The Walls That Divide Us

Thursday 23 February 2017

I have many memories of walls.

My earliest of these memories is in the garden of our recently built terraced house. The terrace parallels another terrace, which parallels another. And so on. This is the beginning of the 1970s and I am three or thereabouts. Standing in my garden, a green rectangle of grass, I can see through an arc of 180 degrees the border of what is ours. A fence, one blue-creosoted plank rising to a height of no more than 20 centimetres, bounds each garden. I am not to cross to the other side.

As years passed, the planks accumulated. One grew to four. Somewhere, someone thought this was necessary and good. Later still, in the 1980s, people were able to buy the houses from the local council. As people bought their houses, fences grew taller. In the case of the more audacious installations, Robert Wadlow would have struggled to see over. Hedges were planted. Trees too. Boundaries burgeoned.

Before this age of rising fences, in the early days of Ziggy Stardust, but before the Bay City Rollers, my parents must have thought me old enough to allow an unaccompanied exploration of the streets beyond the blue-creosoted fence. Here, I met other children who would become my friends. But boundaries, I would learn, were built into these friendships from the beginning. Some of us were Protestants, others were Catholics, although no one could clearly explain the difference. We did not go to the same church, could not go to the same schools and, most seriously of all, or so it seemed, we could not support the same football team.

Our primary schools – the Catholic and the Protestant – backed on to one another. A massive fence, a tight line of black metallic bayonets, separated the schools. Children, who may otherwise have been friends, developed suspicions of those beyond the barrier. From time to time, we came together to play football, but this mostly resembled a battle reenactment rather than any kind of sporting event.

The weeping fracture of different religions – whether one was in any way religious or not – continued through my young life. At other times, however, we found unity; we were, after all, unvaryingly Scottish and fiercely proud. There was (and is) an essence to shared Scottish identity. Much of this identity, I have found, exists not intrinsically, but rather is established in relation to others; being Scottish means, above all else, not being English.

In high school – of whichever religious flavor we were compelled to attend  – we Scots learned about Hadrian’s Wall. This 120-kilometre limestone partition, the History teacher told us, was built in the first century CE. There is, to the extent I know, no unequivocal agreement as to why the Roman emperor, Hadrian, built the wall. But, no matter. We liked best the hypothesis that those to the north of the wall were too wild to conquer. Building on our national myth (or one of them) of an untamed people, no one much cared for competing explanations.

Then I left school. Simple Minds were high in the charts. Other walls appeared. The barrier of social class – intransigent and pernicious – became the demarcating feature of my early adulthood. It has never really gone away, but I have travelled from it, in part through the acquisition of an education, but just as often more literally through physical distance. In an early attempt at distancing and reinvention, I found myself living for a few years on the island of Cyprus. There, I learned about the walls that separate the Cypriot people.

You cannot live in Cyprus and understand the politics and the life of the people if you do not know about the history, of 1974, and the gash that bifurcates the country from east to west, separating Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities. If Cypriots are hyphenated, then the ‘Green Line’, the extended space that separates the island’s communities, is the hyphen itself. This is of course not the place to arrogantly assume to resolve the, as yet, unresolved. However, I have vivid memories of the many modalities of Cyprus’s estrangement. Arguably the most unambiguous symbols of separation are the two flags that appear on the southern slope of Mount Pentadaktylos overlooking Nicosia. The flags, each extending for some 450 metres, are those of Turkey and the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Under the Turkish flag is a message that reads ‘How Lucky is he who calls himself a Turk’. I am told that since 2003, long after my own departure from Cyprus, the flag of the TRNC is illuminated at night. The genesis of the flags is disputed, political, and not for me. However, they exist, like symbols and signs elsewhere, as a reminder par excellence of the walls that separate.

Although Cyprus remains a divided island, it was during the period that I lived there that the Berlin Wall, built in 1961, fell after almost thirty years of existence. The physical destruction of the wall – referred to, apparently without irony, as the ‘Anti-Fascist Protective Wall’ in the German Democratic Republic – began on a November night in 1989, and beckoned, as I recall, a period of tremendous hope. Back in 1973 when I had been contemplating the blue-creosoted fence at the boundary of my known world, an East German psychiatrist named Dietfried Muller-Hegemann was busy studying the effects of the Berlin Wall on peoples’ mental health. He claimed, in short, that walls drive us mad. I don’t doubt it. As the only corrective, Dr. Muller-Hegemann suggested the demolition of the wall. It is little wonder, then, that images of November 9th 1989 show East and West Berliners on top of the city’s wall in a cathartic state of unbridled joy.

I was caused to smile on another Wall: As I walked on the Great Wall of China on a splendid sunny Christmas Day a few years ago, I struggled to imagine the Ming Dynasty in fear of invading Mongols from the north. And, I was challenged to comprehend the brilliant red patent-leather stiletto heels a fellow tourist had chosen as her footwear of choice for her perambulation along the stone cobbles. Where did she imagine she was going?

Mirth may help us in difficult times, but walls are neither conceived nor built on it. In a time when there is more talk of walls, and when there is much talk that seeks to carve out difference, I am reminded that the first director general of the IB, Alec Peterson, titled his history of the movement (and the United World Colleges) Schools Across Frontiers. The IB’s mission was clear then, and remains so now. Even if we live in challenging times – and should rise to that challenge – we shouldn’t despair. All walls come down, sooner or later. Witness Berlin.



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