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Borderline Delight

Utopia has no checkpoints—and that’s a shame.

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. The continental nations remembered all too well how their frontiers had been pushed aside by a river of grey steel a few years before. They didn’t trust them or believe in them any more and have since largely abandoned them under the astonishing Schengen agreement. So it wasn’t until you headed a little further east that they took the business with proper seriousness.

East Germany is a bit of a border cliché, so I’ll only mention the way it actually smelled different on either side of the checkpoint at Friedrichstrasse, with the Communists having that unforgettable, unforgotten brownish-gray fragrance of brown coal and two-stroke exhaust that still quickens my heart if ever I encounter it, as I occasionally do in some obscure corner of China. The West, a short walk away, was mysteriously ordinary, clean and clear. The light was always a bit darker and thicker over there too, and the darkness much darker, as Communist light bulbs had the mysterious property of being painfully bright without casting much actual light.

My first real frontier was in a far corner of West Germany, way beyond Nuremberg, called Schirnding. In my memory, it is surrounded by dense, silent pine-forests, but I may have invented these to suit the mood. It was a sultry grey afternoon in late spring. The train drew up. The clean, large, fat-looking West German locomotive was detached and rumbled merrily away westwards. It was astonishingly quiet. There was hardly anyone on the train. My wife-to-be and I were already reasonably keyed up, as the compartments in the Czech-owned carriages were decorated with emphatic red stars and smelt of a militaristic disinfectant so violent and thorough that it could never have survived in the soft and perfumed consumerized West.

Nothing happened. Then, out of the east came the Czech locomotive, smaller, far dirtier, painted a much darker red than its capitalist counterpart. Growling and juddering, it hauled us through some sort of fence into a no man’s land where we halted again. Now came the shock. Men, Communist men, Czech men, in shabby grey overalls and forage caps, materialized noiselessly all round the train—perhaps 20 of them. Some climbed aboard. Some swung themselves onto the roof. Others slipped beneath the coaches. They were not visibly armed. Nor did they swagger or bully. But I was instantly scared of them, as I was meant to be.

Those who came aboard ignored us, obvious Westerners. But they did not ignore the small number of Czechs who had contaminated themselves by venturing outside their People’s Republic. Their bags were opened and probed, their documents scrutinized, passed around, and re-scrutinized, their details recorded in notebooks. Eventually a more conventionally uniformed official came and endorsed our visas. But the point had already been made. We were visiting a sort of prison.

The Cold War, which—this was 1978—we had rather assumed was a formality, still existed here. From then on, I never doubted it. The world beyond that border was under the gravitational pull of a different planet. In the hours after we crossed it I saw for the first time a person with stainless steel false teeth, and was, also for the first time, told to keep my voice down while discussing politics.

You grow used to these things. When, two years later, I trundled into Poland from East Germany on the Warsaw Express, I was rather pleased with myself for viewing this odd transition from one part of the Soviet empire to another as more or less normal. There were Soviet soldiers standing about near the tracks—an invasion was feared at the time because of the growing power of Solidarity—so my fearless Polish fellow-passengers leaned out of the train windows to ask them, in Russian, if they knew when that invasion would be. There was a lot of shrugging. The soldiers were mainly glad that they were not in Afghanistan.

Around this time I had the extraordinary good luck to do some world traveling with Margaret Thatcher. She sat in the front of her Royal Air Force jet, and I and the rest of the scruffy political reporters huddled in the back, but we were from time to time invited into her compartment for (often rather long) conversations about world politics. Our entourage came and went, in a bubble of authority and protection, carrying London with us and often only faintly aware of which country we were in.

This ceased to be so in South Korea. Despite the usual jitters of the security experts Mrs. Thatcher was determined to visit the frontier with the North at Panmunjom. Ronald Reagan had declined to make the visit, perhaps afraid that there would be some sort of provocation—the crossing point had in 1976 been the scene of a gruesome axe-murder of two Americans by North Korean troops who objected to them trimming a tree. The Iron Lady wasn’t going to worry about that sort of thing—she would probably have relished a mild incident—and so we went too.

For me, it was love at first sight. I had always enjoyed the Cold War—I still long for its resumption, mainly because it was a far more acceptable noble lie than the War on Terror that succeeded it—but here, I thought, was its absolute essence. Checkpoint Charlie, compared to this, was Disneyland. North and South Korean soldiers frowned theatrically at each other across a border helpfully marked with concrete slabs. The Southerners adopted martial-arts positions, apparently because the truce governing this enclave limited the numbers of firearms. There was an actual “Bridge of No Return” leading into the forested mystery of North Korea. The crew of the captured USS Pueblo had been the last people to cross it. Half visible in the hazy distance was a North Korean show village, almost certainly uninhabited, from which ghostly, melancholy music could be heard floating across the frontier.

Two enormous flagpoles, the size of radio masts, displayed the rival banners of North and South. To end an insane contest over whose would be biggest and whose would be tallest, the twin states had agreed that the North’s could be higher, while the South’s could be bigger. In the middle of this unhinged place sat a shabby prefabricated conference room with the frontier marked on the conference table and the floor. We were allowed to enter it and cross, technically at least, into North Korea while Kim Il Sung’s soldiers peered comically through the windows.

Looking down on us from a North Korean pavilion were a group of tourists from somewhere in the millions of square miles of Marxism-Leninism that lay behind and beyond. I wanted, more than almost anything, to be among them, to be able to see this place from over there, to travel by the roads and railways that they had used, to penetrate backwards into the heart of the Other Side. They were perhaps 60 feet from where I stood, but a force field of global conflict buzzed and hummed invisibly in the air between us. I did have a wild impulse to dash across, much like the foolish urge we sometimes get to leap from high places. I thought, and though I was wrong I wasn’t that wrong, that to have reached Panmunjom from both North and South would be to complete my understanding of the world.

I spent the next 24 years imagining the moment when I would do so. When, in the early 1990s, I lived in Moscow I besieged the North Korean embassy with hand-delivered letters begging for a visa. They coldly ignored me. Eventually, sheer persistence found a way so obscure and unlikely that I had better keep it a secret in case I ever need to use it again. Down the long empty highway from Pyongyang, through the enormous anti-tank barricades we went, at last to emerge where, all those years before, I had longed to be. I hugged myself. I had done it. I had come all the way, through Berlin, Warsaw, Bucharest, Prague, Gdansk, Sevastopol, Karaganda, Tbilisi, Baku, Semipalatinsk, Perm, Sverdlovsk, and Peking (correct). And by passing through all these places and a few more besides I had learned that, while the Evil Empire certainly was evil (and North Korea perhaps the darkest corner of it), the wickedness that sustained it could not be kept in or out by military force alone.

I had also learned to love almost all frontiers, those obstacles to the global and the ideal. I had even liked the only one stranger than Panmunjom, the howling, lunatic Waga border post between Pakistan and India, where rival detachments of frontier guards in plumed turbans and fantastic moustaches whirl towards each other in a high-speed goose-step each evening at sunset, in a sort of iron ballet of aggression. Just like their parent nations since they acquired nuclear weapons, they have so far always managed to stop just short of blows. It is incredible, but it is true that on either side of the fence are sizeable stadiums in which audiences sit to cheer the strutting and stamping of their own side. There are even cheerleaders, notably a toothless old gentleman with an enormous Pakistani flag, who leads the Islamic state’s citizens in cries of “Pakistan Zindabad!” as the light fails over the Punjab.

Utopia, you may be sure, has no borders. It goes on forever. There is no escape from it from horizon to horizon. World-reformers and egalitarians and multiculturalists hate borders. Globalists hate borders. But for me they are a sign that in different places men and women like to live in different ways and under different rules. To me it is quite wrong that there should now be no frontier post at the Brenner Pass, which marks the true boundary between the severe and proper north of Europe and the sunnier, more relaxed and indebted south. And it seems equally disturbing that you can ride from Berlin to Vienna, or Prague or Warsaw or Budapest, without a passport. Wasn’t a war fought to restore those lost frontiers?

Isn’t North America better off for the border between the U.S. and Canada, which signifies a real and reasonable disagreement about two different ways of being free? The Crown of St. Edward, which you can find on the cap-badges of Canadian police officers, is not just a symbol. They do things differently there, and they like it that way. Who, with a heart, would want it otherwise?

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday

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