In the autumn of 1975 I came back from Hull to live at my gran and grandad’s house in Featherstone. I’d had a few miserable years at Hull trying to come to terms with my parents’ failing marriage and wondering why they were throwing barriers up and arguing all the time, instead of reaching out.
I celebrated my 16th birthday not long after I came back and was given money instead of presents for the first time.
I spent some of the money on John Lennon’s new LP Walls And Bridges. It was an album that Lennon had recorded after a particularly miserable time in his own life and it showed: it was a bit maudlin and had a few self-pitying songs on it, though there were some very good ones as well – Whatever Gets You Through The Night and #9 Dream were as good as anything he’d done since leaving The Beatles.
Lennon explained the title in an interview at the time. He said: “Walls keep us apart and bridges take you somewhere you might want to go to.” I’ve often thought that amongst many things Lennon said – and there was a lot of rubbish as well as wisdom – that was one of his better observations. It’s been a keeper for me all these years and it seems more apposite as time goes by.
I was thinking on it recently because this week it is 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down. I have spent the past few days looking round our house trying to find a piece of the wall that I collected not long after that joyous moment. I remember that only two years before, I had been in Berlin with a good friend of mine called Peter Kaufmann.
Peter was a taxi driver in Hamburg and he had cousins in Berlin. We went to visit them one New Year’s Eve. We watched the fireworks going off all around the wall that night and I distinctly remember saying to him: “Do you think that one day the wall will come down?” He looked at me and thought for a bit and then said: “Yes it will Ian, but I think we may be old men before it happens.”
I phoned him just two years after; we were both 30 by then. He said: “We are not yet old men, who could have thought such a thing?” It all came back to me when I heard Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, who was brought up behind the wall, say: “The fall of he wall showed us that dreams can come true, nothing has to stay as it is.”
You just never know what might happen do you? Walls like that are always going to be better for knocking down, but we need to build the bridges as well and they can sometimes be harder to do than the knocking down.
I’ve been thinking on this during all the recent debate about Europe. It seems to me that there are a lot of wall men and not enough bridge builders getting their way at the moment and harking back to Lennon’s saying, we’re going to end up getting nowhere near where we want to be if we’re not careful.
Back in my own back yard in 1975, the first thing I noticed when I came home was how the backs had changed. When I left, my gran’s backs were communal. You could walk from one end of the row to the other without having to open a gate, fear that you were treading on someone else’s property or feel that you were somewhere you shouldn’t be.
Neighbours took each others washing in when it rained or lifted the line with a prop when the coal lorry came to deliver a ton. Then people started to fence off what they perceived to be their little bit of the yard. Before long there were walls and fences running from back doors to middens in straight lines.
My grandad didn’t like it and decided he would never fence off his part of the yard, though they did eventually enclose a bit around the back door.
When I asked him why he didn’t want to do what everybody else had done he came out with a statement every bit as wise as John Lennon. He said: “Walls are no good to nobody cock, they keep folk apart and stop you doing what you want to do.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant and I think he saw the puzzlement on my face. He continued: “Think on lad, what’s tha going to do next time tha’ kicks thi’ football over Fred Hickman’s fence?” I said I would probably climb over and get it back.
He said: “Aye that’s right and that’s the only thing walls are good for – climbing over and knocking down.”