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]

In America it wasn’t the Bulger case that started the process: it happened two years earlier, with the home-video footage of the LAPD officers beating Rodney King, the timecode on the video burning into the night air: 00:00:02:14 mar 3 1991. But by the end of the 1990s we had become used to the business of watching the world as it was happening: even missiles had cameras on them, and it became a morally alarming aspect of our viewing culture to travel down with a guided bomb as it sought a particular Iraqi building, your viewing pleasure concluded with a gratifying fuzz of destruction. The hour in 1960s America that connects most profoundly with the consciousness of our own time is not the hour of My Lai or Jimi Hendrix playing his guitar at Woodstock, or of Khrushchev’s visit to Hollywood or Neil Armstrong’s bounce on the Moon: it is Abraham Zapruder’s home-movie of President Kennedy’s assassination, a concatenation of live seconds which changed the public imagination, allowing through its innocent portals a loud proclamation about the end of private life and the power of public death.

Several crucial seconds of Zapruder’s film – the most gruesome ones – were hidden by the FBI for years, but that kind of hiding is becoming difficult since the end of the age of secrecy and the coming of the World Wide Web. When you type the words ‘people jumping from the Twin Towers’ into a search engine, it immediately brings you to dozens of pictures of victims plunging to their deaths. The first website to appear also offers a picture of someone who has landed on the pavement as well as forcing a link to a porn page. This is now an aspect of one’s consideration of reality: the watchers are perhaps the best served community on earth, which would in itself be less striking were the easy availability of extreme images merely good news for people with strange interests. But it seems to me that if these are strange interests, then they are ones which bear a disconcertingly close relation to the interests of the culture at large. We are all watchers, and reality has moulded itself to our hungers. In Britain at least, CCTV now stands in some significant measure for the old-fashioned virtues of community; it stands for security and any sense people have that they are part of a common zone, a place that is made finite and free by virtue of being subject to 24-hour surveillance.

The UK has the highest density of CCTV cameras in the world. Since 1994, British Governments have spent more than £205 million on CCTV installation in towns and cities, supporting 1400 projects, far more than any other country in Europe. According to David Mackay, a former officer in the Parachute Regiment who was project manager of the Glasgow CityWatch CCTV system for two years, ‘so positive has central government support been that, by 1997, the bulk of Home Office expenditure on crime prevention was being spent on CCTV in public places.’[3] He points to the view of some that surveillance ‘is a common theme in local government and it is done mainly because of the political plaudits it earns locally’. London city centre is the most watched place on earth: to give you an idea, there are 96 cameras at Heathrow, 35 on Oxford Street, 260 at the Houses of Parliament, 1800 covering the main railway stations, 500 covering the Central Line alone, as many as a hundred each in the major museums, and at least two (and sometimes 50) in every shop in every street. It is now possible to spend a day in London being digitally photographed from the minute you arrive until the second you leave.

Walking across Leicester Square, I was thinking of what it was like to be in London before the cameras arrived. If a car bumped another car, people would get out, arguments would occur, and witnesses would step forward. If someone snatched a woman’s purse, people would chase them or call out, but now I fancy people just tighten their grip on their own bags and walk on, while the cameras overhead whirr and record. Tea-towels of Big Ben and the London Eye are hanging from a shop-front, and there are postcards of Princess Diana and her son William. Looking at them, I remember that the suggestion that TV be used for surveillance purposes in London first came from a Met superintendent in 1947, who wanted to ‘evaluate’ the BBC’s coverage of the royal wedding.

A man called Robert McAlister met me at the door of the Trocadero. He is easy-going, 35, wearing alert blue eyes and smart-casual clothes, grey shirt, black trousers and black shoes. We walked past the blare of the accessories shops and down an escalator, into the bowels of the place. The corridors under the street were grey and manky: cages lined the walls and were stuffed with old window display materials – a dusty gorilla, a pair of giant spectacled eyes like those of Dr T.J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby – and McAlister walked in front with the bearing of someone smartly leading the way towards the nerve-centre of modernity. As we approached the door of the CCTV operations centre for the City of Westminster, he turned to me. ‘You see that,’ he said, pointing up at the corner. ‘We are camera’d at every point. Out here . . .’ He opens the door with a code. ‘And in here too. Please sign in.’

There’s a camera watching me as I sign the book and I pause to notice the pristine condition of the carpets. ‘It’s a case of them watching me watching them watching you,’ McAlister said with a laugh. The command centre is very dark so the screens show up better: they stare out at you, some on single monitors, others enlarged, or split-screen, with three young men sitting at a generous console. In his office, McAlister has the same control facilities as they do. ‘Not because I want to sit here in a black polo-neck stroking my cat,’ he said, ‘but because it allows me to do more.’

There are 91 street cameras in the Westminster area, transmitting live around the clock. ‘Everything we’re recording is digital,’ he said. ‘You can cut, splice and pixilate evidential-quality material here in the edit suite. The importance of this method is that we have an audit trail: you can prove the veracity of the images we’ve downloaded. The quality of the material for court has been terrific. And what we’ve produced has helped us in our work with the Home Office, the police from beat officers to anti-terrorism, customs and the media.’

‘The material on the system self-erases after 31 days,’ McAlister said. The room we spoke in had a police radio crackling in the background. I could hear a woman talking about a burglary in Belgravia. ‘There’s no way of saying how a sequence of events will take place now,’ he said, ‘but sometimes we’ll see something in advance of the police, and then guide them to the culprits, or else keep track of them. We’re totally joined – it all depends on who sees what first. And if the police fax us a report saying, say, “stolen car, Regent’s Street, last Monday between 2 and 4 a.m.”, we can plug those details in and go straight to the archive material, and see what happened.’

I asked one of his colleagues to show me. He requested a date and a location from me. I said: ‘12 September 2003. Shaftesbury Avenue at the corner of Windmill Street, 8 p.m.’ The screen was suddenly filled with very sharp moving images of the street I mentioned at the specified date and time. The trees are beginning to lose their bloom. People are eating in the restaurants. At 8.02 two girls come walking up Denman Street; one is wearing white jeans and a black denim jacket. The camera turns: there are crowds around the caricaturists outside the NatWest bank. At 8.05 a No. 38 bus passes on its way to Clapton Pond, and people come and go through the doors of McDonald’s. Their faces are entirely clear. I can see a couple in one of the restaurants: the man lifts the saltcellar and the girl examines a plate of what might be spaghetti.

‘Policing of the May Day protests was co-ordinated from here,’ said McAlister. ‘There was a police command post linked to Scotland Yard. The anti-war protest was the same. This last year we’ve had more protests than usual – the Countryside Alliance thing. It’s a public safety issue, but there’s always going to be some people out looking for aggro.’ McAlister looked over my shoulder at the bank of flickering screens. ‘We want to use it as a management tool,’ he said, ‘rather than a Big Brother surveillance thing. Some people in CCTV just use it for crime prevention, but we see it as a lifestyle issue: aggressive begging, drunks, littering, urination in a public place, fly-postering. Leicester Square used to have the worst anti-social behaviour in London, and lots of cowboy operations, but crime is down this year by 60 per cent. It is now the lowest in the area.’

Mr McAlister used to be in the Coldstream Guards. He was a soldier for five years, serving in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, before moving into what he calls the ‘security industries’. He worked with a government department taking care of security for special events, and before that worked for the Burtons Group and was head of security for Tower Records. He joined Westminster City Council last year. ‘Our job is to help the police to build up an intelligence picture,’ he said. ‘Before they even walk out there’ – he points to the screens – ‘they know the type of operation, the faces, the people involved.’

As McAlister spoke, he was bouncing a sharpened pencil against the surface of the desk, a Union Jack pencil. I asked him if the presence of cameras didn’t just cause crime to be displaced. Didn’t people just go to places where there were no cameras? ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but we’re beginning to cover the blind spots. We have four mobile units. When we think that is happening, we try to further light those streets where displacement occurs.’

What did the police think at first about CCTV coming in?

‘They were absolutely bloody petrified. Many of them were used to the bobby on the beat mentality, policemen roaming an area and finding what they found, so the Met were frightened at first at the idea of too much information flooding in. But we encouraged what we call “graded response”: you shouldn’t have policemen’s time taken up arresting urinators or people doing graffiti. Westminster has hired Enforcement Teams to deal with that kind of offence, “city guardians”, like the 15 we have in Leicester Square, security guys trained by the police, and that lets the police get on with tackling more serious crime.’

Though British television is now showing itself to be in love with programmes that use CCTV footage, McAlister says he most often denies access. ‘All this stuff is data-protected,’ he said, ‘and it’s not meant for the purposes of entertainment. When it comes to all this, people being watched or whatever, I’d be more worried about people taking pictures with mobile phones. That stuff is not data-protected and everybody’s at it – you see them taking pictures of people in the street, kids on the Tube, whatever, and those pictures are going God knows where. Everybody’s doing it.’

I sat in front of the screens beside McAlister’s colleague Nigel. In front of us were images of people going about their daily business: parking cars, walking dogs, standing in line, talking into phones, holding hands, spitting, running, standing still and looking at the sky. Nigel followed some with the camera and zoomed in on others: a young man leaving a café in Old Compton Street and crossing the road holding a letter; an elderly lady who seemed to be talking to herself in Rupert Street. I wanted to see the street market and asked Nigel to go to Berwick Street. All the barrows were loaded with produce.

‘How far in can you go?’

He smiled, pulled on the joystick, and in seconds he had zoomed in on a stall selling oranges and plums. The seller had a cigarette dangling from his lips; you could see the colour of his eyes and the dimples on the oranges.

‘What if you see through people’s windows?’ I asked. McAlister instructed his colleague to spin round a camera on Greek Street. On the screen, the camera turned and was suddenly looking into someone’s front room, except it didn’t look, because a kind of pixilated protection gauze was covering the windows: a ‘privacy zone’, McAlister warned.

This thought turned in my head for a while. A privacy zone: somewhere designated as being outside the professional interest of the watchers, a part of London – a room, a corner, a blindspot – whose existence was not sworn to by round-the-clock electronic witnesses. I asked McAlister if he thought people lived differently in the streets now that there was so much watching. ‘I’m not sure, to be honest,’ he said. ‘Maybe some people. Maybe they feel safer than they actually are, or vice versa.’

I came out of the Westminster surveillance bunker into the brightness of the afternoon. Crossing Leicester Square, I looked up and saw one of the cameras dressed up as a Victorian streetlamp, and the sign below testifying to the fact that we were being filmed. I looked up at the camera and blushed with paranoia. I lit a cigarette on the pavement and thought: ‘They’ll be saying, “So he smokes, then.”’ I was almost at the corner of Northumberland Avenue before I decided they might have lost interest in me. It was a difficult thing to conjure with: not many years ago, I wondered at how easy it was for certain people to go missing, and here I was wondering what it might take for a person to be truly lost from view. It seemed a hazardous evolution, to have swapped one kind of personal erasure for another.

An atmosphere of watching (and being watched) is now chief among the spirits of the age, and this is no longer a factor only in the minds of security firms, government agencies or witnesses standing in the streets: it is increasingly a matter for every element in a living democracy, in which all good citizens are expected to regard it as a great duty of freedom to carry a personal torch in opposition to the threatening dark, wherever that may be deemed to exist. America’s new Department of Homeland Security is now fully abreast of what this might mean: not Orwell’s Big Brother, the outmoded model whereby the state watches its citizens, but US HomeGuard, something both discrete and infinite, where citizens will watch other citizens on the Internet to ensure that the state’s enemies, the unwatching, are captured before they can act. It is a neo-Hobbesian view of how finally to check what is nastiest and most brutish in a world where men with box-cutters can change everything: a Leviathan of eyes, a sovereignty of the watchful, a notion of power that is kept in place not merely by the collective will of the people but by the people’s careful and unremitting observation of the forces that could undermine it. This is the new model: one that can both guarantee and indeed constitute the security of governments against the terroristic instincts of the ungovernable; a Leviathan that becomes a panopticon, a single, all-seeing eye, understood at last to be a manifestation of the populist gaze.[4]

US HomeGuard will work like this. Every chemical installation, large factory, bridge or dam, will be surrounded by web-cameras 100 feet apart. The cameras will take pictures almost continuously and these will be transmitted to the Internet. An infinite horde of ‘lookers’ will be paid to examine a selection of these pictures (whether one or one thousand) when they log on anywhere in the world: the ‘lookers’ will not know what installation or security risk they are examining; they will see a line of fence or a stretch of gravel. Each ‘passed’ image will be examined by other users online, and a fail-safe will operate in relation to every inch of every site in the country. The ‘lookers’ will themselves be observed, their skills in detecting trespasses or glitches measured against the watchful capacities of others, and a process of assessment – involving millions of worldwide ‘lookers’ – will mean that any breaches in security can be determined instantly. The process was described in more detail by Jonathan Rauch in a recent issue of the National Journal:

These are ordinary people who enlist to screen pictures over the Internet. They sign up online and can work whenever they like, for five hours or five minutes. Sitting at home or anywhere else with Web access, they log onto HomeGuard’s site and look at pictures, saying only whether they see a person or vehicle in the pictures that appear. Crucially, these spotters have no idea what they’re seeing pictures of . . . They’re paid for every 100 pictures they evaluate. They can work at their own speed, but if a spotter doesn’t respond to a picture after 20 seconds (perhaps she has gone to get a sandwich), the system simply e-mails that picture to another spotter. The system just needs three replies – it doesn’t care from whom, or from where. Americans at the airport in Bangkok could log in as spotters while waiting for their flight to Taipei.

A new vision of belonging is implied by all this; a new definition of social responsibility and selfhood too. What can privacy mean after this, if privacy is understood to mean kissing your girlfriend outside a brasserie or questioning the authority of your boss? How does anybody go about their business – the business of desire, of belief, of quiet resistance, or of any mode of being that resides in privacy – if society becomes a place of deep intrusions masquerading as affirmations? What risk to selfhood is proposed by such efforts to make society impregnable? In Britain, these questions are luridly present in the carnival life of the newspapers and television channels, where the population is crowned every day and told how to be real.

It was not inevitable that the day would come when Andy Warhol would seem a social realist. But that day is here: selfhood is something the culture encourages you to construct in an echo-chamber of the watchful. British television has learned all the lessons of the last ten years; the most popular television programmes are entirely Warholian, and they have connected in the deepest way to the notion that celebrity is a heightened form of personal nothingness. On Big Brother, boringness is not boring, it is merely something people put you through on their way to becoming famous: we lap up their emptiness, considering it somehow an enlargement of our own mentalities, and we repay them by voting them into further fame, the strange glory of somebodyhood. The soap opera Brookside has been moved to 11 p.m. and is soon to be axed. Of course: Brookside used to be a programme everybody loved for being a drama about fictional characters enduring the consequences of being ordinary; now Big Brother is here, now Fame Academy is here, we are in a position to do the opposite, and love the reality of ordinary people enduring the consequences of becoming celebrities. Each is descriptive of their British period. Brookside was trying to do something that other soaps had failed to do: engage in a debate about Britain, seeking to examine it, and the episodes were all about trade unions, burglaries, rape and chip-pan fires; Big Brother is all about hair wax.

One afternoon, I sat on the edge of the bed and watched Alex on Big Brother eating his lunch. (That was last year: Alex didn’t win but he got a modelling contract and an agony column somewhere.) He wasn’t eating in an interesting way or saying anything interesting, he was just eating pasta and looking into the camera; his eyes were completely glazed over and I wondered for a second who was watching whom. When I eventually got bored and picked up the Mirror, there was a picture of Alex inside. He was being slagged off and called vacuous by some columnist, and the front page of the paper had his face on it. Tudor England had public beheadings and Victorian London had circus freaks; India had living goddesses and Hollywood had Marilyn Monroe. What was Alex? Was he an ambitious young guy just trying to be himself and win a game show? Could you win such a game show by being yourself? Who was himself anyhow? Alex was eating his lunch, that’s all. The culture that brought forth the images of Rodney King being beaten had also brought forth Alex, and we were sat at home, being ourselves, just watching. When people weren’t watching Alex watching himself, they were watching shows like Cops, a police show using cameras to catch criminals in the act, or The Osbournes, a show about the daily life of a famous family just being themselves. Reality, so far as TV and the tabloids are concerned, is the slow, watchable business of people being themselves becoming famous. When they stop being famous they also stop being themselves: they have no self. Game over.

The tabloid press is addicted to such losses pretending to be gains. Selfhood is now a form of gladiatorial combat, and the prize is not only to survive, but to survive as someone who looms large in the public eye, as if that in itself counted among the highest forms of human achievement. The problem becomes clear when you consider the sheer spite of the British media, renowned across the globe, which seek to torture these people as soon as they become sufficiently visible. The tabloids have a habit of exhibiting the very evils they claim they exist to decry: under their veneer of sentiment and caring for ‘our tots’, they exploit children; beneath their vigilance about sex abusers and adulterers they themselves are sleaze-merchants and soft pornographers; and within the touchy-feely interest in campaigns and Christmas Appeals to help the disadvantaged they are sadistic in their treatment of the poor and the weak. The British tabloids constitute the world’s creepiest press: papers for people who don’t like to like other people, and the tilt of their high moral tone is every day made absurd by the squalid voyeurism carried in their pages. But they have achieved their salient position by paying close attention to the sway of the public’s imagination: they understand people’s obsession with reassurance and the freedom associated with the self-made life, and they have never failed to give back to the British people the daily slops of their own mawkishness and servility.

This was the Indian summer of David Blaine, the man who put himself in a perspex box to be watched to death. He is less a circus freak than a cultural totem: starving himself for public edification, he has, this last fortnight, been glorified as he had hoped to be and vilified as he had not. Blaine puts a dark full point to the business of reality television; up there, looking down on the crowd, he has passed through all the stages of metaphor to become the living embodiment of an entertainment ethos gone awry. Eating nothing but air, he is trying himself against the truth of a culture feeding on itself, and the relationship between him and his audience is one of great sickness. Blaine reminds me of those hunger artists who operated in the restaurants of Berlin in the 1920s: trapped inside glass bells in the best restaurants, they grew thin while the patrons became bloated, and the enjoyment of each was only enhanced by the other. On a blackboard beside the artist the number of days they had fasted would be chalked up. At some level, this explains the culture of Weimar, and David Blaine, boggle-eyed, sallow-cheeked, swinging above the Thames, at some level explains ours. Except he is going out live on Sky TV. Beyond boredom, beyond ambition, David Blaine sits in his modern box: he is in the right country at the right time, and now, after watching them eat and shit and fuck and cry, the only thing left to our light entertainment culture is to watch a man dying on TV.

I went to see him and smelled the onions. I went several times, and on each visit the atmosphere had become more vicious and desperate, more given to vengeance and confusion. I first went at three days, when Blaine had already experienced the spite of the British mob – throwing eggs, hurting his eyes with laser pens – and he just sat there, watching and being watched, trapped, acting the martyr, a figment in a delirious public dream. Mr Softee was there with ice creams along with the hamburger van. Everybody spoke on their mobile phones or took pictures with them to send home. Some drank lager. The ground was covered in cigarette butts and Fanta cans.

When Blaine touched the glass, people shouted, ‘We love you, David’; he smiled, stroked his face, gave the thumbs-up. In the days to come higher fences would be erected to keep out the people who had decided to hate Blaine. I wanted to ask: what is it they are hating? What is making them anxious? ‘He’s being paid eight million quid to do that,’ said a girl beside me on day nine. ‘If he dies he doesn’t get it.’

‘He won’t do it,’ said her friend, smiling.

Just then the light came on inside Blaine’s box and he stood up and waved to the crowd. Some shouted, some jeered. His eyes were slightly sunken now, and a line of cars crowded Tower Bridge, the drivers slowing down to get a look at this male hologram hanging above the Thames. The tabloids are obsessing about him; they say he won’t make it, that the hatred of the British public will bring him down. But people are watching more each day: Blaine is a near-familiar, an American cousin bent on destruction for our viewing pleasure. ‘He’s fucking mad!’ said a woman beside me the third time I stood watching.

‘No, he’s not,’ her boyfriend said. ‘He’s saner than you and me. He’s the sane one. He knows what he’s doing.’

I fear David Blaine understood only half of the devil’s bargain he entered into with the British press, the British public and the cable channels. They want him to succeed, they want him to be famous, yes. But they also want him to fail, they want him to suffer more than he expects, because that too is part of what celebrity means. A man came along in the night and tried to cut his water supply. That’s right. That’s what they do. And David Blaine had better know it: he is nothing if not a floating signifier at the end of his wires. He is of the moment more than he knows, and he is about to learn that the public’s capacity for wonder is deeply in thrall to its love of disaster. Blaine is a self-declared victim of the watching, and even he must know that he is no longer the story: we are.

Almost ten years ago, late one night in a Soho shelter, I met a girl who had run away from home. Her name was Angel. She was very young and half-demented on drugs; she could remember her father building the TV aerial up on Fortune Green. Angel was sleeping most nights in the streets around Euston and Vauxhall, and people had stopped looking for her. I thought before I spoke to her that Angel wanted anything but to be found. She stopped me as I was leaving, and I asked her what she wanted to happen. She smiled. ‘Only one thing,’ she said. ‘I want to sing at Wembley Stadium, wearing a gold top and a black skirt. I want to hear thousands and thousands of applause.’

The borstal boys at their windows, lost to the world each one of them, were also desperate to be known one day. It seemed to me those boys lived in fear of being rubbed out, and when I looked at the community of their mothers and fathers, as well as my own, I could see that we had all of us lived through the disappearance of a world of work and social carefulness lately spirited away by the monetarist ethos transforming Britain. When I wrote about missing persons, I think I imagined that missinghood – the rubric of my own experience – might soon be a less prominent detail of our national life, transformed by some newly minted fund of political idealism. I could never have guessed that social anomie was about to enter more fully into the public sphere, to become as it is now, a black hole of individualism swirling with banality. It is a new place on the map, where watching becomes a perfectly sufficient mode of being, and where a commonality of personal ambition is held by a generation to embody the blessings of the good society.

In the middle of the night I went downstairs and found the remote control and flicked through the channels until I found him: David Blaine, asleep in his transparent box on the South Bank. It seemed, in the dead of night, a natural thing to do: to watch him sleeping and to consider others watching him too. Why live when you may live vicariously? Under the television lights Blaine seemed to sleep soundly and that was something. At 7 a.m. Sky TV had begun its morning show, and a conversation was taking place between James Hewitt, the former lover of the late Princess of Wales, and Kate Lawler, who beat Alex to become the winner of last year’s Big Brother and now presents the breakfast show. They had been joined by James, a young man in a woolly hat who had just been ejected from Fame Academy. They were looking at Blaine waking up.

‘I don’t think he’s in there,’ James Hewitt said. ‘I think it’s all an illusion.’

‘If he ever gets out,’ Kate said, ‘people will be happy for him, though.’

‘Yes,’ Hewitt said. David Blaine woke up and stared into the camera above his head. His face was thin.

‘You know,’ James from Fame Academy said, ‘it’s just so nice to be here this morning.’

[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.