I’ve been thinking about walls. As part of my dissertation examining the relevance of Ancient Britain, I walked along Hadrian’s Wall and wrote a poem considering the perspective of that wall. I’ve yet to place it, and I can’t work out whether I’m pleased that it now has more relevance and might find a place somewhere or not. I always felt the poem was a warning not to repeat the mistakes of the past; I never wanted it to reflect the present. It’s still one of my favourite things I’ve ever written, but I feel a little sad for it now, poor wee poem standing on the foundations of the terrifying political landscape we’re currently facing.
When I was researching Ancient Britain, I learned more about the Antonine Wall in Edinburgh. Like Hadrian’s Wall, it was also built by the Romans as a means of marking the boundaries of the empire and attempting to keep out the raging Caledonii who didn’t take kindly to invasion. The wall is notable because the lines cut brutally across the landscape in a very vivid demonstration of how little politics is related to the natural world. The wall had forts dotted two miles apart along the 39 mile long, 10-foot high structure and was surrounded by deep ditches. Despite these fortifications and over 7,000 men stationed at the wall, it didn’t last very long. The Caledonii tribes were too effective at guerrilla attacks because they understood and worked with their environment and the Romans were frustrated at every attempt to effectively hold or advance the line.
Writers face metaphorical walls as well as real ones, internally and externally – perhaps you sympathise with the Romans and every time you seek to build up your career, a rampaging heathen comes along and topples your structure. Perhaps you feel like those native tribes who sought to frustrate imperial rule at every step, faced with a wall of established rules and requirements for an industry that both shuts you in and keeps you out of the wider world.
From the top of a wall, you can see both sides. Sometimes I’m the Roman and everything I build gets torn down. Other times I want to lace up my DM boots and put my foot through the latest barrier to achieving what I want to do in my work. Either way, I understand that walls themselves aren’t inherently bad – they’re pretty good at holding up the roof over my head, after all – but what they represent can be very negative. Perhaps both politicians and writers can take a different example from the Romans and consider the straight pathways they created to improve trade. The walls, after all, are now crumbling monuments to the folly of the past. Their roads, on the other hand, continue to connect people.
As an aside, with all this talk of crumbling monuments - has anyone thought of air-dropping thousands of postcards bearing the lines of Shelley’s Ozymandias in Washington DC?