Borderline Delight

Article excerpt

Utopia has no checkpoints-and that's a shame.

Here I am again at border control as a lady with epaulettes, savagely bleached hair, and a large peaked cap glares first at me and then at my passport. Then she glares at me again. Then she looks in the angled mirror behind me, to check on the back of my head. I do not know why this is important. Perhaps she wants to make sure I am not wearing a wig. That mirror is always there, at every border crossing in every despotism in the world. I just happen to have walked into this one, whichever it might be.

Probably she is a loving mother of six, but at the moment she is intent on glaring. Glaring is, after all, her job. "Good for you," I am thinking. "Your country may be a squalid tyranny ruled by a lunatic, but at least you don't let anyone in without checking their documents. How unlike The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain, where anyone can get in these days."

With a final glare, she whacks a blurred green entry stamp on my visa and thrusts my European Union passport-there are no British passports any more-back at me under the scratched window of armored glass. All is in order. Either they haven't realized what I am up to, or they don't care. The lock buzzes. I am across. And I am enjoying myself.

I like frontiers much as other people like restaurants, or whisky, or dancing. The very word sings to me of those thrilling things-barbed wire, floodlights, grimy booths paneled in fake veneer, stone-faced officials, women in pert uniforms, the feeling of danger without the reality of it, the waiting train to some enjoyably grim city, hissing on the far side of the inviting barrier.

At these strange places, human ideas solidify into walls, fences, and ditches. Theoretical lines on the map become visible. At the best of them, the experience is more or less unbelievable, an education in the limits and nature of power. A hundred yards away there is the rule of law, a free press flourishes, and you can say what you like about the government. But over here, even though you can actually see into the other place, prison and torture await the dissenter.

Perhaps my pleasure in borders results from growing up in a country that had none. Before very long, I suspect there will be a noticeable demarcation line between England and Scotland. As it destroys proper nations, the European Union seeks to nurture dozens of obsolete or sleeping countries back into life. Scottish flags now fly pointedly over Scottish towns, and Gaelic signs are starting to appear, especially in areas where nobody speaks Gaelic. In Wales you are constantly reminded of the Welsh language. Taxis are called "tacsis," banks become "bancs," and ambulances are emblazoned with the word "Ambiwlans."

I can easily foresee smart new border posts springing up before too long, bilingual as anything. I am rather looking forward to it, now I that have got used to the idea. But until very recently, you had to strain to tell which part of the United Kingdom you were in. All roads ended at the sea, not at a line of barbed wire decorated with a foreign flag. The only boundaries that were properly marked were those that divided our ancient counties.

There was a curious demarcation across the water in Ireland, perhaps the most physically invisible and mentally important dividing line in the world, but we knew little of that in those days. I have often visited it since, because of this strange paradox that it is not there on the land but is seared on men's minds. You can stroll across it without noticing, but if you abolished it half of Belfast would be ablaze with rage the next day, while the other half rejoiced. It does what all borders do. It makes you think harder than you did before about who and what you are, and what a country is, and why it matters.

Western Europe wasn't exciting for the border fancier. They stamped your passport perfunctorily when you arrived in France, though I can't recall the Dutch or the Germans or the Italians ever bothering. …