Wednesday, 25 April 2007

You can’t cross here

A much admired competitor in the 1907 Peking to Paris car "challenge" was a Frenchman called Auguste Pons, who had to withdraw when his three-wheeled 6 HP ice-cream cart type of vehicle ran out of fuel in the middle of the Gobi desert. He can in no way be considered a failure in life, because nine years earlier he had become the father of Lily Pons, who was a principal soprano at the Met for thirty years, starred in three films with Henry Fonda in the thirties and could vocalise up to the A-flat above high C without visible effort.

In the hundred years since that great 1907 rally, there have been many attempts to repeat the event, the latest being an optimistic one planned, perhaps not entirely seriously, for 2007. But the difficulties faced in making such journeys nowadays are illustrated by a report in the Guardian about the proliferation of barriers of one kind and another which now exist or are being developed. A graphic attached to the report enumerates them, classified by their raison d’être: anti-immigration (8), anti-terror (8), internal (2) and so on.

The latest, still proposed or under construction, are in the West Bank and Russia/Chechnya, and the oldest (1953) is between the two Koreas, described by Bill Clinton as ‘the scariest place on earth’. It is certainly the most impenetrable of all borders; when I went with a colleague to Pyongyang in 1978 we had been to the other Korea first but although Pyongyang is only 30 or so miles from the border we had to fly there from Seoul via Tokyo.

My colleague, as a special treat, was taken down to Panmunjom, where they were hurling insults and threats across the DMZ over a powerful loudspeaker system. As a distinguished guest he was given the microphone and asked to say something.
“What shall I say?” he asked.
“Well, you could say “Go home, filthy American fascist-imperialist hyenas” was the answer.

The reason he gave for declining was something to the effect that the Americans and South Koreans were also members of the international sports federation of which he was the president, so he didn’t feel it would be quite right for him to send such a message. Anyway, they didn’t insist.


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