Pricks up the years

Barbed Wire - The Devil's Rope
October 31, 2003

I cannot remember whether the Chinese saying "may you live in interesting times" is intended as a blessing or a curse. We live at a moment when publishers believe there are readers or, as some now say, "end users" who are eager to learn about such pressing matters as the history of barbed wire.

What does that tell us about our times? That we are anxious about security? That we seek consolation for the collapse of grand narratives in the small stories of objects? But barbed wire? What is there to say about it except that it is used to keep you in or out and, if you try to climb over it, you cut yourself? Yet here are two reasonably sized books on the "devil's rope".

Barbed Wire: A History , begins by noting that this particular invention has remained unchanged since 1874 when an Illinois farmer, J. F. Glidden, took out a patent for it. An odd way to start a history - but this observation suggests another reason why barbed wire seems to have caught the imagination: it is a symbol of permanence in an age of obsolescence.

Olivier Razac looks at barbed wire in the American West, the trenches of the first world war and Nazi concentration camps. It was first used to fence in cattle and later humans. Contrary to many a Western, it was not the cattle barons who were the baddies but the settlers who denied cattle access to grass and water. And let's not forget the Indians whom barbed wire kept from home.

Apart from giving you a nasty nick, barbed wire's one other feature is that it is fairly indestructible. It can withstand climatic extremes and is resistant to artillery fire. One of the most ingenious ways of destroying it was the torpedo invented by one Lieutenant Mattei. It consisted of a grappling hook and a 30ft wire to which little bomblets were attached. The explosion opened a corridor through the wire allowing attackers to charge the enemy.

Barbed wire wreathed Nazi concentration camps. Prisoners could be thrown into cages, known as "the rose garden", made entirely of it, and at Treblinka it lay coiled in the shrubbery along the pathway to the gas chambers. Razac ends his rather portentous history with the speculation that electronic security may signal barbed wire's end.

Alan Krell's richly illustrated book covers much the same ground except that he claims the first two patents for barbed wire were French. Neither author seems keen to credit his country with the invention of this symbol of oppression. Of the two books I much prefer Krell's. His prose purrs like a Formula One engine and the enthusiasm evident on every page almost tempted me to take out a subscription to The Barbed Wire Times . Yes, such publications do exist.

The appearance of barbed wire in America spawned a whole industry to deal with the injuries it could inflict. Dr Cox's liniment and Professor Dean's antiseptic promised to minister to scratches and torn flesh.

In the first world war barbed wire had "the capacity to turn a corpse into a spectacle". Bodies hung on it for days, grisly reminders that it was not at all glorious to die for your country. Perhaps the most surprising fact about barbed wire is that it once doubled as a telephone line. Artists seem fascinated by the stuff, using it to represent, among other things, bras and money.

Krell's most disturbing insight is that it has a terrible beauty and is potentially erotic. He also associates it with the crown of thorns, which gives it a numinous quality. Here is justification for writing about common things. Examined closely, they shine.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

Barbed Wire: A History

Author - Olivier Razac
Publisher - Profile
Pages - 121
Price - £6.99
ISBN - 1 86197 455 8

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