Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Istanbul! seven things I noticed...

A post a little bit after the event, but later is better than never...
My girlfriend, Sue, and I spent five days in the Big Stan during the Easter holidays, and had a great time. It's been four and a bit years since I was last there, but the changes have been really noticeable. Just thought I'd share what was most memorable:
..and a collage of the five hundred or so pics I took.
1) The Metro System
This was only really properly getting under way back in 2009, and I remember when I first boarded the original line from Atakoy to Aksaray back in the 90's. I have to say that, as far as the main centres are concerned, this is a really well-conceived and joined-up, something I never thought I would say about the state of Istanbul's traffic twenty years ago. I even risked the dodgy plumbing of the Mamaray, the line going under the sea between Sirkeci and Kadikoy, and was genuinely astonished by the speed of the service. The Istanbul travel card (similar to an Oyster Card in London) was also a definite plus. 
Having said that, from the journeys I did, it seems that it is an effective service only for certain, wealthier parts of the city.
2) Kadikoy
It's been absolutely yonks since I last went there, and I was pleasantly surprised by it - the Carsi is an excellent area of small lanes full of different types of food shops, and the restaurant and bar scene is much livelier than it once was.
3) Kumkapi
Disappointing, with the exception of the live street music - I found the menus a bit uninspiring, and the food wasn't much cop, with the exception of some genuinely exquisite fresh mackerel fillets. The place hasn't aged well.
4) Wine prices
What the HELL is going on with the price of wine?? It's ridiculous: over 40 quid for a mediocre bottle! Just a few years ago, Turkey had a fledgling wine industry that was developing into something bold and interesting - now, the government seems determined to strangle it. Gone, it seems, are the days of buying a bottle of Dog Killer for about 50p.
5) The underground bins, and the relative cleanliness
Seems a bit dumb, but the underground bins in Sultanahmet are a huge improvement on the stinking cat-ridden skips that blocked every corner of a few years ago. The tourist areas are also definitely way cleaner than before.
6) The range of tourists
Again, this may seem odd, but back in the mid nineties, virtually all the tourists were Europeans, Americans, and Japanese: Now, just wandering around the main tourist drags is extraordinarily eclectic, with a significant number of visitors from all round the Middle East, possibly because of the Magnificent Century factor.
7) A different kind of edge
This is a bit hard to quantify, but it was something that I felt - Istanbul seemed to have a different atmosphere in the people on the street. It was as if its febrile air of hustle and trade had been subtly changed to have something else, a tension that was waiting to be released, a sensation of almost imperceptible fear. The only way I can express it is that it was as if the whole city was keeping one eye over its shoulder to check who could be listening. 


Monday, April 21, 2014

A lost world...

A  very short post, at least in terms of word count. I was reading an interesting article in The Guardian about maps and how we're starting to lose paper-based versions of them thanks to our various bits of electronic gadgetry and flim-flammery, and by happy chance I came across an old atlas on my dad's bookshelf. It was Phillip's Crown Atlas, published in:
Published just on the cusp of the Second World War. It must have belonged to my grandad originally, but looking through, I couldn't help but notice how much had changed, how many things had gone, or had come into existence. There are the obvious things, such as the red on the map denoting the Empire:


Then there are the Lost Counties of England:

Some things are shocking - this map of Africa shows the extent of its carving-up by European powers:

The ones I found strongly disturbing, by dint of hindsight, were these maps of Czechoslovakia, marked 'Provisional Borders':

It all goes to show that nations change and borders don't always remain the same - salutary for what is happening around us nowadays.






Monday, March 31, 2014

6 Reasons for The AKP's strengths.

I've been watching events unfold in Turkey over the past few weeks with a sense of trepidation, and yesterday's municipal elections have done nothing to alleviate this. It would appear, on the face of it, that the Turkish Republic may be facing a slide into autocratic, one-party (or, more pertinently one-man) rule. The ruling AKP has taken approximately 47% of the vote on a very high turnout, with the next largest party, the CHP, trailing well behind on 29%. PM Erdogan has taken this election as very much a mandate on him personally, and will almost certainly aim for a run at the presidency, or possibly change the rules in his favour and get another term as Prime Minister, later in the year. More worryingly, his rhetoric is increasingly belligerent and hostile, and promises lurid revenge against all those he typifies as 'traitors' and 'enemies of the state'. This, from a man who has openly admitted to hoarding millions of dollars in his home, who has admitted that his administration has discussed setting up a false flag operation in Syria with the intention of invading - things that, in another country, would lead to the resignation of the government.
So how on earth is this party, and this man, still in power?
There are six key points, I think, and one thing to remember about the AKP: They are not a political party that consists of backwood yokels - instead, they are one of the most efficient, up-to-date, and skilful political machines out there. Here are the six things that have made them strong.

1. They know, understand, and appeal to their electoral base.

The AKP, and its predecessor Refah, spent a lot of time connecting with the towns and villages of Anatolia, essentially listening to their needs, their fears and worries, and promising that they would be addressed. Anatolia is far more conservative and pious that the big cities, but it is also the workforce that power places like Istanbul and Izmir. These incomers (and migration to Istanbul alone is estimated at least 1,000 people a week) bring their politics with them, obviously - it makes sense to catch the poor because their votes translate directly into power. This is something that other parties have missed, because....

2.The Anatolian electoral hinterland that comprises this base has been ignored by mainstream politicians for decades.

During my time in Turkey, it was obvious that Anatolia, for the politicians, might as well have been Outer Mongolia. MPs were big on promises, but short on outcomes, and the lot of the average villager never improved. Despite the modernisation of the cities and tourist regions, you don't need to go far into the hinterland to realise that much of the country is still developing. The mass of voters were regarded as little better than obedient serfs, who would vote for whomever they were told to vote for. This has come to bite the political parties firmly on the backside, and none of them really seem to know what to do. Why?.....

3.The lack of a credible alternative.

The opposition is hopelessly divided and doesn't really fill one with confidence: instead, it's the same tired faces with their own history of scandals, graft and corruption. They also seem to fall back on an assumption that, were they ever to regain power, they would be able to do everything back in the old way. They have not grasped the reality that the AKP have changed the game entirely. They have failed to adapt, have presented no credible challenge, and are at least partially culpable for the domination of the political scene that Erdogan enjoys.

4.The state's system of checks and measures, e.g. the media, an independent judiciary etc, have been subsumed and compromised by the AKP.

Because of the weakened opposition, Erdogan and the AKP have been able to sack members of the judiciary with impunity, block journalists from reporting, lock writers up and generally create an atmosphere of fear and paranoia that pervades all those who find themselves on the purlieus of the administration. A state where all parts of the system cannot work is a sick state and one that is doomed to fail sooner or later. The problem is that it will take decades for Turkey to rebuild, especially in terms of the trust needed.

5.Erdogan controls the traditional media. His electorate don't use online media.

Despite the fact that social media is widely used in Turkey, nevertheless the vast majority have no truck with online sources of information. They rely on TV, newspapers and radio, all of which, because of the way they have been filleted by the AKP, are supine in their news coverage and meek about reporting anything that may offend their political masters. Again, this is nothing new: during the 90's, TV channels were regularly closed down as a punishment for revealing something the political elite didn't like. The difference this time is that the media is largely complicit with the ruling party, rather than challenging and questioning. The electoral base of the AKP, being people who are generally speaking from backgrounds with less access to education, are less likely to question what their leaders are doing. And why should they? After all...

6.The AKP's electoral base feel they have benefitted economically and socially over the years of AKP rule.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the economy. From the perspective of the average AKP voter, they feel wealthier -there are more things in the shops, there is a boom in new building and infrastructure, there is seemingly greater access to jobs and money - and while that feelgood feeling persists, there is little likelihood that they are going to vote for anyone else. This, despite the fact that on average, the typical person is apparently worse off - however, when it comes to the very poorest, their lots have been made somewhat better. Not only that, these voters feel that they are being listened to, something that other politicians have failed to do again and again.
Yes, the economy is the key: the problem is that the Turkish economy is increasingly resembling an enormous Ponzi scheme, and, like the Spanish and Irish economies, is due to crash at some stage. It is simply unsustainable as it is, especially in light of the information being leaked about the kickbacks and bribery that seem to be the norm at the heart of the administration.

So, what will happen next? I fear that Erdogan will now feel he has carte blanche to go hunting for his enemies, and to increasingly take power into his hands alone. He doesn't care for democracy, just power. After all, he once said, 'Democracy is like a bus: Useful to take you where you want to go, but you can get off at your stop and make your way after that'. And that doesn't bode well for Turkey.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Shooting Zombies: How a game illustrates how I waste my time.

I've got a new game on my mobile phone. It's called Sniper Z. It's tremendous fun: you have a rifle and a limitless supply of bullets, and all you have to do is shoot zombies, who walk towards a red line in a disconcertingly casual way. They all look as if they're out for a gentle stroll on a bright sunday afternoon, right up to the moment when they get shot in a spray of blood.
Bang! Splat! Take that, zombie!
So why am I talking about it?
Because it is fun, but it's a distraction. Because ultimately it's tiring and futile, as you can never stop the innumerable tide of zombies, no matter how good a shot you are, or how long you play. And all of these things - fun, distracting, innumerable, tiring, futile - refer to how I approach arguments, ideas and situations when I could better employ myself focusing on just a few things. I spend time sniping at this thing or that point, at the oncoming torrent of what are ultimately, for me at least, things that are the walking dead - that is, things that have no value to me or give me anything positive - they just weary and finally, like a zombie, eat my brain.
How often do we spend time on 'zombie' events, or zombie arguments? As an example of the latter, let's take the current soi-disant debate on immigration. This is a zombie debate if ever there was one. Once it lumbers to its feet, it just trundles on and on, impervious to weapons and utterly pointless to fight, yet it's not really a worthwhile argument. You will always have immigration from one area to another, and that is that, full stop. But still the newspapers and media are stuffed with nonsense, and I have to endure Nigel Farage's pointless face on my TV screen.
Aaagh! Zombie!!
In fact, politicians tend to set up zombie issues in order to deflect attention from what's really going on. In the UK, for example, tropes on education, health and defence are long-distance zombies, with one lumbering to the fore for a while, before being supplanted by another. Arguing over these subjects is largely futile - instead, we would be better off working out who's started which undead brain-muncher going.
But also in, for want of a better term, real life, we are faced with our own personal zombies - getting resentful at work, for example, because of how the organisation works; frustration at the daily commute; worrying too much about what other people are (or aren't) thinking; Fretfully going back and forth to emails or Facebook, wondering why you haven't got any messages; The list of things, like the staggering ghastly corpses lurching towards you in the game, is endless.
We cannot beat every argument; However, we should also realise that we don't have to, as a lot of what we do when we engage with such things is genuinely pointless, even when, in the case of political arguments in my case, it can be fun. Instead, I suggest that instead of trying to pick off every zombie, and end up getting your brain eaten anyway, you stay still, look around, and find the real living things to aim towards. After all, why should we be ever surrounded by dead things when all we want to do is live?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Wee Free Freedom! (Again)

Well, since that last entry, it all appears to have kicked off in the press, just as I thought it might. What should have been a debate about national independence seems to be descending into Personality Politics and the stances of various parties. This is more than a shame, it's a disgrace, and one that will be costly to all people concerned, i.e. all of us. This issue is far too big to allow it to be decided solely by a slanging match.
Make no mistake, this will affect life on the south of the border too, and everyone in the UK needs more information than a 'He-said-this-and-he-said-that' bulletin on the 6 O'Clock news.
Will Scotland vote for independence come September? I don't know, although it looks set to be a close run thing. I think it will all boil down to who makes the most compelling economic argument - the problem for all concerned is that we are entering unknown territory vis-a-vis things like Currency union, EU membership, Debt, even how much Scottish Viewers may have to pay to watch the BBC, and it's all to easy for politicians to fall into entrenched roles.
Will Scotland go independent? I think it's probably a case of when rather than if: The I-word genie is well and truly out of the bottle, so it will come down to the nitty gritty of the how it happens. As I said in my previous post, I remain to be convinced by the figures and the mechanisms for dealing with things like EU membership, which is probably what most people are waiting for.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Freedom!

No, I haven't left my job thanks to a sudden windfall, nor am I exactly celebrating the rather saddening end of my marriage. Rather, I am thinking of a certain woad-encrusted Antipodean actor screaming that at the serried ranks of Edward I's army in the movie Braveheart.
The issue of Scottish independence is rising up the (English) news agenda at the moment, with the vote on whether Alba will break away from the Union coming in September. Predictably, the political divide is becoming more entrenched, with PoshBoy Osborne (backed by an unlikely cross-party chorus) stating that there is no way that Scotland will be allowed to keep the pound, and Alec Salmond getting very huffy about it all.
Where do I stand on it? Well, being part-Scots, I think it's entirely appropriate that I should feel entirely agnostic about the whole thing, even if it means my old friend Johnny Mellon will be miffed at me. But why? It's not as if I have a thing against independence; on the contrary, national (and regional) self-determination are important features of a civilised world, to my mind.
It's these two things that disturb me and gives me pause for thought: firstly, the sums and secondly, the assumptions, on both sides of the debate.
Dealing with the first, the figures being bandied about simply don't look right. In particular, the figures on North Sea Oil Revenue. I'm worried that the SNP are being wildly optimistic here, and forgetting a simple fact: The Oil Will Run Out Eventually. What then? Are they planning to invest oil revenue in the same way that the Norwegians have? That would be the sensible route, but it also entails having far more pragmatic plans in place for a) taxation, b) future revenue streams and c) thinking about what they can actually spend post-independence. It strikes me that configuring the new nation along a Scandinavian model in terms of its finances would be no bad thing, but I don't really get the sense that this is being discussed. On this side of the border, the impression given is that somehow it will all continue as normal after the divorce.
The truth is, of course, that divorces are rarely easy.
And this is where the worry about the assumptions cuts in: it strikes me that the SNP seem to think that currency union, membership of the EU and NATO etc will just happen overnight in a single smooth transition. I very much doubt that. It would be lovely if it did, but the blunt truth is that there would be little or no strategic interest in the Big Boys of Europe allowing a brand shiny new independent nation straight in through the front door. Instead, a hiatus of several years should be expected - after all, how long did it take the Eastern European countries to get into the EU? There's no point Alec Salmond jumping up and down and saying, either 'la la la, I can't hear you', or 'It's not fair!', these are issues that need to be addressed seriously. Likewise, English politicians doing their best to put everything in a negative light, or Anti-SNP Scottish Politicians trying to even old scores don't help matters.
And there's my point: Scottish Independence would be a fine thing, just as long as it's done clearly, soberly and with an understanding of the risks it may entail, and at the moment that's exactly the debate that is needed, not a load of grandstanding. Saying 'No!' or 'You can't do that' isn't the way to run one side of teh campaign; but equally, yelling 'Freedom!' is all very romantic, but romance doesn't put bread on the table.

update, 17.2.14: Here's a link to BBC Scotland's Documentary on the issues surrounding the referendum.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Winding up?

The end of the year once more, and time once again for a bit of indulging in solipsism - or is it just me? It's tempting to ape all those end-of-year reviews you get on TV, radio etc, to ask oneself 'what have I done?' and writhe about in guilt about all the stuff not completed or not even started, and start making solemn vows about everything that's going to happen in 2014, only to writhe in guilt a year later when it comes  to the next Review Of The Year. 

One thing I have to consider, however, is the fate of this blog. Not, I admit, the first time I've considered it, but the paucity of writing over the past year in particular has been painful to look at. Or not look at, seeing as I haven't written anything. I think this has been a symptom of a general malaise affecting me, or rather the realisation of a simple fact that I've been blind to - namely, I arse around far too much. Of course, I'm not alone in this affliction, but it seems that I do two things simultaneously: a) I lack direction and planning and b) I make things as hard as possible for me to get a direction, mainly because I then go into loads of mini-plans and schemes that give the impression of doing something.
I wonder whether this blog is in fact not part of the latter, hence why I'm considering knocking it on the head.
Let's face it, I've kept it going, if not on the boil, then at least in the vicinity of the kitchen, for nearly eleven years, and it has lived up to its billing as an erratic journal. I also notice that it's read by a sizeable percentage of zero readers, so perhaps it's time to let go.
If I feel that I can actually achieve something more tangible with this, then I shall let it stagger on, in the hope that it will find its own two feet again.
Until I decide, have a Happy New Year.