One of the most surprising items I’ve ever found on a hotel bill was, “Wall – £50”. It followed a night in a slightly faded seaside hotel with, perhaps, the most shockingly beautiful woman I had ever talked into spending a night away with me.
Sadly, our ‘night of passion’ became a ‘might-have-been of compassion’ as we sat on the bed emptying the mini-bar whilst she sobbed about her rotten ex-boyfriend and how difficult it was to find men who didn’t just want her for her body and I crossed my legs and nodded with sympathy. The climax came when she smiled through streaks of mascara, squeezed my hand, and passed out.
“Wall? What wall?” I waved the bill at the concierge. He calmly led us back up to the room to show us a maze of cracks in the plasterwork, stretching far and wide, radiating from behind the bed.
“It’s probably this,” he said, wobbling the headboard slightly, “knocking the wall.” He glanced at my pants-achingly gorgeous companion before giving me that sly smile shared between men that simply says, “you lucky dog.”
“Knocking? There was no…” I stopped when I saw the concierge’s look of unalloyed respect; nay, jealousy. The wall wasn’t just a wall. Walls don’t have ears, they have mouths, they speak. This wall was speaking; it was lying, but speaking all the same.
It’s one of our great gifts, or curses: the ability to read almost anything into almost anything. Our evolutionary survival depends on us being able to find symbols in the inanimate, to read the signs of danger, or food, or who might actually put out when you invite them on a dirty weekend.
The concierge was simply doing what we have always done, found the story he wanted written on a disinterested wall.
Through history we have constructed walls to define ourselves, our spaces, our defences, reaches, limitations, and to tell the stories of what we have achieved or have the power to do. They defend, detain, and declaim.
This cracking wall declaimed a fantastic story, one with a happier ending than the truth. Had Banksy himself broken in and graffitied a pornographic stencil of us going at it like nymph and gimp, he couldn’t have made the symbolism of that fiction any clearer.
And now we’re commemorating twenty five years since the cracks appeared in the wall uber-symbolischten in Berlin. But as the breaking down of symbolic walls go we could also be celebrating the anniversaries of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” (35 years), the Stonewall riots (45 years) and the mother of all symbolic collapsing walls, the one we forgot to remember in 2008, Wall Street (85 years).
Through human history walls have represented the solidity and power of our civilizations: from Jericho to Troy, the great China one to Hadrian’s Scot-sealer, medieval city-state fortifications to the peacefully soaring, deceptively delicate, gothic cathedral walls that hid their secrets in flying buttresses; for centuries our walls mirrored the development of our genius.
All that changed in the 20th century. From Hiroshima to Dresden, Coventry to Omagh, one of the the century’s most enduring symbols is a wall blasted to ruin. After two world wars, where only burrowing under ground assured safety, the wholesale destruction of walls became a routine zeitgeist. Endlessly improving ballistics demonstrated how their defensive capacity was little more than illusory. Proved useless as any sort of defence, long before 1989 the wall had become more symbolic than effective, an emblem of ‘old ways’, class distinctions and social barriers.
The late 20th century was rife with disassembling divisions, philosophers “deconstructing”, old school ties and union strangleholds prised apart. From the culture of “open plan” and atriums, to the expansionist middle-class habit of “knocking through”, if there was a wall it was in the way. A world without walls beckoned. Walls were an anathema and even today, knowing how charged the word is, Israel will only refer to the West Bank wall as a “Security Barrier”.
Twentieth century architecture also embraced the theatrical representational rather than utilitarian idea of the wall. It marks the invention of the ‘curtain wall’. Skeletal girder construction meant buildings no longer needed the support of external walls, they could be clad in delicate glass; and weren’t they though? By the 1960s, the idea that one of our traditional four walls was transparent and no longer defended privacy had become entrenched.
In Joe Orton’s 1965 play “Loot”, his Inspector Truscott accepts a bribe saying that it will “go no further than these three walls.” He gets a laugh because he momentarily recognises the setting, the reality that the audience is present and watching. Actors had long referred to a “fourth wall” as the invisible one through which the audience observe, but Orton’s momentary removal of it was a prophecy for our age. Our generation has grown up aware that we are always on show.
We accept even welcome the omnipresence of CCTV or celebrities famous for being famous. We stare through the one way mirrored walls of the big Brother House with no sense of impropriety. Our cultural storytellers, books and movies, abound with the meta-fictive – where the role of the creator is recognised within the work itself.
Through our firewalls, our 24/7, always on show, transparent fourth wall is becoming a part of us, defining who we are. For many of us, without the protective, private, solidity of our walls, our bleating on the internet is, as often as not, through our sense of insecurity. We facebook, blog and twitter in fear of our own solipsist identity crisis: Do I still exist if there’s no one to watch me doing it? Are we asking with each wink, nudge and poke, not “are you still there?”, but “am I still here?”?
We have broken through the opaque wall only to build a more insidious one in its place. Where do we defend our image, detain our “friends” and declaim: “I’m here – I tweet therefore I am.”? We’ve plastered it on our Facebook wall.
As we stood in the hotel room, reviewing the cracks, the lies the wall was telling were more irressistable than any real wall has ever proven.
“Right,” I smiled at the concierge, “sorry about the damage,” and I handed him my credit card. For all I know the cracks are still there. And the concierge is funding his kids through private school.