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Ben Harvey: Drawing the line

Ben Harvey returns this week clutching his big book of Sunrise Times after dancing with the druids at Stonehenge.

– – – – – –

So, anyway, there I was, stood in a crowd of ten thousand hippies at four in the morning, all of us assembled just to watch the sun come up. I’m sure you’ve all done something similar, right? But of course you have. Ambling down to Stonehenge on the longest day of the year is something of a tradition for me, since it does happen to be my birthday and because there are worse ways to start celebrating than sucking down a can or two of the local mushroom-cider.

Anyway, me and my friends are assembled in the midst of all the bongo-playing, tie-die clad masses, everyone wearing either high-end waterproof Gore-Tex (local rich people, having brought little Tarquin along for a bit of culture) or low-end bin-bags to keep the rain off (local crusty hippies, whose own children have had quite enough culture in their short lives and are ignoring the spectacle in order to better mug Tarquin’s PSP off him when his parents aren’t looking).

In amongst this strange fashion parade bobs the occasional high-viz jacket of an English Heritage steward, fussing around and petulantly asking people not to please carve ‘George Bush Is A Twunt” on the 5000 year-old stones with their camper-van keys. And, just because I know some of you will ask, I personally was wearing the set of army-surplus fatigues I always wear on occasions when I know I’m going to get filthy, such as Stonehenge, music festivals or my bi-yearly attempts to do the washing-up.

The point of all of this, by the way, is not to sneer at either the Barbour-wearing locals or the itinerant dogs-on-string brigade but to relate to you good readers, you fine worthies of SMS Text News, what happened when the druids finally consulted with their clocks, with gods and with their Big Book of Sunrise Times and announced that the sun had indeed risen on this, the Summer Solstice. They had to announce it, you see, because nobody could see the bloody thing, it being inconveniently cloudy. And that’s when half the people there started going bananas and that’s when the other half took their mobiles out and started taking photographs and video-clips of them.

It was quite, quite peculiar. All of a sudden you’re surrounded by hundreds of people instantly punching their right hands in the air (it must’ve been like this when Hitler got to an interesting point in one of his little speeches), each of them clutching a handset and bathing these monolithic monoliths not, as intended, with the burning glare of a worship-worthy sun but instead with the milky-white glow of a thousand LCD screens. Flashes popped and strobed all around the place – I felt how Britney Spears must feel when she gets out of a car and suddenly remembers that she’s forgotten to put her pants on.

The more I think about it this the less it becomes a remarkable thing. I was initially taken aback by the irony of it all; vast herds of humans turning up to celebrate something as simple and primal as the sunrise – tied to this location by nothing more than a few dozen slabs of rock – juxtaposed with the fact that they choose to record it with the highly-advanced little digital television cameras that they happen to carry around in their pockets. Instead of dancing around to the medieval rhythms of drums and trumpets and didgeridoos a lot of the people were getting filthy looks because of their idiot ring-tones (‘Hello? Matt? Why did you just send me a video clip of some pissed tramp on a boulder? Don’t you know what time it is? It’s four in the bloody morning!”).

The offensively-surreal nature of the scene faded when I realised that this has been happening for years. Every music concert I’ve been to in the last three or four years has had people waving, above their heads, not cigarette lighters but camera-phones. Every news website has a address you can send things to. Every drunken punch-up in the high-street at kicking-out time has, of course, a girl screaming ‘He’s not worf it, Keef! He’s not worf it!” but also, these days, one of Keef’s mates videoing everything in case it goes to court.

The ubiquitousness of it all does make me chuckle – for so many years now we’ve had journalists and politicians harp on about ‘Big Brother Britain”, extolling the facts and stats that we have more CCTV than any nation in the world, that we’re caught on camera five hundred times a day (though, obviously, this isn’t enough for Paris Hilton or John Leslie) and all the other civil-liberty infringement business. The fact that we all quite happily cart around a CCTV camera in our jackets or handbags seems to have escaped them somehow…

What does concern me – almost enough to write an article about it, come to think of it – is what happens when something bad happens. I’m not talking about the privacy-rights of some coked-up celebrity falling over in the street but I am growing increasingly worried about car accidents, about deaths, about those solemn occasions when you really, really, really should show a little respect. Quite an outdated concept these days, isn’t it? Funerals. Fatalities. Suffering. All those shocking times when people are vulnerable, when their shields are down. Being British, you could argue that there’s a natural predilection to be demure at such times, to show that respect, to actually be sympathetic in your actions but – and prepare yourselves, because I’m about to toss a vaguely serious question at you – do you find that mobiles actually seem exempt from this?

What I’m trying to ask is this – we’ve all seen things in passing that grab our attention, like fights, like accidents. We rubber-neck at them because we’re human, and that’s what we do, but where do we draw the line when it comes to recording them? This is an argument that I’ve not seen taking place anywhere – nowhere in the broadsheets or the chat-shows have they yet asked where our new-found obsession with recording things on the fly goes from interested-documentation into insensitive-insult.

Another question to toss to you – it’s blatantly not the place for the mobile industry to tell people what they can or can’t video or photograph anymore than it’s the industry’s place to tell them what they can or can’t talk about. So who should? Where are we taking our moral guidance from on this issue? Or is all of this lingering doubt on manners and the decline of our Great British National Values just part of me turning 27?

Answers on a postcard. If you can be arsed, tell me – use the snazzy Comment function on here to share any opinions you’ve got; has you ever seen anyone video anything you think they shouldn’t have? Do you think it’s too much too soon, or just the logical conclusion of letting millions of people loose with cameras? Does any of this footage deserve to be documented and celebrated anywhere other than YouTube? Should we set up a fund to buy Little Tarquin a new PSP?

Like I say: answers on a postcard…


  1. ah ha!! You’ve turned 27 hey!! A very interesting age. I can see now where the serious look at social issues regarding mobiles is coming from. You will also find that from this age on your hangovers get worse and that you can walk into a room and forget why you walked in there. It is soooooo down hill from here mate 😉

    and as for mobile phones around stonehenge – surely all the leylines around there stop them from actually working!? Or have Vodafone actually managed to get planning permission for a mast on top of one of the stones!! wouldn’t surprise me in the least…

    and tell me, what is the hippie handset of the moment?



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