The Yorkshire Dales wouldn’t be the same without its rustic drystone walls, winding alongside roads and trackways, zig-zagging precariously up improbable slopes, patchworking the landscape in patterns often indecipherable to the amateur eye. Stone on stone, carefully placed and replaced generation after generation, until for some the need for the wall disappears and time undoes the years of labour, leaving a slowly dissolving trace on a hillside reclaiming its substance for itself.
Walls give us definition and function, within an otherwise unscripted landscape. In the presence of walls we know where we stand and whether we’ve the right to stand there. Before the enclosure acts of the 18th century, walls and hedges were less common; according to the late Oliver Rackham, historian of the British countryside, as many field boundaries being created between 1750 and 1850 as in the previous 500 years*. Then the 20th century fell out of love with them, with hundreds of thousands of kilometres of hedgerow being grubbed up between the 1980s and the present day.
We may be less enamoured with the old materials for boundary-marking but the urge to define and defend boundaries seems stronger than ever in the present age. And the walls and fences being erected around the world in the name of that definition are higher, less bridgeable and more aggressively defended than ever before. From the convoluted security barrier winding through the Occupied Palestinian Territory of the West Bank cutting communities off from their farmland, neighbours and key transport routes; to the barbed wire migrant fences erected along the national borders of European countries in 2016; and the proposed wall-that-must-be-built for the United States to cower behind in apparent fear of the neighbouring states to the south – our love affair with national definition and protection from the other seems to grow in intensity the more we discover that in human terms there actually is no such thing as the ‘other’.
We’ve been here before of course – Berlin, Hadrian, the Great Wall of China: monuments to fear, control and yes to some extent the necessity of security. But the reasons behind all historic walls have proved as transient as the people whose movement they sought to prevent.
I will always remember the reply of my Berliner host family in 1987 when, too young to know how little I knew, I asserted that all empires and governments fall, so the wall would eventually come down. ‘No, this will never happen,’ they said. Two years later I stood transfixed in front of the TV, tears streaming down my face as I watched a human wave break over the hideous structure, carve chunks from it and roar in triumph as they deprived it of all meaning.
And so we can again with the walls of our time – if we remember that the people on the other side of them are as perplexed, anxious, hopeful, loving, creative, determined and ordinary as we are. That starts with hearing their stories. When Leeds based Sound Company Choir visit us on Saturday 23rd February we’ve a chance to do just that. Come and listen at the walls – you might be surprised what you hear.
*The Illustrated History of the Countryside, Oliver Rackham / Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd 1994, p.81