They can watch you but you cannot watch them in this so-called ‘freedom loving’ society. The Saudi Embassy in London has two policemen guarding it. One is stationed at the front on busy Curzon Street. He walks back and forth outside the embassy gates on an elevated gravel surface. The other stands solemnly outside the backdoor. One cold January morning, whilst taking photographs of Mayfair, I found myself on Curzon Street. Noticing the policeman strolling back and fourth outside the Saudi Embassy, I crouched down and zoomed in. The officer, clocking my presence, scuttled behind a tree. Trying in vain to hone in on the officer through the viewfinder, all I ended up with was a photo of a tree, behind which the officer was hiding, and behind both of which the embassy stood. I then approached the tree, and took a second photograph, during which time the officer appeared and clearing his throat, asked me to make it my last photograph. Naturally, confused by this communication, I asked for clarification on whether an order was being issued or a request being made. The office, showing some degree of irritation, sidestepped my request for clarification and advised it would be better if I walked away. I talked about rights and he told me about the need for caution in the present climate. Perplexed I stood rooted to the spot, which he responded to by situating his not inconsiderable frame between the embassy and myself.
I told him I was taking photographs for a guide to London. He said ‘don’t you think there are already too many guides to London?’ Taking on the role of unpaid media consultant, he reminded me there were other buildings I could take photographs of. Widening his remit much further, he warned that if I were to take another photograph I could be detained under suspicion of terrorism. I put it to him that if I were a jihadi terrorist I would not approach the Saudi embassy with a huge camera, debating civil liberties. He begged to differ. He called me idiotic. I called him dishonest. I asked him how many days he and his police friends could detain me. ‘Don’t you read the papers?’ he said. No I said. Well try 72.
He looked into my eyes. I reflected that if I was in Brazil he’d probably have pistol-whipped me. My brain then started to download stories of the Metropolitan Police beating the shit out of innocents, and I developed a cold sweat. Where was my stubbornness going to take me?
The officer reminded me that I was boring him. And yet you seem to enjoy talking to me I told him. He gave me a withering glance, looked away and shook his head.
‘You’re creating a scene’ he told me, referring to the female security guard from the Saudi Embassy, stood behind the gates, the spot she had been in since before I had arrived. As she watched our spectacle unfold, she chatted into her walky-talky. ‘Have you got your cameras on him?’ asked the officer.
An interregnum then followed, a standoff, an awkward silence, like two lovers out on a first date run out of things to say. A kiss was out of the question. He stared at me. I stared at him back, albeit nervously, vaguely formulated fantasies of gangs of officers arresting me, prompting frequent surges of adrenaline.
I asked the officer if I could stand on the elevated ground he was standing on. He pointed out he was standing on private property and affected a great deal of enthusiasm at the prospect of being able to arrest me for trespassing. I moved towards the elevated area, he took in a sharp intake of air. He was just about to grab hold of me when I pointed out that whilst close, millimeters of air separated my shoe from the private property, on which I had no intention of trespassing.
I told the policeman I wanted to look at the embassy unimpeded. Earlier on he had told me he would not impede my view if I wanted to look at the embassy. But now he was staring me in the eyes, he was going to protect the embassy from my desirous advances. I took a step to the right. The chaperone took a step to his left. We moved like this, in what a passer-by might have misconstrued for an elaborate mating ritual, until we reached that tree. I stepped to my right, he followed suit, I stepped to the right, but he couldn’t go any further because the tree was in the way, so he had to go behind. Now I could look at the embassy impeded by the tree, but unimpeded by the policeman. I lingered, inwardly smiling at this stalemate. A further step to the right and I was reunited. I then took him out to the far right, into his comfort zone, which paradoxically left me with a good view of the embassy. I took an unusual interest in the fine detail of the building, using its white surface as an object of meditation. Then I wandered off, ultimately beaten, intimidated and scared, to take photographs of the next building.
Later on that same day, at around lunchtime, I found myself walking past the back entrance to the embassy, where another officer was stationed. I am pretty sure my physical appearance had been communicated and that he had been psyching himself up for my possible appearance, because when he saw me the faintest of smiles straightened out his lips and a few twinges of anxiety rippled through his physiognomy. He looked at me with an air of all knowing all-powerful smugness. I didn’t care to look at him much, but I felt eyes following me down the street, after I had walked past him.
Still later I came across the American Embassy, a fortress with barriers, overlooking the squared acre of Grosvenor Square Garden, set within the plush Georgian environ of Grosvenor Square. Stationed within the embassy’s barriers, a mean looking police officer, toting an enormous machine gun, which more than compensated for whichever department he was lacking in, followed me around the perimeter of the Embassy. So hard was the adrenaline pumping that even I, with all my stubbornness, couldn’t bear to think of the consequences of pointing my camera at a mercenary, whose raison d’etre was to convert human beings into heaps of flesh resembling oversized discarded Big Macs. However, stood some fifty yards away, stood on one of the many street corners of Grosvenor Square, I summoned up the courage to take a photograph. Whilst doing so, I saw a plain clothed American embassy security man, modestly built, 55 years of age, dressed in casuals, with a small bag slung over his shoulder, affecting to be a meandering, slightly lost looking tourist, checking me out. I stopped on the corner, as he had stopped on the corner, and looked over to him looking over to me.
I then walked into Grosvenor Square Garden, which sits in front of the Embassy, sat on a park bench and from one hundred yards took another snap, discerning a guard from the embassy watching me. Eventually I decided to get up and leave. Having existed the garden and walking along the road, which bordered the park, a police car approached slowly from the opposite direction. It stopped, let out an officer five meters in front of me, and then drove up to my side. The officer on the street approached me and asked me to take my hands out of my pockets. I did. Two more officers pulled up on motorbikes in haste. The driver of the car got out, and clarified with a colleague on a police radio that he didn’t need any further assistance. I was armed, but only with a semi-automatic camera, and for that four officers were judged sufficient. For taking photographs I was apprehended under some section of an Act to do with terrorism, had my camera removed and much personal information, including identifying scars, noted down, apparently all for my own benefit. The officer checking my photos looked taxed by the job of flicking through several hundred humdrum photos of Mayfair’s back streets. He sighed and commented wistfully on the incredible storage capacity of digital cameras. At the same time he engaged me in light conversation about the architectural wonders of London, a tactic, which he seemed to be deploying to keep me relaxed. He flicked through my photos, all 400 odd, one after the other, and then handed back the camera. Offering my hand, which he accepted reluctantly, and feeling sick with nerves, I returned home. The officer hadn’t found any photos of the American embassy on my camera because I’d taken them all with my mobile phone.