I was born into a world where walls were falling.
I was 2 years old when bulldozers starting tearing down the Berlin Wall and Mauerspechte – woodpeckers – took things into their own hands and chipped away at what was left. By the time I was old enough to know what the Berlin Wall was, it was as vague and historical to me as any other story we learned at school. There had been a wall; that was bad; now it was gone (but you could get little fragments of it set in perspex to have in your home as a souvenir).
My primary school had been constructed in the 1960s when, in a fit of idealism and utopian ideals, it had been designed without classroom walls. By the time I went there, the teachers had revolted and some flimsy partitions had been installed – but there were still huge open areas for communal play, an open-ended pottery area, a vast “plantation” outside to explore when the weather was good. (The one deliberately enclosed area was the mysterious, snug “Kiva” – a hallowed space used only for the most special moments, like sex education. I remember it as velvety and womblike. It’s possible I’m projecting).
Jersey is scattered with the visible remains of the Nazi Occupation during World War 2. The disused bunkers are now home to bike-hire shops, fish farms, craft stalls. They built a lot, the Nazis (or perhaps, more accurately, the slave workers who they imported did). Not least, the concrete fortifications along the coastline which formed part of the Atlantic Wall – and which have probably stopped bits of the island subsequently crumbling away into the sea.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve read Robert Westall’s Falling Into Glory at least a dozen times. The schoolboy narrator, Robbie, enters a highly inappropriate relationship with his beautiful, brilliant, broken teacher Emma. They steal away to Hadrian’s Wall for their dangerous liaisons; their flirtations swirl around Vindolanda and Vindobala. I’d always imagined the wall as desperately dramatic and romantic; it was an enormous anti-climax when I first took myself off there for a day trip when I was at university. I found none of the romance I’d anticipated, just the ruins of a project that felt like it was obviously, inevitably futile.
Because building a wall is so archaic, isn’t it? It’s the sort of thing that you see in Asterix cartoons. It’s not a reasonable, rational approach to relating to other human beings: to stick up a great big wall and hide on one side of it, defending the territory you so violently insist is yours, yours, yours. When we were very young, that’s what we did. Now we are six, we know better.
This morning I listened to swelling orchestral music as Donald Trump, the President Elect of the United States of America, made his way to the stage to give his victory speech. This man, so divisive, so vile, who ran a campaign on the basis of hate and fear. Who vows he will build a wall on the border of Mexico to keep out the people trying to come and build new, better lives for themselves and their families. Trump’s family were immigrants once, of course, but these ones are brown so they’re the wrong kind of immigrants. A nation votes to build a wall.
Meanwhile, construction’s begun of not one but two walls in Calais, 4 metres high and a kilometre long, running along each side of the dual carriageway that heads to the port. Because it’s not enough not to offer asylum to those fleeing war; it’s not enough to dismantle the Jungle; it’s not enough to vilify those who seek refuge in our country. Let’s make it even harder. Let’s make sure that people who have already risked everything to make it to Calais have one more literal barrier to climb. A nation allows a wall to be built.
When did we become so small, so petty, so frightened?
Today I feel sad and scared and sick. My inclination is to hide away, to nest inside the spaces where I’m comfortable and safe. To build my own walls around the edges of my life and refuse to let in anyone who doesn’t think and feel exactly like I do. But that’s not good enough, is it? There’s a Patrick Kavanagh poem I love in which he says, We build our heavens as we build our circles of friends. It’s always struck me as exactly right. We build the structures around us that will make us feel happy and warm and loved. That’s natural – but it’s not enough.
My baby nephew, Lars, has the right idea. When we play together, I build up his blocks: one, two, three, four. He knocks them down: bam. His will never fails. He cannot, will not, let the wall of blocks stand. Bam: it falls. Bam. Bam.
We have to do more, now more than ever. We have to be generous with our time, our money, our energy, our empathy. To force ourselves out beyond the boundaries of the walls we’ve built to meet with the people on the other side. Because talking to ourselves is getting us nowhere.
When I wrote about Brexit, the ever-excellent Kate Jones pointed me in the direction of More United. I’m not yet convinced if it’s the answer, but it might be part of an answer, perhaps.
What else should we be doing, friends? How do we pierce the bubble and exit the echo chamber?
These are not rhetorical questions. I actually want to know.