Licensed to watch television

There was a beer ad on TV several years ago that showed the beginning of road works. As one crew began to split open a city street, another crew came along and suggested they lay their cable in the same trench, and then another crew came along and then it was suggested that if only everything were as good as whatever kind of beer this was, life would be so much better.

But, dude, I had totally forgotten about the hearse at the end. Dark. Not American.

When we moved to the UK there were four terrestrial (non-cable-based) TV channels. These were all paid for by the TV license, a non-negotiable fee that you paid annually, which funded the BBC. There were discounts for black and white television sets, pensioners and the blind. People were sent to prison for not paying. TV Licencing had surveillance vans with radiation detectors. If they thought you were watching without a license they might send an Enforcement Officer round and my friend told me that sometimes they would pretend to be TV repair people, to confirm that you had a set, and if this happened, if for some reason you didn’t have a license, unthinkable, you needed to say it was broken. This was a good friend from high school who had been in London for several years before we arrived and was a veteran of the absurdity and inconvenience that fueled our lives back then. Once a man in the BT telephone shop wouldn’t sell her a new phone after she admitted she would throw the old one out because she didn’t have a letter from her landlord authorizing her to do this and it wasn’t her property.

In 1999, stark black and white posters appeared in the tube with the names of streets and postcodes that were known to have unlicensed sets. They stayed just this side of the Data Protection Act. We have a database, they informed us. And your name is in it. This in a country where the post office has the thuggish tagline, “With us, it’s personal.”

A few years on and there was a fifth channel. Installers were everywhere in brightly colored sweatshirts with a rainbow number 5. We flagged one down for cash to retune our TV. You had to tune your TV to receive channels and the same thing for a VCR. We had a shop called Radio Rentals (!) on the high street, with girls in nylon uniform jerseys who patiently explained the process of scanning the for the signal until two white vertical lines appeared and then you pushed a sequence of buttons and only then could you pop in a video.

British appliances demanded more of us than American ones did. Fortunately we arrived by the time appliances were sold with the plugs attached as standard, but this was such a novel practice that some items still list this as a feature on the box: earthed plug, you will not die assembling your kettle.

Back then you could turn on your set and there would be the snooker. All day. Pale men poised tersely over baize. Rather long documentaries about tanks. Rising Damp. Countdown. Then B-Sky-B came along. Cable/satellite took off. Reality TV was born. Jeremy off “Airport,” Jane off “The Cruise” and those travel reps off the travel reps show in Spain led the way, they became celebrities and guested on Christmas specials and got to pull lottery numbers. Lottery draw was exciting Saturday night viewing.

While the cable explosion was going on, the internet was also taking off, and so there was a continual tearing open of roads to lay one thing or another. Sometimes work stopped but the roadworks stayed. Now that the nation’s gone digital, and everyone has broadband and gets free shows from BBC iPlayer, it is time to replace the Victorian sewer pipes so it seems the roadworks will go on indefinitely.

I have another friend from high school who is an artist. Years ago he designed an installation piece of fake roadworks on the streets of San Francisco. He made his own cones. Both the pieces he created and the photographs documenting their existence in the urban landscape were the art. People accept what looks like what they think it is, even if those people work for the city or the Council and should know better. In some cases, though his cones were somewhat irregular, they would be incorporated into official sites and thus undergo transformation from conceptual to functional.

There were road works in London that went on for months because the fines for finishing late were not stringent enough. It was like scaffolding that stayed up on buildings after the work was completed because taking down the scaffolding in the off-season for scaffolding was just a hassle. Little surveillance devices were attached to the scaffolding to reassure the people whose windows were now made available to passersby.

Here, roadworks have cropped up all over town and people are naturally complaining. They are widening a major intersection in one place and smoothing out the potholes on a big road near us. But at the end of the day, the crews tidy up and you can see that progress has been made. They place signs with updates: 25 mph, grooved pavement, bump. The end is in sight.

After a while, you get used to the surveillance. The white cameras tucked in every corner,  drilled to the traffic lights and aimed at the top of fencing by the park. We see the video montage of crimes on the news, grainy images of fights at bus shelters or the progress down the high street of a missing schoolgirl. Teens broadcast video of assaults they perpetuated, performance art gone all wrong and Clockwork Orangeish. This conversation may be recorded for training purposes and your own safety. Your camera would like to record your location. Your car would like to call for help. The television inspector with his hand-held radiation-sniffing device and the threat of a database with your name in it, not so scary. But this is the world we asked for, because it is so convenient and so personal.

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