John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Frankly, I feel more surveyed, spied on and flash-filmed than Shilpa Shetty, and I'm sick of it'
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The Independent Online

In the boys' comics of my childhood, the small-ads at the back featured all manner of practical jokery, from fake dog shit to put on your houseproud aunt's Sheraton rug, to fake cigarettes that puffed French chalk and appalled lollipop ladies in the street (how innocent we were - today it'd have to be joke hypodermics to shock anyone). Among the devices coveted by 14-year-old readers were the See-back-o-scope, which allowed you to spot people stealing up behind you, and X-ray spectacles, to see what people in the street looked like with nothing on. This latter used to pitch us into ecstasies of rude fantasy, even though its premise - that all the local Ursuline Convent girls would become stark naked before our very eyes as we walked down the street - was based on faulty logic: a real X-ray machine would go right through their outer and under-garments and reveal their bone structure, a less delightful or arousing proposition. Still, I dreamed of the day when I might encounter gorgeous Jill Nicholson from the Upper Fifth in the street, engage her in conversation, slip on my special specs and casually remark: "Nasty-looking bruise on your rib cage there, Jilly," just to hear her gasp.

Now the Government has caught up with the back pages of Valiant and Titbits. Mr Blair's working group on security, crime and justice is planning to install X-ray cameras in "street furniture" such as lampposts - and they'll be able to penetrate through your clothes to inspect your, ahem, undraped loveliness. "The detection of weapons and explosives will become easier," says a leaked memo, insisting that airport drug-searching technology "could be developed for a much more widespread use in public spaces". But, of course, what will also become easier will be the detection of your novelty boxer shorts, your Agent Provocateur suspender belt, your carefully concealed hernia truss, and your ludicrously too-large or pitifully too-small rude bits.

The Sun, well-known for its high-minded distaste at any exhibition of naked flesh, anticipates an outcry: "The prospect of the State snooping on individuals' most private parts is certain to spark national fury," thundered the red top. I'm not so sure. The X-ray images I've seen show outlines of torsos and breasts, but every feature is blurred, every head is bald, every expression is blank - really, it's hard to imagine anything less titillating, except perhaps an episode of Skins. But I liked the gallant idea that only women officers would be allowed to check the state of female passers-by on the monitor screen - I mean, what would happen if a bomb went off and you had to check every person in the street for concealed weapons? Would you keep a WPC on hand to inspect the X-ray images of ladies fleeing past, before the men discreetly took over, to deal with their own gender? It would be chaos.

I'm no keener than anyone else on the ubiquity of surveillance systems. Frankly, on roads, in banks and shopping malls, I feel more surveyed, spied on and flash-filmed than Shilpa Shetty, and I'm sick of it. But if the only way to detect that the burden inside the rucksack being hoisted on to the Tube seat beside you is not an Apple PowerBook but 50lbs of semtex and chapatti flour, it's worth the embarrassment of the world knowing about your grubby thermal undies from Primark.

* Political rhetoric is going through a bad patch. It was instructive to hear the Home Secretary and the leader of the Opposition on Radio 4's Today programme yesterday, both wrestling with ill-chosen metaphors. First, John Reid explained that his burden at the Home Office is akin to a chap renovating a house and removing the wallpaper, only to discover more problems behind it. His analogy left voters with a mental picture of Home Office walls full of cracks and rotting lathes. It doesn't inspire confidence, does it?

Ten minutes later, David Cameron was on, trotting out his favourite trope, about the "barriers" that hold back a perfect Tory society. Gosh, how that man goes on about barriers. "How do we remove the barriers that hold prosperity back?" was his regular refrain last year. "We want to break down the barriers between public, voluntary and private," he used in speeches during the leadership contest. Yesterday, it was the turn of the multicultural society. We must, he said, bring down the barriers that divide communities, including the barrier that comes from "uncontrolled immigration". But if you want to stem "uncontrolled immigration", David, aren't you advocating putting barriers up, rather than taking them down?

* I'm intrigued by the story in the Hindustan Times about the US fireman buying himself a new chin to fit his professional image. "I'm a firefighter. I need to look the part. I wanted to improve my jawline," John Conway told the Sir Ganga Ram hospital in New Delhi, as he took to one of their beds, coughed up £800 and handed them a photograph of Bruce Willis as a kind of guide. How interesting to think one should want to conform to the stereotype of one's job. Will we now find wine waiters going under the knife to acquire a perfect, incredulous sneer? Will private investigators henceforth strive to resemble Hercule Poirot as impersonated by Albert Finney? Should I try plastic surgery to adopt the look of "rat-like cunning" that Nicholas Tomalin called the main characteristic of every journalist? Or should I just bring in a photo of Jack Lemmon in The Front Page and say, "Make me just like that, please".