Borders are cool?

“Borders are cool” croons Welsh artist MC Mabon in the song of the same name. They have certainly always fascinated me. It began with my childhood in a village-turned-suburb on the border of England and Wales. We lived on the English side of the border but my Nan lived on the Welsh side; and so my early years were spent shuttling to and fro, crossing and recrossing the invisible line that – according to the map – divided the two countries. It was the border which defined us as a community in fact. We were the people who lived on the border, who belonged to the border itself rather than the actual countries on either side of it – all the more so because many of us were of Irish descent to boot.

Where was the border? I was always trying to pinpoint it; but there are no physical barriers between England and Wales, except those imposed by rivers. Still i used to imagine – in my childish way – that there was a real line somewhere, a kind of energy line, that would zap you as you passed across it. My mum used to point out a pub: “The border goes through that pub”, she’d say. According to her, there was time when licensing laws were different in England and Wales. The pub’s customers would move from one side of the pub to circumvent them. Crossing and recrossing, just like us.

I don’t know if the story’s true. What is true is that people have very complex relationships with these lines we draw in our world. On the one hand you have people prepared to die to defend them, on the other you have people – like the drinkers in the pub – to whom they’re at worst a nuisance, at best an opportunity. And then you have people like me for whom they form a part of their identity.

I’ve been reading a lot recently about borders and the effect they can have in preparation for my forthcoming trip to Turkey (and hopefully Greece). Twice A Stranger* by Bruce Clark looks at the massive population exchange between Greece and Turkey which resulted from the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Over a million Greeks/Orthodox Christians and half a million Turks/Muslims were forced to migrate to the ‘right’ side of the border, as dictated by their religious identity. An invisible line had appeared in their world and it wreaked havoc – although not as much havoc as did the line which a couple of decades later divided India from Pakistan.

Many of the people who had to move between Turkey and Greece had lived a long way from the new border. The ‘Greeks’ often came from places like Cappadocia in the Anatolian interior; while many of the ‘Turks’ had been resident in Crete or in Greek Macedonia. Their stories are often traumatic; but what was it like for those people who found themselves living on or next to the new line itself – the border which now goes through Thrace? And how do the modern residents of the areas of Greece and Turkey which lie on either side of the border relate to it and to each other?

In any case, that border isn’t too problematic: the population exchange produced relatively homogenous populations which were easily identified with their respective nations. What about the border between Spain and France, however, which cuts through the territory of the Basque people, dividing rather than delimiting it? And then there are those darker borders, the ones designed to act not just as fences, but as impenetrable walls: the old border between East and West Germany, the modern border between North and South Korea for example. I remember visiting Cyprus in 1991 and being chilled (yet also mesmerised) by the border which divided the Greek and Turkish portions of the island. The images remain in my mind: glimpsing the other side of Nicosia, visible yet unreachable; gazing upon the no man’s land of Famagusta through binoculars – there was a city that had been destroyed by a border, stopped dead in time by it.

Thinking about the place where i grew up: what would it mean if the invisible line which runs through it suddenly became a real boundary? It might seem fanciful but what if it did happen? It needn’t be anything as dramatic or even tangible as the barbed wire fences that run through Cyprus (let alone the terrifying walls the Israelis have built between themselves and the Palestinians). As it stands the Anglo-Welsh border is politically only semi-active: it has an administrative function, one which has gained some power following Devolution; but to all intents and purposes life flows back and forth across the border without regard to it. The shoppers, the buses, the people out for a stroll only notice it, if at all, when they look at a sign and see that it is bilingual. If Wales were ever to become independent however, it could be a different story. What future can there be in a nationalistic world for communities which straddle two (or more) nations?

Alternatively, what would it mean if the line was removed altogether? Again, it might not seem likely at the moment, but it’s not impossible in the long run. Wales is far more vulnerable to assimilation by England than is Scotland: it’s smaller, divided within itself between north and south and between language communities; and it has a long land border with the English Midlands, a much more densely populated area. What if it were to follow Cornwall and become merged into England itself? The border would cease to exist and with it would go the identity of the border dwellers.

Indeed both of these two possible futures threaten that identity; the current border is a kind of unresolved problem and an identity based on it relies on the problem remaining unresolved. It relies on stasis. Yet in reality things do not stand still – not even in Famagusta, which is gradually falling down. Of course it’s also true that the solutions themselves aren’t permanent. Whatever lines we draw now, whether on maps or elsewhere in our world, will certainly be redrawn again in the future; it’s just a question of when and where. The tension inherent in this is in fact what gives a border much of its power: we’re as afraid of it collapsing as we are of being trapped by it. Equally afraid of both.

*Twice A Stranger. ISBN: 978-1862077522; author: Bruce Clark; pub. Granta Books (2006)

Aeroplanes and television: how they change our world

I was thinking the other day about our internal geographies and the changing relationship these have with the world. In particular, i was musing on the effect of modern forms of transport – and to a lesser extent the effect of the modern media. A few centuries ago most people would have spent almost all their lives in one location which they’d have known very well indeed; their knowledge would have faded away gradually as they moved from this ‘centre of the universe’ until they reached the boundaries of the known.

Of course it wouldn’t have been quite that simple. There would be little irregularities – market towns they made a special journey to perhaps or pilgrimage sites – and there would have existed a vague map of other places too: lands mentioned in the Bible for example (i’m thinking of people in Britain as my example), cities from which luxury items came, the lands of myth and legend.

Still, it was a very different situation to today. Nowadays a person may live in one small district of a town, and know the way to and the location of a shopping complex on the edge of town and a few other locations but be otherwise ignorant of much of the place in which they live. They may commute by train every day passing from one small area of ‘known world’ to another, the one in which they work, through a desert of meaningless place names. How many of us have felt panic when our train breaks down en route and we’re turfed out at some station ‘in the middle of nowhere’? Even when the middle of nowhere is often the middle of somewhere, some district of the city we just don’t happen to know?

But trains have only a mild effect compared to aeroplanes. Consider for a moment those people with holiday homes in Spain or Portugal – or even Florida. Each year they migrate hundreds of miles to these places, even if only for a little while. At both ends of the journey they know precisely where they are. Those two small areas, so distant from one another, are next to one another in their internal geography. One goes from one to the other. The space in between, those miles of sea and land which they fly over, has no reality for them. Indeed, modern planes fly so high that for much of the trip travellers don’t even see the places over which they’re moving.

It’s very strange when you stop to think about it. I live maybe fifty or sixty miles from France. There are people just that distance from me living lives in towns i never see and can’t name. I never go there. Why? Well, in part – and quite a big part – because there’s no quick or easy way to get there. Far easier to get a plane to the other side of Europe or even beyond. The other reason i don’t go is because i imagine i’ve already seen these towns – or more accurately that being so close to me they can’t be sufficiently different from what i already know to make the journey worthwhile. Yet as a child even the south of England seemed like a foreign country. The first time i visited London (as a fourteen year old) i was awed and disoriented – far more so than when i later visited Istanbul or even Dhaka in fact.

It’s all about exposure. And that brings me to the other way in which places can come to feel too familiar to be worth bothering about: the constant exposure to images of them in the media. This is probably why i’ve never visited America. Why go to it and when it comes to me practically every time i turn on the telly? Of course that’s only a little sliver of America, but then, thinking about it, i’ve only ever seen a little sliver of my own country. Still, the illusion of familiarity takes root. The Internet only worsens this. You spend hours chatting to people on another continent, on the other side of the ocean. You live in your global village of far-flung contacts separated only by meaningless ‘uninhabited’ hyperspace.

One day i suppose we’ll be living in ‘virtual worlds’ spread across different planets, perhaps different galaxies. Imagine.

Turkey & the meaning of ‘Europe’

Turkey, it seems, wants to be part of the EU but the EU isn’t equally keen to accept it. A recent article in the Guardian explored this ambivalence and its possible consequences. As interesting as the article itself were the comments from readers. These were strongly negative on the whole – much more so than i’d normally expect from a ‘progressive’ newspaper like the Guardian.

I was particularly struck by the claim that Turkey is apparently “not part of Europe either culturally or geographically”. Taking the geographic part of this first: why does this matter? There is no particular reason why Europe the political entity need be an exact match of Europe the geographical entity. States and federations of states are not naturally occurring phenomena like rivers or mountains.

This is something the commentator should have been aware of himself actually as his name indicates he’s from Poland, a country whose geographical expression has been very variable over time. Part of Turkey is in Europe geographically and – rather ironically – the coast of the Asian part of its territory was historically home to some of those Greek states which form part of the ‘common European historical narrative’ which is used to legitimise a pan-European identity.

The second part of the claim is more complicated: is Turkey part of Europe culturally? I find this hard to answer because i honestly don’t know what European culture is. Western Classical Music? For the elite maybe. Indo-European languages? What about Basque?

Many of those who object to Turkey’s candidature lay great stress on a shared Christian history. This is yet another beautifully ironic moment: apart from the fact that many of the “Pro-Christians” who argue this are atheists who are hostile to Christianity in most other circumstances, there’s also the sheer hypocrisy and/or historical ignorance of suggesting that Christianity has been some kind of unifying force in Europe. I’m not one of those people who thinks Christianity or religion in general is bad, but let’s be honest: Christianity has been a factor in some of the continent’s bloodiest wars.

As far as i can tell, all ‘a shared Christian history’ really means is ‘not Muslim’. Yet, hang on for a minute, Bosnia and Albania, both of which lie entirely within Europe geographically, have large Muslim populations – and, more importantly, have had them for centuries. In Albania’s case, Muslims probably make up a majority of the population, although it’s hard to be sure because the data is so poor.

I was going to ask how much cultural unity there is in Europe, but given how hard it is to define what our common European culture is supposed to consist of, i’m not sure there’s any point. I will ask however: how many western Europeans for example feel any deep kinship with eastern Europeans? The article’s comments are telling in this respect, with much hostility being displayed towards new eastern European member states such as Bulgaria and Romania. When i was a child this sort of hostility was rare because these countries sat behind the so-called Iron Curtain and frankly, beyond occasional moments of sympathy for the plight of people living in Communist dictatorships, i can’t remember ever being very aware they existed. Even now, i bet many Western Europeans would struggle to locate their Eastern neighbours on an unlabelled map.

The elephant in the room, which few people seem to want to acknowledge, is the idea that Europeans share a common ethnic origin, or to put it even more crudely are ‘white’. Leaving aside where this leaves the many citizens of modern European nations who are most definitely not ‘white’, how non-European are the Turks ethnically? Here i think the great irony is that the Turks’ own ‘common historical narrative’ works against them, because it tends to encourage the idea that Turks are unambiguously the descendents of the Turkic invaders whose language they now speak. Yet, it’s obvious when you look at modern Turkish people – especially if you’ve also met people from Central Asian Turkic nations – that the Turks are more European – and more Levantine – than they care to admit. The genetic evidence* i’m aware of backs this up. In fact, this is just what you’d expect in a country which was previously the hub of a multi-ethnic empire.

I honestly don’t know if it’s a good idea for Turkey to join the EU: it seems to me that being admitted so grudgingly would poison their membership from the start. I do, however, think that the debate over its candidature could be useful in challenging assumptions about identity on both sides.

* I have seen a few summaries of papers which look at this in more detail via anthropology blogs that i subscribe to, but i don’t have time to track them down right now. Hopefully, i’ll be able to post details in the near future.

The next bend of the river

I was always running away from home as a child. Not, as you might assume, because i was desperately unhappy, but because i was desperate to see the amazing world i was sure was just round the next bend of the river. Or maybe the next bend after that. I was a keen reader of adventure stories of all kinds, especially those involving the Famous Five; but my great inspiration was a film (or possibly a TV programme) i saw about a boy who ended up living by himself next to a river in a forest. I think it might have been set in Canada, but what did that matter? There was no doubt in my mind that there was a forest just as vast, wild and magical just a bit further along my river. If only i could get there.

Two attempts at reaching it remain in my memory. On the first occasion i ran away with my brother. We planned it all quite carefully and made a stack of jam butties to keep us going on our journey. A mile or two along the river we discovered we were already hungry; so down we sat and ate a butty each… and then another. In no time at all they were all gone – much to our surprise. We’d never really thought about how many we would need for our trek; four had seemed quite adequate. Still we continued on and on, past E_____ village and into the uncharted territory which lay beyond it. I was starting to get quite excited. I had never been so far along the river before and was convinced we must be nearing my much imagined forest – after all, we’d walked miles! Then disaster struck: we encountered nettles. I was determined to carry on (we were so close!) but my brother started to cry as he was repeatedly and painfully stung. Our memories differ at this point, it has to be said: he is convinced that he (and only he) was wearing shorts, whereas i am convinced that we both were. Anyway, we were both starting to get hungry and so we turned back. End of attempt.

Later i tried again, this time with our dog Sally. Alas, the adventure was over even more quickly! First of all, it was impossible to get Sally to grasp the seriousness of our quest. She kept wandering off. And then only a mile or so along the river she decided to go for a swim (she loved swimming), but unfortunately then discovered that she couldn’t get back out; the bank was too steep and too slippy. There was no alternative: i would have to get into the river and help her. So i did. I hauled her, i pushed her and then i hauled her some more – all of this with no help from Sally herself. She seemed to think the whole thing was a game and didn’t appreciate that i was trying to get her out of the water. By the time she was back on dry land (none the worse for her ordeal) i was wet, cold and tired. And hungry, the food having been eaten even more quickly than the last time. Note to small would-be adventurers: provisions do not last long when they’re shared with a dog.

Perhaps i made more attempts, i’m not sure. In the end though my mission was doomed. Not just because the forest wasn’t there – although i grant you that was a factor – but because i was growing up. The geography of the real world was supplanting that of the imagination.