Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Walling in and walling out

Walls: walling in or walling out or falling down or being pulled down?

Walls, walls, walls

Walls protect, yes, but walls are also forbidding barriers, and they can form a prison, and they can be a symbol of loneliness or isolation. Blank walls staring out have been used over centuries to depict intractability as well as inertia. Shirley Valentine talked to the kitchen wall in her domestic solitude, Pink Floyd sang about Another Brick In The Wall, Achilles chased Hector three times around the walls of Troy, Joshua marched around the walls of Jericho and then brought them a-tumbling down with shouts and rams’ horns. As Robert Frost wrote:
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.
Pink Floyd, Jericho walls, walls of Troy, Shirley Valentine

Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show….

Quince: This man with lime and rough-cast doth present
Wall, that vile Wall which did these lovers sunder;
And through Wall’s chink, poor souls, they are content
To whisper….
Tom Snout plays Wall in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Sinister cranny

Wall: In this same interlude it doth befall
That I, one Snout by name, present a Wall;
And such a Wall, as I would have you think,
That had in it a crannied hole or chink,
Through which the lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe,
Did whisper often, very secretly.
This loam, this rough-cast and this stone doth show
That I am that same Wall; the truth is so:
And this the cranny is, right and sinister,
Through which the fearful lovers are to whisper….

Cursed be thy stones

Pyramus: O grim-look'd night! O night with hue so black!
O night, which ever art when day is not!
O night, O night! alack, alack, alack,
I fear my Thisbe’s promise is forgot!
And thou, O Wall, O sweet, O lovely Wall,
That stand'st between her father's ground and mine!
Thou Wall, O Wall, O sweet and lovely Wall,
Show me thy chink, to blink through with mine eye!
Thanks, courteous Wall: Jove shield thee well for this!
But what see I? No Thisbe do I see.
O wicked Wall, through whom I see no bliss!
Cursed be thy stones for thus deceiving me….
Human Rights March in Leeds in response to President Trump's policies - proud of Sally, Harriet, Maggie and Christine and all the rest who attended

This vile Wall

Thisbe: O Wall, full often hast thou heard my moans,
For parting my fair Pyramus and me!
My cherry lips have often kiss'd thy stones*,
Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee…. 
Pyramus: O kiss me through the hole of this vile Wall!
Thisbe: I kiss the wall's hole, not your lips at all.
*Stones, of course, are Elizabethan slang for balls/knackers/testicles and – hole – well, the precise hole being kissed depends on which chink the actor playing Snout offers up…. 

Many American landscapes are awe-inspiring; countless aspects of American culture are having a positive influence on the world; and I know and love people in America:

  • Inspiring world figures like Mohammed Ali, Neil Armstrong, Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks;
  • Novelists like Harper Lee, Kerry Madden, John Steinbeck, Anne Tyler;
  • Playwrights like Edward Albee, Lillian Hellman, Tony Kushner, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Sam Shepherd, Tennessee Williams;
  • Poets like Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Bishop, ee cummings, Emily Dickinson, TS Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound; 
these are, dare I say it, tremendous people, without thinking too hard about who to include, not to even begin mentioning singers and actors…. Tom Hanks, Katherine Hepburn, Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin, for heavens’ sake, to name but four…! Is this a country that needs a Wall? A country whose current manifestation and wealth has been created from immigration? When birds fly around the globe, do they see borders?

Mending Wall

Genius satirical banners in the UK courtesy of The Poke
Robert Frost’s celebrated (American) poem Mending Wall was first published in 1914, right on the brink of the First World War. I haven’t seen it printed yet in the context of President Trump’s policies so here it is. “Good fences make good neighbours” is what the neighbour in the poem repeats (twice) but the poem has a tension that pulls away from that cliché and more potent are other lines that are repeated: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

Thanks to The Poke

Brief personal thoughts on Mending Wall

In Spring, two neigbours walk the wall between their properties to make repairs – is there a reason for this wall to be built at all? There are no cows, just apple trees and pine trees. Should you summon “spells” to counteract “elves,” a whimsical idea that suggests wall-building is an ancient, outdated ritual, not suited to modern thinking. Maybe the act of building a wall is a chance to talk about boundaries, to talk about customs on either side of the wall, to negotiate why the wall is there. Could a wall be built as a sign of goodwill, mutual trust and cooperation? Or is the wall an act of aggression, a hostile barrier to community? If you place a boulder (a stone, a “loaf,” a ball) into the wall, one day it will fall down. Walls fall down. Sometimes they are pulled down. Has any wall ever “stood the test of time?” How jubilant the world was when the Berlin wall was brought a-tumbling down! We build walls, even when they are not needed. Some people break walls, even when they shouldn’t. The world carries on building walls regardless of whether or not they are effective. Like all great poems, all these ideas are wrapped up in the distilled metaphor of Frost’s Mending Wall.

Mending Wall by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
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.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Like an old-stone savage armed/He moves in darkness

Good fences make good neighbours! Do they? Do they REALLY, though? Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.