Three of my recent paintings are on show at the 2013/14 Cut Open, at the Cut Halesworth Suffolk – see below. This is a good, very well-hung show in a lovely space, and all works submitted have been accommodated on the walls. Well worth a visit. It is on until Sat 11 Jan.
Being Spied on in the Illfare State
Mermaids will not be denied
The last bubbles of our shame
The dragon flaunts an unpierced hide
The true fiend governs in God’s name
Robert Graves, Mermaid, Dragon.Fiend
I have been reading a correspondence between the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer and the American poet Robert Bly: TT was in Budapest in October 1969, where he visited a Hungarian poet; he wrote:
Pilinsky lives in one room in a flat in central Budapest (like most Hungarians he can’t afford a flat of his own).
I read the sentence with a horrible shock of recognition: forty-four years later this describes the situation for many people in London today. We are going backwards.
Growing up after WW2, the majority of my generation who cared about politics took it as axiomatic that everyone in Great Britain and Ireland should have a job (and that everyone should work); that a job should pay a living wage, and that everyone should have health-care, education, and decent housing, financed by universal insurance via taxation. Maybe the performance fell short, but the aspiration remained the same. No longer true – test the propositions for yourself .
It may seem odd that the spying and intrusion which has been going on has not raised much more indignation and protest from older generations. There is a simple reason for this, namely, that we have all always taken for granted that we were being spied on. The extended generation I am talking about includes people like Kim Howells MP, Jack Straw MP, Peter Hain MP, Tariq Ali, and a few more millions.
One exemplary event hangs in my mind like a little film-clip – a French student visitor at Hornsey College of Art in the summer of ’68 lifting the telephone to phone home, and an English student bringing him down with a rugby tackle: nobody was allowed to make connections with other radical groups on a college phone. It had to be done in some random phone-box.
The assumption that the phones were tapped was tested in various ways. One way I heard about took place in central London. One of the radical organisations telephoned several others to arrange a Demo, specifying date, time and place of assembly. Then someone went round on foot to tell the recipients that this was a spoof. At the allotted time and place they took great pleasure in observing the police wagons draw up for the phantom event. Communication is a two-way street, after all.
At Hornsey College of Art there was an elderly art historian called Susie – from somewhere in Central Europe. She would shout at the student and staff radicals “Well, if that’s what you want, why don’t you go to Moscau!” She was not aware
(why should she have been?) that the minority of students who belonged to formal political organisations were Trotskyists, and that the unattached majority were libertarians. Just the people the KGB would have locked up, or eliminated. after a successful invasion. In my own case, hilariously, a friend who was teaching army officers told me that my name had come up in conversation as someone to be interned in the case of an imminent conflict. And of course, a list of who to lock up in the case of hostilities with country X or Y must exist, just like the plan in the Pentagon for taking over Great Britain in the event of a Red Government. And no, we can’t prove that it exists, because it is secret.
The Intelligence Community are rather more than less likely to make the same misjudgements as Susie. Firstly because of the political colour-blindness of people in a authoritarian position, and secondly because of the inevitable institutional paranoia of these organisations. They are set up to suspect the worst on our behalf, and indeed they do. Given that some of them thought Harold Wilson and Michael Foot were Russian spies it is only to be expected that they continue to construct paranoid fantasies; only the terms have changed. The organisation which may usefully defend us against real would-be suicide bombers also seeks to defend the State against the Vegetable Defence League. Those members of the Intelligence Community who are closest to the ground, mingling with real people and with some idea what is really going on, are by definition not at the top, making the strategic decisions
Most of the information about us which is now gathered will never be looked at by anyone: there are not the hours of work available. Of what remains, some will be scrutinised for respectable reasons, and some will be used for quite other purposes: laws brought in for one purpose end up being used for another. The Russians are not the only people who think “Demonstration = Piracy? =Hooliganism?”
Paranoia is infectious, in all directions, and destroys the social integration which, within a good State, ensures that extreme divergences from our moral standards are not tolerated by ordinary citizens. There is another problem with the Spying State, namely that it supports a conspiracy to insist that secrecy is indispensible, which all members of the Intelligence Communities world-wide affirm. Their international solidarity on this issue is amazing. A very large proportion of what they do is pointless and unproductive, but of course we don’t know what that is, because it is secret. Spying is not just an inept Government joke. It also costs us taxes.
Recent figures in the Guardian state that the three British state spying agencies have a combined staff of over 10.000 with a combined annual budget of £2bn. There is a Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, to scrutinizes the intelligence agencies. “Who shall watch the watchers?” the Romans asked. Well not many people it seems, since that committee is underfunded, according to Kim Howells MP. The average number of people killed by terrorism in the UK, 1990 to 2010 was 5.8, whereas the figure of those killed or seriously injured in road accidents in 2011 was just over 25.000. How many lives could we save by applying a billion or so pounds to improving road safety? A better use of our limited resources?
Teresa May was recently asked by Keith Vaz if she had been told of any concrete case of danger to personel as a result of Snowdon revelations. She danced round the question, coming across as increasingly shifty and evasive. She couldn’t say, because it was secret. Recently it was also announced that investigation had shown no evidence that the SAS were involved in the death of Lady Di. Well, that may be true. Or it may not. In Mandy Rice Davis’ formulation “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” The more this secrecy goes on, the more we don’t believe a word they say.