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8 January 2016

Barbed wire? It’s a punishment for pre-criminals

It’s oft remarked that Britain is the most CCTV surveilled country in the world but I wonder if we may be the most repulsive one as well. Why else all the pigeon barbs?

By Will Self

I well remember the 2011 riots. On my manor, in south London, things really kicked off at Clapham Junction where, summoned by BlackBerry direct messaging, the crowds assembled and laid waste to the Arding & Hobbs department store, then set fire to Party Superstores, which went up in a whoosh of synthetic-onesie-fuelled flames. Sitting in our house in Stockwell, we watched the evening news and saw the computer graphics depicting the rioting creeping like sepsis along the arterial routes. The crazed mob had reached Clapham High Street and was headed our way.

Being leftists of the bubbly sort, we were booked to fly to the south of France for a weekend with friends who have a house in the Luberon. Dilemma: should we leave the house to be ransacked? Or perhaps one of us should stay behind and beat off the acquisitive mob with our redoubtable “grand slam” St Louis Cardinals baseball bat? I thought at the time how much more secure we would feel if our Victorian terraced house were festooned in razor wire and every exterior horizontal surface bristled with fence spikes and pigeon barbs.

My friend Noel “Razor” Smith has a thing about razor wire. (A word about Noel’s sobriquet: since his release from prison on licence after serving 13 years of a life sentence for armed robbery, he has dropped the “Razor”, which isn’t really the right nom de plume for the fine writer he has become – but I’ve included it to twit my fellow columnist Nicholas Lezard, whose bohemian pipe dreams include naming his former flatmate at the Hovel “Razors”. My Razor at least has the virtue of being real, and considerably more acuminate.) He claims that the use of razor wire in British prisons is illegal – but I’ve been unable to discover any evidence of this. Surely so long as you frontage up as a bourgeois homeowner – let alone a prison guvnor – you’re entirely free to coat your property in whatever skin-piercing points, flesh-ripping blades and potentially disembowelling pikestaffs you can order on the web.

It’s oft remarked that Britain is the most CCTV-surveilled country in the world but I wonder if we may be the most repulsive one as well. Nowadays, I seldom walk down a suburban street without seeing at least one house that is as barbellate as a sea anemone: most of these paranoiacs stick to the good old methods, Dickens’s Mr Wemmick probably secured his mini-castle in Walworth with shards of bottle glass concreted into the tops of the walls. Frankly, I can never pass by such wounding-in-waiting without shuddering; after all, we all know what it’s like to cut ourselves on glass – the few shocked seconds while we contemplate the neat unzipping of the human bag, followed by the red, red tide – whereas the fence spikes and anti-climb barriers that have sprouted all over the British built environment in the past 20 years look capable of inflicting the sorts of wounds not visited on the human body since Agincourt. Steel palisade fences, the tips of which have been cut to a sharp, inverted V and trisected to form nasty tridents; steel mesh baffles arranged like the blades of a water wheel; curling and sharply edged barbs, resembling nothing so much as bundles of extremely long anodised toenail clippings; and top-of-the-wall barriers that look as if they’ve been welded together out of medieval Japanese weaponry.

The interesting thought exercise is to work back from the deterrent and imagine what sort of attackers the designer imagined it would fend off: screeching samurai? Omnivorous orcs? Rampageous Rumpelstiltskins? Berserker bashi-bazouks? Or perhaps none of these – it’s just that, in the inner eye of such imagineers, perfectly ordinary folk, out for a stroll with their dogs, take on the aspect of blood-crazed incendiarists.

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A friend of mine tells me that at the university where he teaches, all these kinds of spikes are levelled at the students, while thickets of CCTV cameras are implanted willy-nilly and pseudo-police 4x4s ceaselessly patrol. There’s a gate on to the campus that closes at dark, but students often climb over it to avoid the walk round by the main entrance. The gate is of the tridentate palisade variety and, my informant says, no fewer than three of their number have lost fingers attempting to scale it in the past few years. I’ve no idea if this is true – but if it is, it suggests an ulterior purpose. After all, any self-respecting rapist, thief or would-be murderer has the gumption to go round by the main entrance: it’s only the lazy and pissed-up students who risk getting shafted.

So, it occurs to me that – at least in this instance – the spikes have a preventative rather than deterrent function. Even allowing for inebriated disinhibition, there are only certain sorts of people reckless enough to climb these sorts of fences and arguably they are the rioters of the future. It’s a disturbing idea: the fence spike as a punishment for pre-criminals. It’s this sort of institution, more than a little reminiscent of the Ludovico Institute in Stanley Kubrick’s film of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, that seems purpose-designed to generate the web-addled, couch-borne consumers of the near future. Happy New Year, everyone!

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This article appears in the 06 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue