On Building Walls


Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.


Mending Wall.  Robert Frost


I spent several days with him, cycling and drinking, talking and cycling.

Although his bike fitness wasn’t fully there, it was still enough to pull me along. We went along coastal routes, alongside pristine beaches, and through forests that were the haunt to the British Royal family. My initial impression was that Wales was wonderful. It took a little while to see that it was empty.


The house that my friend was renovating was in real need of assistance. Almost three hundred years old, it had spent the last forty slowly falling in on itself. Although he had replaced the roof, the interior was just a shell. As part of my active re-engagement with myself and the world, I had offered to work on the renovation with him. This was less than a month into my illness but the sun was out, I was exercising and my friend was managing to make me laugh. I was all set for the therapy that was working with ones hands.


I have done such labour before and find that the lack of thinking it affords me allows for a Zen-like clearance of the head’s hidden junk. I was not the only helper as the next door neighbour, a bull-like ex-soldier of seventy was on hand to help in every way that he could. He showed some interest in me especially when he learnt that my last name was originally Welsh. Apparently that carried some kudos. It wasn’t long before he started to venture into the kingdom of opinions.

“So, what do you think about Pakis?”

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum….”

Noam Chomsky, The Common Good

It appears that vocalising opinions is becoming the norm. First Farage and then Trump made it seem obvious that expressing any opinion, openly, was just part of freedom of speech. It was democracy in action. Using bigoted language was only a case of saying it how you saw it; a spade is a spade and all that. What Chomsky wrote was to the point; if you narrow the arena of debate then you can admit all types of opinions, each being intrinsically ‘acceptable’. Our spectrum for discussion has now been limited to the fairly straightforward assertions that I am right, the old democratic system is wrong and the Right is right. In short, you can say anything you wish regardless of how much it hurts others or acts as a passport to prejudice. Although this old Welsh pensioner didn’t understand the implications of what he would say, he thought that he had the right to say  it anyway.


I tried shrugging it off, turning to my work, and attempting to block him out. It was like meeting a nutter on a bus, one of those who deliberately target you with their nonsensical ramblings. The best way to deal with them is to induce coma-like symptoms and stare out of the window; or simply lick it.


“Don’t say that to Matt, he’s not racist,” warned my friend, but there was something in his voice that suggested that this was less of a warning than it sounded. I was thinking red rags.


The response of the helpful neighbour was a look of astonishment. Surely it was not possible that somebody, a teacher at that, could possibly like foreigners. He attempted friendship, believing that he was being hoaxed. His fear was that we were pulling his leg and that he was the centre of our conspiratorial joke. He looked towards my friend with a smile that was borne out of a plea for enlightenment.


“No, Matt’s not racist. He used to be a copper in London, but he’s not racist.”


The old boy couldn’t take it. It was as if the sky had fallen in or the front wheel had come off his bike. He was literally skinning his nose on the unforgiving tarmac of a liberal society. This was something that he couldn’t understand. He needed to question me more but I needed peace and quiet. I set about boarding out the upper floor and finished it in near silence, but perfectly sane.


And now the lunatics are in charge of the asylum. The reactionary and rhetoric filled right have found their voices. They have their idols; Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Putin and these Blunderbusses have cleared the way for honest rightwing common sense. And the truth is that they believe the stuff they say to be common sense, the world would be a better place if we all woke up and started to think as they think, do as they do. The Liberal conspiracy has been unveiled and it is a lie that people can be good and forgiving. Throw that political-correctness out of the window and say what you think, especially if it is likely to hurt somebody. The half-witted helper was only saying what he thought, what everybody wanted to say.  Being decent to others only makes us all soft.


I spent several days there and was refreshed by the cycling and depressed by the narrowness of thinking that went on in rural Wales; a place that had previously thought of the English as unwanted foreigners. So the Poles, Pakis and Blackies were aliens. Any thoughts of ever making first contact with them lived in the realms of the racists’ worst nightmares.


Xenophobes to one side, Wales gave me a sense of perspective. I knew that I was not to last long in the school in which I was working. There were some nice people there but the not so nice ones were haemorrhoidinally painful. And with the new Stazi moving in to executively-manage, I thought that my mental health was far more important. My friend was set for a good life; well that’s what I thought.


A couple of days later, he told me that his long-term partner had dropped him and he had been given orders to leave the mobile home, belonging to his former beloved’s parents. A very crestfallen friend phoned me a couple of mornings later and spilt the news; he had lost his driving-licence. In the first instance, he had to navigate his way through the coming year of renovation to the house and to himself. I offered him words of encouragement, knowing that he would need a lot more than that. We talked about ourselves as being fighters who never stayed down no matter what beating we were getting. The most important thing for him was still spending some quality time with his children.


He had no real home, he had no security of a partner, his funds were running out and he was developing a habit that was not healthy, but taking his kids to the Alps was first and foremost on his list of things to do. I didn’t know whether to admire him or recommend to him the services of a top psychologist. Sure enough, several months later he was there with his van and his tent and his kids. He also added another two young ones for good measure, a best friend of his son and a younger niece who acted as his daughter’s camping buddy. In the meantime, I had succeeded in getting, and then rejecting, a job as Head of English at a school in Mallorca. I think I know why I didn’t take it but, when winter arrived, I had to question my own sanity again.


As it turned out, my friend stayed on the wagon for the months leading up to the holiday and then spent the whole vacation dry. Both my wife and I were astounded by his perseverance and adherence to the job of looking after his small colony of campers. There was one night, in retrospect, when he did disappear early from a shared family meal; sometimes the demons don’t like us to be in company for too long, as I have found out for myself. Maybe, he was just tired.


A month after we returned, I got a call from him. He had been arrested for drink-driving. He would lose his licence for up to two years, making his sojourn in Wales even more difficult than it was going to be in the first place. Life for him was going to become a nightmare. He had no transport for leisure or for work. The job of renovation was immediately made tenfold more difficult and the fact that he had run out of funds, combined with having to live in a shell of a house without heating or water, meant that he was essentially on the streets. I gave him little chance to see it through.


Twelve months later, and half way through his ban, he is still in the game. Such a dramatic fall from grace, I have never previously witnessed. He didn’t have his family around him; he was alone in another country where the speaking of English was frowned upon. To my knowledge he may still be off the drink fulltime, but reality would suggest that he falls off his wagon as regularly as I fell off my bike when I was a kid.




The most important thing for both him and me was getting back on.






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