Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
So wrote Robert Frost in his poem ‘Mending Wall,’ published exactly a century ago, in 1914. One man who could give Frost’s narrator a clear answer is Tsvetelin Iovchev, the Bulgarian Minister of the Interior, who has announced the near-completion of a 33-kilometer-long wall designed to keep Syrian refugees and other migrants from crossing the Bulgarian-Turkish border.
Walls, whether in Bulgaria, on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in Berlin, or prisons and penitentiaries, divide politicians and commentators. Those who put one up routinely insist that it increases security for people on both sides and is therefore an instrument of universal wellbeing. Those whose movements are restricted by the wall—from either side—always respond that it decreases security by exacerbating the underlying conflict which caused the wall to be built in the first place.
|Piping while Athens gets defortified|
Walls create new problems. The water-borne killer plague which decimated the Athenians early in the Peloponnesian War took hold more easily because they had all come in from the countryside to crowd behind their Long Walls. But the walls did protect them and thus prolong the war. When the Athenians were finally defeated, their enemies tore the walls down ‘with jubilation, accompanied by the music of girl pipers’.
Despite having a soft spot for the classical Athenians, I think that walls really are at their best in the process of coming down. ‘Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls came Tumbling Down’, especially as sung by Paul Robeson, remains a resounding anthem of Abolitionism and the Civil Rights movement. All those trumpets!
The sight of the first East Berliners through the fissure in the wall on 9th November 1989 completely changed my life. I was locked in a miserable marriage to a progressively more controlling individual, but was far too scared to leave. The fear was justified. It transpired that my possessive then-husband liked to throw television sets around. He had also hired a private detective to stare at my window in Magdalen College, Oxford through binoculars from a car parked in—you’ve guessed it—Long Wall Street. The detective reported to him that I was having a passionate affair with my Atari (a Jurassic proto-computer, to those of you under forty-five). Incendiary information!
|Inspired thousands to change their lives|
But as I watched the TV news that momentous evening, the tears splashing into my gin, I at last found the courage to make The Phone Call. (Then I hid). A tiny personal victory, but one which has made me forever grateful to those brave Berliners and forever fond of the sight of walls in the process of dismantlement.