Friday, November 03, 2006

Someone to Watch Over You

In 1949, George Orwell published his book, 1984, which gave, what we all thought at the time, a far fetched picture of life in the not too distant future. We chuckled at his descriptions of Big Brother and the various ludicrous ministries. What a laugh, it could never happen in Britain, of course. Now, we’re long past that date (which was a reversal of 1948, the year in which he wrote the book) and, stap me, if it hasn’t all pretty much come to pass.

For Britain can now add to its list of worldwide achievements, the fact that it is right up there in the top three nations for spying on its citizens. China gets the gold, Malaysia the silver but Britain turns in a creditable performance to win the bronze.

It’s not quite as bad as it used to be in the old Communist bloc countries, where I recall that, in order to have a private conversation in your hotel, the bathroom was the favoured spot with the taps running full bore. But then there were some advantages to be found in the regime. The chances of being mugged on the street were considerably lower than on the streets of most major cities in Britain today. It was not a bad place for east-west trade either. A friend of mine sold his jeans on a Moscow street one chilly night to a Moscovite. The fact that he was wearing them at the time was no obstacle. They just switched pants, some roubles changed hands, and we went back to the bar, my friend looking a bit out of place in trousers that were clearly not designed for him.

And this is the argument, or excuse, for all the closed circuit TV’s that sprout up around town (not the bit about the jeans – that was an aside. Very few British are likely to be caught swapping pants in mid-street)). They’re not all to catch speeding motorists, they’re supposed to stop little old people being mugged and, as such, statistics seem to indicate that they’re a pretty miserable failure.

Some years ago I was sitting in the lounge of The Marriott Hotel on Grosvenor Square with an American colleague. We were overlooking the square, and, at one o’clock in the morning, my companion was astounded to see people strolling unconcernedly about.

“Gosh,” he said, “You’d not do that back home.” Home was New York and, at that time, I had to agree with him.

But how times have changed. Nowadays you can stroll around New York (well, the more salubrious bits, anyway) at night without coming to a deal of harm, but crossing Grosvenor Square…….if the drunks don’t get you, the armed guards outside the US Embassy might!

New York cleaned up its act by cleaning up its police force and putting them back where they belonged, on the street. If you happen to be unfortunate enough to be robbed on a street in Britain, your call for help will undoubtedly be recorded – on film. This will be of great interest to you whilst recovering from your injuries in hospital, where you can while away the time writing letters to your insurance company over the goods you were relieved of.

And then, in the fullness of time, a friendly bobby will show up with some blurry pictures of you actually getting robbed. These will be valuable mementoes for your grandchildren and take pride of place in the family album.

He may even suggest that you might be able to identify your attacker. Well, in every still picture I’ve ever seen from one of these gadgets, you’d have tough time recognising your own mother. I suppose there is a chance that it might be her, you never know.

At this point you might feel like mentioning that, had he been present on the street in place of the camera, you might not now be lying there. Also that when Sir Robert Peel got his lot started, this was not the way he had envisaged it. But as you still have concussion, lacerations and bruises, you’ll probably just offer him a grape or two.

Having got the entire country wired for a sort of TV reality crime show, attention is now being turned to what goes on behind the closed doors and the drawn curtains of the citizenry. Here, I’m afraid, technology is lacking at present and the government is going to have to resort to the age old technique of asking questions until they can persuade everyone to install a camera. With any luck, the citizenry will tell them exactly where to put their questionnaire.

Somehow, though, I doubt it. The spirit of Raleigh, Drake and Hawkins (all pirates, I should point out) no longer thrives in the youth of the land, who prefer plundering the high streets of the cities to the Spanish Main, and their seniors will probably answer the man from the ministry’s questions without demur and with a touch of the forelock. You can blame William the Conqueror for a lot of this. He started it with that early invasion of privacy, The Domesday Survey, and now technology has made such matters the plaything of government.

It’s only a matter of time before all public buildings are bugged as a matter of course.

So next time, when I call you from my hotel in London, you’ll probably hear the bath running in the background. You can’t be too careful in Britain nowadays.


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