history is a nightmare

This is a translation of a piece I recently wrote for an art exhibition here in Berlin on the theme of state surveillance.


James Joyce once wrote ‘

‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken’.

1975. Liverpool. The Jesuit lays the glossy magazines on the floor before us. The morning is bright and the sun shines through the high windows. In each magazine he has found advertising for holidays in exotic locations, beautiful photographs of Africa, Thailand and India. Then he looks at us. Young men, of thirtenn or fourteen years of age.

‘What would you say about these?’

Silence. He looks at each of us again and then says.

‘They are obscene.’

33. Palestine. At a pre-arranged moment, the spy comes into the gargen and kisses the young man so the soldiers will know which one he is. They know almost nothing about him. Nevertheless they will kill him. As a warning to others.

1976. Liverpool. An English lesson. A discussion about Bill Naughton’s short story collection, ‘The Goalkeeper’s Revenge’. The short, easily angered teacher, Mr Smith, with his carefully trimmed black beard, wants to know what we have tosay about the one of the character’s statements.

‘You never own anything in life that you haven’t made yourself or earned the money yourself to buy it.’

We look at him, clueless. He prowls along the front row.

‘Is there anybody at home?’ He drips sarcasm into our silence.

Slowly, ever more appalled, he walks between the rows to the back of the room. His voice full of disbelief and disappointment…

‘Really? Nothing?’

Finally, he strides back to the front and slams his copy of the book on his desk.

‘For God’s sake! It’s just true! It’s true, isn’t it?’

He stares around the classroom at each of us. Sighing, shaking our heads, we could only make a show of regretting our stupidity.


532. Mesopotamia. Saint Simon Stylites climbs onto his column. From here he can see far across the desert, watch the people and promises his God he has everything under control. The people make fun of him but in the night they come with food and with questions.


1979. Liverpool. At this time there was no surveillance except for the Irish. Unfortunately we were Irish. A Wednesday eveining, like hundreds of others. We’re watching telly. Ken Livingston, the future London Mayor, is being interviewed.

‘And, of course,’ he says,’I am under surveillance’.

‘How can you be so sure?’ asks the interviewer sceptically.

‘Because’ he replies, perfectly relaxed, ‘ the technology isn’t that sophisticated. When I put the receiever down at the end of a call, and then immediatley pick it up again, you can hear the cassette recorder stopping.’

He smiles and adds.

‘Click, click, whirr’.

A little later I go to our telephone and ring Tim, the speaking clock.

‘At the third stroke it will be 8.45 precisely.’

I replace the reciever slowly and then immediately pick it up again and listen.

Click, click, whirr.


1980. Liverpool. I am nineteen. I’m putting my trainers on. I’m going jogging. My father looks at me, mystified.

‘What’s that about? Have you finished the newspaper? Have you not got a book?’


1983. Liverpool. November. Afternoon. Outside it is already dark. In the pub snug my father is waiting on a friend who may already have gone home. The legs are not so good today….

A man, who he doesn’t know, comes over from the bar and sits himself next to him.

‘I heard your accent. You’re Irish yea?’

My father does not reply.

‘I’m over from Dublin. I’ve not been long in England’.

My father says nothing.

‘Do you get back home at all?’

My father does not reply but then he asks a question.

‘What was the number of the Dalkey tram? We all had great times on the beach at Dalkey didn’t we?

What was the number of the tram to the beach?’

The man is silent. My father looks him in the eye. And he knows and the man knows that he knows.


1994 London. I meet an old friend, quite by chance, in the Underground. There are so many people its hard to move on the station platform.

‘Hi,’ I shout over the crowd,’nice to see you’.

‘Yea, you too’, he shouts back, ‘I really liked what you’ve been writing in ‘The Times”.

‘No,’ I shout back,’that’s another Nicholas Timmons, the journalist.’

‘No, no, it is you’.

‘Ok’, I concede as the crowd moves me towards the hissing of the opening tube train doors.


1819. Vienna. Josephine comes late in the evening, veiled and with false papers. Her estranged husband has already taken from her three of her children. In the shadows she sees men following her. She is being spied upon. Her husband wants to take the other children away too. For his ‘eternal beloved’, there is nothing that Beethoven can do.


1998. London. It’s late in the night. I’m in a taxi on the way home. London is huge and cold. The driver somehow can feel my loneliness. My life has run out of control.

‘Have you ever been in Thailand?’ he asks.

‘No’, I reply, already wincing before he utters the words.

‘Over there, the women know how to look after you, yea, young women too’.

I say nothing but I still put the question to myself.


2001. London. We’re sitting together in a bar. Halves. We are trying to find some other subject than house prices to talk about. The market is out of control but we’re grateful, fascinated and just a little bit guilty. Mr Smith is still there in my head somewhere.


2004 London. The old American, about my father’s age, that is well into his seventies, his forehead injected and his stomach girdled, asks.

‘And how old is your sister?’

‘Forty two’.

‘Just my target group’.


2012. London. The Paralympics. I am bitterly disappointed. All limbs are under control. We disabled people monitor our bodies, determined to be as absolutely presentable as everybody esle.


2013 Berlin. After paint balling, tree climbing. Bungee jumping. Parachuting and swimming with sharks….a friend from Liverpool rings me.

‘How far is Berlin from the Ukraine?’

‘I don’t know.’ I say, ‘why do you ask?’

‘I just thought I might go on holiday there. I read you can fire real tanks’.

On a mossy Penine bank somewhere a Jesuit turns in his grave.


1633 Italy. Galileo is shown the instruments of torture….


2013……. And we have all been made aware of the secret prisons, Black Ops, isolation cells, Guantanamo, Waterboarding, Abu Ghraib, Extraordinary Rendition, drones, the NSA, Prism, the President’s kill list….


2013 Berlin. As we party on the street on a summer evening a man is watching. He neither speaks nor drinks with us. But in his heart he believes that he is looking out for us the people and our safety. Some people are never any fun.


But then good times do not follow bad as day follows night.



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