I have been away for a few weeks clearing my head. I don’t know about you, but what often happens is that I find myself thinking about what’s wrong with the world and how to fix it. It’s a total pipe dream, of course. How could I ever fix the world? And the list. The list is endless. This year especially.
The exercise starts with the Economist, unwrapping a few old issues and reading them from cover to cover, including the unpromising things about spark plug factories in Sri Lanka or the property market in Zimbabwe. Then I go and listen to the loudest people in pubs – the ones like Farage that could warn ships off rocks. Then I catch up on a bit of Marina Hyde, Gaby Hinsliff, Simon Schama, David Remnick and half a dozen others. I listen to a few podcasts and reread a bit of Clive James and then see what happens.
Where it all took me this time was to Farage, Brexit, the Seventies, Trump, walls, North Korea, Social Media, global locals, not listening, how cold the sea is and isn’t in Cornwall and borders. The utter futility of borders.
First of all, here’s Donald Trump on a Wild West Theme Holiday confused by a wall:
Gaze up any suburban street and you’ll see an industry devoted to the myth of separation. Low brick walls. Small iron gates that give way to the shortest of gravel drives, thin wooden fences that won’t survive three seasons.
Sometimes we grow borders.
We erect these fences to delineate what is ours and shout our dominion, but nothing is ours forever. Look at one of the animations of the borders of Europe over the last 100 years and it looks like a collection of snakes writhing on the page.
Carl Sagan was great on this in his famous pale blue dot speech. He talks about agony of wars and misunderstandings over a tiny stake on this mote of dust in a sunbeam.
There are a quarter of a million kilometres of land borders on Earth alone. That’s just land borders. The British coastline, for instance, is 31,368 km long. If you stretched out our border, it would almost stretch around the whole world.
Religion, some say, arose from the ideas of borders. It was an instrument of state control. Stories to invoke fear about what lay beyond the horizon, a visual border, in order to keep the tribe close.
In Cornwall I popped into a charity shop and bought a box of Seventies recipe cards. They’re all like little Warhols of the era. Look at the names: Frankfurter Crown, Cauliflower Plus, Texan Three Ring Rice, Onion Dumplings.
Lots of the recipes have only three or four ingredients and they’re set out in a bordered way. Nothing blends. All the so-called ingredients are separate. They’re not really recipes. They’re maps. Every part is an enclave. It’s as though food was a manifestation of the ideas of the decade. When Nigel Farage shouted “we want our country back”, it was a pre-European Union seventies aesthetic and cuisine made manifest in politics.
But what’s the practical point of borders? In the pub on holiday, I heard a loud-mouthed bigot saying she “wanted a return to the British way of life”, a dog whistle element of a longer stump speech that she delivered, intermingled with stuff about how much she was looking forward to a Chinese or an Indian later (she was undecided) and how she’d had a great time in Turkey the previous summer.
In Newlyn, at the quayside, there was a border patrol ship and very small it was too against the 30,000 + km of shoreline.
Borders are often little more than ideas. Trump’s grand plan for a border wall along the Mexican US divide is such a terrible idea. What will it cost and what is the point? Even if it acted as a deterrent to the small number of people that he’s trying to stop, what’s the cost to benefit ratio? I honestly think that he has been watching another Seventies classic.
By the way, a budget flight from Mexico City to Vancouver is about $300 last time I checked and from there it’s a short step across the border to the US.
Trump’s plan reminds me a bit of Beech Bottom Dyke at the bottom of the road where I live. It’s an ancient ditch, about 30 feet deep and roughly a mile long (in a straight line), designed to protect an old settlement near St Albans. Fine. Dig your massive ditch. But did you ever think that the baddies might just stroll around the edge?
There are often borders in our thinking. How often do we say “we can’t do that because of such and such” without properly investigating an idea with someone else, often even someone who is party to the choice and yet rendered voiceless by our refusal to jump the fence if only to investigate another way of thinking? It kills so many brilliant things, so many grand plans, so much love.
As ideas, maybe borders have some value in introducing some order. Here’s an aerial picture of Australian sheep moving through a gate when the fence is open. They’re programmed to behave and cooperate in transit, and maybe that’s fine.
Here are some other strange borders:
The Korean demilitarised zone (DMZ) is a strip of land 258 km long and 4 km wide, dividing North and South Korea. It is the most heavily militarised border in the world. Because it is so heavily guarded and almost nobody ever enters it, it has become an accidental nature reserve. Several highly endangered species have taken up residence there, and there are indications that some of them may even be increasing in population. The DMZ is also notable in that it does not delineate a border; instead it surrounds a Military Demarcation Line. A border between the two Koreas hasn’t been formally agreed, as the two nations are technically still at war. A cease-fire was agreed on in 1953, but there has never been an actual peace treaty. I guess there’s an unintended dividend, in this case, then, but it’s a big price for the oppressed north of the border. North Korea is, after all, a poster child for the ludicrousness of a line of containment.
The town of Derby Line straddles the US-Canadian border. The border passes right through the town, even slicing through some buildings and homes. A family at home at certain points on the borderline cooks its meals in one country and eats them in another. Derby Line is also home to the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, deliberately built on the border. The opera stage is in Canada, but the entrance to the opera, and most of the seats are in the United States. Because the building straddles the border, it has two mailing addresses, one in each country. Here’s a picture of a room straddling two countries. “Shall we go abroad today?” I guess the jokes get a bit tiresome after a while.
Back in Cornwall I was surprised by the colour and beauty of the coastline of the Lizard. Looking out at the water, the colours are as inviting as the sea in the tropics. Out on the slow swells of malachite and emerald there is a parking lot for empty cargo ships waiting for the big boxes to return empty to Falmouth or Portsmouth. They’re huge empires of ships, the type you see in Captain Phillips, their abdomens empty right now and their bows rising high in the glinting sun. These ships are each a quarter of a mile long, large enough to be floating countries in their own right.
The water is inviting in its beauty and yet almost unbearably cold. For an Australian like me this makes little sense because back there the land and the sea have negotiated a fenceless happy accord. You can ease from one to the other without hesitation.
Between the beach and the water there are complex and frosty trade talks, especially when the water rises to the thigh. There is no easy friendship with the water. And this is in early September when the sea, I guess, should be at its warmest and most accessible. I managed four swims with difficulty. The shoreline is a difficult border to cross, but even so, it rewards.
Even on the sand, there are the remnants of enterprises that show that borders are at best temporary containment vessels.
When our personal worlds come together or overlap, with our chequered histories, skirmishes and pasts, rather than build walls and resist we should celebrate the connection. We are better together, respecting our differences, but not building walls against them. Living as hermits will get us nowhere and deny us the pleasure of humaneness. No country or enclave or individual is perfect, and this in itself is the case for interdependence. If your shoe doesn’t fit, it might fit your cohabiting other. We’re all seduced by the idea of fairytale endings, back in the castle, untrammelled by compromise or the past, but what sort of existence is that?
Those boats out there in the distance have brought things from China or South America I’m guessing. Maybe the newest circuitry to connect us to the world (did you know that China’s technological hegemony would have been far more advanced if they’d discovered the lens earlier in their history than Europe did, thereby solving the widespread problem with poor eyesight?) or vats of juice and separate containers of orange ‘bits’, probably from different countries to be reassembled here as ‘freshly-squeezed orange juice’.
Juice, my friends, knows no borders. Nor does the circuitry that buttresses those borderless digital citadels, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, of which we now have shared citizenship.
Facebook has a population of well over a billion. How long before these digital companies become known as digital countries and open embassies in London or Berlin or Reykjavik? Never, I’d guess, because they trade off the porousness and openness of their borders. They’re welcoming of immigrants.They’ve given succour to our self-doubt, the idea that our own special brand of quiet thinking belongs to an enclave. Suddenly we’ve all found our special interest communities and there are no niches. The marginalised or the outcast now know the comfort and safety of numbers. We are no longer armadillos with peccadilloes. For the innocent ‘knitting-with-dog-hair-obsessive’ that there are now another million devotees globally is a great thing. Social networks have inverted the ideas of borders, making them points of welcome rather than protection.
But of course, for all the innocent dog hair knitting or guinea-pig-ornament-enthusiasts, there are the awakening communities of zealots from the far reaches of opinion. Trolls now exist in armies, not solely as bedsit renegades in dirty vests. What happens when this happens is that we get oxymoronic creation of communities of global introversion – a borderless exploration of the value of retreat behind borders. Nigel Farage, architect-in-chief of border control, flies to the US to lecture Republicans on taking their country back. What might have been backroom bitterness is now chatroom bitterness. We’ve sleepwalked into these Stranger Things underworlds of bizarre fluff collected in cultural suction bags.
When human nature is at its best, borders are a ludicrous idea. Gaze up at the pockmarked moon and you’ll find evidence of the flimsiness of the idea of a border checkpoint. Out there in space are mountains of hurtling rock with preordained targets. Our cards or us or our ashes are ultimately marked.
The humming arrays of processors under the Arizona desert are home to the greatest ever harnessing of collective human thought. Under that desert are billions of dreams, ideas, lists, pictures, complaints and appreciations. The futility and the price of Trump’s proposed wall ought to be enough of a terrible joke to jolt us out of the idea that humanity needs these divisions. Walls prevent us from pointing ourselves towards anything meaningful, which means, by definition, they are pointless. Life is a collective enterprise and it’s a negotiation. Pull up the drawbridge at your peril. There are no niches anymore, nor are there walls that will work. Everyone and everything is porous.