Over the last five years I’ve been asked to work on various projects focussed on Hadrian’s Wall, something that doesn’t feel entirely inappropriate to a (loosely speaking) Pict, one of those the Wall was ostensibly designed to keep out. A pilfering Pict, in a sense, since I live in the Old High Light, a guiding lighthouse on the Tyne estuary, built in the eighteenth century most likely using stone ‘borrowed’ from Tynemouth Priory, which itself was probably built using stone ‘on loan’ from the Wall. (Our ancestors were so much better than us at recycling.)

As a transplanted Scot, someone who occasionally thinks of himself melodramatically as in ‘exile’ (but who is more likely conveniently positioned, half way between Dundee and London), I’m fascinated by the possible symbolic meanings of the Wall. Firstly it marks an attempt at a limit, the line at which empire ends in a purely administrative sense. That cultural moment was being reflected elsewhere – the Great Wall of China continued to be constructed throughout the Wall’s lifetime – and, like that giant divider, it’s punctuated by regular gateways, mileforts.  Rather than being a barrier, it is the line of exchange and communication with what lies beyond; it’s as much about commerce and culture as militaristic control – and therefore it represents that moment at which the concept of the border was inadvertently invented.

My work as a poet, which I think of as obsessed with place, is probably more properly described as obsessed with border places and their equivalents in conceptual space. So it’s significant if only to me that I live a little beyond Segedunum or Wallsend, and directly opposite Arbeium or South Shields, i.e. only just outside the bounds of empire. Civis romanus non sum. Prope.

The border as a governing metaphor lets us think of the proliferation of intellectual layers, the liminal laminae we build up into a notion of identity. Romans and Picts can be readily re-read as English and Scots, while to compare Britons with the British is to reflect upon our own dead, our living and, in the form of Roman remarks about ‘Brittunculi’ (or ‘nasty little Brits’), our prejudices. The space between such identities also alerts us to the spaces within and across languages, which in our case occurs in that gap between accents and dialects separating Carlisle from Gretna, Longtown from Langholm, Alnwick from (although it’s technically in England) Berwick.

The Wall allows us to contemplate all the dichotomies we live with. Temporally, a border exists between between our perception of the contemporary, our present moment, and the historic, that space beyond all our short term engagements, and we must decide on what terms we are going to acknowledge this. Spatially, any border implies we must locate our ‘home’ on one or another side of it, and this distinction leads inexorably to others — ‘home’ as an aspect of ‘self’ requires us to distinguish between the inside and the outside of our skin, which in turn leads us to the border between mind and body. It’s arguable that the first border humans constructed was that which divides us from the animals, a division we’d like to think exists in some emphatic way between instinct and intellect, a border which permits morality at the cost of creating sin. Are any of us entirely at home in our history, our morality, our skin? Thinking of the Wall leads us to a consideration of the subtle but significant ways in which we might differ from ourselves.

Perception, in intellectual, sensory and emotional terms, is of course one of the poet’s perpetual issues. What we see, hear and think, and what we do not, is of paramount importance to a type of writing that threatens to aestheticise both the sensual and the conceptual, whether one is talking about our immediate environment or an entire world-view. Why do we often seem to live such partially-anaesthetised lives? Can a political bigotry or racial prejudice be linked to our impoverished set of perceptual tools? Is such a conclusion over-simplistic or, worse, sophistry? Why have such states of affairs come about, how permanent are they, and how might they change or be changed?

All borders are charged with the capacity for change in these terms, they are verb-like and verbalised spaces, where we cross from one state into another, where, as the Greek root of ‘metaphor’ implies, we carry something over. I often think of that little moment when I cross the ‘real’ border an hour further north in a train or car; or when my plane finally touches down in a much-anticipated and/or nervously-dreaded foreign space, as though the whole flight has been a kind of border zone; or that duration of the chimes at midnight, which, as the poet Ian McMillan has remarked, is not quite one day nor the next. They seem cognate with abstracted moments or those undefined places where we experience abstraction – airports, stations, malls, offices, libraries, galleries and (in my case, regrettably) churches – nowheres where we enlarge the self however temporarily by escaping from it.

Each of my three projects on or related to Hadrian’s Wall reflects these perceptual crises or discoveries. Whether I was taking a group of kids from the primary schools nearest to Segedunum and Arbeia on writing trips to the camps; leading a day-long renga (a series of communally-composed haiku) in the Centurion’s house at Arbeia; or producing a stainless steel strip of text that linked the Romans at Vindolanda to Charles the First’s Newcastle printing press and the text messages sent by Geordies on their way to a match at St James – each project contained a number of perceptual jolts or repositionings of the mindset.

At Arbeia I was working with primary school children, including many from a long-established immigrant community, whose school was located on the vicus or the civilian settlement that sprang up beside many Roman camps. Their multi-cultural experience would have been reflected in that very camp as well as along the Wall, as Arbeia was manned by Tigris and Euphrates boatmen taking supplies from the ships up to Wallsend, while the Wall itself had Germans, Moroccans, Romanians, among others, serving along it. At both Arbeia and Segedunum, children visited reconstructions of Roman buildings – a section of wall, a fort gate, a bathhouse, a Centurion’s house. All of these had been built during their lifetime, so they had to take the conceptual leap of seeing each new build as an historical artefact. Their experience both paralleled and contrasted with the experience of local communities in the Roman period, so they could and did relate those communities’ shock of the new through their writing exercises to their own experience.

The renga was a cross-cultural experience in itself. We sprawled about in the chilly, high-walled dining room, sipping green tea (the water boiled thanks to an unobtrusive but anachronistic plug) and composing in a syllabic form which is already a conceptual translation of the character-based Japanese haiku, a form which itself reflected the manner in which Chinese poets wrote at the time of their own Wall’s construction. When we went outside to sun ourselves, we saw the great funnels of Scandinavian liners slide by in an echo of less friendly Viking visitors, and the tankers standing offshore, apparently lying on the horizon in a manner that fascinated L.S. Lowry when he sketched the mouth of the Tyne from South Shields, punning on the length of the ship with his own image of a man lying along a wall, his cigarette turning into a mast.

Every concept we thought to settle on, right down to the couches on which we lay to compose, as though writing could mimic a Roman feast, kept metamorphosing into another concept, another field of reference, in an endless, smooth succession, in just the way the Wall snakes across different landscapes, and between different cultures.

The ‘Hidden Rivers’ project, where I worked with artists Carol Sommers and Sue Downing to place a line of text above the course of the old Skinner Burn, made explicit the parallels between the technology of communication in different eras. Messages between Roman forts made on sliver-thin strips of wood and the pre-Civil War pronouncements of a king absenting himself from his own capital (Newcastle’s first printed words) were set in the same format as the text messages of football fans. Of course we thought we understood that, technologically, each culture was at its own cutting edge, but the artwork shuffled our perspective, presenting all three texts in our temporarily contemporary idiom.

Perhaps the most resonant example of text surviving from the Wall is the single line recorded on one Vindolanda tablet: ‘interea pavidam volitans pinnata per urbem,’ or rather ‘interea pavidam volitans pinnata p’ ubem Seg.’ This fragment is from the Aeneid, and translates approximately as ‘meanwhile, winged Rumour, flying through the trembling city…’ The little sequence ‘p’ ubem Seg.’, combined with an analysis of the handwriting, reveals a great deal about the world from which it came.

Anthony Birley tells us there are two hands at work here: the first most likely a child copying out a line by Virgil as homework, contracting ‘per’ into ‘p’’ and getting ‘urbem’ wrong; the second probably the tutor writing far more neatly ‘Segn.’ for ‘segnitur’ or ‘slack,’ indicating this was sloppy work.

The line comes from Book IX, and describes the moment at which news of the death of Euryalus reaches his mother. At this point, the invading Trojans (Virgil’s Roman progenitors) are in a camp under siege by the native Latins. Aeneas is absent, and two men, Nisus and Euryalus, have made a successful sortie, only to be killed as they attempt to return. The parallels between the Trojan camp and the camp at Vindolanda, in terms of the precariousness and vulnerability of the occupying forces and their families, may have occurred to the parents if not the child. Certainly I was reminded of the children I had been teaching from South Shields. And we are all well aware that a mother hearing of the death of her son in combat in a foreign land remains a universal occurrence.

So this little piece of homework continues to yield meaning, and I was keen to place it at the heart of our renga, performing the traditional Japanese gestures of linking and shifting the terms of our poem. I wish I’d also been able to incorporate the comment, ‘segnitur’ – there is a sense in which all such digging into our pasts, all considering of our borders, constitutes sloppy but necessary work.

Our culture is deeply grounded in an adversarial mode that sees the media range speakers ‘for’ and ‘against’ any issue regardless of its significance or any middle ground. In Aristotelian terms, we like to think of things as A or not-A, and so borders seem very definitely spaces that separate. But what the Wall reminds me of more is the space that existed for hundreds of years between it and the present border, that territory of the Reivers from both sides called the Debatable Lands. Although what was being debated was mostly who nicked whose cattle, it was most certainly placed between A and not-A, and couldn’t even be defined as a singular ‘Land’.

As opposed to looking at the points where concepts become clearly distinguishable from each other, I am temperamentally drawn to the blurry or perforated line at which they meet. This applies equally to classic literary oppositions – between fancy and the imagination, or the argument with others versus the argument with the self – and to any opposition where there is an implied hierarchy, like the ‘genuinely’ estranged versus the ‘merely’ exotic, or Scots v. English, poetry v. prose, free verse v. formal verse, page v. performance. I would like to see ‘versus’ demoted to ‘and’ in all these contexts.

In a border space there has to be communication, whether that is condescension or contact, commerce or infection. It is the space in which identities are challenged and occasionally changed. It is the space in which, sometimes, we discover that we don’t quite know who we are, and it can provide the impetus to explore not just our identity, but the nature of identities. Although the Wall appears to follow a straight line, to follow through its symbolic implications is to trace out a type of ampersand, a hierarchy-challenging ‘and,’ the coils of which return you to your starting point, only to send you off in a new direction entirely.


About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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