Kaput goes to jail for a piece about surveillance and smart technology. There’s also Oscar Wilde, The Night Of, face reading, the criminal who tricked me, and Britain’s most wanted
On the bus heading to an early evening film and we’re late. The rush hour traffic is terrible. The bus is stuck in a long queue of buses and trucks trying to squeeze through a short light that admits just two vehicles per interval. I keep looking at my watch.
We are close enough to the cinema to walk the remainder. Being lazy, I’d rather not – the tardy walk-trot-sprint always makes you hot and rosy, which may put you off your film. (When I see people rushing to places, I think they’ve lost control of their lives.) But missing the start of a film is simply not acceptable. So, the lateness anxiety gets the better of indolence and I ask the driver to let us out.
We’re just a few yards up from the last stop, but he shakes his head. No. Doesn’t look at me, just stares through the window at the clogged traffic. No – says he can’t do it, that he’s ‘being watched’.
His voice is robotic and his face is clenched. He’s not being funny. This isn’t paranoid delusion. Not the psychic staring effect either (aka scopaesthesia, the feeling some people get that they’re being stared at, when their skin starts to prickle). No, the driver means he’s actually being watched. The bus company put a camera in his cabin so he doesn’t break any rules – the interdiction on dropping passengers outside designated stopping spaces, or other incriminating acts of human flexibility.
We get to the pictures two minutes to the lights going down. I sit back and turning my phone off think about the bus driver still being surveilled. How does it feel being watched like that?
|you crazy graphics|
Living in the UK, I should know: this is one of the most filmed societies. I saw Channel 4’s Hunted and watched all the Jason Bourne movies. I also rented Citizenfour and witnessed a nervous Edward Snowden, sat in his Hong Kong hotel room on the night before he dumped his country’s secrets onto the internet. First Snowden took the sim from his mobile. Then he checked the landline next to the bed. Then he unplugged the landline next to his bed. Just seconds after, the hotel fire alarm goes off. The moment of fear in Snowden’s face – is this it, are the men in black coming to get me?
I understand that the surveillance state is a widespread condition. Our phone signals and satellite global positioning systems betray us to the all-seeing eye. Shop purchases, instore cameras, getting cash at the money machine, travel cards, loyalty cards, membership card readers at the gallery, museum and cinema – the chain of transactions that inform not only where we are and what we’re up to, but increasingly, tangled in a mesh of algorithms, the tell tales that reveal who we are and what we’re thinking.
In my lunch hour, under a low swab of grey cloud, I walk up London’s Victoria Street, a gusty concrete and glass canyon of new and 70s office blocks. The small sign quietly pinned outside an atrium lobby features an icon of a closed circuit TV camera. The notification panel claims the private camera is watching me for my personal safety.
At traffic intersections, motorways, railways stations, and so many other public spaces, state surveillance cameras zoom and swivel to monitor the human flow. This is just the base level of surveillance, though. Expect this base as default, but count on much worse. Since 9/11 and new security legislation, several urban spaces in the US have been turned into Domain Awareness Centres (DAC).
A DAC provides a complex suite of sophisticated surveillance technologies. The usual camera feeds are supported by the gathering of data from number plate readers, personal email records, call manifests, user online search histories, social media chatter and multiple other data sources – weather reports, shipping movements, emergent facial recognition software; there’s even a profiling program that purports to identify ‘suspects’ by the way they walk.
|think about it|
In 2013 in Oakland, California, a string of emails leaked from the city government revealed the DAC about to be foisted on the community wasn’t what it said it was. The official story claimed the DAC’s enhanced surveillance as imperative to keep a lid on crime, but the emails revealed that the action plan was to deploy the new tech to monitor political activists across the city.
A grassroots local alliance emerged to contest the Oakland DAC, successfully lobbying for it to be ditched. Similar ‘wokeness’ in several cities across the US finds privacy and free speech campaigners pushing back against intrusive government, making annual surveillance audits a legal requirement.
No one likes to think of law enforcement following us wherever we go – at work, school, shopping, church, or political gatherings. It’s just the kind of thing we should be complaining about. But then we go and spoil it all by doing it to ourselves. We welcome creepy caring companies like Google, Amazon, Samsung and Apple (yes, I know, even Apple) into the heart of our personal lives with their shiny devices that share all our secrets. Do we trust the these devices? Should we?
I like my smartphone and my life in the cloud, it helps me synch my entertainment and schedule my stupid, crowded day. Sometimes, when nobody else is around, I speak to the phone, I ask it things and the phone answers back with useful information. I like telling tech what to do.* I have a clock in my front room that doesn’t resemble an actual clock but a cube of grey wood. It sits there inert and only lights up when you make a sound. Or if the Annoying Son makes a sound. After a long evening flopped on the sofa, he likes to clap his hands to light up the digital display, to see if it’s time to shuffle off to bed and flop under the duvet for a change.
|your digital friend|
I predict some day me and the Annoying Son happily succumbing, allowing an Amazon Echo or a Google Assistant (GA) into our living room. An Intelligent Personal Assistant (IPA) with voice recognition speakers, the Echo or GA connects to your home Wi-Fi so you can give it jobs to do: tell it to play music, find a Nepalese restaurant, read the news headlines, turn on the light, even tell you what the time is.
You could install a smart device with intelligent speakers in every room. I could command Echo to pick me a new TV series to watch in bed, something on Amazon Prime based on previous shows I liked. Or I could go through the fridge shouting out products and brands, and leave GA to order my shopping online, then send me a delivery Reminder.
But the IPA won’t stick at one-off tasks. There’s a cybernetic feedback loop where the IPA never grows tired, it gets smarter, it learns from you and proactively predicts your desires. The IPA will glean from previous shopping orders what kind of pale ales I like and get in another six pack before I run dry, without me having to think about it.
While Amazon covets the smart connected home as a vast gaping opportunity for commerce – lots more lovely commerce – Google is looking to a broader picture, where the IPA links into people’s online accounts, blending calendar events with online searches, passwords and notes, to aggregate, or flesh out our digital double. The IPA could check when your next holiday is due and decide if a woolly hat or snorkel would help to make the most of the trip. A skim through your Apple Health app reveals if you need to order in anti-histamine pills, but also any medical issues to report during an automated purchase of travel insurance. Now every insurance company in the world knows about that heart murmur and your premiums just got raised for next year. But on the positive, maybe a Google self-drive car can take you to the airport.**
Much smart home tech is either in its infancy or is yet to widely penetrate. But it’s coming. Home consumer devices are predicted to be the new take-off sector in digital technologies as smart phone sales plateau. The internet of things is finally happening and it’s not just Google or Amazon, there’s Nest, Hive, Hue and Apple Home. (There ‘s also a night camera to record my sleep disorder. Dr Sleep ordered me one last consultation. I didn’t hesitate or question it, I just accepted the offer. And so now I’ll never sleep alone.)
The emerging smart home devices also moonlight as personal surveillance technologies. The IPA’s mic is always on, even as you unload on the toilet, while having sex, or going through a nervous breakdown. A round-up of things to come at online review site trustedreviews.com finds a mesh of sensors running your living space – lighting, locks, plugs, washing machine, heating. The maximal atmospheric control apparatus is a multi-zone heating system with wireless valve management fixed to every radiator – a system that comes with ‘geofencing’ – which tracks each member of the household and adjusts temperatures as our bodies move from room to room. The technology tracks your every move. This isn’t a CCTV on Victoria Street you must put up with, like it or not, this is the kit you bought and installed for yourself.
The geofencing is designed to sense your imminent arrival home of an evening and fire up the boiler before you’ve even come through the door. In the 1990s the controversial scientist Rupert Sheldrake published his book Dogs That Know Their Owners Are Coming Home, in which he proposed the existence of pet precognition and telepathy between humans and their dogs.***
Sheldrake released filmed experiments as supporting evidence of his venturesome hypothesis. Pet owners were recorded leaving work at unexpected hours, while at the same time back home, their dogs stirred, reacting in expectation of their owner’s unscheduled return. Well, the digital assistant is your new responsive pet, and the scent it’s picking up is the signal off your phone, in an actual real world version of inter-species telepathy. (But not if you left your device at work. In which case, you’ll need to turn on the heating yourself.) ****
Your smartphone comes before you as digital enabler, but also your cellular tell tale. The French philosopher Michel Foucault – once the main man of nouvelle French thinking on everybody’s lips – would surely have loathed, but also loved Amazon Echo – what philosopher doesn’t want their discourse confirmed? Foucault wrote extensively about modes of power, centralised, but also distributive and devolved. Foucault characterised the modern individual as their own personal jailer, self-consciousnessly caged in the prison house of identity.
|If I ever get outta here|
Foucault used the prison panopticon as a carceral paradigm with broader ramifications for the production of the self. Early this autumn, the art producer Artangel moved into the closed-down Reading Jail for an extended project called Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, featuring artworks and readings on prisons and confinement.
Built in 1844, the cruciform design of Reading jail, with its four corridors radiating from a central vantage point, reflects aspects of Jeremy Bentham’s institutional panopticon. Bentham was a moral philosopher who conceived of the panopticon on a visit to a factory in Belarus in 1786. The panopticon jail design allows all inmates to be observed by a watchman centrally positioned as an all-seeing eye. But without knowing for sure when they are being observed, the expectation is the inmates will grow to watch over themselves. Their jailer may have gone away for thirty minutes – for some lunch, or to write a poem – but because the inmates cannot see, or know for certain their custodian’s whereabouts, they become their own monitor – and in this way does self-consciousness distort into a mode a self-incarceration.
Bentham is remembered as a liberal social reformer who spoke against slavery and the death penalty, who also advocated for women’s suffrage, universal education and animal rights. And yet, his panopticon feels pretty illiberal through the eyes of a 21st-century libertarian socialist. Bentham believed in human perfectibility and transparency, in which each and every ‘gesture, every turn of limb or feature, in those whose motions have a visible impact on the general happiness, will be noticed and marked down’.
The panopticon was pitched as a cost saving design with fewer jailers required. Bentham recommended that the inmates also be put to work to support the costs of their confinement. He suggested human hamsters running on treadmills to spin looms or power a water wheel. (At this point Bentham’s liberal halo dims to grey.)
|Oscar in deep|
Oscar Wilde was an inmate of Reading Jail from 1895 to 1897 – a prisoner on C Wing, residing in cell number C.3.3. In the first year of his confinement, Wilde was subject to the hard labour regime proposed by Bentham, spending several hours daily walking on a human treadmill. In addition to hard labour, Wilde endured dysentery, hunger, enforced silence, solitary confinement, and a hard wood bed without a mattress.
In the second year of his sentence and following the arrival of a more sympathetic prison governor, Wilde was allowed the use of writing materials and wrote the extended letter De Profundis. Each weekend the Artangel show features a reading from De Profundis.
The readers include actors Maxine Peake and Ben Whishaw, the writer Neil Bartlett and the musician Patti Smith.
The letter De Profundis (From the Deep) is addressed to Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, or Bosie. It starts with Wilde reflecting upon their disastrous relationship, which led ultimately to the author being sentenced to two years in jail for gross indecency. Wilde accuses Douglas of frequent abuses of his love, ranging from petty to cruel.
Due to the legal restrictions of his confinement, Wilde was only permitted to write one page per day. The composition of De Profundis took three months. In its later sections, Wilde broadens his view to consider the place his life has brought him to. The getting of wisdom came at a high price for the writer, not least incurring a sour repudiation of his former self. An arch socialite previously famed for his irreverence, Wilde now finds the surface not worthy – ‘The supreme vice is shallowness.’ Wilde reflects on what lessons may come from suffering: ‘There is not a single wretched man in this wretched place along with me who does not stand in symbolic relation to the very secret of life. For the secret of life is suffering.’
Towards the end of Wilde’s sentence, the prison governor remarked of the writer: ‘He looks well. But like all men unused to manual labour who receive a sentence of this kind, he will be dead within two years.’ The prison governor was wrong. It took thirty six months. Wilde died in late 1900, aged forty six, a broken man indigent and in exile in Paris.
Reading prison closed in 2013. The Artangel event has been well attended with its run extended. The show’s artworks include pieces by Ai Weiwei, Steve McQueen, Marlene Dumas and Richard Hamilton. Visitors drift in and out of the cells to looks at displays lit in part by the small visible patch of sky admitted by the cell’s mean high window: ‘I never saw a man who looked/With such a wistful eye/Upon that little tent of blue/Which prisoners call the sky.’ The show’s artworks inevitably range in quality, but collectively feel much of an afterthought. The jail’s the star – the absent pent-up souls of the inmates long gone gather together into the largest presence of all.
The 19th century jail and 21st century surveillance technology intertwine as key narrative drivers in the TV crime drama The Night Of. Riz Ahmed plays fresh-face college boy Nasir, who is accused of murdering a young woman during a one night stand. While waiting to go to trial, Nasir is locked away on remand in a Victorian prison in upstate New York. The prison building is daunting – a grey, tatty variation of the panopticon. In every episode the plot pauses while the camera draws viewers through the elaborate process of entering or departing the gothic enclosure – gate, drawbridge, buzzer; door, lock and key; door, lock and key; door, lock and key; lock. You really don’t want to lose your liberty, you really don’t want to end up in here.
As Nasir navigates the lethal currents of life inside, the police seek to construct an air-tight case that will keep the suspect in jail for the rest of his life. The police lean on a wide array of tech paraphernalia – personal computers, phone signal records, number plate readers, GPS and CCTV footage. I don’t recall seeing so much CCTV in a TV drama. There are extended scenes as the lead cop silently sifts the evidence – cross-referencing surveillance data and camera footage, constructing maps and timelines of Nasir’s journey through the city on the night of the murder, seeking incontrovertible pieces for an irrefutable crime story. This compiling of layer upon layer of ‘proof’ recalls Antonioni’s Blow-Up, when the fashion photographer develops stills from an ambiguous crime in a south London park, or The Passenger, when Jack Nicholson steals a dead man’s identity in the desert.
But no matter how much surveillance, The Night Of dramatises that which cannot be verified. Nasir’s face is a picture of the unknowable – a screen upon which viewers project their hunches about what might have happened when no one was filming. As Nasir gets hardcore in jail, with his judicial fate dangling, transforming his appearance, shaving his head, getting inked on the collar and neck and arms and fingers with prison-made tattoos, the viewer splices together a surmise at the true nature of the person they’ve been watching. What has Nasir’s character become, who was he before, did he really kill the young woman?
We don’t know, we can’t say for certain. This aversion to closure, and the denial of catharsis, isn’t simply the dramatist Richard Price making a case for dramatic realism, but an argument for scepticism faced with the all-seeing eye.
|who goes there?|
What does it do to your face being closely surveilled all day? My bus driver in profile seemed tense – but driving a London bus will do that. I couldn’t tolerate a camera blatantly staring at me all hours. Not just because of the psychology or the politics, but due to being a face hater by disposition. Not everyone else’s face, just mine. No selfies for me, no FaceTime, no Skype, and only kind mirrors with good lighting.
I don’t trust my face even though obviously I rely upon it to represent me. This instinctual distrust groans at the new developments in security technology which consider the face a goldmine of useful, reliable information.
Face reading is a booming discipline in suspect profiling. The face reading mavens propose that our physiognomy – mug, kisser, phizz, puss, boat race, coupon, dial – tells the world what kind of person we are inside, and what we’re truly thinking. You’ve just got to learn how to read faces, read them really well.
The psychologist Paul Ekman pioneered the study of human emotion and facial expression. Over several decades, Ekman created an ‘atlas of emotions’ which lists and defines ten thousand facial expressions. He argues that some of these indicators are tiny and last only one 25th of a second – which is very tiny – but that such micro-expressions reveal what we’re feeling and where our mind is at.
Ekman asserts that our micro-expressions are the key to unlock the truth about deception. Ekman published a book called Telling Lies offering guidance on how to become a human lie detector. He also developed a system which trains border guards to read the faces of travellers coming through. Like it or not, passengers submit to a belief system and detection mechanism simply by electing to go by plane. We may believe that Ekman is misguided, but the security community have invested heavily in Ekam’s idea that your face ‘leaks the truth’ in a form of involuntary confession.
The edgy innocent, trying to look normal to get through immigration without a hitch, may issue a nervous facial tic Ekman doesn’t like. The edgy innocent immediately notices they made a tic and do a twitch to compensate. And then another twitch to cover for the previous twitch. By this point Ekman may feel he is onto something, a secret wish the edgy innocent is trying to conceal. Shed enough twitches and tics and I’m afraid you’re going to need to come with me, Sir, for closer inspection.
Post 9/11, the US government invested over a billion dollars in a programme know as SPOT – Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques. Inspired by Ekman’s years of research and now used in every major US airport, SPOT profiles humans in transit using a points system to confer suspicion at passport and security control: whistling costs you a point, yawning the same; while a cold stare or stiff face cost two points per item. The list of tells also includes repeated throat clearing, hair patting and general fidgeting. If your points go above six, then you may be detained for questioning. With your face your giveaway, additional security initiatives in the pipeline include heat cameras to measure the intensity of facial blushing and sensors for pupils that dilate widely.*****
I mention some of this to a friend, who assures me we are all face readers anyway. The friend tells me that in the early stages with a new acquaintance they observe the person’s face closely. But some people are harder to read than others, the friend confides; while occasionally an individual comes into your life who proves to be illegible.
Failing to give up enough personal data through not being sufficiently facially expressive, may find you accused of playing with a poker face. But when I played poker, any facial ambiguity simply masked an inner confusion of not knowing what to do with the bet – check, raise, call, fold. I don’t know how much we should expect from our head to head engagements, but Pokerface, NO.
Being a bit of a facial mute, it perhaps follows that I’m not a great face reader. I might even be borderline facial illiterate. At a certain level of consciousness I guess all of us have been engaging with faces our whole lives. And yet rarely do I give them the time through being too absorbed thinking about other stuff – food, nudity, football, music, who am I, nudity, sleep, politics, hangover, nudity, books, films, nudity…
So, I’m not a diligent face watcher, and often fail to scan people for tell tales. This can be a problem and brings me to the story I’ve been meaning to tell all this time…
In the summer of 1997, I met a man who tricked me. He tricked a lot of people and far worse than that. It took seven years to discover the far worse bit.
The man was called Stephen. Later I learned that Stephen also sometimes used an alias. I interviewed Stephen for a chapter in a book on pornography. The chapter concerned the policing of indecent and obscene images of children.
Stephen was an expert of sorts in the field. Although he didn’t work in child protection, and was not an academic, and hadn’t published, he frequently contributed to industry conferences and had consulted with at least two child protection agencies on developing policy. Stephen testified on several occasions as an expert court witness and advised the Crown Prosecution Service, the Metropolitan Police, the Sentencing Advisory Panel and the Appeal Court on the Child Protection Act and pornography.
Stephen was forthright concerning the need for protection. He told me that he knew of individuals, that there were men he’d interviewed and assessed, men that he’d come to know well enough, that he would never, ever, leave alone with children. ‘Not even for one minute.’
At this time Stephen was writing a legal history of sex crimes against children in the UK, stretching all the way back to the Middle Ages. This largely consisted of trawling through the archives and compiling a list, recording each crime – the offence, the name of the offender and the sentence. It was a monumental work and it wasn’t anywhere finished.
Stephen talked a lot about his legal history research. He showed me some extracts – the painstaking recording of every crime he found in archives, libraries and public record offices. I looked upon him as a trainspotter who’d developed a new, inexhaustible statistical hobby.
It was summer and Stephen always wore the same outfit of baggy beige shorts and T shirts that clung to his midriff. It was not a good look, but you can forgive grown-up trainspotters for dodgy wardrobes. Stephen lived alone in a spacious flat two thirds up a high rise block near a railway station in south London. Stephen had a partner with a house on the south coast where she lived with her two daughters. He told me they only got together at weekends.
Stephen didn’t appear to have a job, but I didn’t reflect on this. His flat was probably council, with the spectacular wide angle views across London spoiled due to the windows not having been washed for years. Although Stephen’s place was largely tidy, it was typically batchelor and unhomely. There wasn’t a lot of furniture and two of the three bedrooms were packed with filing cabinets and box folders and heaps of old newspapers and scrapbooks lined up in small towers.
Stephen insisted that although the history he was writing would still take many years, already trends of note were emerging from the research. He said that the number of children in the UK murdered through sexual motivation by people unknown to them remained consistent in recent decades, hovering at an average of four to five per annum. But I was only half listening because Stephen’s history of child sex crimes wasn’t what I wanted to discuss.
At this time there was much disquiet in the culture concerning the representation of children in art imagery but also mainstream materials. In the US and UK the work of diverse artists including Sally Mann, Larry Clarke, Jock Sturges and Robert Mapplethorpe had been subject to accusations of prurience in their depictions of minors. The police had descended on art galleries advising curators to remove works from exhibitions on the grounds of being child pornography. Booksellers including Harrods had been warned that certain art books should not be on sale. A mainstream publisher received a visit from the London vice squad after publication of a retrospective on Mapplethorpe. Over coffee on comfy sofas, the vice cops told the managing director he was in breach of the Child Protection act for releasing the book – and so were the printers. The managing director and the publisher’s lawyer pointed out that all of the images in the retrospective had previously been shown at exhibitions or reproduced in other publications.
The law was confused. The police were confused. A young woman photographed semi naked as a child by Mapplethorpe, was now grown up and owned a cafe in west London. She had an enlarged copy of Mapplethorpe’s depiction of her younger self bolted to the wall behind the counter. The police visited the woman and told her to take the picture down. She refused.
There were regular outbreaks of outrage fever causing the police to blunder into areas they needed to keep away from. A department store was reported to the local constabulary over a window display including a popular image (at that time) of a bare chested man holding a naked baby in his arms. Some shoppers found the photograph upsetting – in their eyes there was something unseemly, almost sexual, about a man caring for a baby without a shirt on.
It was in this public mood of over-sensitivity and intolerance that Stephen campaigned for sanity by writing letters to the newspapers concerning the intricacies of child protection and media. Some of these letters were published – in The Telegraph, the Guardian and The Independent. I suspect many other letters from Stephen were passed over by the editor.
Stephen correctly argued for the authorities to be more clearly focussed by differentiating between records of serious sexual abuse of children – crimes urgently in need of policing – and images that were not records of crimes, but made some people feel uneasy.
|Candy Cigarette, by Sally Mann|
This was largely the area of my concern for the chapter I was researching. I interviewed Stephen for background material and the occasional quote. He was generous with his time. We met twice at his flat and once he cycled across south London to my home to drop off some news cuttings. I thought it was kind that Stephen took the time. He said he didn’t trust the post.
During our conversations Stephen would often leap up and go fetch an item from his archives to support a point. He treated his archive material with great care. I remember him sweating to safely withdraw a photo from a tight envelope. The photo was an example of his research into an area he called pseudo porn – images constructed by digital editing software like Photoshop.
Stephen spoke a lot about the controversial artist Graham Ovenden and society portrait photographer Ron Oliver, both of whom he knew, both of whom had recently been the focus of police investigations for alleged breaches under the Child Protection act. Occasionally, Stephen asked me to switch off my tape recorder worried he was about to stray into a legally contentious area.
Ron Oliver had left the UK under police suspicion and had relocated his family and business to France. Stephen told me that he’d also recently been to France. That he was a naturist and he and his partner had taken her two young daughters on a naturist holiday in Provence.
Stephen was overweight and flabby. He had a weak and wobbly chin. I remember wondering what would it be like to bump into the naked Stephen at the supermarket on the naturist campsite. He’d be pushing a trolley filled with pizza, beer and briquettes. I pictured him playing cards in the buff sitting outside his caravan on a hot summer’s evening. Or bending over the barbecue to check the flame had gone out.
I carried on with researching and writing my book. I quoted Stephen a couple of times and gave him an acknowledgement. The book came out. Life moved on.
Seven years passed and I’d changed jobs, and in a large open plan office late one afternoon in early spring, the sky was getting dark beyond the windows and the lights were on in the building opposite.
I wasn’t leaving until after six. The rows of desks and chairs were mostly empty as a lot of staff had departed already for the day. I’d stopped working and was reading online. I went to the BBC website and skimmed the landing page. I saw the headline ‘Paedophilia expert abused girls’ and followed the link.
And there was a picture of Stephen looking back at me. Stephen was the ‘paedophilia expert’. My stomach dropped and I remember that I felt a big tummy drop momentarily repeating the headline ‘Paedophilia expert abused girls’.
I clicked away from the story, a guilty reflex from lifting the wrong rock with something nasty and rotten underneath. I looked away from the screen, around the empty office and behind me at the deserted desks. And then I clicked back on the story.
The lead picture was clearly Stephen. But a very different version to the person I’d interviewed. He’d changed his face – had lost weight, cut back his hair and grown a wild beard as long as a bib.
The report said Stephen had been jailed for seven years for the sexual abuse of three girls. The three girls were aged between nine and thirteen. Stephen had pleaded guilty to twenty one counts, including ten cases of indecent assault and having sex with a ten-year-old girl. (Stephen had previously served six months in jail for gross indecency in the late 1980s, said the report, using a different surname.) The police had visited Stephen’s south London flat on suspicion of benefit fraud and discovered 500 photographs and a video record of his abuse of the three girls, which took place over a period of 38 months. Stephen had also written a diary record of each sexual encounter.
I recalled Stephen’s history of child sex crimes, his meticulous detailing of each event. The compulsion to write it all down. It all came into view suddenly. All the pieces rearranged into a new shape – not just the painstaking compiling of information, or Stephen’s obsession with sex crimes, but the naturism, the solitariness, the friends he kept, the unkempt state of his flat, the jumpiness with my tape recorder, that he didn’t trust the post… All of these possible clues, the many stray details, comments and slivers of information about Stephen reconfigured before my eyes, as the profile of a sex abuser belatedly came into view.
The fridge logic in cinema culture is the moment when a viewer reappraises the plausibility of the film they just watched. Usually a flaw in the narrative reveals itself on returning home, just as we reach inside the fridge for something to drink: Yes, But, Wait a second! Why? A fridge logic moment apparently takes on average thirty minutes to land, depending on distance travelled to and from the cinema. Seven years it took with Stephen.
After work I showed my partner the story online. She dimly remembered the time Stephen dropped off the cuttings at our old place, Stephen’s baggy shorts and his scarlet face from cycling.
Stephen’s story was now on other news sites. My eyes kept switching between the text and Stephen’s creepy photo. It was an extreme face. Stephen’s beard was wild and the way he had his eyes closed felt macabre. His expression signalled an emotional state somewhere between shame and detachment; a kind of submission but also an absence, a bid perhaps to remove himself from his crimes, the guilt and the loathing – I did a lot of bad things and then I closed my eyes.
Plainly Stephen’s picture was a police photo, and mugshots inevitably re-contextualise the subject into convict. Nevertheless, the unstable face is open to different interpretations. Is Stephen’s troubling visage a form of declaration as he prepares to be banged up a child abuser? There is a kind of self ownership, something defiant (or unrepentant) in fixing your facial appearance to look like you recently joined singer Gary Glitter’s pedophile gang.
I remembered Stephen warning, that there were men who were dangerous and should never be left alone with children. Stephen was that man. Is that what he was telling me and I didn’t get it because I couldn’t read faces?
I wanted to see Stephen again. I told my partner it seemed to matter, that I needed to make him explain. All that deception – was he just a predatory child abuser with a crafty cover story?
As I looked at Stephen’s photo for the last time that evening, another mugshot came to mind, one from when I was a teenager.
This mugshot was the face of a murderer, a man called Harry Gallagher. Harry killed a priest and his housekeeper in Scotland in the 1960s. He was sent to jail for double homicide. He served a large chunk of his sentence in a prison in the south of England. My dad used to visit Harry Gallagher in jail and they would talk. I’m not sure what they talked about – I never asked.
For five years my dad worked at a charity for prisoners. For many weeks in the year he travelled to all of the jails in the southern half of the country to meet with Catholic inmates. He saw spivs and con artists and robbers and drug addicts and murderers. But only Catholics.
Some of my dad’s Catholic jailbirds came to stay with us as they neared the end of their sentence. They would travel up to London for the weekend and sleep over at our house. The idea was a small advance dose of freedom to help prepare for final release. One soon-to-be ex con stayed for two nights and barely said a word – just please and thank you and lots of blushing. He was a lost soul, looking back. A few weeks after he left prison for keeps, he committed suicide, hanged himself in a hostel.
Another visitor watched the Eurovision Song Contest with the whole family and couldn’t stop chatting away and then absconded with my dad’s cheque book. He went wild with a week of high living in the west end. He bought shirts from Jermyn Street and had Champagne and sandwiches at The Ritz.
Harry Gallagher was supposed to come stay with us. But he didn’t make it to London. He left his south coast prison and got on the train to Waterloo and then got off again and went for a wander around several seaside villages and towns. When Harry failed to arrive at my dad’s London office, a call was made to the jail and police saying Harry was missing.
As evening fell, feeling tired and disoriented, Harry knocked on the door of a presbytery next to a Catholic church seeking assistance. That’s what Harry said later, he was seeking assistance. The priest and Harry argued on the doorstep. (My dad never said about what.) Harry punched the priest and dragged him inside and then reached out for a doorstop and bashed in the cleric’s head.
The priest was dead at Harry’s side and Harry fled. He went on the run and was briefly Britain’s most wanted and the lead item on the TV news. Harry’s beardy mugshot filled the TV screen. His eyes were like flames.
At this point Harry’s disordered mind decided that it was my dad’s fault the weekend release had gone so badly. He called the police from a phone box threatening to come to London and slaughter our family. We had a police guard for two nights before Harry turned himself in at a police station close to his prison.
Remembering Harry helped me forget about Stephen. But in the morning, Stephen’s face was waiting there when I opened the laptop. I thought of my plan to go see him. I envisaged a trip to a forbidding Victorian jail miles from London. Probably one of the institutions my dad used to visit regularly in the 70s. Another Reading. Maybe the same jail Dad went to see Harry Gallagher.
Soon after Harry had returned to prison, with a new extended sentence, he asked to see my dad again. They resumed their monthly meetings. But their meetings were now high security, with Harry in handcuffs and two prison guards watching over him. Harry wouldn’t look my dad in the eyes to begin with. He spoke only to his shoes. What have I done? These were his first words. He told my dad he saw the dead face of the priest each night trying to go to sleep in his bunk.
I decided to write to Stephen. I also approached his solicitor. The solicitor who’d spoken in court on behalf of his client, saying Stephen was ‘fully remorseful and hoped to be able to apologise to the girls one day.’ Stephen hoped to be able to apologise to the girls one day. Was it just me, or did that statement seem not only inauthentic but in poor taste? Would the girls really wish to meet again with their abuser?
Stephen’s solicitor never wrote back. Stephen didn’t write back. His prison sentence has been served now and presumably he’s back out in the world. I wonder where he lives and what he’s up to.
* Telling tech what to do. One time, testing an system update to my phone, I opened Siri but couldn’t think what to say. So, I asked how big is my penis and Siri replied, ‘No need for that’. I felt suitably ticked off, that I’d let myself down, but also men in the eyes of Siri.
** On Smart Home Devices and Insurance. While I was writing this piece, the insurance firm Admiral announced plans to analyse customers’ social media as a guide for determining the price of car insurance. Facebook accounts of first-time car owners would be mined for personality traits linked to safe driving. Those who appear to be conscientious could expect to rank well when it comes to setting premiums.
The Guardian reports industry expectations that insurance will be ‘the major business model underpinning the IoT [Internet of Things] similar to how advertising bankrolls many web platforms.’
Insurance companies are creating connected devices to track their customer’s driving, their smoke alarms, home heating, or fitness trackers.
Discounts are being offered to encourage customers to allow insurance companies access to personal data, to give permission for smart devices to record and report back on user behaviour. Insurance companies want to monitor how we live now – not only so they can sell more things at the highest prices, but to keep watch on customer risk levels. Every time you reach into the fridge to get another doughnut, or beer, your insurance company that partnered with your Fitbit will know about it. The longer you delay replacing the batteries in your smart smoke alarm by Nest, the more your insurance policy ‘risk score’ climbs.
*** On Rupert Sheldrake and parapsychology. Sheldrake started out as a biochemist and cellular scientist but migrated overtime into the obviously highly contentious field of parapsychology. Sheldrake has also argued in his work in support of the psychic staring effect. Fellow scientists are largely dismissive of his recent work and rarely engage with someone they perceive to now be very plainly ex-science – like a colleague who regrettably fell of a cliff.
**** On telepathy. In a tribute shortly after Prince died, singer Terence Trent D’Arby joked that Prince ‘once berated me for not responding to a telepathic message he sent.’ D’Arby continued ‘I did receive it but I told him that I was busy sending a message to Michael Jackson.’
At Reading station, after the jail, waiting for a train back to London, I listen to Prince on my headphones. Alphabet Street comes on. The song always makes me happy. It never fails to make me want to move. But this evening the happy level is cranked up higher. I can’t say why now, tonight, but I get a rush of joy remembering seeing Prince on the Lovesexy tour all those years ago singing Alphabet Street. It was the last of the second encore, and at the close of the song, Prince climbed upon a mock Thunderbird which carried him off stage as his band played out the last few bars.
Draped on the roof of the Thunderbird. Prince smiled and waved and did the self-mocking thing with rolling his eyes. And I saw all this again in my head on Reading station and something moved inside of me. I got a feeling, a gust – not a ghost – of warm feeling, something good, that although Prince was dead, it wasn’t sad because he was also still alive because of the joy released in Alphabet Street. This moment of telepathy, the message from the other side, came in the words of Nabokov, from Pale Fire, ‘The lost glove is happy’.
Everybody, everybody knows, that when love calls, you got to go.
***** The material on Paul Ekman’s face atlas is informed in part by Where on Earth are you? by Frances Stonor Saunders, the London Review of Books, March 3, 2016