like this man whose on the floor now, let’s say he’s alone beside the betting shop—which was not his destination—but all too soon becomes his final port of call, indirectly, his last view will be a line of horses jumping huge fences. And to get to the point, there’s a man’s now on that footage, doubled over, collapsed and yes, if he were not to get up, if he were ill, or dying, or worse, dead, then in this case, we would have to decide on a few things: if and when to act and get help, decide if it is no more than a pantomime of his and do nothing; then if someone requests this piece of footage we might also have to decide if to blank the body out, do you see, we’d leave the horses visible, anonymise the body with technology, erase his image with a blob of grey for privacy’s sake. So far so good. Yet at the moment it’s simply our discretion, our conscience that might protect or not protect a person’s face. It used not to be a breach of anyone’s freedom, nor breach of any act, to release footage to the public and show for instance, the comings and goings in any streets or the houses they contain, to expose a mother’s face, a child in a pram, people’s car registration numbers, butcher’s boys, shop fronts, or the activities of people’s pets with very little hidden or screened off or blurred or greyed out; you could watch a week’s worth or more of these very scenes and depending on your desire, all you’d needed was a good flat screen TV and some quality time at home...

      You imagine yourself at home, with snacks, the tea pot in its cosy, that you are wearing your night-clothes, bed socks, blinds drawn, lamps dimmed, watching out for Bettie, but this time not through the window but through the screen and borrowed footage, through the lens of a camera that never goes to sleep, through mens’ eyes open in regular patterns of shifts. There must have been times when Stan and H have seen Bettie go by—no doubt—we’ve all been living here in this city a long time. In the decades Stan’s been sitting here in front of these screens it is inevitable that he’s even seen you go by, but of course until now, he would not have recognised those small details that identify you as someone known to him, a way of walking, standing, turning, destroying an umbrella. On the way home it will be a different matter. Your eyes to the sky following the tall posts to their ultimate conclusion. It’s enough to make you momentarily forget the autumn leaves, however treacherous: Up... Up...

      You knew a man once who refused to look up. He’d sit in parks and watch clouds pass in puddles like swans on a lake. He didn’t look up at the sky for a whole year, he made a deal with himself one birthday to the next, believed that if he did raise his eyes something terrible would take place, something that might fall, flatten and splatter him like one of those cartoon characters that in real life do not get up and beep-beep off down the road. 

      You could follow Bettie home by way of the screens if you had the codes, the ease with patterns of numbers, the wherewithal to point the angle precisely at her, yet to know her ultimate evening destination - if a particular one there is - would surely only spoil, complete, explain, or even open up too much still unknown, if you found the courage to request her known chosen regular spots and routes she follows most every day: the bottom of our road, the riverbank especially, to watch her from a new vantage would be to take advantage, but surely no more than you already have and are …

You won’t ask, 

want to,

can’t bring yourself too. 

Neither will you ask H or Stan to consider Bettie’s reaction if only she knew where you were, and if she might be in anyway intrigued, unlikely pleased; have you ever seen her enraged, rely on more than laughter or a shrug or what some might say is her complete indifference … What she might say about the things you pass on and make believe in her name; giving strangers the headlines, the overview, whatever limited impressions you make of her life. Would it make any difference if each of you agree to speak of her with great fondness, promise never to mention empathy or any similar meaning/ful words that lie you all down onto a feather bed, that allow you all to languish in the familiarity of her coming around the block again… 

The asphalt and paving slabs replace a mountain.

Joy to the world. 

Who would notice her otherwise… That’s what people might and do say. 

Call it what you will… 

Call it anything but ethical.

There’s a word to bring up in a place full of eyes on the innocent. 

Unless of course you finally agree to erase everything you’ve recorded thus far…

That is, 


If Bettie could only find a way to speak up for herself.

If only anyone would bother to listen.

   It’s not a question of right or wrong, it’s a question of how you look at it, H says … And you like to think that intuitively, H says this to soothe something in you when in truth he doesn’t actually say this in relation to Bettie or your endless ruminations that never pass the lips … You know it’s more the sort of thing he says about surveillance and his job, the sort of sound bites he has pre-prepared which as you stand before him and Stan, only remind you in that moment of how much you are missing her. 

    Did you forget to emphasise enough to both of them that Bettie is of course a real and unknowable person, imagination again letting you off the old fish hook. What did your dead friend say, how to tell the teller from the told… No not that, that since life and fiction are no longer indistinguishable, they, the fictitious beings called characters, will not appear to be what they are: imitations of real people. They will be what they are: word-beings. Totally free... Made up of linguistic fragments, detached from the real world, but entirely committed to the fiction in which they find themselves, aware only of the role they have to play as a fictional element... The writer just as fictitious as his creation. 

     Yet any defence you might call upon also fills you with a sensation that your conscience has indeed been pricked, nay, inflicted by something as elaborate as a pearl tipped hat-pin. You instead try to pry some personal stories from H and Stan. Revelations that might give away something other than the facts and statistics that flow like the traffic. That they stick to the script and limits of their job description is probably less on their part calculation, maybe more so that they are hard-wired to evade the endless possibilities of what you could really do in this room with half an hour alone, the screens, the codes and over a thousand swivelled cameras and state of the art zoom. 

      You ask them if there are people they recognise, people passing, people they know and see on the screens. Sometimes I might see my wife, Stan says, spending too much money on the credit card. H laughs and we all lean forward over Stan’s shoulder and follow the tip of his finger from where he sits and has full control of the scene. You might see that woman there, see her, that one. And you see the woman well enough and see that she is also carrying an umbrella the same as yours, only hers is still intact. Maybe it is you on the screen! On the way here before the wind tore a hole through the plastic and the metal frame collapsed the perfect shape of the mushroom. Maybe there’s a time delay, maybe Stan’s playing a tender joke and is waiting for laughter again, while you have the impulse to tell them— 

But won’t...

Listen to this! …

    You knew a woman once, she was at a concert, the woman, and she swore that midway, during the interval, she walked the length of the room, saw a woman walking toward her, a woman who was the exact replica of herself, not just a mere resemblance or ghostly twin, maybe some kind of doppelgänger she said; more as if she were now literally split into two beings who met in time and space and were now walking and passing by one another. Maybe I nodded she said, I cannot remember — you’d like to think she gave a nod of recognition — I might have looked on horrified, she said, so shaken by seeing herself—this once in a life time chance—she forgot kindness, forgot compassion, the empathy that you’d imagine at such a time would be like no other and so too did the other forgot to smile back at herself passing by; the way she then turned back, as if an afterthought, both turning at the same time, the way they both all at once ran in their separate directions to their own distinct sides of the auditorium, ran straight to the plush theatre toilets, to their distinct yet identical looking cubicles where they both threw up at the same time.  

     You look down at your clothes and for sure there’s relief because the woman you are now all closely watching on the screen is wearing a slightly different coat to yours. And of course this is live, Stan says, live! And we all watch as he zooms closer on the figure of a woman hunched into the rain and the umbrella bearing up better than yours, and Stan’s saying… You see that woman… as I said, that could be my wife. It could be that I recognise her by way of her umbrella, in a way that might mean nothing to you or to H ... Or maybe it’s my mother whose borrowed my wife’s umbrella and is walking down the road, camera 198 is facing her, over head, she’s not looking up, people rarely do, especially my mother, it’s her neck and arthritis and today it’s the rain and the wind combined. And how would that make you feel, someone watching your mother, someone who might legitimately borrow these very recordings these very moments and sit watching your mother or come to that watching your wife pass-by. If they could. And yet so far, Stan says, I have not seen my mother pass with or without her umbrella, and If I did, I might say to myself that I also need to blank her out in the same way I did with the man collapsed outside the betting office. And there might be a man, see that one, anyone, pick one, over there, let’s say we’ll zoom in on him. And Stan is tracking, moving to a better angle, another camera; he types the code in so fast that all you can see are his fingers fly across the key-pad as he silently recites each digit that he of course knows off by heart, memorised over more than twenty years. Stan’s got a good heart, that’s what you want to believe, that he means well and cares about what he does. Standing over him you want to believe there’s goodness in him, the overseer, the protector, the well meaning eye tucking up the public, buttoning up their coat and wrapping around a warm scarf; you maybe wrong but for now in his presence it is too much to think of him alone with the cameras, with malice, to think of what people can do in the name of their jobs and authorisation with their own personal fetishes. It’s easier for now, to imagine the love in Stan, to see the enthusiasm and commitment for watching the public, to read his expression as compassion. The more you stare in at the tiny figures on the screens the more you realise how hard it is to see the people we are so intent on watching. Of course we are seeing people but there is something about being this side of the lens and screen, the distance and even the proximity of the zoom that is making everyone seem so alike, even though Stan is doing his best to try to give others a narrative, a little identity, something to recognise and hang onto, all you can see is the human herd shopping, hanging around, playing, toddling, or on their way to an early lunch, work, battling with their umbrellas and lives; their mortgages, divorces, grief, love; their small bodies amble or dart around the screen, greet and part, from time to time, hug and cling to one another. And even though the images are efficient and the facility to zoom is equally impressive, even the night stars lose nothing of their mystery, Stan says, not really lingering on any one for too long, maybe for discretion's sake, for goodness sake, for the sake of the bodies that rush around, mostly, the odd one’s standing, always there are collections of loiterers, indecision, gossip, bin-pickers, people that walk as one. It’s not far from Lowry after all, even though it’s high tech and luminous as if we’ve honed in on some alien world and everyone’s light filled or clicking off a geiger-counter touched by radiation, auras you might say, but no not that, the light does not surround but seems to emanate from inside each one and on grey days such as this surely glow ever-more, beside the screens of hypnotic, soporific cars an endless movement passing to and fro through the drizzle, headlights blur and flood the screens causes you to blink, to momentarily hold your hand to your eyes, pause at red, at unseen junctions and yellow boxes, cars move off again in orderly queues dissolve into dark rain only to be replaced by the public flow, also lit up like the cars: loneliness and aloneness, two different matters. Even if the man who you are currently watching doesn’t think of it this way or that, he is not making time for distinctions, categorisations, the way he might look if he could see himself from over here, over head … Behind you! every angle covered, swivel with ease camera 547 takes in your bald patch, the back of your heels, the sagging arse of your father and the erect tail of your dog. 

    There are unasked questions never put to either H nor Stan: Do they ever have rows with loved ones and then watch their every move? Wives, girlfriends, teenagers, neighbours, mistresses come and go. Do they feel that they can’t be too careful how they linger here with everything that can be kept and overseen, everything that can be recalled, re-examined, requested? Others watching them watching over others watching. Do they ever start to believe that from here they could control what happens next; alter the course of the child over there in the pink bobble hat; change the future of the mother chasing the dog running after her child; blow something up like on the PS4; kill a few cowboys and half dressed women; move that man to talk to that one over there; kiss someone softly?

     There are people who brush past, barely touch, spark up, for seconds merge into one. Some blank out, disappear when they had only just got started with them. Do they miss those people they took a shine too, took their time with, when they fall off the edges, hit the limits of their range? Does their body ache to see them again the way a dog might pine and dig and hurt inside when he loses a squirrel up a tree or a rabbit to a hole? Do people often send them to sleep more than once or twice a day or especially during the long hours of a night-shift when they wake up not knowing where they are, terrified by a close-up of someone’s smile? Do the people they watch feign determination, convince, nay, believe that they are going somewhere; that home is on everyone’s lips even if home is no more than a sordid memory or a bit of old cardboard and a favourite piss stained doorway? Do those fixated upon the screens ever think it’s like playing NASA, their secret-space-control, like walking on the moon, not to stick flags into but to look at the earth from that distance, majestic, vulnerable, lit up like a lamp your parents would leave on in the house awaiting your return? Do they ever worry how they’ll later get back to the world out there from the safety and warmth of this room? How to re-dock. How to return each day to the roads to become once again one of the gazed upon.   


  1. Ian, it appears the form on your Contact page is not working :-(

  2. What a commendable work you have done, with simplest of language. I can’t resist myself to leave a comment and trust me it’s hard to impress me..