FOREWORD Thanks to my wife Angela who, after much persuasion, has allowed me to post this piece from Windows, her fiction in progress. This section (one of several 'Windows on Bettie') concerns watching and being watched. 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 each day. Principal among these is Bettie who tramps the same pattern of streets around the City. The gossip is it that when Bettie's son Frank died, her loud and ceaseless lamentations caused the landlord to evict her. As well as her usual wanderings, Bettie now 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 day. Because of her increasing preoccupation with Bettie's movements, 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 nations—in 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 something with Bettie. 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 in use, software that can recognise faces, gait, posture, rituals, habits, sometimes deviant, mostly 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, magnificated, duplicated and whatever meagre guidelines, if any, are 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 you to see directly inside your 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, not unlike the cameras tilted this way or that. Surveillance 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. Her breath steaming up the lens of someone’s screen, if she could only climb that high. 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 like was not a signal that allowed you or others to think they had the right to press it into ink, to see the tips of her fingers turn blue, to print the patterns that make her distinct and traceable into small squares. 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. And 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, patted her down, pushed their hands through her hair, kicked her feet apart, told her to turn 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, 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 all 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’, unbundling 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. 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, bringing you back. 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 the way of your umbrella, or what is left of its tatters, rolled up tight. It’s one of those that are 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 to look up.
You soon dropped the weather forecast for the beauty of the room of screens. When we finally got to it, entered and stood 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, monitor people through, two hundred and sixty cameras positioned to at jaunty angles each 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 moving as one - juxtaposed, there’s a word they like to over use - the flow of cars and bodies, theatrical, graceful. The public oblivious or at least content or at least resigned, forgetful, controlled, watched over ad infinitum. 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 the car lights 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, in a confined space like that. The tunnels have the most cameras per square feet. Sometimes there are stray dogs and people drunk 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 nuances or when something unexpected appears like the horses; fifteen years of looking and the eye senses quicker than most and then 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 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. Every time it happens it’s an alarming sight.
There are people Stan says, that 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 comes and goes. Lights flicker. Still no one looks up. We are obliged to provide them with whatever they request he says. Whatever copies they want. Particular views of particular streets, over particular days, weeks. Months of footage naturally costs us more, but still we have to provide it. The person requesting the surveillance has no obligation to say why they want it, who they are, well, if they do, they could be making it up; the press often lie about who they are. There are some regulars who request the surveillance we have of their street, their homes or local corner shops, so they can check if they are being kept an eye on. There are regulars, you get to know, those who’ll watch hours of film of their house, of themselves, then complain that their freedom is being breached. You know the sort. No one says the obvious … Let’s say someone requests a fortnight’s worth of surveillance on a particular road, that contains a body, a man that we briefly follow and lose ... camera 187, 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. Help each other out H says. Cover corners we might other wise 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 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. Currently, it’s not 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. It may well change, but for now, at the moment, 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 need is 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 men’s 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 fifteen years Stan’s been sitting here in front of these screens it is inevitable that he’s 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 where-with-all to point the angle precisely at her, but to know her destination would surely only spoil, complete, explain, or even open up too much. Yet if you could take the courage to request her known and 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,
Neither did you ask H or Stan to consider that if Bettie only knew where you were, would she be in any way intrigued, unlikely pleased; have you ever seen her enraged or relying on more than laughter or her complete indifference …
but what would she say about the things you pass on and make believe in her name.
giving strangers the headlines,
Whatever limited impressions you make of her life.
Would it make any difference if we all agreed to speak of her with a great fondness and if we promised never to mention
or any similar meaning/ful words that lie us down on a feather bed, that allow us to languish in the familiarity of her coming around the block…
the asphalt and paving slabs replace the mountain,
Joy to the world.
Who would notice her otherwise,
That’s what people like to say,
Call it what you will…
There’s a word to bring up in a place full of eyes on the innocent.
Unless of course you would finally agree to erase everything you’ve recorded thus far
if Bettie could only find a way to speak up for herself,
and if only we would 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 of how much you are missing her.
Did you forget to emphasise enough 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 of a sensation of your conscience has 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 in part calculation, or 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 nearly three hundred 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 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 event when the wind tore a hole through the plastic and the metal frame collapsed the perfect shape of the mushroom. Maybe there’s 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 herself coming toward herself, if that makes sense, the exact replica of herself walking towards her; not a doppelgänger she said, not just a resemblance, more her exact self as if she were now split into two beings who have met in time and space and are now walking and passing by one another. Maybe I smiled she said, I cannot remember - you’d like to think she gave a smile of recognition, but I might have looked on horrified, she said, the woman who was so shaken by seeing herself, this once in a life time chance, and she forgot kindness, forgot the smile, compassion, empathy like no other and so too the other forgot to smile back; the way she turned back, an afterthought, she was frightened, they both were, the way they both ran in separate directions, took themselves straight to the plush theatre toilets, to their own side of the auditorium, to the distinct yet indentical 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 we are now 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 that could be my wife. It could be that I recognise that umbrella in a way it might mean nothing to you or to H, and I recognise that woman ... or maybe it’s my mother whose borrowed my wife’s umbrella and is walking down the road, camera 98 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 borrowing these very recordings these very moments and sitting at home watching your mother or come to that watching your wife passing by. So far I have not seen my mother pass with or without her umbrella Stan says, 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 flying across the key pad as he recites each code memorised over fifteen years, of course he knows them off by heart. 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 or their own personal fetishes. It is 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 angiegercounterd 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 loses nothing of the close up, Stan says, he doesn’t really linger 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 gygercounter touched by radiation. Auras you might say, but no not that, the light does not surround but seems to emanate from inside each one on grey days such as this, surely glowing more, beside the screens of hypnotic, soporific cars. An endless movement passes to and from drizzle, headlights blur and flood fifty screens causing us to blink momentarily, hold our arms to our 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 flowing, lit up like the cars; loneliness and aloneness, two different matters. Even if the man who we 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 54, 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 PS3. 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 by, 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 in the long hours of a night-shift, do they wake up with a start not knowing where they are, terrified by a close-up of someone’s smile. Do the people they are watching feign determination, convince, 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 left on in the house waiting their 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.