Great Barrier Myth

Sunday Times November 15 2009

In an age where divides have crumbled, are we really more connected?

One of the most surprising items I’ve ever found on a hotel bill was, “Wall – £50”. It followed a night in a slightly faded seaside hotel with, perhaps, the most shockingly beautiful woman I had ever talked into spending a night away with me.
Sadly, what was meant to be a night of passion turned to one of compassion as we sat on the bed emptying the mini-bar. She sobbed about her rotten ex-boyfriend and how difficult it was to find men who didn’t just want her for her body and I crossed my legs and nodded with “new man” sympathy. The climax came when she smiled through streaks of mascara, squeezed my hand, and passed out.
“Wall? What wall?” I waved the bill at the concierge. He calmly led us back up to the room to show us a maze of cracks in the plasterwork, stretching far and wide, radiating from behind the bed.
“It’s probably this,” he said, wobbling the headboard slightly, “knocking the wall.” He glanced at my pants-achingly gorgeous companion before giving me that sly smile shared between men that simply says, “you lucky dog.”
“Knocking? There was no…” I stopped when I saw the concierge’s look of unalloyed respect – who am I kidding? – jealousy. The wall wasn’t just a wall. Walls don’t have ears, they have mouths, they speak. This wall was speaking; it was lying, but speaking all the same.
It’s one of our great gifts, or curses: the ability to read almost anything into almost anything. Our evolutionary survival depends on us being able to find symbols in the inanimate, to read the signs of danger, or food, or who might actually put out when you invite them on a dirty weekend.
The concierge was simply doing what we have always done, found the story he wanted written on a disinterested wall. Through history we have constructed walls to define ourselves, our spaces, our defences, reaches, limitations, and to tell the stories of what we have achieved or have the power to do. They defend, detain, and declaim.
This cracking wall declaimed a fantastic story, one with a happy ending. Had Banksy himself broken in and graffitied a pornographic stencil of us going at it doggy style, he couldn’t have made the symbolism any clearer.
And now we’re commemorating twenty years since the cracks appeared in that wall uber-symbolischten in Berlin, but as the breaking down of symbolic walls go we could also be celebrating the anniversaries of Pink Floyd’s, “The Wall” (30 years), the Stonewall riots (40 years) and the mother of all symbolic collapsing walls, the one we forgot to remember, Wall Street (80 years).
Through most of human history walls represented the solidity and power of civilizations, from Jericho to Troy, the great China one to Hadrian’s Hibernian, medieval city-state fortifications to the peacefully soaring, deceptively delicate, gothic cathedral walls that hid their secrets in flying buttress; for centuries our walls mirrored the development of our genius.
In fact, from Hiroshima to Dresden, Coventry to the Somme, one of the 20th century’s most defining symbols is a wall teetering on collapse.
Perhaps it was an empire crumbling, and two world wars when the wholesale destruction of walls became routine and sharing commonplace, but after an era when they had proved useless as defence and only burrowing underground assured safety, the wall appeared somewhat obsolete, it became a potent symbol of old ways, class distinctions and social barriers.
The late 20th century was rife with disassembling divisions, philosophers “deconstructing”, old school ties and union strangleholds prised apart. From the culture of “open plan” and atriums, to the expansionist middle-class habit of “knocking through”, if there was a wall it was in the way. A world without walls beckoned. Walls were an anathema and even today, knowing how charged the word is, the Israelis will only refer to the West Bank wall as a “Security Barrier”.
But in architecture the century marked the birth of a new “curtain wall”. Skeletal girder construction meant buildings no longer needed the support of external walls, they could be clad in delicate glass – and weren’t they though? By the 1960s, the idea that one of our traditional four walls was transparent and no longer defended privacy had become entrenched.
In Joe Orton’s 1965 play “Loot”, his Inspector Truscott accepts a bribe saying that it will “go no further than these three walls.” He gets a laugh because he momentarily recognises the setting, the reality that the audience is present and watching. Actors had long referred to a “fourth wall” as the invisible one through which the audience observe, but Orton’s illusory removal of it was a prophecy for our age. Our generation has grown up aware that we are always on show.
We accept even welcome the omnipresence of CCTV or celebrities famous for being famous. We stare through the one way mirrored walls of the big Brother House with no sense of impropriety. Our cultural storytellers, books and movies, abound with the meta-fictive – where the role of the reader or creator is recognised within the work itself.
But, the danger in breaking walls, is breaching security. Our 24 hour, always on show, transparent fourth wall defines us through our insecurities. We Web 2.0, face-space, blog and twitter in fear of our own solipsist identity crisis: Do I still exist if there’s no one to watch me doing it? Aren’t we asking with each wink, nudge and poke, not “are you still there?”, but “am I still here?”?
The truth is we haven’t broken any walls, we’re still alone, we’re still strangers to our neighbours, we’ve just made an opaque wall more transparent and insidious. Where do we defend our image, detain our “friends” and declaim, “I blog therefore I am”? The Facebook message wall.
It seems the chance to show off was always too seductive.
“Right,” I smiled at the concierge, “sorry about the damage,” and handed him my credit card. As Pink Floyd will always taunt me: “All in all you’re just another prick with a wall.”