OF COURSE

-Open Pen Issue Twenty

By Gary W. Hartley

It’s not all bad, we can still see the sky. That’s a plus.

Reds and greys everywhere. I like to imagine the collections of pigeon shit up top; the smell of it close up.

‘If You Can’t Wall Them, Wall Them’ was the slogan they went with, after considering ‘Everyone Likes a Wall-builder’ and others too tedious to list here. You can imagine.

The slogan might seem a bit much, but the spin around it was more ingenious; emphasising that walls aren’t just a fearful, pessimistic method of keeping out AN Other, but a cosy way of keeping a group together, inside. Keep your significant AN Others right there, where you can hug and watch them.

Much like how ‘conservative’, capital or lower-case, tends to appeal to the risk aversion of base human nature, walling in had resonance – even capturing an essence of the liberal attachment to community, that will-o’-the-wisp conceit.

This morning I saw my first brick-shaped hole in the brickwork. There has been talk.

It’s not all bad, there have of course been walls before, and there would have been more after regardless of official policy. The Wallers have rolled out a number of human interest stories pre-dating the Walled Era to further the point that this is merely continuity, albeit with stronger impetus. Many of these case studies stress that there’s no need to fret about bringing people together for special occasions any more, but one that really stuck with me was that of the owners of a Chinese restaurant in the north.

Faced with bored, casually racist youths kicking down their repeatedly-rebuilt wall, kung fu experts were eventually drafted in to wait up at night and resolutely kick the shit out of them. The wall stood proudly after that point, chef smoking area by the bins secured for future generations.

So there’s walling in, it’s not all bad.

Initially, there’s no denying that it did seem that most of the walling being done was walling out. There were, and are, always outsiders that don’t fit in our cosy bricked bubbles.

Exclusion by wall itself is far from a clear thing. Who gets the advantage of another wall going up? Is exclusion a compliment of sorts? Those on both sides claim a victory, probably.

Legally-speaking, there was an always a nominally excluded side, and that side does the brickwork. This hasn’t proved all that problematic even from the very start, as citizens are enticed by very generous financial packages available for self-exclusion.

The hours are long, yes, the excluded’s very involvement is a bitter irony, yes, but the higher education of many young has been funded this way. Many even took up wall-related courses, heavily subsidised as they are, and used the remainder for another joy they could find close to home. You can’t knock it. Many still have. The thing is, however you knock bricks, the acoustics are never all that satisfying. I digress.

Grey-red, red-grey, this is a world envisioned by designers with heavy bronchitis, using giant tissues for sketch boards. There is usually a light powdering of the air. Scarves sell well.

The slogan, as boorish as it was, did end up running true. There was no such thing as un-wallable- if one side said no, the other just stated yes and began anyway, their noise covering the background of continued nos. Some initial successful legal challenges quickly became items of legend seemingly from a past far more distant than a couple of years back.

Context is important. Disagreement had been irrelevant for some time before they came to power, and public consultation an open private joke. The force was very much for beating down barriers with barriers long before the formalised age we found ourselves neatly walled into, and kept voting for.

Yes, almost every possible objection to any wall were calmly and efficiently ridden over to the point where radical acceptance seemed a more realistic option. Needless to say the scale was far too great for any of the ich bin ein Berliner, Chad peeping over the precipice stuff, so you better find ways to get on with it; open up those inner prisons etcetera. Or else.

No, not or else. It’s not all bad. There hasn’t been much in the way of overt or centrally-organised coercion to be seen.  Programmes of building work have a way of sweeping you along without any of that, don’t they. Place, time, roles, narrative purpose – walls, walling and wallers offer a hefty shot of all these things.

The lines, the ups and downs and sideways talk a language we haven’t quite grown to understand yet. We will, in time – everyone you speak to is totally sure of it. For now, we are fluent for the generalisations of the trades: ashlar, quoin, Flemish Bonds. Lime is never thought firstly of as a fruit.

There are no gaps, openings or checkpoints. It’s not all bad, this being an effective method of not having to worry about the notorious corruptibility of border officials.

An edited version of Whitney Houston’s Step by Step was declared the national anthem when a rollicking second victory was achieved parroting almost identical key messages. All the references to steps were removed from the ditty, citing potential for confusion, replaced with more references to bricks.

By the third term, senior wallers were confident enough to put plans in place to make it impossible for air traffic to operate, either internationally or domestically. You’d have to concede that ‘Staying the Course’ was their best slogan yet. It’s important to not let creativity fall by the wayside just because your masonry might be considered by some to be somewhat repetitious.

It’s not all bad, it’s not all bad, it’s not all bad. Deep scratches are alternative horizons.

Walls tend to have surfaces with literal grey areas, while having the purpose of putting an end to metaphorical grey areas through pronounced definition. For a while I pondered this philosophical problem, but then went out to buy ice cream and forgot all about it until now. Absolutely no children are interested in Lego any more.

We think we can hear someone scratching away at the other side, but there never is. We never check.

It’s not all bad, there is opportunity. You can bounce off walls, you can climb up the walls (albeit not all the way) and you can extract your minutes of fame from walls. They’re givers, within certain confines.

Some outliers, cranks and everyday visionaries were quick to state that they could see the trade marks on the top bricks, and got brief rounds of the chat show circuit out of it before viewer fatigue set in. After a while they were far too high for such sorcery to have any credibility for even the most gullible or far gone.

These holes in wall, perhaps whoever is making these is just another of those types, seeking a spot of fame without the need for a middle man. It’s easy to imagine them wearing braces and smoking a pipe. I’m late to the party in my discovery. There is talk there are hundreds of them, maybe more, but only one maker who signs only with four neatly-arranged piles of scrapings, in size order. I peer through, towards the other reds and greys in the middle distance. The absence of a brick, yes, deep. I mean it could be deep, but I can’t for the life of me.

Stretcher bonds on our hearts, abridged love letters scratched into brick with broken brick, stone with shards of stone. The detritus is cleaned away irregularly. It could be that it provides us with a useful reminder of something, like revolutionaries or deposed dictators left bullet-ridden in the street or hanging from lampposts for a while.

Can you grow to love a wall? Several hit singles asked the same thing, and despite the videos’ high production values and plenty of options for locations, the question was no nearer to being answered. Walls have been fucked hard, yes, but this is almost certain to not be either a new thing, or the same thing. If you can think of the fetish…you know the rest.

Reality TV’s genesis in the walled era has been interesting indeed. From the creative wall-building shows of the early years to the final acceptance that walls can’t be built creatively, to highlights reels of self-appointed militias chasing down those chipping away at the surfaces using all the tools that haven’t been taken away from them. Toothpicks and the scissors from kids’ Play Doctors sets are the favourites. Nobody ever got very badly hurt in the making of these programmes.

It’s not all bad, Buddhists seek enlightenment by limiting their options don’t they.

Look, this is how it is. I laid the first brick after the glorious head rush of the election victory, the pounding of cement mixers in my ears.

As you can probably tell, I am having some small internal discussions about this and that pertaining to walls, so out-and-out proud of myself would not be exactly the right way to describe my feelings. It’s not far off. A place in history is a place in history; definitely something to write home about while the postal services could still navigate effectively. A text message informed me the letter had not been received. I scratched the words into my nearest and dearest wall and look at it most days.

We needed to be protected. We needed to be cloistered. It’s not all bad. Probably it definitely is not all bad.

As a badge of honour they have let me choose a new collective noun for walls. Don’t tell anyone yet; this is just between you and me – but I have gone for Family.

o     o     o

Gary W. Hartley is from Leeds, but has voluntarily exiled himself to Athens for the time being. He used to co-edit The Alarmist magazine, and has a book of poems out on Listen Softly London Press. He communicates into the digital void via Twitter: @garyfromleeds

More about the print edition of Issue Twenty here.

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