Watching Me Watching Them Watching You

Andrew O’Hagan

I spent the first of my teenage years living in the grounds of an approved school, a place that faced onto a ruined castle said to have given a night’s shelter to Mary Queen of Scots. The escaping Queen was never there at all, but people preferred to think she had never left: every castle in Scotland seeks to have its part in Mary’s story, and her eyes were felt to burn through the night from a high window. Looking at the ruins, I always hoped that Mary would just speak some of her great last words from the darkness; I believed she was there and that something of us all was there in those eyes of hers that seemed to make a ritual of watching.

The school was full of delinquent boys from Glasgow, and what I remember most about them is the sheer depth of their wish to be remembered, not to fade into the shadows of a system they couldn’t properly see or understand. Sometimes I would meet them when I parked my bike at the edge of the playing fields; the boys were pale, nervous, often tearful, and they looked into the orange blur of the housing estate behind the castle as if contemplating one of the world’s grand promises. ‘They can’t forget me,’ one of them said, the red-ash pitch blazing under our sandshoes.

‘They won’t,’ I said. I wasn’t sure who he meant.

‘They will,’ he said. ‘And that makes me want to kill somebody.’

The boys were locked in at night, and after dark, over the barking of dogs, they would stand at their windows in their pyjama-bottoms and football scarves and shout surnames into the trees.

‘Robertson! McCauley! O’Dwyer! Stenhouse!’

They had children’s voices. They had spots and hostile memories, they had the beginnings of moustaches, but it was their eyes I can’t forget up at the windows. They hated their immediate confinement, but more than that they hated being away from the world at large: they couldn’t bear the thought of life passing them by, of other people being remembered and spoken about and them forgotten in an Ayrshire borstal at the edge of the greenbelt. In conversation, they seemed bugged by questions of reputation – ‘Do people know who I am?’ ‘Do they know what I did?’ – and you could see that each was obsessed with the problem of having no real past to speak about.

It was 1980. The boys would talk about being photographed and written about or even drawn by court artists, anything to bring them into what they considered to be the everyday, the glare of normal life. Some of them had kept the newspaper cuttings describing their crimes, and they took pictures of one another, delighted with themselves, and would gather round to stare at the results. They would swap these pictures and pin them up and show them to any girls who were adventurous enough to come near the school.

It would take me years to work it out. They didn’t want to be a temporary part of some temporary experience; they wanted to shine, and something very compelling in those boys yearned for recognition. They wanted to watch and be watched. Most of them weren’t homesick or just lonely: they didn’t want to go back, they wanted to go forward, outward, upwards in fact, to an idea of some home that was larger and more spectacular than could easily be imagined. One night our house was robbed. I woke to see one of the boys leaning over “my bed, taking a Polaroid camera from the shelf above me. He smiled at me and took the camera for himself. When he left I turned into my pillow and could smell glue in the air of my room.

My first book was called The Missing, and I started writing it, in my head, the very second I saw the video footage of the Liverpool toddler James Bulger being led away by the two ten-year-olds who would become his murderers. There was something familiar about the boys – their jackets, their haircuts, their way of inclining their heads to one another, their furtiveness, their loitering-with-intentness – which seemed to jar with the almost deranged intentness of the baying public, watching later via the arcade’s cameras, wishing to catch them just as they set out on that terrible journey. The pictures were used everywhere, not least by the tabloids who asked for vengeance against the killers, and a mythological power grew around one particular image: James Bulger between the two boys, being led away. People were shocked by it, but they were also dazzled: they wanted to see deeper and deeper into the grain of the picture – and many spoke of wanting to reach right into the scene, as watchers, and interrupt the action about to take place.

The video camera and videotape made ordinary things rewatchable, made single moments suddenly unfleeting. I remember the term ‘freeze frame’ coming into being, and I suppose I found the subject of my book in considering the parts of ourselves that lie at the edge of recordability, out of the frame, missing from view, but even so absences which had become increasingly present in our experience of life. It was an experience harboured, at that time, in British waters that seemed grey with miscare, the nation that existed between Margaret Thatcher’s ‘there’s no such thing as society’ and John Major’s ‘it’s time to understand a bit less and condemn a bit more.’ I felt for the boy being led away but also for the boys leading him, and I believed there was not only a terrible death beyond what we could see there, but lives too, the life of a community and the failings of a welfare state. Venables and Thompson re-enacted something that day: they played out a fantasy of watching and being watched. Much of what they did – ‘let’s steal a kid,’ Thompson said – was based on a fantasy drawn from a home video they’d seen together, Child’s Play 3, a story about a psychotic killer-doll that is endlessly brought back to life. (Venables later spoke constantly of the dead child reviving.) The video fantasy was not allowed to serve in mitigation,[1] although it was suggested at the trial that the boys had tried to insert stolen batteries into James Bulger. It was a sorry time in Britain; no one seemed ready to save the boys from their terrible actions, and, soon enough, the moral aphasia of Venables and Thompson was mirrored by that of the press, much of which, like the boys, was acting out a bad dream of vengeance based on something they had watched on a videotape.

The trial was a fantasia of retribution, and in an act that amazed other Europeans, the press corps, on the last day of the trial, managed to persuade Mr Justice Morland to release the boys’ names and photographs, thus bringing the matter back to where it all began: photographic images unrolling at the heart of anxiety, and people mistaking the process of watching for the machinery of thinking. The tabloids remade themselves that day; their dark-hearted blend of fake populism, moral hysteria, witch-hunting glee and life-devouring incomprehension had made the country swoon with piety and self-righteousness. Some years later, when the boys’ case was brought before the European Court of Human Rights, the judges expressed themselves baffled by the trial, its rapidity, carelessness and showiness; it was, they said, a trial which risked ‘presenting the appearance of an exercise in the vindication of public outrage’. Nowadays, in certain Liverpool pubs, you can find people who will show you a new image, downloaded and printed from the Internet. It is an image of Robert Thompson as he may look now. Vengeance is evergreen, and the regulars know the image by heart and they watch the door.

I don’t mean to marshal these thoughts, as Johnson said, into a school and call it an academy, but I believe people in Britain experienced an entanglement with technology and reality during that trial which had an effect on the nation’s character. Many of the great tabloid-frenzied dramas to follow were at an early point enlarged in the public consciousness by closed-circuit television or amateur cameramen: Princess Diana caught in the lobby of the Paris Ritz minutes before her death; O.J. Simpson’s ‘live’ escape in the white Bronco. The Omagh bombing was enhanced as a terrifyingly real tragedy when home footage appeared. The drama of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman’s disappearance was heightened when CCTV footage appeared of the girls crossing a sports club car park in Soham at precisely 6.17 p.m. These images have a very different bearing from reconstructions and reported events: they give the viewer the frisson of reality unfolding in real time. The production values are authenticatingly low: people like it that way – the blurrier the picture the sharper the moment. By 11 September 2001, the taste for improvised, participatory reality television had grown sophisticated: hundreds of people filmed the destruction of the Twin Towers as well as the ensuing panic, although the disaster first brought excess, and then a strangeness to the yearning for reality. People found the replayed image of the planes going into the buildings mesmerising, and the CCTV footage of Mohammed Atta at the airport frightening, but, by general agreement, images of people jumping from the towers were hidden away. The Naudet brothers, who had gone inside the towers with hand-held cameras, later deleted from the soundtrack most of the noise of bodies crashing to the ground. Again it was said that the 11 September footage was like watching a movie spectacular, something that was beyond belief. Later it became clear that what was being watched was a movie that not only heightened reality but made it unbearable.[2]

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[1] Some still claim the boys never saw the video. That is wrong: there was a copy in Venables’s house, and they knew it frame by frame.

[2] A strange collective guilt has now attached itself to the use of such film. People with images of the jumpers were rebuffed by the families, most of whom, according to a recent piece by Tom Junod in American Esquire, were unwilling to accept that their loved one could have chosen to jump from the towers. 11 September strained the taste for reality to the maximum: there is a tendency to prefer the notion that the buildings were a tomb from the moment the planes hit them. Pictures showing people waving their shirts from the upper windows were pulled from all bulletins, and a man called Pavel Hlava, who filmed both planes hitting the towers, is suing the cable station New York One – part of AOL Time Warner – for using the videotape without his approval. Michael Cohen, Hlava’s boss, who gave the tape to the television station, said he was against Hlava receiving what he considered to be ‘blood money’ for the footage.

[3] From CCTV, edited by Martin Gill (Perpetuity, 168 pp., £35, July, 1 899287 71 x).

[4] A fabulous irony attaches itself to reports of the surveillance society proposed by John Ashcroft. The nation with the biggest spectacles and most powerful hearing-aid in history, with an ability to see round corners and observe from outer space, simply can’t find what it said it would find in Iraq.