Forty-five years ago, my parents moved into a house that had no front fence. In most of that Melbourne suburb, although side fences served as a practical sort of divider, lawns sloped freely down to the concrete pavements.
Nobody thought anything of it, I certainly didn’t, but these days the subject of fences and walls is very much on my mind, and I think of that estate’s plan as being symbolic of a kind of trust and freedom that may have disappeared forever.
When I moved into my mother-in-law’s house in her Greek village somewhat later, I was struck by the fact that a high stone wall and a tall wooden gate separated the building from the street. Here was a place with a very different history, one involving brigandage, war and occupation. There was even a hidden entrance to the upstairs bedrooms.
Village life had settled into a quiet tenor by the 1980s. When Aphrodite went out, she simply poked a long stick through the catches on the outside gate, or else tied them together with an old piece of ribbon. This was the signal that she was not at home, and no one would have dreamed of entering the house in her absence. Later a friend from another village told me that his father had often said, "Never trust a man who locks his house".
By that standard, there are now a great many untrustworthy people about: these days village houses have high fences with wrought-iron spikes on top, outside windows are barred, and many are the sophisticated locks and alarm systems, while the population of large and aggressive dogs increases almost daily.
These trends started, I think, with the first waves of immigration in the 1990s, and have become much more marked with the long years of economic crisis Greek society has had to endure.
Then there’s the matter of walls. Humankind has always been fond of them: the oldest of them all is the Great Wall of China, started in 500 BC, and eventually stretching for 22,000 kilometres. I remember when the Berlin wall, all 112 kilometres of it, was constructed in 1961. The East German authorities said it was to prevent the penetration of Fascist influences, but the whole world knew the wall was built to prevent the persistent defection of the population to West Germany.
I also remember my mother saying, "If that communist society is perfect, then why have they had to build a wall to keep people in it?" Twenty-eight years later, the wall came down. Keeping people in, keeping people out. In December last year, Greece finished building its own 12.5 kilometre wall along the Turkish border, roll upon long roll of barbed wire. Who knows when it will come down?
The most sinister construction of all at present is surely the so-called Separation Barrier, constructed by the Israeli government from the year 2000 to replace older barriers. By the summer of 2010, 520 kilometres had been completed, much consisting of nine-metre-tall concrete slabs.
This wall does not follow the Green Line, the pre-1967 Israeli border, but instead cuts deep into the West Bank, isolating a great many Palestinians, and irrevocably altering their lives. Many human rights activists allege that the Barrier is a land grab rather than a defensive operation, and that two million innocent people have been manoeuvred into an open-air prison, while as early as 2004 the wall was declared by the International Court of Justice to be illegal.
What about Australia? The Australian branch of Amnesty International claims that there are currently more than 7500 people being held in Australian detention centres, of whom 1200 are children, and that there are instances of detention lasting for many months, or even years. Amnesty is raising money for a Freedom from Fences campaign, and recently said that the detention centre on Manus Island violated legal prohibitions against torture.
It is an illusion, surely, to think that safety can be guaranteed by a big enough fence or strong enough wall. Shakespeare caused Pyramus to refer to the vile and wicked wall that separated him from Thisbe. How right comic Pyramus was, and Lord, what fools we mortals be.
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