The illusion of a world without borders

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the discourse of security has replaced dreams of dem

The fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago is rightly taken as a symbol, not just of the ending of an oppressive regime, but of the dismantling of a monstrous barrier between families, communities and societies. It also marked the moment when a new, more "borderless" world seemed upon us.

It is good that we can celebrate the demise of that ugly institution this week. But we should bear in mind as we do so that, around the world, there remain many walls that still keep loved ones apart, workers from their places of work, and communities from joining together.

In the early 1990s, it was widely felt in academic and policymaking circles that, after communism, the "end of history" was upon us. As the internet hooked up those with access to computers, as air travel became ever cheaper, and as the increasing liquidity of capital saw more wealth moved around the globe than ever before, this became -- through the dogma of globalisation -- the prevailing view in the west.

But, for many, the idea of a borderless world was never much more than a convenient phrase, used to justify an increasingly aggressive capitalism. And post-9/11, it has certainly become much harder to maintain the view that we live in a hyper-globalised world where international movement is as easy as waving a passport at the border.

Even for those with the luxury of travelling wherever and whenever they want, the lengthening queues at the airport and increasingly intrusive identity checks are emblematic of the constraints that have been set on this freedom. More importantly, for others, the post-9/11 world has brought the introduction of new borders and divides every bit as unbridgeable as the Berlin Wall.

This is obvious in places where today's Berlin Walls take an equally physical and imperious form (as in the case of the Israel-West Bank barrier, for example). There the border is every bit as ideologically invested as the East-West German border was, and the sufferance caused every bit as stark. It is less obvious, but no less important, however, where the borders between people are enforced by more subtle, insinuating forms.

The plethora of biometric profiling techniques and border-tightening measures that nation states have erected over recent years in the name of national security is a case in point. On the US-Canadian border, for example, where the NEXUS system is used to keep perfectly legitimate but economically less desirable migrants out of a country in order to cherry-pick the workforce. Or as in the UK, where the idea of "hardening" the border was last week floated by the chairman of the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, Kim Howells, as an alternative to stepping up the war in Afghanistan. These border controls may be raised in the name of national security, but one only needs to stand in line at customs to appreciate how their operation is so readily inflected by class, race and ethnicity.

Such developments are the product not of a borderless world, but of what some call "gated globalism": a world of borders policed in the name of underexamined aims (such as "security"), where freedom of movement for some comes at the price of greater restrictions for others. These are the actually existing freedoms of today's neoliberalised boundaries, their effects far less visible than those of a wall, but their implications for many no less damaging.

So perhaps less has changed in the course of two decades than we might like to think. The idea of a borderless world was an illusion of the excessive western triumphalism of the 1990s. Today it remains an illusion, but because of excessive western anxiety. The figure of the terrorist has replaced the communist "other" and the discourse of security replaces the dogma of one-size-fits-all democracy. The only difference, in fact, is that those technological developments that promised the death of geography in the 1990s now herald its return. For those whose ability to move is restricted on account of where they come from, or beccause of what they believe, today's borders are indeed every bit as impregnable as the Berlin Wall.

Lloyd Mann (University of Cambridge)
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“All four of us vomited in the library”: Bobby Seagull on life as a University Challenge icon

In an age of attacking the elites, why have British audiences started making cult figures out of University Challenge contestants?

“BOBBY SEAGULL HAS REPLIED TO LOTS OF MY TWEETS!!!!!” cried a lovestruck fan on Twitter earlier this month, punctuated with three red hearts. It was the semi-final of University Challenge at the end of March, and two team captains who had become cult figures were going head-to-head.

One was Eric Monkman of Wolfson College, Cambridge, a bespectacled Canadian with a uniquely intense way of answering questions. His competitor was Bobby Seagull, the whimsically-named and endlessly jovial captain of Emmanuel College, also of Cambridge – “the happiest University Challenge contestant ever”, according to the BBC, and declared “The cult hero of University Challengeby The Times.


Emmanuel College University Challenge team. Bobby Seagull sits second from the right. Photo: BBC

Over the course of BBC 2’s ten-month tournament, these two competitors became unlikely icons, their geeky “bromance” (they’d been friends as students for years) gaining an excitable online following.

“Eric, you and Bobby are indubitably the loveliest, most team-oriented people ever to appear on #UniversityChallenge and we love you!” one tweeter breathed. “I’m sure you both have serious career ambitions but WE WANT TO SEE THE BUDDY MOVIE” demanded another.

And it looks like that wish could be fulfilled. Seagull has barely left our screens since he was defeated by his nemesis and chum in the semi-final. I meet him looking dazed but delighted in the bustling courtyard of BBC’s New Broadcasting House. It is the morning after the University Challenge final, during which the triumph of Oxford’s Balliol College team was overshadowed by an outpouring of love and lament for runners-up Seagull and Monkman.

Seagull is a smile in a suit. A compact figure and nattily dressed, he wears a grey blazer, pink shirt, white pink-striped tie, ocean blue chinos and brown leather shoes – fresh from doing a round of BBC morning shows.

He carries a Cambridge crest-emblazoned overnight bag almost as big as he is. He caught the 5.45am train this morning to London from Cambridge, where he teaches maths at a local state school. Remarkably youthful-looking at 33, he gets mistaken for a pupil in school if he doesn’t keep his facial hair – a groomed moustache and beard.

We sit down for a coffee, and he commands the whole café with his garrulous anecdotes. “I got a question in my first round horribly wrong, when they asked for a Dickens book and I ended up making up a book called Little Miss Dorrit,” he hoots. “There were tweets saying I should be taken out of Cambridge! In the last few years, we’ve seen Twitter definitely develop a relationship with contestants. Eric and I have taken it in good humour. We joke about ourselves. I think that’s endeared us to the public.”

Seagull’s personality – “hammy, chatty, gregarious”, in his words – and intellect now have him lined up for other quiz shows and potentially as a presenter on a new TV programme about maths.

“I grew up with gangs, violence, things that young children shouldn’t see”

Seagull started life on a council estate in East Ham, east London, which he describes as “rough, difficult” – a place with “gangs, violence, things that young children shouldn’t see” that was a 40-minute walk from the nearest shop. Born to immigrant parents who left Kerala in south India for London in the late Seventies, Seagull was the second of four brothers. “Two rooms, two bunkbeds”, is how describes his family home.

“This sounds like I’m playing the fiddle now,” he groans. “In my family we were quite lucky; we had a really strong family unit. But for a lot of people there, it wasn’t an easy path of growing up.”

Seagull’s father got a job as an IT consultant and his family eventually moved into their own home in East Ham. Seagull puts his grasp of general knowledge down to his parents, whose support of their sons’ education would often lead them to spending money meant for groceries on second-hand books.

“All of us vomited in the space of half an hour. The library was not happy”

Every Saturday, his father would take them to the local library and they would read books for four or five hours – treated with listening to the football scores if they behaved well (Seagull is a big West Ham fan).

“There was one amusing time when I think we had food poisoning. First, one of my siblings vomited in the library,” he giggles. “And then the next one five minutes later, the next one ten minutes later, so I think all four of us vomited in the space of half an hour. The library was not happy!”


Bobby Seagull in Cambridge. Photo: Lloyd Mann (University of Cambridge)

Still, Seagull had only ever watched a few minutes of University Challenge before he applied for his college team and got a place on the show. “Now, if I have kids at some stage, they are going to watch this show from the age of five, and they’re going to win it!” he cries. “I won’t tell them I was on it, I’ll just make them watch it casually and if they get something right, I’ll chuck them a biscuit – Pavlovian condition them to get the right answers. So maybe in 30 years there’ll be a Seagull lifting the trophy.”

When he was 15, Seagull found an advert for scholarships to Eton in a copy of The Times. It asked: “Are you are bright boy?” he recalls, while struggling to open the plastic pot of granola he’s having for breakfast. “I’m really bad at practical things,” he pleads. Eventually, I open it for him.

“People come up to me and say they don’t normally support Oxbridge; they support anyone else”

He left his London state school, where former Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw was headteacher, and started at Eton when he was 16. Just like everything else he’s done, he loved it. A contemporary of Prince Harry and Eddie Redmayne, Seagull was perhaps destined for such an unusual journey – after all, his namesake is Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, the eponymous character of Richard Bach’s pseudo-philosophical Seventies novella. His father loved the book, and gave two of his sons the surname.

“In this book, the seagulls eat, sleep, catch fish; a monotonous routine. Jonathan Livingstone thought there must be a greater purpose to life. And he tried to inspire others to fly,” Seagull beams. “The weird thing is that my life is following that path in terms of I think my passion is numbers and I want to encourage a love of education.”

So he decided to go into teaching, and is also about to begin studying for an education PhD at Cambridge. This was after a few years working in the city as a banker and then an accountant. He was a trader at Lehman Brothers when it collapsed in 2008; he saw trouble brewing in the firm when it began to stop stocking the stationery cupboard, and took action. He had £200 on his vending machine allowance and didn’t want it going to waste if the company went under, so he spent it all on chocolate bars just before the crash.

“We’re just sort of normal people, relatable. Maybe a bit eccentric”

“I think we’re still in a country where people do look at the liberal elite, the city, the top professional institutions, MPs, Oxbridge, and there’s a sort of us-against-them mentality,” he reflects, looking mildly less euphoric than usual. “People come up to me and say they don’t normally support Oxbridge on University Challenge; they support anyone else.

“But this year, because of me and my friend Eric, they actually think, ‘we really like the way you’re just sort of normal people, relatable’,” he says. “Maybe a bit eccentric, but likeable people who they would like to have a conversation with. That's given me a great sense of satisfaction. In the modern world, things are changing all the time. Society, Brexit, we’re constantly changing. But University Challenge gives us that familiarity.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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