Until a young couple moved in next-door, fences never featured in my thoughts. Our street had gardens that rolled down the hill, largely absent of boundaries. Apart from anything else, a stark divide would obstruct views of the long golden beach, the rolling waves and the seasonal sightings of whales.
However, the new neighbours' desire for a fence and their intractable position on its construction made me wonder why fences loom so large in our psyche. Think of monumental fences, such as the Great Wall of China to our very own Dingo Fence, which at 5,531 kilometres is regarded as the longest true fence on earth.
The physical presence of a fence reassures us. Defining our borders provides a sense of peace, of control and even happiness. That distinction between us and them, between what is ours and what is not, talks to our secret fears and anxieties. We feel more secure knowing exactly who is inside and who is out.
However, fences inadvertently reveal aspects of our personality. A neighbourhood stroll past an impenetrable structure versus a gappy picket fence offers clues to the owner's attitude to privacy. Does an aesthetic curving hedge infer the owners are keen gardeners? No fence might mean the inhabitants have nothing to hide, can't afford a fence or actually desire to be observed. Of course, some fences exist for legitimate reasons, perhaps blocking the noise of passing traffic. But like our cars and clothes, fences indicate how we want to be perceived. In the process, that message is open to interpretation. Our choices put our vulnerabilities on display.
Whatever the reason, there is one undeniable fact about a fence. Its purpose is to divide. On a farm, fences are critical. They keep the horses in this paddock, the cattle in that and the chicken safe from foxes in their coop. Fences prevent the free movement of animals for their own safety, to maintain pastures or to segregate mothers and their young.
But when it comes to humans, this idea blurs. It's no coincidence we talk about the grass being greener on the other side. Preventing the free movement of people and ideas by erecting impenetrable barriers is an invitation to those stuck inside to escape and those outside to breach it. See a high fence and we immediately wonder what they are hiding. To the outsider, the wall is advertising.
The word fence is rich in meaning. It arrived into English as a derivation of the word defence. By the mid 1800s, we were happily sitting on the fence, unable to commit or able to jump either way. Psychologists talk of compartmentalising. We build emotional barriers to keep others at bay. When we have damaged relationships, we talk of mending fences. The phrase derives from the mid 17th century proverb 'Good fences make good neighbours.' As if by setting some clearly defined rules about how a relationship will work, it will be easier to avoid crossing the line.
If only that were true. Inherent in the proverb is the twin conceits that we are setting boundaries and keeping others out. Our neighbours might be the loveliest people in the world or the neighbours from hell. But a fence, physical or emotional, may be the very thing that stops us from having good relations. Straddling them, building them or tearing them down, fences mean a lot more than just bricks and mortar. Is it any wonder we end up at loggerheads over our suburban boundaries?
The Fence, published by Pan Macmillan, is out now.Suggest a correction