The Angry Corrie 56: Jan-Mar 2003


A few barbed comments: Barbed Wire: A History, by Olivier Razac

(translated from the French by Jonathan Kneight),

Profile Books, 2002, x+150pp, ISBN 1 86197 455 8, 6.99

Review: Ann and Rowland Bowker

The hillwalker's first thoughts on seeing a fence looming ahead is to wonder if it will be topped with barbed wire. If not it is usually easily surmounted, but otherwise out come the old fertiliser bags carried especially for this purpose. Judicious use thereof is usually enough to facilitate an injury-free passage. No doubt male walkers have more to lose from a careless crossing - but if, as the latest glossy mags suggest, the hills are now peopled largely by glamorous fashion-conscious bunny girls then the thought of ripping one's designer-label trousers may be just as dreadful as that of damaging vital body parts.

As old age brings diminished agility we find such obstacles more of a problem and so were very interested to read a book on the history of the horrible stuff - which, it tells us, was invented in 1874 as a way of fencing the prairies.

Razac concentrates on three particular applications of barbed wire. Its use in concentration camps is well known, a horror reiterated here. One has read this so many times that perhaps it loses some of its power to shock. But tellingly this English translation (from the French published in 2000) includes, along with the faces looking out from Auschwitz, a photograph taken on 6 February 2002 at Guantanamo Bay.

Equally horrifying are the scenes from the trenches, this time describing the use of barbed wire to delimit no man's land and putting a new emphasis on the futility of war and its impact on the ordinary soldier.

But it is the original function of the wire as a means of claiming and confirming land ownership which will have the greatest resonance with today's hillwalkers. The Homestead Act of 1862 gave any American citizen the right to own 160 acres of land so long as it was cultivated. In theory this right extended to the American Indians, but cultivation was entirely alien to their culture and the fencing of the land prevented access to their traditional hunting grounds. It was mainly this, rather than the battles of the traditional movie, which drove the Indians westwards and eventually destroyed their way of life completely.

This must surely invoke the sympathy of those of us who find alien the concept of rights of way as corridors through the wide empty spaces of the hills, fenced off by barbed wire or by some unwritten rambler's code of conduct.

The second half of Barbed Wire: A History to some extent repeats the thoughts invoked by the scenarios in the first half. Barbed wire is used for both inclusion and exclusion. Those controlling the wire create a space in which they and their friends and allies are included. The prisoner is excluded from society and from a normal existence. The author makes no attempt to discuss the question of when such exclusion might be justified either to punish the prisoner or to protect society, a dilemma highlighted by the inclusion of the Guantanamo picture.

As Razac points out, barbed wire without surveillance is easily penetrated. There are few hills in Britain from which the determined walker is excluded. Where fertiliser sacks fail then wire cutters can be employed. In other countries exclusion may be more rigorous. There are many mountain summits around the world crowned with closely guarded military installations. There are places where the landowner may shoot unwanted visitors and where PRIVATE notices are more than just dissuasion to the more timid walker. Mount Whitney, highest summit in the contiguous USA, is one of many places where access is rationed and by permit only. In areas that are well patrolled or surveyed electronically the need for wire disappears.

The conclusion of this thought-provoking book is rather disappointing, as Razac relapses into orthodox socialist rhetoric suggesting that the main reason for exclusion might be economic inability to contribute to the consumer society. Perhaps the book was written a few years too early, because it does not look beyond the use of CCTV cameras to eliminate the great unwashed and unwanted from shopping malls and exclusive housing estates. It fails to mention the much greater threat from the GPS transmitter which may soon be fitted in every car, not only able to detect speeding transgressions but also capable of noting how long you have been parked suspiciously close to that private hill.

The technology exists to implant a microchip in us all and to record our every movement from birth to death. Some parents are already seeking to do this to their children, ostensibly to protect their cotton-wool kids from abduction.

The issues addressed in this book are just as topical today as in the 19th century wild west and it should be read by everyone who values their freedom to break through barriers, barbed or otherwise.


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