On (and over) The Wall

(An edited version of this talk was broadcast on Radio 3’s ‘The Essay’ as part of their Free-Thinking Festival, 2010. It was recorded at the Sage on November 7th, and, at the moment, is not available on their site, but may become so as they archive the Festival.)

In W.H. Auden’s marvellous ‘Roman Wall Blues’, written in 1937, a stranded Latin complains poignantly about being far from the warmth of home:

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

Auden captures the grumbling of the eternal grunt, the squaddie still hunkered down behind barricades in Afghanistan today. It’s also prophetic, in an odd, back-to-front way. In the year of Auden’s death, 1973, the eminent archaeologists and brothers, Anthony and Robin Birley were about to dig out, at Vindolanda Fort, the letters of the Batavian and Tungrian regiments serving in Northumberland at the end of the first century AD. These notes, written on thin slivers of timber and dating from periods preceding and contemporaneous with the construction of the Wall, were the text messages of their day.

These were Germans, as we would understand it, from the Western stretches of the Rhine – indeed the wall was manned by what we’d call Moroccans, Romanians, Iraqis, and damn few Romans: the Empire was every bit as multicultural as the EU is today, and would seem to have been slightly more integrated. But their missives reveal they were Tommy Atkinius both in and out of action:

‘Masclus to Cerialis his king, greetings. Please, my lord, give instructions on what you want us to do tomorrow. Are we all to return the standard, or just half of us? My fellow soldiers have no beer. Please order some more to be sent.’

Sound familiar? How about this fashion note: ‘I’ve sent two pairs of socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals, and two pairs of underpants’ – socks with sandals? No true Italian would commit such a style faux pas. They also have a habit of referring to the native population disparagingly as ‘Brittunculi’ or ‘little Britons,’ anticipating Messrs Lucas and Walliams by nineteen hundred years, and setting the tone for every soldier’s take on the locals ever since.

I live on the mouth of the Tyne, in an old guiding lighthouse overlooking the Fish Quay in North Shields and, on the other shore, the fort of Arbeia, which supplied grain to the Wall. It’s one of the great views of the North East, much loved by the painter L.S. Lowry, who holidayed around these parts. But I come from Dundee, deep in the heart of the old Pictish kingdoms the Wall was constructed to contain. Had one of my ancestors stood where I’m writing this, he would have seen an alien thing, a walled fort on an island (South Shields was then securely separated by a channel from the southern shore of the Tyne), and a busy fleet of grain boats being rowed upriver to Segedunum, or Wallsend, by boatmen from the Tigris and Euphrates – Arbeia means ‘the place of the Arabs’, and refers to these Iraqis, the original keel-rowers.

My home was built in the early eighteenth century with stones ‘recycled’ from the nearby Tynemouth Priory, as it too had been constructed centuries before, using masonry from Hadrian’s Wall. So I am a type of pilfering Pict, living behind borrowed bricks, well within England’s borders, but on the very fringe of Rome’s. As with that ancestor, looking on the greatest civilisation he would ever know, I have to admit, civis romanus non sum. Prope. I am not (quite) a citizen of this culture. But as a poet whose career has always positioned him between things – English and Scots poetry, performance and the academy – I have a certain fascination with borders.

It is perhaps no bad thing for a Scottish writer to maintain a certain perspective on the hothouse of his or her own literature, and to adopt a position which symbolically represents that internal border all Scottish writers patrol between work which might speak primarily to a Scottish audience, and that which is written for a British or international one. It can be helpful to keep both Edinburgh and London at an equal distance, to peer through a chink in the Wall and, like Peter Quince in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to write out roles for both Pyramus and Thisbe.

It is of course here, where, in Europe at least, the very idea of the border began. In China, work on the Great Wall was centuries old, though its first major period of construction, under the unifying First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, began roughly a century after Hadrian’s decision, around 122AD, that enough was enough. The empire, hitherto a continuously expanding entity, a universe unto itself, had reached a point he decided was its maximum in terms of administration and military capability. An empire, he concluded, prefiguring Dirty Harry, has got to know its limitations. And so he turned to the military, its developers as well as its defenders, its road-builders and pensioned settlers in new territories, and, in Germany and Britain at least, gave them orders to establish limits, to create an edge: the first border.

As with China, the Wall, as constructed by three legions over perhaps fifteen years in turf and dressed stone and ditch, was not solely a fortification. Both walls have regular gates, mileforts, which indicate they were far more about control rather than absolute dominance. A wall is a highly efficient way of regulating trade, of sealing off infection, and, vitally, of keeping people in. Borders are less about the tattooed invaders, and more about the serious commodities of power: communication, taxes, plague and labour.

As a poet, I’m professionally inclined to think of borders metaphorically. All borders are charged with the capacity for change, 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 between Scotland and England, an hour further north in a train or car; or when my plane 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 Falstaff’s ‘chimes at midnight’, which, as my fellow poet Ian McMillan has remarked, is not quite one day nor the next.

The border is cognate with all such abstracted moments, or those undefined places where we experience abstraction – airports, stations, malls, offices, libraries, galleries, even churches – nowheres where we somehow enlarge the self, however temporarily, by escaping from it.

The Wall allows us to contemplate all the dichotomies we live across. Our perception of history, for instance, is dependent on a border between our perception of the contemporary, our present moment, and the past — that space beyond all our short term engagements which compels us to deploy the historic imagination.

Spatially, any border implies we must locate our town, our house, our home on one or another side of it, and this distinction leads inexorably to others — our ‘home’ is an aspect of our ‘self,’ and requires us to distinguish firstly between inside and outside a building, but secondly, to think about the difference between the inside and the outside of our skin, to think about such borders as those between self and others, or between mind and body. There could be no physical borders whatever had we not already constructed mental ones.

It’s arguable that the first border humans invented, prior to any sense of political or even tribal identity, was that which divides us from the animals: a division the North East philosopher Mary Midgely would urge us to contemplate when considering our responsibilities to the environment and to the planet. We’d like to think a moral border exists in some emphatic way between our instincts and our intellect. But are we right? Are any of us entirely at home in our history, our morality, our skin?

So the border as a governing metaphor lets us think of the spaces between ideas as well as place, and allows us to look at the intellectual layers in which we wrap ourselves, the liminal laminae we build up into a notion of identity. We can readily re-read Romans and Picts as English and Scots, and the space between such identities also alerts us to the spaces within and across the English language, between French-influenced southern speech and the Germanic-sounding northern, a difference which in our case is compressed into that gap between accents and dialects separating Carlisle from Gretna, Longtown from Langholm, Alnwick from (although it’s technically in England) Berwick.

We can reflect on how second century Britons relate to the twenty first century British, and this is, in turn, to reflect upon our neighbours and our prejudices. Borders are, as we know to our continuing cost, the spaces in which both bargains and bigotries are negotiated. Immigration from within and without the EU, deportation, such as the shocking decision of the French government to eject members of a specific cultural group, the Roma, are very current issues, and it can be instructive to look back at the monuments of the Wall and realise just how inclusive they were.

Two tombs in South Shields, a town which has absorbed communities of Somalis and Yemenis over the last two centuries, tell us this absorption was a common enough occurrence. One, for the young Victor, a freed slave, tells us that his master, like Hadrian himself, was Spanish, while he came from North Africa; another, for Regina, a Briton, tells us her husband, Barates, was from Syria – indeed, part of the inscription is in Aramaic. Local gods, like Antenociticus, or Coventina (written about by Seamus Heaney), appear to have been worshipped by the soldiers as well as the local population in a pragmatic, can’t-do-any harm sort of manner. Or, as Heaney puts it:

Far from home Grotus dedicated an altar to Coventina
Who holds in her right hand a waterweed
And in her left a pitcher spilling out a river.
Anywhere Grotus looked at running water he felt at home…

Of course, what this really tells us is the role of history in freeing the imagination, of taking us beyond the borders of our situation, and granting us perspective on why we think as we do. This realisation, that our concepts have borders too, is perhaps the most valuable legacy of living on the Wall.

There is, unfortunately, no surviving Latin poetry which we know to have been written on or about the Wall, though I have often tried to imagine just such verses. But perhaps the most resonant example of surviving text is a single line of verse recorded on one of the Vindolanda tablets: ‘interea pavidam volitans pinnata per urbem.’ This fragment is from Virgil’s Aeneid, his epic about Rome being born from the ruins of Troy, and translates as ‘meanwhile, winged Rumour, flying through the trembling city…’ Actually, it really reads ‘interea pavidam volitans pinnata p’ ubem Seg.’ and that 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 ‘Seg.’ 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 a soldier reaches his mother. At this point, the Trojans, after many tribulations, have landed in Italy, and are in a camp under siege by the native Latins. 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. 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 powerful meaning, and there is a sense in which all such digging into our pasts, all considering of our borders, is ‘segnitur’: sloppy but necessary homework.

Our culture, our media, likes to think of things as black or white, X or Y, right or wrong, and of a border as very definitely a line that separates. But what the Wall finally reminds me of is the territory between it and the actual border: hundreds of square miles that, for hundreds of years, was the birthplace of the Border Ballads, the home of the outlawed Reivers, a place of war and plunder called the Debatable Lands. Although what was being debated was mostly who nicked whose cattle, it was most certainly placed between black and white, between England and Scotland and beyond the laws of either.
The ultimate between and beyond, the border between life and death, is explored in the Border Ballads through the idea of the otherworld of the Sidh, the little people. These abducted borderers like livestock, and in their realm of relativity the borders of time broke down too – a single night there might equal seven years here.

One of the quintessential ballads, Tam Lin (first noted in a sixteenth-century Dundonian book, The Complaynt of Scotlande), depicts a world in which all known borders have broken down. Its eponymous hero is, firstly, a gatekeeper, a successor to Auden’s Wall soldier (‘There’s nane that gaes by Carterhaugh/But they leave him a wad,’) and, secondly, a hostage, someone seized by the other world who can only be rescued by the love of a good woman. Thirdly, he is a sort of northern Proteus: that good woman must hold onto him as he undergoes a series of metamorphoses from the supernatural to the bestial to the human.

In other words, identity itself has become debatable, and only human concepts — love, trust, faith — can resolve the resulting chaos. It’s an extraordinary imaginative resolution to the intellectual crisis induced by creating borders in the first place:

“They’ll turn me in your arms, lady,
Into an esk and adder,
But hold me fast, and fear me not,
I am your bairn’s father.

So, as opposed to looking at the points where concepts become clearly distinguishable from each other, the Wall draws me to the blurry or perforated line at which they meet. 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 identity itself.

Although the Wall appears to follow a straight line, to follow through its symbolic implications is to trace out a type of ampersand, replacing the concepts of ‘either’ and ‘or’ with a unifying ‘and,’ the coils of which perpetually return us to our origins, only to send us 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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