Olli Thomson
Photography

British Watchtowers

My friends had decided to go wind surfing on Camlough Lake. Not seeing the appeal of windsurfing myself I chose instead to go for a hike on Camlough Mountain. Calling it a mountain flatters it somewhat; it’s more of a large hill rising to less than 1400 feet.

I can’t remember exactly when this was except that it was probably in the mid 1980s when Northern Ireland was still in the midst of what we euphemistically called ‘the troubles’ or sometimes ‘The Troubles’. Since Camlough was in South Armagh, an area known as ‘Bandit Country’ in testimony to the intensity and ferocity of the violence there, the area wasn’t exactly a tourist hot spot and so I had the mountain to myself. Mostly.

As I approached the peak a helicopter appeared. I didn’t see it coming; I didn’t hear it coming. It just appeared. I believe it was a Wessex, a variant of the Sikorsky S-34 developed for the British Armed Forces. It was facing towards me and it felt and sounded like it was hovering far closer to me than I wanted a helicopter to be. After a few moments, presumably having had a look at me and deciding I was no threat, it peeled away and flew off.

Apart from my surprise at its sudden appearance and unnerving proximity I didn’t think much of it. Helicopters were part of the background noise in Northern Ireland in these years and were ubiquitous in South Armagh where the roads were unsafe for military and police vehicles, leading to personnel and supplies being ferried around in fleets of military helicopters. For many years the military base in the nearby village of Bessbrook was reputed to house the busiest heliport in Europe, such was the intensity of the military operation.

So I carried on towards the domed peak from where I was able to spot the sails of my friends’ windsurfers on the lake below. It was at then that I noticed a line of rusted barbed wire, evidently an old fence that had decayed and fallen over the years. Then, beyond the wire I spotted small mounds of sandbags. At this point I was beginning to get a little nervous, and while I appeared to be alone on the hill I decided to keep my distance. After a few moments taking in the view and catching my breath I started back down.

Later — perhaps a year, possibly a few months — I returned to Camlough Mountain with a friend and set off for the summit once more. This time there were no helicopters, but on reaching the top I found that the small sandbag emplacements had grown larger and more substantial and a handful of prefabricated structures in military green had also appeared. This time I was not alone. As we stood looking at this mini fortress faces appeared in the gaps in the sandbags and a handful of soldiers materialised as if from nowhere. We went over for a chat.

They were from the Devon and Dorset Regiment, since amalgamated into The Rifles with a number of other infantry regiments, on a six month deployment in South Armagh. While the Royal Marines were on the ground in the villages and fields below, the Devon and Dorsets were manning a daisy chain of observation posts across the region. This particular post, if I remember rightly, was watching over another observation post on another hilltop which, in turn, was watching over the police station in the village of Forkhill. Unsurprisingly, they were thoroughly bored and our arrival provided a welcome diversion from the tedium of life on the mountain. They politely enquired who we were and what we were doing there and after a few minutes we said our goodbyes and headed off.

I was reminded of this when I first came across my latest photobook, which arrived yesterday. Donovan Wylie’s British Watchtowers was first published in 2007 I believe. Wylie, who is from Northern Ireland, photographed the network of watchtowers constructed by the British military in the 1980s across South Armagh before they were finally demolished in 2007.

Wylie shot many of these installations from a helicopter, courtesy of the Ministry of Defence, and the resulting images clearly locate the watchtowers in their environment. We can see their isolation on mountain tops and hillsides and, equally, we can see the sweep of the land and the towns and villages they watch over. A number of images are of towers that are integral parts of police stations — in reality military bases — in urban locations which convey something of the scale of these installations and the degree to which they attempt to dominate.

There is a certain relentlessness to these pictures. The landscape is a rich Irish green, mixed with the yellow brown scrubbiness of the mountain tops. The sky is uniformly grey — whether that was simply a matter of when the helicopter was available or a deliberate choice on Wylie’s part I’m not sure. The horizon lies in broadly the same place throughout. Yet the pictures are also ‘nice’. The landscape is pleasant, the green of the land and the grey of the sky are harmonious. Even the watchtowers show an honest simplicity and utilitarianism. Only when we come to those images of towers set directly in urban locations do they become ominous or disturbing, clashing with the scale and style of the town or village.

The book also contains an un-illuminating essay by Louise Purbrick, an art historian otherwise unknown to me, complete with the predictable references to Foucault on surveillance. Still, there’s no reason to read it since it adds nothing to the images and the images do not need an interpretive text. (Having said all that I grew up in Northern Ireland during this era, so perhaps for others who did not Purbrick’s commentary may have some value.)

The image above is Wylie’s photograph of Romeo 13A, the watchtower set on Camlough Mountain. This is what the rusted fencing and sandbag piles developed into over the years. I imagine if I had tried to climb Camlough Mountain again in the years when this watchtower was in place the welcome might have be a lot more formal and a little less friendly.

Wylie followed this work with another, Outposts, on a similar theme but shot in Kandahar province in Afghanistan during NATO operations there. While the watchtowers in Northern Ireland are starkly present and unmistakable despite their military green hue these outposts blend seamlessly into the uniformly drab landscape to the point of invisibility. While the watchtowers in Northern Ireland were a new development the outposts in Afghanistan were just the most recent reworking of an old theme. NATO’s Canadian soldiers built some of these in the same places the Soviets had built theirs and they in turn, no doubt, had built theirs where the British had built long before. And while the watchtowers of Northern Ireland are long gone, I’m sure those in Afghanistan remain still even if their Canadian builders have left.

One image in particular struck me, pictured below. In this photograph lines of Canadian armoured vehicles are parked beneath the hill on which the outpost stands, a tiny fraction of the military power deployed by NATO and the US against an ‘army’ equipped largely with hand me down Soviet weapons, and a collection of motorcycles and pick up trucks, and mobile phones.

Again, in the context of Afghanistan there’s nothing new in this.

A scrimmage in a Border Station-
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail.
The Crammer’s boast, the Squadron’s pride,
Shot like a rabbit in a ride!

No proposition Euclid wrote
No formulae the text-books know,
Will turn the bullet from your coat,
Or ward the tulwar’s downward blow.
Strike hard who cares — shoot straight who can
The odds are on the cheaper man.

The Taliban’s weaponry has moved on from jezails to Kalishnikovs since Kipling’s Arithmetic of the Frontier was published in 1886, but in many respects the Taliban’s way of war has changed little. NATO continues the British tradition of sending the best trained and equipped soldiers to ‘hold the fort’ but the contrast between the Taliban’s ‘cheaper man’ and the modern Western soldier is greater than Kipling could ever have imagined. Yet time and time again we have seen that in 21st century Afghanistan, as in 19th century Afghanistan, ‘the odds are on the cheaper man’.

Outposts also comes with an accompanying essay, but in this case a genuine thoughtful discussion by Gerry Badger. This one is well worth reading — and not a word from Foucault.

Finally, a third book, North Warning System, focused on a single installation in the Canadian Arctic designed to provide early warning of threats to North America. This is by some distance a much weaker work that the other two, with only a handful of images of a single installation. Wylie explains some of his thinking behind the images and his method of shooting them, but even with that context, these images carry nothing like the impact of those in the earlier series.

Originally published individually, the three volumes were published together as The Tower Series in 2014 and this is the edition I have. The publisher is Steidl so needless to say the quality is superb and the three volumes come nicely presented in a rigid slipcase.

Wylie has continued to focus on the architecture of conflict in Northern Ireland having published a book of images from the Maze prison and, most recently, Housing Plans for the Future which focuses on a more subtle form of conflict architecture examining the way in which the communal violence influenced the design of public housing.

Donovan Wylie, The Tower Series (Steidl 2014)
Rudyard Kipling, ‘Arithmetic on the Frontier’ in Selected Poems (Penguin 2001)

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