Friday, November 30, 2012

Ghost Town

So, tell me: Where were you, and what were you doing, at 9.00 this morning? That's an easy one to answer, yes? In my case, I was in college, lugging my bag up to my staffroom and thinking about the day ahead.
OK, so what about the same time yesterday? Yes, still easy. Last week? Can you remember what you were wearing? Is it getting tricky now? What about a month ago, or a year? Or how about, ooh, let's say, the last week of May, 1994? That's an impossible one, right?
Well, during that week, I was apparently loafing round my flat in Izmir: It was the time of Kurban Bayram, I'd been reading and talking, apparently, and I was scrabbling round for something to write down.....
I've been amusing myself for the last few weeks by reading my old diaries - the ones covering my first teaching job in Izmir, from October 1993 to August 1994. It has been an odd experience, as I find myself occasionally wondering who this idiot is who has written it. Every few lines record the fact that I have been reading something, or wandering round somewhere, or chatting to somebody about something, or sitting somewhere, or eating some meal or other, and I'm staring at this drivel, silently shouting 'Yes, but WHAT? What did you eat, what did you talk about, what did you read?'

It's really rather frustrating.

At other times, I wander at my 26-year-old self, seemingly drifting through the pages, uncertain, worried about writing, fretting about life, and then with a jolt I come across a line that could have been written by me now about things I still fret about.

Of course, the really jaw-dropping thing is the eye-watering amount of booze and fags we consumed back then - reading it, I'm slightly amazed that I still have a liver or functioning lungs. I also seem to have gone to bed at about 1.30 a.m. at the earliest as well. If I do that before a working day nowadays, I can barely function...

However, reading it, frustrating though it is, forces me to recall things as they were, and in so doing, brings up the fact that what I recorded is a ghost of things that were. Not only have all those people moved on, but the Izmir I wrote down, however fleetingly, is not the Izmir that exists today. My diaries record a phantom town, a place moving from being one thing towards being another,  and were I to return there (which I hope I do one day), I wouldn't find it as I recall. The Kordon has been expanded from just a strip of bars and restaurants with a busy road next to the waterfront, to an extended park made from reclaimed land and a wider boulevard. The waters of Izmir bay, which used to glisten with petrochemical sheens and effluent gunk, where children cast fishing lines into the sewage to catch fish for dinner, has been cleaned up beyond recognition. The air, which was heavy with pollution and, in winter, the acrid tang of thousands of coal-fired central heating systems, has also become more beneficent, and the city that was once called The Pearl of The Mediterranean is reclaiming that title for real, despite having a population that has exploded in the past twenty years.
As I read, memory forced itself into shape, and I began to reconstruct that phantom place, with images and odours, the odd remembered word - odd that, that it is words, the things I work with every day, that I have most difficulty in resurrecting from the cemetery of the mind.
Let's take one place from this ghostly, now unreal, place as an example - the Quartz Bar. I mention it several times, but I hardly ever actually describe it - here's a typical bit:
...we two caught a Dolmus to this bar, which was a darkened place, full of cigarette smoke + Turkish men. There was a small microphone + stand on a performance area, if anyone felt like doing a stint - sort of the equivalent of Karaoke Night, I guess.
That really is typical. Where is the rain-flecked cold night Guy, Luciano and me caught a taxi up there, where the driver didn't know where the bar was, and Guy directed him, arriving after a few minutes, and he indicated the Quartz with what seemed to me at the time a very Turkish gesture of the arm and said, 'Su bar, Abi'? What about the place itself, somewhere I am sure does not exist any longer? It was the end building of a little island of flats, with the doorway facing westwards. The road forked around it, the left side leading towards Bornova, the other towards the university. While there was a bar area downstairs, it was almost always deserted, with the real action going on on the first floor. It was, as I have said, dark: In fact, it was painted black, with glossy black and red furniture that had been very much fashionable in the 1980's but was already looking faded and chipped. The window blinds were red too, but covered in ash and dust. The seats were largely banquettes, with the odd bistro-type chair. As you came in the door, the toilets were immediately to your right, then there was a large seating area after that, just above the entrance, and another space, almost as large to its left as you looked. turning to your left, you next saw the tiny stage, where I saw some fantastic folk music being played on several occasions, including Grup Lacin, then further seating, which narrowed into odd angles. On the wall were some rather tacky Athena-type photos and cheesy landscapes - one that remains memorable to me is of a volcano erupting, while a woman's face weeps over it.

The place, to put not too fine a point on it, stank: cigarettes, spilt beer, stale raki, rancid oil, fried things, and a dodgy plumbing system, all vied with each other to produce the worst odour. But none of this mattered to us - we just wanted somewhere relatively local, relatively cheap and relatively friendly that stayed open until Stupid O'clock. It's where I had Turkish beer for the first time, and tried my first raki, where I sampled different mezes of various or dubious quality, listened to a whole new experience in music and saw that there was a different way to interact with music and food and booze from the tried and tested UK formula of just cranking up the volume and getting lashed.

And so, from the tiresomely incomplete sketches of things I wrote eighteen or nineteen years ago, I can conjure phantom memories of a now-phantom place and once again begin to cloak them in flesh. This is why a diary can be so important - maybe I can't recall with absolute clarity every last detail, nuance or word, but I can recall for another person's ear and eye the phantom place I once haunted.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The more it changes.....

Here's a little quote for you - before you look below, guess who wrote it and when.
....What's more, the wretched earnings of the poor are daily whittled away by the rich, not only through private dishonesty, but through public legislation. As if it weren't unjust enough already that the man who contributes most to society should get the least in return, they make it even worse, and then arrange for injustice to be legally described as justice.
  In fact, when I consider any social system that prevails in the modern world, I can't....see it as anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests under the pretext of organising society. They think up all sorts of tricks and dodges, first for keeping safe their ill-gotten gains, and then for exploiting the poor by buying their labour as cheaply as possible. Once the rich have decided that these tricks and dodges shall be officially recognised by society - which includes the poor as well as the rich - they acquire the force of law.
Heady stuff, eh? Obviously the work of some deranged socialist or something. And so, therefore, right up my alley. However, there is one crumb of comfort - the person who wrote this described a world not that far removed from our own current one, where we seem destined to swell the ranks of the poverty-stricken once more to the kind of the levels this writer was talking about. We live in a country where the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest has continued to grow beyond anything experienced in at least a century. We live in a world where the richest 0.13% of the world's population hold more wealth in secret accounts than the combined GDPs or the US and Japan, and quite possibly a lot more - in fact, a staggering $55 TRILLION may be involved. This is more than enough money to sort out the current economic woes of the world, to put it in context.
Yet why should we be surprised it's happening? After all, it's happened before, and I daresay it'll all happen again - humans being humans, after all. Yet I can't help but worry - I think that such a gross imbalance between what the very richest have and what the very poorest don't demeans the whole of society from root to tip. The distorting effect of this top-heavy money blossom at the very stem, as it were, this rotten stinking fetid bloom of lucre, overshadows the base of the tree, unbalances it under the weight of its foul petals, and poisons and saps the very bases of community and society. After all, a tree without roots cannot stand, so why should those who claim to lead expect the system from which they spring, and on which they gain sustenance, expect anything else?
There is a considerable amount of research that indicates that those countries that have a smaller gap between the very rich and the very poor are more likely to be more cohesive, have fewer social problems and greater social mobility, and, generally speaking, are more likely to be happy bunnies. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much chance of that happening in the UK or globally at the moment - instead, our Prime Minister seems hellbent on a deregulated goldrush for more of the Rotten Bloom's falling petals. And it's going to get worse at home - along with utilities bills increasing, fuel tax about to go on the rise, and, worse, a crappy grape harvest likely to lead to a quid on a bottle of wine, there will also be more benefits cuts to come in April. Life is going to get much, much harder here, and that worries me - look what's going on in Greece right now.Austerity breeds Nazis.
If the politicians are really serious about sorting out the economy, they should start at the top of the tree, not at the bottom - lop away a few blooms here and there, trim the branches a bit. It won't hurt anywhere near as much as attacking the roots with a jackhammer, which is effectively what the austerity measures announced across Europe and further afield are. Ah, I hear you cry, but then the rich will go elsewhere - my answer? Let them go - only a few will actually do it, and that ends up clearing a bit more space for everyone else. The fact of the matter is that the individuals who really make a difference are very, very few and far between - instead, society is the product of, well, society - you know, all of us, pulling together. May I point out that this is not the same as David Cameron's Big Society, or indeed Ed Miliband's One Nation - rather, it's the organic relationship between people that generally exists in spite of, rather than because of, politicians.
And anyway, we shouldn't be fooled into believing that money is the only true measure of an individual's worth, which is what the rich would have us think, or, to return to my rather organic analogy, what the flower on the stem would have the plant think: that its only role is to uphold a gaudy collocation of petals, doomed to wilt and fall all too soon. It's a pity that we associate wealth with power, really.
And the quote? Sir Thomas More, Book Two of Utopia, translated by Paul Turner in the 1985 Penguin Editon. A text written almost 500 years ago. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.....

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Where is the New Ataturk?

As promised, a post about Turkey, considering that's how this blog was originally intended to be.

Back in 1999, just before the earthquake struck that flattened the region round Izmit, and officially killed 20,000 (although the real figure was almost certainly double that - however, 20,000 was the limit beyond which disaster funds would have had to be released by the government to assist, and they had no intention of doing that), that earthquake where the death figure was so high because government cronies, cowboy builders, get-rich quick merchants and generally crooked scum had built buildings out of sub-standard materials, back then, one of my better classes asked me what I thought of Ataturk. His picture stared down at me, as it does in every classroom, office, and workplace in the Turkish Republic: This particular one was of him with careworn blue eyes, moustached, looking off to the left, wearing what is called an English Jacket in Turkey, his face pensive, almost as if he was trying to work out the same question that my students had asked me.
I paused before I gave my answer. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, General, Leader, Teacher, Father, is a revered figure, even though he had died in 1938. He is a ubiquitous presence, a reminder of what was won, carved out of the wreckage that was the Ottoman Empire under its bloated, vain, witless leaders, of the hard bargains done, and a promise of what can be.
'I believe', I said, 'that Ataturk was a great leader.'
The atmosphere in the room eased. I'd given the answer they wanted to hear.
'However,' I continued, 'I'm not sure he was a good politician'.
It went very, very silent after that. I carried on.
'He was the right man, in the right place, at the right time. He was a brilliant military commander, and he commanded affection and loyalty. He led, and others followed happily. He, and he alone, created the Turkish Republic. He made the ENTIRE country learn to use the Latin script in six months flat, increasing literacy by 90%, and that meant that your grandparents and parents could study, go on to university, and make a richer, better country. He gave women the vote. He separated the state from religion, and he created a judicial code that ensured, in theory, equality before the law. For all these things, yes, he was a great leader.'
The class waited, silent.
'But, a good politician? I don't think so - why? Because he wasn't a man who liked to compromise: His word was the law, and he wasn't that interested in many other people's opinions. He was a military man, a man used to being obeyed, and that doesn't always make for good politicians, because a politician has to be able to compromise, negotiate, be flexible. Ataturk would have seen that as being weak-spirited.
The other thing, the greatest tragedy, was that he drank himself to death, in effect - and that was a tragedy for him personally, for all of Turkey, and, I think, for the whole Middle East.'
I'm not sure how well that last bit went down, nor, to be honest, how my Turksih friends and colleagues will react to seeing it written here, but that was how I thought at the time, and, a few gaps in my knowledge that have been filled since then notwithstanding, not far from how I feel today.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was, without doubt, the Búyúk Ónder (Great Leader) and, I believe, thoroughly deserves the honorific of Father of the Country (despite that appellation being previously used by, among others, Gaius Julius Caesar). However, I can't help but feel that he was not the best of politicians, and unfortunately, this problem of Leadership and Politician still pervades Turkish politics today.
Turkey loves Strong Male Leaders - even Tansu Ciller, the first female prime minister and throughly rotten, corrupt leader, played up the Strong Man Role. The current incumbent, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has arguably taken this attitiude to ever more absurd levels, to the points that certain commentators accuse him of wishing to become a new Ottoman Padishah, and indeed, he has talked about the rise of a new Ottoman Empire. Erdogan is leader of the AKP, a 'mildly' Islamist party that has become increasingly authoritarian over the past ten years, imprisoning more journalists and writers than any other country, and resurrecting the war against the PKK and the Kurds in the southeast. This is a party that has placed internet filters meaning that school children cannot access controversial things such as Charles Darwin, for example. This is a party that has outlawed abortion. This is a party that sees conspiracy everywhere, and which has become increasingly, hysterically, antisemitic, and has passed the contagion of Conspiracy Theory to every corner of the land.
When I look at my Turkish friends' and colleagues' threads on Facebook, I can't help but see that political and religious opinion have become incredibly fiercely divided, perhaps worse than it was in the late 70's, and I can't help but think that it is squarely the fault of the AKP and their decade-long rule. And a phrase I see again and again is this:
'Where is Ataturk?'
I understand this sentiment - the need for the hero to rise and save the day: After all, it's universal - the cowboy in the white hat, King Arthur rising from his slumber of centuries, William Tell appearing with his crossbow - but the problem with this kind of yearning is that it ignores the obvious answer.
What is that answer?
Well, it very much depends on whether you want 'Great' or if you want 'Good'.
'Great' is for a short time: Someone comes in a time of crisis, leads, and seeks to solve the problems faced by a country or a society, or a group of people. The problem with this is that Greatness is addictive, both for those who wish to be great and for those who seek someone Great to lead them. It is not always the correct way to govern, as a Great Leader is someone who expects to be obeyed in all things political, religious, etihical and moral, just as Erdogan and the AKP have styled themselves.
'Good', by contrast, is for the long term - it may be hesitant; it may ponder; it may be conservative (with a small 'c'), for fear of causing more harm than good; but ultimately, good governance is all about considering the needs of society as a whole rather than the whims, religion, ethics or morality of a tiny ruling elite, no matter how egalitarian they try to make themselves seen.
And going back to what I said to my students about Ataturk, I said something else:
'I believe that he did everything he did for the sake of his countrymen - not for Turkey, but for Turks. He did what he did for people: the great shame for this Great Leader is that he never gave himself the opportunity to be Good, if you see what I mean.'
And there's the answer to the question - 'Where is Ataturk?' He was the father; It's the children's job to carry on where he left off, and be the Good Politicians, each and every one - so, my Turkish friends and colleagues, you yourselves are the answer to the question - it's up to you to make it happen. Turkey needs and deserves good leadership, not men who want to be Great.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

...but now for something completely different....

...or rather, a return to one of the more frequent topics of this blog, cycling, just to make a change from navel-gazing.
Today, Remembrance Sunday, started out under cold blue skies and a hard frost clamped down on everything. Fortunately, I'd already decided to sit this part of the day out, reading the paper and having breakfast. No point freezing one's nuts off by too early a start. In fact, I didn't get out of the house until 10.30, and, being at first undecided which direction to head in, finally thought aiming for the north would be good.
The trees were putting on their best, and probably final, autumnal display: Beeches and hornbeams were decked with vivid leaves, ranging in colour from pale yellow, through amber and orange to fiery red. I headed edgily down Highdown Hill and the acrid smell of a coal fire somewhere, past the golf course and up the other side, coming out as ever onto Shepherd's lane, then heading up towards Kidmore End. Coming past the New Inn, I saw that there was a Remembrance Day service spilling out of the church and into the road, people greeting each other, some with poppy wreaths held in hands. I made a detour round the back of the church in order to avoid cycling through the crowd, then carried on the Gallowstree road, and down to Reades Lane. The air was cool and held autumn's pungency, a mix of damp soil, leaves, earthy strange growth and animal dung. Bar a few walkers and a cyclist who didn't bother to reply to my hello, I saw no-one. A chcken coop went by, with one animal making a mad racket; I saw a few sad-eyed cattle over a hedge.
Then an extraordinary moment: Just past the crossroads with Wyfold Lane, where theroad dips down through woods, I suddenly saw movement - dun, large shapes, picking through the wood, then carefully crossing the road right in front of me - fallow deer! I was still going downhill at speed, and I wondered if I'd end up hitting one. They spotted me - well, it's hard to ignore someone in a bright orange cycling jacket - and began to run and jump. I found myself right in the middle of a herd of deer, running and leaping in front and behind - a truly extraordinary moment, made all the more so by the silence with which it happened.
I rode on up to Stoke Row, past the pigsty on the right hand side of the road, and ran into the fragance of freshly baked bread and pastries, making me feel hungry all over again. I stopped briefly at Maharajah's Well and had some water, then headed off towards Ipsden, via Uxmore road and the Black Horse, a pub that used to be run by two little old ladies with a relaxed attitude toward closing hours - they used to trust people to throw themselves out and pay for anything they drank once they'd retired to bed. On I went, past clip-clops of horse riders and the cack-a-carra of pheasants sprinting into undergrowth, enormous mushrooms, and got as far as the field just past the farmhouse that has its own little cottage industry, and looked down on the magnificent view that stretches all the way to Woodstock, somewhere past Oxford.
I turned back a bit then, and took the woodland road to Checkenden, going past the equestrian centre before going through the village proper, past the cricket ground and the Four Horseshoes, heading towards Woodcote, when I saw an even more extraordinary sight - a giant sculpture in the middle of a field, next to an abandoned barn. I turned off the road, left my bike propped against a tree, and made my way across the field to have a closer look. The air whistled with the cries of red kites as I looked at this weird thing, a statue of two people embracing, or rather, two giant skeletons.

I later found out that it's by John Buckley, and called either The Nuba Embrace or The Nuba Survival.
Well, that was enough weirdness for the day, so once I'd got to Woodcote, I headed back towards Goring Heath and from there to Mapledurham, banging along a rough, muddy-puddled lane until I reached the Warren and from there back to Caversham and finally Emmer Green.

Monday, November 05, 2012

not much of a muchness.

It's late, I'm tired, and sometimes I wonder what this blog is really all about - let's face it, it is a bit of a hit-and-miss affair, isn;t it? However, it has been alive since 2003, so it's coming up to its tenth birthday, which must count as some kind of achievement. Don't bother looking back at earlier posts - they're all a wee bit embarrassing...
I gave this blog the name it's stuck with for a reason - basically, I couldn't think of a better name, and I initially wanted to talk about a couple of great loves in my life: Turkish food and Raki, the closest humankind has ever reached to liquid cannabis, in my opinion. What I have omitted to write about is my attitude and opinions about Turkey itself. I have always been a bit circumspect in this regard, out of respect to all my old Turkish friends and colleagues. I intend to remedy this somewhat. This doesn't mean that I'm about to slag it off - that would be pointless:  rather, I'm going to try and give my honest perspective, just as the quite magnificent Istanbul's Stranger does, but from someone who has been there and come back out again, and as someone who is concerned about the pressures and problems it looks like it's facing right now.
But not right now - right now, it's bed time.