PART OF THE In the Summertime ISSUE

‘A border is such a simple idea. Step across a line, whether you can see it or not, and you are somewhere else.’

There are more borders today than ever before, and James Crawford argues that our enduring obsession with borders has brought us to a crisis point, an endgame set in progress thousands of years ago. Read an exclusive abridged extract from The Edge of the Plain below, putting the notion of borders under the microscope.


Extract taken from The Edge of the Plain
By James Crawford
Published by Canongate Books


A border sits on my desk. It’s small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. I’m always surprised by how light it feels. It’s roughly cuboid in shape. On five sides it’s coarse, bumpy and grey. But on one side it’s smooth, marked with splashes of yellow and orange. I bought this border ten years ago, on eBay. It’s supposed to be a fragment of the Berlin Wall. It’s very likely not. It’s probably just a lump of concrete, scavenged from a building site and daubed with paint. I feel like I can live with this uncertainty.

When the wall fell, in November 1989, I was eleven years old. I remember watching on the news as Berliners danced along the top. The same footage was played over and over as one large rectangular slab crashed to the ground. In the days, weeks and months afterwards, people came from all over the world to try to grab their own pieces of the wall. Mauerspechte, they were called. Wall peckers. For a few Deutschmarks they’d hire a small hammer and hack away.

Of course, everyone wanted the western side. There was a wall- pecking pecking order. Pieces from the west were covered in iconic graffiti art, whereas pieces from the east were just flat, grey and featureless. Enterprising East Berliners, quick to embrace their new- found access to the capitalist economy, began spray-painting real fragments from their side to make them seem more authentic to buyers. I hope my piece is one of those pieces.

Today, the Berlin Wall is the world’s most-travelled border. Bits of it can be found on six continents. They are exhibited in museums and galleries, erected on street corners. One slab is even used as a backdrop to a urinal in a Las Vegas casino. The shattering of the wall was, for some, supposed to be the beginning of the end of borders. The end of history, even. But history goes on. In fact, it has accelerated away from that moment. And borders have made a comeback. Or, rather, they never really went away at all.

One Monday morning in the middle of November 2018, a New York deli chain sent me an email with the subject ‘Avocado Shortage’. Their message explained that ‘no avocados have crossed the Mexico–US Border for the past three weeks’ due to an import pricing dispute and, rather than ‘serving a stockpile of frozen avocados and compromising on quality and taste’, avocados were ‘off the menu’. They promised to ‘alert’ me as soon as the situation changed. I have no idea how I was even on their mailing list. And I live in Edinburgh.

Two days later, the US President Donald Trump deployed 7,000 troops to America’s southern border and authorised them to use ‘lethal force’ against what he described as ‘an invasion’ of migrants. The first 400 of those migrants – part of a walking caravan of more than 10,000 travelling from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – had just arrived in the border city of Tijuana.

That same week, it was reported that North Korea and South Korea had blown up front-line guard posts all along the heavily fortified zone that has separated their two countries for seven decades, the first step in a tentative agreement to ‘demilitarise’ their border completely.

On the Thursday, the governments of India and Pakistan reached an agreement to establish a cross-border corridor to allow pilgrims to visit a sacred holy temple in Pakistan, the last resting place of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion. On the same day, in the Middle East, fighting engulfed the Gaza Strip as thousands of Palestinian demonstrators clashed with Israeli soldiers, and tear gas, flying rocks, bullets and burning tyre smoke filled the skies above an eight-metre-high, concrete ‘separation barrier’.

The week ended with the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, returning from Brussels to announce that she had brokered a Brexit deal with Europe that would ‘end free movement once and for all’.

Avocados, ‘invasions’, spiritual corridors, human caravans, separation barriers, lethal force and a British prime minister celebrating the end of freedom . . . All in just seven days in November.

I don’t think, in hindsight, that this was a particularly special week for borders. But it made me wonder, slightly more obsessively with each passing day, where borders really came from. When did they begin? How did they evolve and take root? How did they grow up into this vast network of lines – physical and virtual – running all over the earth? And why, today, are they seemingly the most volatile flashpoints for political and social conflagration across the globe? Is this just a symptom? Or could borders themselves be the cause?

A border is such a simple idea. Step across a line, whether you can see it or not, and you are somewhere else. The landscape may look exactly the same, one blade of grass to the next, but you are in another place, another country. Perhaps the people speak another language. Their cultures, practices, laws and ideas may be completely different. Perhaps you can be completely different too: who you are and how you live your life may or may not be permissible. On one side of the border may be the promise of wealth, on the other the certainty of poverty. What you read or who you love may be free for you to choose, or may be punishable by prison, even death.

It means that these lines, fences, walls or checkpoints – and the spaces they inhabit – possess immense power. Nothing is different and yet everything is different. This is, as the writer Amitav Ghosh put it in his description of the Indian Partition, ‘the enchantment of lines’. An enchantment that can be at once absurdist and fatal. I wanted to go in search of the source of this enchantment, to follow it all the way from then – whenever then was – up to now.


The Edge of the Plain by James Crawford is published by Canongate Books, priced £20.

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