Flying pickets: A pandemic-inspired relocation of the great American fence

This mixture of classic Americana, chalked outlines and a picnic area is a like some Lynch-directed dream-sequence: a bunfight at the RHK corral

The socially distanced patches of grass within which you are encouraged to enjoy your coffee and muffins at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham are marked with white circles, which adds to the sense of oddness.

The socially distanced patches of grass within which you are encouraged to enjoy your coffee and muffins at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham are marked with white circles, which adds to the sense of oddness.

 

One of the latest twists of this already strange year is the sudden ubiquity – in Dublin anyway – of white picket fences. The new variety are made from PVC rather than wood. And instead of cordoning off carefully manicured lawns in US suburbs – their classic setting – they now provide temporary corrals around city-centre footpaths, in some cases replacing the more traditional barrier: parked cars.

The white picket fence used to be synonymous with The American Dream, in which it always contained a picturesque house with private “yard” and 2.4 children. Tellingly, it plays a starring role in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), a classic of American literature published on the centenary of the revolution.

You’ll recall that there, as a punishment for mischief, Aunt Polly sentences the book’s hero to paint hers. Then in true American style, he turns this domestic chore into a business opportunity, subcontracting the paint job out to friends and charging them a nickel each for their contribution.

But even before its pandemic-inspired reinvention on this side of the Atlantic, it seems, the white picket fence has had its ups and downs. The high point may have been an appearance in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, as the backdrop to George Bailey’s courtship of Mary Hatch.

After that, according to the Smithsonian Magazine, came a prolonged fall from fashion. The Cold War saw the rise of chain-link fences instead. Where picket fences persisted, they were now seen as consciously nostalgic or something worse. In the opening shots of his weird classic Blue Velvet (1986), David Lynch makes them look downright sinister.

Their Covid-era usage in Dublin now extends to my next-door neighbour, the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. That’s a little unsettling too. On the plus side, they are at least surrounding lawns (and a catering van) there, rather than pavement.

But the socially distanced patches of grass within which you are encouraged to enjoy your coffee and muffins are marked with white circles, which adds to the sense of oddness. This mixture of classic Americana, chalked outlines, and a picnic area is like some Lynch-directed dream-sequence: a bunfight at the RHK corral.

***

Moving from picket fences to pedestals – the other items of street furniture that have been in the news lately – my mention of the ones now vacant at the Shelbourne Hotel last week reminded a reader of a story from some years ago in Baltimore, Co Cork.

No, it was nothing to do with slavery, although Baltimore was the scene of an infamous event in 1631, when Algerian pirates sailed into the cove one night and kidnapped more than 100 locals (or, to be strictly accurate, recent English settlers – which gave rise to suspicions of an inside job) bound for the slave markets of Algiers.

This story instead involved a man who arrived in west Cork during the 1960s and stayed. He was a Breton fisherman named Youen Jacob and he soon became inextricably connected with Baltimore, partly because he opened a fine seafood restaurant there, Chez Youen, and partly because he was involved in almost every other positive development in the area until his death in 2016.

His initiatives included founding the now-annual seafood festival. And speaking at the inaugural instalment of that event, according to my correspondent, a local politician paid a memorable tribute to the village’s adopted son. Monsieur Jacob was such an asset to Baltimore, said the politician, he should be “mounted on a pedestrian”.

To the general impropriety of this suggestion, I’m told, was added the fact that the much-loved Breton had already become a monument to his profession. My emailer adds: “Youen was, at a conservative estimate, about 18 stone.”

This is turn reminds me of an equally unforgettable proposal by Avril Doyle, then MEP, at a homecoming for Irish Olympians in 2004. The team included Cian O’Connor, who had just won (but would shortly lose) a gold medal in show-jumping. So Ms Doyle, who was also president of the Equestrian Federation of Ireland, took up the theme of what great horse-riding talent Ireland had, if only more people were given the chance to shine.

Unlike that of the Cork politician, her English was faultless. She was just using one of the less common senses of the verb in question, meaning to “set or place [a third party] upon”. Even so, I’m afraid she caused sniggers at the back of the press conference by urging the Government, as a matter of urgency, to “mount our athletes” now.

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