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)

You must remember this?

I was over in Germany visiting a relative last week and one of the things we did was go to see Casablanca at a local art house cinema. This was a strange experience for a number of reasons, the first of which was realising that i’d never actually seen the film before. I kept thinking that i must have seen it, everything was so familiar to me, but in fact i hadn’t – i’d just seen so many clips and so many references to it that it felt as if i’d seen it. On the other hand, i definitely have seen Woody Allen’s film Play It Again, Sam and images of Woody “doing” Bogart kept on rising up from my memory. This made some scenes unintentionally funny (especially the one at the airfield) although the melodrama and wonderfully ridiculous dialogue helped too: “The Germans were wearing grey, you were wearing blue”.

Stranger still was the fact that we were watching the film in Germany of all places. I found myself wondering what the Germans in the audience were feeling, especially during the scene in which the customers in the Café Americain drown out a German patriotic song with their rendition of the Marseillaise. My companions said they don’t think modern Germans feel any connection to the Germans of the 40s. It was a long time ago, they said. Seventy years is a long time i agree, but it’s hardly centuries. There are still people alive who fought in that war, even if they are elderly. My companions’ other comment rang true though: we always think if we’d been there we’d have behaved differently. We’d have been brave, we wouldn’t have been swept up in the madness. Sadly, unlikely to be true.

In any case, when it came to being stereotyped the Germans were hardly alone. Every character in the film is defined by their nationality – by its supposed characteristics or in terms of a general “European” stereotype (Interestingly, as far as i can remember, no-one is identified as Jewish). The Germans are merciless and boorish, the French are charming but unctuous and the Arabs, in so far as they come into the picture at all, are just unctuous. They’re also just blacked up white people, but hey this is the 1940s. As an American, Bogart’s character Rick stands apart from all of them (of course) in his refusal to be cowed or controlled. Then there’s the black pianist Sam: another American and another America.

Probably the thing that surprised me most was that i loved the film. Despite its corniness and its mass of clichés Casablanca is a great film. Much of that power comes from how tightly plotted it is: there’s never a moment when the story lags. It was odd then to read that the script was written on the hop by a constantly changing team of writers as the film was being made. Ingrid Bergman’s daughter Pia said in an interview that this may actually have given her mother’s performance an edge, as she never knew which man she was supposed to be in love with. It probably also helped that there was no on location filming so there is less time wasted with scene setting shots.

I think some of the film’s power may stem from the fact that so many of the actors and extras recruited for the movie had themselves fled the Nazis. I only discovered this when i started to look up the life stories of some of the main players in the film. Most poignant for me was finding that the actor who played Major Strasser (the main Nazi character) was a fervent anti-Nazi. Conrad Veidt fled Germany in the mid-30s after marrying a Jewish woman. He died of a heart attack just a year after making Casablanca, so never lived to see the War’s end and the Nazis’ defeat.

I suppose i ought not to overlook the chemistry between Bogart and Bergman, which is remarkable, yet to me this is a film of character actors. Despite Umberto Eco’s claim that “two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us”, i think those hundred clichés would have sunk the film if it hadn’t been for actors such as Claude Rains (Captain Rénault) and Peter Lorre (Ugarte). I was startled to discover that the former had started life with a thick cockney accent and a speech impediment. His suave, unrufflable persona is what grounds the film and makes it believable. At the same time there is something rather feminine about him which highlights Bogart’s masculinity. The fact that he’s even shorter than Bogart helps too of course.

As for Peter Lorre, i was even more surprised to find out that he wasn’t German as i’d always thought, but from a part of central Europe that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when he was born, later became part of Hungary and is now part of Slovakia. Even now, on the discussion page for his entry in Wikipedia, people are fighting over which country he belongs to, which felt rather ironic to me after seeing Casablanca.

In the end, what is the film about? Well, it’s about a war which is always threatening to arrive but never quite does, an escape route which is tantalisingly close at hand but almost impossible to gain access to and a dilemma that is irresolvable without the loss of something fundamental. It’s a film about the poison that is limbo, the possibility of redemption, the power of sacrifice and, most of all, the painful, painful truth that nothing – not even the most perfect love – can escape reality:

You must remember this
A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by

What is a gift?

An embarrassing incident from my teens: I was over in Germany on an exchange trip. We – that’s me, my exchange mate and her mother – had gone into a supermarket. I picked up a can of coke. As I was waiting to pay for it the mother came up to me, pointed at the can and said “Gift!” “Thank you,” I said, surprised. I immediately got an even bigger surprise when my exchange mate burst out laughing and said “No, poison, poison.”

Turns out “Gift” is the German word for poison.

I was horrified. Not by the revelation that coke is ‘poisonous’ – but by the realisation that I’d taken something that wasn’t actually being offered to me. Inadvertent it might have been but I felt as though I’d presumed on my hosts’ hospitality. They in turn were equally embarrassed. As though they’d been caught short in the hospitality they were extending to me.

We laughed it off – but my exchange mate’s mother insisted on buying me the ‘poison’. A gift, even when given by mistake, can’t be ungiven it seems. On the face of it that would seem to be absurd because a gift, surely, is something that is freely given – voluntarily and without any obligation of reciprocation. Of course we all know that in practice this isn’t true. Gifts are often obligatory: covert social taxes, bribes and payment for services rendered.

Does that mean then that gifts are bad – a kind of social ‘poison’? I don’t think so. To me they’re a symbol of the necessary ambiguity of human relationships. We can never be sure of one another or the other’s perception of ourselves. We’re constantly trying to strengthen positive images, connections, bonds. We live in fear of social excommunication (sometimes even preferring to exile ourselves rather than to risk rejection). Yet we also live in fear of being socially subsumed – of being controlled, manipulated, robbed.

Which all sounds rather negative, but like a coin, when flipped over there’s an another side: we rejoice in our connections to others, we take pride and comfort in our willingness and ability to give to others and even, if we are wise, in our ability to receive.  And choosing (or even making) gifts, wrapping them, creating the context in which they’re given – these are all (or can be) creative and satisfying things.