oh, well, whatever . . .

Posts Tagged ‘cctv

elvis, orpheus, and the panopticon

leave a comment »


Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their
silence. And though admittedly such a thing has never happened, still it is
conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing;
but from their silence certainly never.

Franz Kafka

There’s nothing you can’t buy at Al’s Video’s in Ashington. It is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of a shop, a cornucopia of the mundane and the outlandish, the exotic and the ordinary. It’s a Tardis-like shop that somehow contains more space than it occupies. It stands on North Seaton Road, a little way around the Grand Corner from the town centre. Next to Pal Joey’s and Lintonville Fabrics, the curtain shop. Lily once told me she’d bought four exquisite inflatable golden giraffes there. Pippa swears by it for everything from birthday cards to bubble wrap. It’s the sort of haberdashery where you’d get a harpoon if you needed one, the sort of junkshop where you might find magic butterflies among silver confetti. Debs told me once she got a rainbow-coloured paper suit there, good enough to wear for court. On another occasion she got herself a fine lightweight wheelbarrow made from recycled lemonade cans.  Last Thursday I went over to Al’s in search of brightly coloured foam letters and card to make a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign with, along with some sky blue ribbon to hang it by. I found what I wanted next to some luminous plastic skeletons. As I was making my way back down South View I met up with Owen Vardy, carrier bag in hand.

‘So what’s in the bag this time, Owen?’ I said. ‘More vitamins?’

He chuckled. ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘Just a few things for my holidays. My wife Heidi and I are going over to the Lakes for a week at the weekend. We always rent a lovely little apartment in Portinscale called The Leveret’s Relief. We stay there every year.’

‘Sounds good,’ I said. ‘So what have you got in the bag, energy bars and stuff?’

‘No, I’ve got some fruit for the first few days, just in case local supplies aren’t available. Heidi and I have got to have our antioxidants, you know.’

‘So what have you got, apples and oranges and that sort of thing?’

‘Berries. Berries are the best thing. I’ve got strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, bilberries, blueberries and red grapes.  I’ve also got some nuts – walnuts and almonds – along with flax and sunflower seeds. I’ve got a couple of nice pomegranates, some tomatoes, broccoli, kiwi fruit and spinach. I’ve got baby leaf herb salad. Oh, and an avocado and some Brussel’s sprouts. And a beetroot. And some sprouting seeds.’

I looked down at Owen’s carrier bag. Al’s Video Shop suddenly began to seem quite ordinary.

‘That’s quite a shop,’ I said.

‘Well, you can’t take any risks with your health, can you? And as we all know, you are what you eat. You’re a vegetarian too, aren’t you?’ he asked.

‘I am,’ I said. ‘Does it show?’

‘I think if more people knew the dangers of eating meat the whole country would soon be vegetarian,’ he said. ‘Don’t you? As Heidi always says, the sausage and the steak are sure-fire short cuts to an early grave.’ I nodded slowly. Heidi’s phrase had a definite prophetic, even Blakeian ring to it. Owen was wearing a long brown jacket, blue corduroy trousers and an open-necked white linen shirt, all hanging loosely on him, as if they were all a size too big, and all somehow wrinkled and in need of an iron. He seemed to be expecting me to continue the conversation. I took a predictable turn.

‘How’s Jack?’ I asked.

Owen’s expression froze. He leaned close, like a sort of spectral Columbo.

‘To be honest, I despair of that man,’ he replied. His expression was one of studied incredulity. ‘He appears to care so little about his dignity.  You’ll know about the motorbike, of course, and that he insists that everyone should now call him Spider. Well, now he’s dyed his hair jet black, blacker than a raven, tarantula black. It’s a terrible thing to say but when I first saw it he reminded me of Ozzie Osbourne. You do know he was born on the same day as me, don’t you?’

‘Who was, Ozzie Osbourne?’

‘No, Jack.’

‘Oh yes, I knew that.’

‘Well, I ask you, is it in any way dignified for a man of his age to dye his hair black like that. Who does he think he is – Elvis Presley, Alice Cooper, Michael Jackson? I ask you, who?’

‘Maybe dignity’s not something that bothers Jack much these days,’ I said.

‘Ah, but it does,’ Owen replied, quick as a flash, putting his hand on my arm like a monkey’s claw. ‘There is not a man alive who doesn’t seek dignity. Believe me, I know. Dignity is truth, and Jack is seeking dignity just as much as you or I, my friend. But he’s taken the wrong road, I fear, and for him there may be no way back.’

I smiled. I was wondering if there was anything in what Owen was saying. I was thinking about how a man might deal with temptation.  I was thinking about beeswax and the lyre. If Owen was Ulysses I was wondering if Jack might not be Orpheus.

‘So what’s happening on the Jack and Tallulah front?’ I said. ‘Has she ridden in red leather on his black pillion yet?’

Owen shook his head, as if the very thought of it in some way ruffled the soft white feathers of his soul. ‘No,’ he said, gravely. ‘Not yet. And we can only pray that she never does.’ He paused. Again he looked troubled, like a heron in a storm.

‘What are you saying?’ I asked, ‘that she might be up for it?’

He looked me straight in the eye, as a priest might look at a heathen. ‘Women are strange creatures,’ he said. ‘Let me tell you that. And Tallulah is a woman.’

I sort of already knew he’d noticed that, of course, although I still wasn’t absolutely sure how much attention his all too human flesh was allowed to pay to this fact. I could now hear our leather-clad siren singing to him. I could see him sailing by, lashed to the mast, his ears stuffed with dignity

‘I don’t really want to talk about it,’ he said, suddenly almost composed. ‘I can’t. It’s wrong in any case. But Jack’s life is his own, Tallulah’s too. That’s something we must all accept.’

I nodded. ‘So you’re off to the Lakes, eh?  Lucky man. Hey, have you ever heard the story of Florence Nelson from Bowness? She was known as The Steamroller Murderess, it seems.’

‘Florence Nelson?’ Owen said, looking up quickly. ‘No. No, I’ve never heard of her. When did all this happen?’

‘Oh it was probably about fifty years ago now,’ I said. ‘In the sixties, I think. Any way, listen, if you do get into a conversation with any of the locals while you’re over there, ask them about it, will you?  I only know bits of the story and I’m sort of intrigued to find out the rest.’

‘Yes, I will do that,’ Owen said. ‘I’d like to know about it myself. Anyhow, time marches on, I really must fly or I’ll miss my bus.’

‘Yes, of course,’ I said. ‘Just one more thing – you and Heidi don’t have any children, do you?’

‘No, we don’t. We were never blessed that way. Why do you ask?’

‘I just wondered. Does Jack have any kids?’

‘Not officially, no. However the story does go round that he has a son who he has never seen since he was a baby. They say that the mother might be someone quite famous, a singer.  My own guess is that he doesn’t have a son at all and it’s just something he made up to make himself more interesting.  If he does have a son my guess is that the mother will probably have been a groupie or some other woman he hardly knew. You know Jack.’

‘Maybe it was Janis Joplin,’ I said. ‘Maybe Jack and Janis had a secret love child. Maybe they called him Jimi.  Anyhow, Owen, enjoy your holiday. And don’t forget to ask about steamroller murderess if you get the chance.’

I watched him as he turned the corner on his way to the bus station. I really must find time to read George Herbert, I thought.

I had mushroom pizza for tea that night and then went out for walk. As I walked up past the first houses on Cowpen Road opposite Sure Start I looked up at the massive steroidal three-headed CCTV lamppost at the junction with Albion Way. There are a surprising number of these things around Blyth. I’ve read somewhere that the police have nineteen CCTV cameras in Blyth town centre alone and there are clearly many others elsewhere, such as this one at the junction of Albion Way. In fact I’d already walked past another of these Medusas, the one that looks down on us from the top of Waterloo Road. For some reason I’d taken no notice of it as I passed.

There is nothing benign about being watched. All surveillance is coercive. We are all wearing a t-shirt with “SUSPECT” written across the chest. (It’s probably the same t-shirt the government gave us all, the one with “VICTIM” written on the back.) What I wonder is if we haven’t done anything wrong why are they watching us? To make sure we can’t, or to make sure that if we do we will, in Foucault’s famous formulation, be disciplined and punished, I suppose.

I walked along past Au Naturel and Morpeth Road School towards the North Farm and KwikFit, where there’s another gigantic forbidding three-eyed monster at the junction of Hodgsons Road. In fact Cowpen Quay is supervised by several of these massive inscrutable swivel-headed wardens. The estate is surrounded by these silent Gorgons. It is of course the poorest area of Blyth and has long had a reputation for crime and drug use. These things haven’t stopped of course, it’s just that they now happen indoors, or elsewhere. I walked on past Netto and up towards Cowpen Cemetary, wondering just how many CCTV cameras there actually are in Blyth, wondering if one could see me now. I was thinking it would be a good idea to map them and to try to find which areas of the town aren’t covered by them, to chart those streets down which a citizen can still walk without being regarded as a suspect. It would be good if there were maps like this on the internet of every town in the UK, showing us the places where we can still feel free.

It’s increasingly hard to believe there is anywhere left in Britain where we aren’t being watched. We’re getting to the point where CCTV is so ubiquitous we don’t even know it’s there. But if that meant we weren’t responding to its presence there’d be no point in it being there at all. The truth is we must now assume we are always being watched. We live beneath the mute soulless gaze of a host of invisible God-like controllers who we must imagine track every step we take.  We must know we are not free. There’s something so sinister and feudal and oppressive about those spaces we used to think were ours. Invisible assumed surveillance has taken root in our unconscious, like an imaginary malignant metaphysical presence. This is the psychology of the Panopticon. Irrationality now lurks around every street corner. A new dark age awaits us. Paranoia and morbid dread are key phenomenological characteristics of existence in twenty-first century urban environments. I wanted to ask Gordon if he expects things to get worse. I wanted to ask him if we wanted to say sorry.

When I got home I glanced up at Hugo’s little security cameras. I waved at them as they gazed relentlessly at the junk in his front garden – the old car wheels, the stunted conifers in their pots, the oven hob, the sheets of plasterboard, the orange Bond Bug that glows like a jelly in the twilight. I felt an impulse to vault over the fence and steal something, just to see if I would get away with it, just to see if there was anyone really watching me at all.

It was Easter weekend. It was good to get a few days off work. I painted a bit and did some walking and biking. With De Kooning’s help I did some pruning and pulled up a few weeds in the garden.

On Sunday I decided to go up to Thrunton Woods to walk. I asked Margaret for a garlic clove before I went but she refused to give me one. As I drove up I listened to Elvis Perkins’ new album, Elvis Perkins in Dearland. I thought it was oddly appropriate for a trip to Thrunton. The album was initially a bit of a disappointment to me. I thought it didn’t really come up to the standard of his first album, which I think is one of the best singer-songwriter albums of recent years. Mr Perkins, son of Anthony of Psycho fame, has an elegantly intelligent lyrical imagination and a loose freewheeling vocal style. While being inescapably American and showing a clear debt to Bob Dylan and other North American influences, he also seems to have a distinct dash of European-ness about him, making him sound distinctively cosmopolitan. The new album starts well and the first four songs are very engaging. The opening song in particular has a popish immediacy as well as slyly deceptive lyrical turns. The final songs are strong too. So for me at present the problem is somewhere in the middle, probably around song six. Somewhere around about there he overdoes it a bit, becomes a bit too mannered. Cabaret comes to mind, or maybe the Danse Macabre, something Gothy. Late Beatles circus tent burlesque stuff, a bit like For the Benefit of Mr Kite but without the tune. There’s something just a little too theatrical and artificial going on around here for my liking.

It was cool but the sky was clear and blue. I parked at the top of the woods and set off along the forest road up towards Coe Crag. There were very few people around and for the most part I had the place to myself. The larches were beginning to get their fresh bright green needles. Small birds were chittering among them. As I made it on to the open moor a buzzard slid north far above me. I walked on up to the trig point on Long Crag. I sat down on a stone near there and gazed for a while over the valley and the woods to the hills beyond. Not a trace of snow remained on Cheviot.

I continued west from the trig point and then descended into the valley on the well worn rocky track. I crossed the burn and made my way up through the woods toward the Black Walter forest road. There are secret mountain bike tracks through these woods, trails few other people even know exist. They are like wormholes through the dense homogeneous fabric of the forest and often come out at quite unexpected places. I entered one of the longest, just north of the final ninety degree corner on the long climb. The track wriggles and slithers through the dense conifers all the way back down to the valley, emerging behind the big Scots pine tree near the footbridge. I crossed the bridge and made the long climb back up through the woods and then on up to the huge Coe Crag cairn, where I sat for a while to catch my breath, say goodbye to Cheviot, and lie for a while in the old heather gazing at the sky’s blueness. I didn’t see a single deer during my walk. I hadn’t needed the garlic after all.

I drove south listening to Dearland again. I left the A1 at Blagdon. As I was driving up past the estate wall a Mephisto Travel minibus went past me going the other way. Ahead of me a deep red Honda Civic was turning on to the Cramlington Road. I turned left and found myself following it. It was Brenda’s new car. She was alone. I followed her as far as the Target roundabout, where she took the exit down towards the village while I went north towards Plessey Checks. She hadn’t noticed me behind her.

It could have just been a coincidence, of course. As Brenda says, such things do happen. But my guess was this was no coincidence. A pound to a penny says the driver of the minibus was Elvis Devlin.

When I got home Margaret was in the kitchen. She was sitting at the table doing a jigsaw while waiting for an onion tart to cook. I thought about mentioning my little chance encounter to her. But I didn’t, and I don’t think I will. It’s not really any of my business.

That night I read some of Michael Donaghy’s Collected Poems. He’s described in the slip jacket blurb as “a modern metaphysical”, and it isn’t difficult to see why, although it’s impossible to pretend he’s George Herbert, of course.  Nevertheless he has an intellectual cleverness and poise which makes the description reasonable.  If I’m honest I find his stuff often a bit austere and lacking in sensual richness, but many of his poems are witty, rewarding and thought-provoking. Here’s one I like. It’s called “Meridian”.

There are two kinds of people in the world.
Roughly. First there are the kind who say
‘There are two kinds of people in the world.’
And then there’s those that don’t.
Me,  I live smack on the borderline,
Where the road ends with towers and searchlights,
And we’re kept awake all night by the creak of the barrier
Rising and falling like Occam’s razor.


Donaghy was an American who moved to London in the nineteen eighties and wrote much of his work over here. He died in 2004, aged only fifty. There are many who lament his passing.

I finally had a stab a doing a painting of Newsham this week. I used another of my 16″ x 16″ Loxley canvasses. I did a view of The Newsham pub and the roundabout in front of it. I initially painted it monochromatically, in Prussian blue and white. I then added areas of raw sienna as a warm counterpoint. I broke with this rather subdued palette only for the shop front of Tanz-N-Here, where I used vermillion and chrome yellow. It seems to work. It reminds me of Lowry in its limited palette and its simplified urban landscape. It’s a bit more expressionistic than Lowry, however. I pondered a lot about whether to add any figures. I didn’t think I should. Their absence gives the place a more existential focus. It asks the question “what kind of people live here or used to live here?” It makes the trap of sentimentality easier to avoid. While I love the paintings of Norman Cornish, for instance, I wouldn’t want to replicate them or their feeling. I wouldn’t want to characterise people in the same way. Painting the remains of an old way of life, like history, is to present a view of the past from a place in the present. Although it’s very easy to do, it’s important not to lose your historical perspective. ‘Northernness’ as constructed and remembered in the paintings of Cornish and Tom McGuinness is now an anachronism. That world now comprises only vanishing remnants. To paint like Cornish nowadays is to do little more than to produce a nostalgic commodity, historical confectionary. A painter like Alexander Millar, for example,  – the bloke who does the ‘gadgies’ – seems to me to do just that. He’s draws on Andy Capp as much as on artists like Cornish, of course. But his work offers only nostalgic stereotypes and peddles urban industrial northernness as a sentimental commodity. It says little about how we encounter these places now.

Anyhow, I decided on no figures. Those people are gone now. In many ways their lives were as complicated as ours and they weren’t all the same. They were exploited and oppressed, but they also had dignity. They were wage slaves but they knew freedom too. They lived in a tiny world. But like Al’s Video shop and Owen’s bag, this world was bigger than it seems. Sometimes some of them might even have heard the Nightingale’s song. And in any case, if I’m going to paint ghosts they will look like ghosts. But ghosts, of course, are invisible and perhaps I’ve painted them already.


esse est percipi and all that palaver

leave a comment »

Kevin Keegan is to take over the management of Blyth Spartans. Britney Spears and David Beckham have been spotted together hand in hand shopping in the Keel Row. The first Disney World in Britain is to be constructed on the site of the old Wellesley School and the land between there and the beach, currently used for caravan storage. It will open in 2011. The Jonas Brothers, Take That, Paris Hilton, Kylie Minogue, P. Diddy, Engelbert Humperdinck, the Krankies, Something Spooked The Horses and Mick Hucknall are all doing shows at the Pheonix Theatre in Beaconsfield Street over the next couple of months. Jonathan Ross has bought a house for himself and his family in the small new development of Sidney Gardens on the site of the old Sidney Arms on Cowpen Road.  Harvey Nichols are opening up a branch on Bowes Street. And a futuristic new bridge for cycles and pedestrians is to be built across the river to North Blyth. It will be made of raw aluminium and bleached timber and in part modelled on the Gimsoystraumen bridge in Norway, we are told. Things are certainly hotting up around here.

But, encouraging as these things might be, I’ve been wondering lately what it would really take to put this place on the map. The prospects, as I see them, are now little short of a nightmare.

Hugo’s hired a camper van and gone off to tour Wales for the week with Mrs Hugo and his daughters. I noticed that an abandoned computer desk has been washed up in his front garden along with some large bundles of what looks like coir or thatch. If it’s the latter then I expect another version of Ye Olde England will soon be added to the unabashed post-modern accident that is his estate. In his back garden I have ascertained that two new plastic otters on a log have joined the menagerie beside the eternally gurgling pond. Another recent arrival is a new brass sundial. It is of a common design with a fixed axial gnomon. The motto is meam vide umbram, tuam videbis vitam. All Hugo needs now is the sun. He also needs to be aware of course that since the construction of the Citadel we’ve lost a couple of hours of sunlight each day and that this may therefore significantly reduce the efficacy of his shiny new chronometrical device.

I was pondering whether the CCTV cameras covering the front of his house will be in operation during his absence. If they are I wonder if he’ll ever replay the tapes. It would be a seriously onerous – not to say boring – task to review a whole week of tape. All those people wandering innocently past his gate, all those cats and post office workers and delivery people . . .  The following thesis occurred to me: things that are taped or monitored on CCTV but are never viewed, never actually happen. This of course is a thesis that owes a great deal to Berkeley’s subjective idealism, in particular the notion that ‘to be is to be perceived’. You will be familiar with the old chestnut (yes, I know – groan!), “if a great tree falls in a forest and no-one is there to hear it, does it make any sound?”  While this may seem a daft question in the common sense world – I mean, when did you last see a great tree fall and make no sound?! – it is one which has exercised philosophers a great deal in recent centuries. It would therefore be foolish to dismiss it as a mere trick of the language, one of those questions that can occur for technical reasons but is in reality utterly absurd.

So here is a new slant on the Bishop’s thesis: if it is true that to be is to be perceived, then those who appear on unwatched monitors do not exist. In a surveillance society such as ours this argument could be open to abuse, of course, and would need to be applied with some vigilance. But it may have some bearing on the virtual world. If, for instance, you run a website or a blog that never gets a hit, does the content of that website (and therefore the website itself) ever really exist? Not to be perceived is not to exist. And if the website doesn’t exist, what of the author? This is a conundrum I’ll need to give some serious thought to, I think. It is worrying to think that an unread blogger may have little more substance than a hypothetical metaphysical entity. I can almost feel myself disappearing. This must be what it’s like to be God in a world of atheists. It’s not like the old days, He must be thinking, when a couple of decent thunderbolts or a good old fashioned drought were enough to get any deity noticed.

And perhaps the idea also has a bearing on how to put Blyth on the map. Is a town that no-one notices a town that doesn’t exist? Which is where I came in and brings me back to the breaking news that Sven Goran Erikson and Alex Ferguson have also both now expressed an interest in managing the Spartans.  There are also rumours emerging tonight of a Super Casino, an art gallery and a Big Wheel.  As I said to De Kooning as we gazed together into Hugo’s world, these are exciting times for ontology as well as for town planning. De Kooning of course seemed to be a lot more interested in the noisy blackbird sitting on the head of Hugo’s moose. I really must talk to De Kooning about Schrodinger some time soon.


an attempt to do without a sky

leave a comment »

Yesterday was Whit Monday. Or at least it used to be. The Day of the Holy Spirit, the day after Whitsun, now best known to some of us because it reminds us of a poem by Philip Larkin. It’s the spring holiday, a big day in the Retail Park calendar. I’m not sure that many people choose to marry at this time of the year now.

It was sunny and dry, although there was quite a strong north easterly wind. It felt cold. I went out walking, down along the harbour and up the river to Kitty Brewster and through Bebside. I made my way back by the Plessey wagonway track. The usual shirt-sleeved gaggle of chirpy locals was standing outside smoking at door of the Willow Tree.

When I got home I went out into the back garden and cut back the laurel. Big fat flower buds have suddenly appeared on the flag irises, one of my very favourite flowers. The French lavender is beginning to flower too and the lilies are stretching a little higher each day.  Golden yellow buds are swelling all over the climbing rose and the tight little reddened nodules of the honeysuckle tell me the garden will soon be full of its swooning scent.  Summer is all but here now.

I went back into the conservatory. Margaret was reading. A pair of fluffy maroon mules sat on the coffee table beside her. I should have bought the chicken wire when I had the chance.  I went through to the living room and put on the Decemberists and stared for a while at the painting of Rowhope I’ve been working on since I was sick a couple of months ago. I’ve slowly taken a lot of the yellow out of it, yellow being in my mind the most sickly colour. The painting is unusual for me in that it has no sky. My paintings depend upon their skies most of the time. The painting of Rowhope is an attempt to do without a sky. I also want it to look as much like a map as a representation of the scene, although not more so. That’s tricky, I found. The painting has some good angles and pleasing lines and it’s certainly a lot less nauseating than it was. Perhaps it’s time I let it go.

In the early evening Hugo and Mrs Hugo came home. He unloaded some spiked railings from his van. A little while later I heard him drilling the walls outside. He was installing CCTV. The loss of the swing has obviously made him more insecure than I’d first imagined. Hugo’s world is being fortified. Sometimes you can’t help thinking that even a little affluence is dangerous in a world where needs are constructed by spending. When money is burning a hole in your pocket it’s easy to imagine there are dragons in the world that only shopping will slay. Before too long I imagine Hugo will have battlements and a drawbridge – just as soon as Argos get their stocks in. And why not? He can afford them, the Daily Mail says he needs them, and they will make his property thoroughly modern and highly desirable even in a difficult housing market. This is the future. Electric fences, gun turrets, guard dogs, searchlights and sirens, laser trip wires, beartraps among the lupins, landmines among the gladioli. This will be the ordinary life of the ordinary aspirational man.

When I came in tonight I glanced up at Hugo’s cameras. He has two and they seem to be positioned to ensure they cover not only his whole front garden but the footpath in the street too. In fact I would guess that he has wide angle lenses and that our garden path also appears on his monitors. I wanted to give him a nervous little wave. I wondered if under the Data Protection legislation I had the right to ask him for copies of any video recordings of me. It’s a little disconcerting to think that Hugo will know all my comings and goings. He’ll know if I’m on foot. He’ll know if I’m carrying my old umbrella. He’ll know if I’m wearing a red woolly hat. But I guess this is a price worth paying if it ensures that never again is a broken blue swing purloined by a kid in a polyester suitlet.

The Crane Wife is a fine album, at times quite overwhelming.


Written by yammering

May 27, 2008 at 6:01 pm