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.