I am in the shadow of Thames House. Sixth floor. Windows open to defeat stuffiness. The droning circles of a military helicopter crowds the room. Low in the sky, a trajectory taking it towards the Babylon-on-Thames building. Its bullying sound obscures the 11am chimes of Big Ben. It passes quickly, but the thworp thworp of its blades dominates until it has nearly crossed the river. Over the next two hours, more follow.
Desensitisation to my surroundings is rare. The city lives in my senses and imagination. I can navigate by the smell of agarwood incense and fried sambusac along Edgeware Road. Close my eyes, listen to the soft exhalation of traffic and know whether I am in Kensington or Earl’s Court. Still the psychic static and I can feel temporal echoes of history occulted by the exigencies of everday life.
Yet in this particular corner of the Westminster village, I become strangely insensitive to the stories of stone and brick. Numb to the paranoid reek that should sting my eyes. Inside the security triangle, some protective mechanism kicks in and forces you to tune out the whole industry of fear embedded in the territory. Tune out Five and all its manifestations of the Eye of Providence.
Today, after the intrusion of helicopter flights, ignoring my milieu is not an option. The spell is broken. Armoured Range Rovers charge down Horseferry Road like metallic black rhinos. I cannot help but recognise chaps I know from Five emerging from Starbucks. View architecture as a series of adaptations to the risk of explosives measured in the clinical horror of high yield numbers.
England occupies little more than 0.1% of the globe’s inhabitable land mass, yet boasts more than 20% of the world’s CCTV camera. It seems as if a good proportion of them are concentrated in this section of Millbank. Step outside the blast doors and the invisible tyranny of constant observation begins. Smart and suspicious software analysing number plates, faces and gait. Cameras chittering data to distant electronic brains. Kick-starting paranoid pouring through stored information for recognised faces, walks and numerical sequences.
Walking here turns us into data ghosts. Our movements translated into a virtual world where our very existence is reason for distrust. Each camera capture a new scene in a fragmented narrative obsessed with trying to discern motive from detail. We have become extras in a film we will never get to see.