My arrival in London, thankfully, was not as eventful as I had dreaded it would be. I arrived at Heathrow Airport on the morning of Friday the 13th and contrary to what one might have expected given the unlucky date, I had no problems whatsoever in immigration. In fact, I had forgotten to take down my cousin’s address where I planned to stay, so I didn’t know it to include it on the landing card. Fortunately, I sat next to a backpacker on my flight, and I took his youth hostel’s address from him and wrote that in instead. Even still, I didn’t raise any suspicion.
Kamran, my cousin, just moved to London about nine months ago. He is studying at the East London University. He resides in East Ham in East London. He shares an apartment with six or seven other guys, all students from Pakistan. The guys turned out to be a friendly bunch, and we had some interesting conversations.
London has an impressive public transportation network, comprised mainly of the Underground or Tube as they refer to it (subway, as we Americans call it) and buses. It is a sophisticated, highly developed system. Given the cost and energy required to maintain our own MTA network in New York, I can only imagine the generous taxpayer support it must require to manage this behemoth.
As impressive as its transportation network, what’s most striking about London is CCTV – Closed Circuit TV. There are cameras everywhere! They protrude from street corners, jut from ceilings, and peek from behind pillars. There were cameras even in a Starbucks on Oxford Street. It’s a weird feeling, knowing that you’re under observation at all times. That camera hanging so unassumingly from the ceiling, is it focused on me right now? Zooming in perhaps to get a closer look at my face? Catching me pluck my nose hair or pull out wedged underwear? I’m reminded of the Orwellian “Big Brother” — ever-alert, omnipresent, and presumably benevolent. I’ve often wondered in America how we get people to obey laws. Is it simply because everyone agrees to them and fully understands the mutual benefit derived from adhering to the law? It seems hardly likely. I think it’s more likely due to the threat of an enforcer, of the cop waiting to pull you over if you run the red light on a deserted road. Then again, there might be no cop, and you can take the risk of running the light. In London, however, the enforcer is always watching. And if Mayor Bloomberg gets his way, we will see a similar network of cameras crop up in lower Manhattan as well. Does the government have the right to monitor public space in such a manner?