In the Shadow of the Tower

May 6, 2012

Statue in Trinity SquareAs the final results of the 2012 local election were tallied and reported, London was the place to be. I hadn’t planned nor scheduled it this way: it was a mysterious happenstance that meant that just before Boris Johnson’s re-election as Mayor was confirmed, I was making my way back to my hotel in the shadow of the Tower of London. I was arm in arm with my other half; we proceeded slowly, burdened by fatigue from a long journey and devouring a tastily carnivorous if overpriced meal at an American barbeque restaurant. The loving marriage between American Samuel Adams lager and a pint glass perhaps hadn’t helped matters. Sleep had entered my eyes, the compelling gravity inviting me to shut out the world. Everything seemed to be beckoning me to get to my hotel room as quickly as possible, and lay my head down on the crisp white pillows.

We passed by 10 Trinity Square just as a distant clock struck a quarter to midnight: with tall Corinthian columns and a massive bare breasted statue carrying a ship’s wheel which represents maritime commerce, it’s a deeply impressive structure. I found out later that it was the headquarters of the Port of London Authority. It was also the site for the inaugural meeting of the United Nations; it looked like a citadel of global power.

Further along Trinity Square, there was a more modest structure; part of it was in brick, the other in stone: the legend on its sign read “Trinity House”. I knew from my old book of flags that it had been issued its own standard at one point in its history. Its banner wasn’t flying that night, but nevertheless, the building too spoke of importance: The Corporation of Trinity House still has responsibility for lighthouses and provides expert navigation for ships in Northern European waters.

Grand, imposing, historic. However, as we crossed the street on our way back to the hotel, a stench arose, possibly from one of the storm grates. My other half let out a small exclamation of surprise and disgust. We were glad to get past it: it was as if the city itself had terrible flatulence. Not long after, the Mayoral election results were announced and Johnson gave his victory speech. It would be tempting to find a cosmic alignment in these two events, but nevertheless it is just a coincidence. It is less of a stretch to say that something is wrong: yes, London is a big city and a great city. In one day, I went from Bradford to Leeds: the latter has more modern buildings and developments than the former. Then I went from Leeds to London, and the two are worlds apart. London heaves, bustles and there are more opportunities there than in most parts of Britain. Yet it also constantly seems on the edge of bursting, as if it is a balloon with air molecules colliding at an ever faster rate underneath its placid surface. At some point, it’s reasonable to assume that the thin membrane of order must burst.

There are many points which could give way. London’s transport and sewage systems were initially designed and built by 19th century engineers like Joseph Bazalgette. Bazalgette was a genius, but how could foresee the demands of the future, e.g., the home with 2 bathrooms or more, power showers, people dumping moldy takeaway curries down the loo? As of today, the London is home to nearly 8 million people; include the metro area and the numbers rise to 13.8 million. The Olympics will bring hundreds of thousands more to the city: posters on the Underground warn about changes to travel patterns and one poster (humorously, I think) suggested that pole vaulting might be an alternative means of getting around the city. This speaks of a system under enormous strain.

It could be that poverty makes the bubble burst. Last night, my other half and I passed a homeless woman outside Waterloo station. She wore a hoodie, or rather, the remnants of one, and sat on a collection of plastic bags as sort of a mat. She had a pit bull with her, either as just a companion or also for the purposes of personal protection. A light rain was falling; not a pleasant spring shower, but a cold, almost autumnal drizzle. She had gotten to the point where she was barely asking anyone for change; if she did, I didn’t hear her. Beside her was a placard for the Evening Standard, which read “Boris Heads for Victory”.

Generally speaking, I’m reluctant to give money directly to the destitute. Charities, yes, the vendors of “The Big Issue”, absolutely, a food bank run by the church, certainly – but directly to someone on the streets, no. My other half works for a food bank, and personnel there are advised not to give cash, as it may exacerbate people’s problems. Nevertheless, my other half gave her £10. The young woman receiving the cash didn’t say “Thank you” or greedily snatch it up: she looked up with deep, sad eyes. The bags underneath were red; she looked as if she hadn’t slept in a very long while: rather than take the money, she replied with a weak “Are you sure?” My girlfriend insisted, and shed a few tears as we headed off. After all, we had a warm bed and crisp white sheets ahead of us; all that young woman had was the rain and the cold, with her dog as perhaps her only solace.

Because I visit London infrequently, changes are very noticeable to me: for example, passing through the newly refurbished Blackfriars station was probably more of a surprise to me than for people who live in the city. What I noticed most of all, however, was the substantial increase in the numbers of homeless. Again at Waterloo station, I saw an enormous man in a tan jacket dragging two shopping trollies: he was conversing with two sellers of the Big Issue, asking how he could become a vendor. It seemed an unlikely job application: the stench of cheap alcohol from him was overpowering, his words were slurred and disjointed, he wobbled on his feet rather than stood his ground. To make matters more complicated, he was blind. Not too far from there, polished Rolls Royce and Maserati cars are parked serenely near Old Bond Street: surely the tension inherent in this paradox is not sustainable?

Of course, London has shrugged off disaster before. It endured the Great Fire of 1666, German bombs and terrorist attacks; perhaps this teetering on the edge is always going to be part of its character. But there are bad times and better times; I remember when I first moved to London in the late 1980’s. While the Underground was still as ropey, the city felt safer, less tense and less intense. I could be out very late and not feel worried at all. This is not the London of now: perhaps instead of being a world apart from cities like Leeds or my home town of Bradford, it can be called a distillation. London has concentrated most of Britain’s problems into one crucible: inequality, poverty, despair, crumbling infrastructure and leaders which cross the border from ridiculous to dangerous. In his victory speech, while parts of London reeled due to the city’s flatulence, Johnson said to his constituents, “May the Fourth be with you.” It was actually May the fifth by the time he said it. In the shadow of the Tower of London, in times like these, buffoonery is unhelpful. It may be all that we can expect.

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The Sorrows of Catalonia

May 1, 2012

A Home in BarcelonaLast weekend’s edition of the Financial Times led with three articles about Spain. They catalogued nothing but misery: a quarter of Spaniards are unemployed, the country’s financial position is worsening, Spain’s bonds have been downgraded by two notches, Spain is crying out for help, seemingly into a void. The FT’s attention is justified; Spain is important, Spain matters. If Spain falls prey to the markets, it could take the entire Euro system with it. It’s clear there are not enough reserves, not in Germany, not in the entire solvent portion of the European Union, to save them. A Spanish collapse could lead to a renewed global downturn.

Given this turmoil, it may seem strange that Spain was once viewed as a land of hope and opportunity: the Francoist past had been airbrushed out of recent memory, Spain was a cheap place for British people to retire or merely have a good holiday. Spanish art, design, cuisine were all in vogue. Woody Allen descended upon Barcelona just prior to the advent of the financial crisis in order to make his romantic comedy “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”, starring the versatile Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson. While the relationships in that film were tinged with sadness, regret and even violence, Barcelona itself was painted in warm colours, touched by golden sunlight. It seemed a perfect place for artists and poets, where ridiculous but tragic love affairs could take place and inspiration take wing.

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This Spain, or as the residents of Barcelona would prefer, this Catalonia, still exists. Go to El Jardi, an outdoor restaurant located in the garden of Antiguo Hospital de la Santa Creu. Sip an excellent glass of Estrella Damm beer, or even better a Moritz, brews which put the homogenous concoctions of mega breweries in America and Britain to shame. Order the chorizo, which will arrive nearly sizzling. A gentleman in a black shirt with a trimmed beard and moustache will be along in a little while, carrying a guitar. He’ll hail the restaurant staff as his “amics” and then will make his instrument sing sweetly as the late afternoon slowly fades into night.

The bonhomie infused into the atmosphere at El Jardi didn’t arrive by accident: it came after the city drowned in sorrows. It’s a deserved spot of sunshine following the torrential rain. Barcelona bears the hallmarks of a metropolis that rose high and subsequently crashed into the dust. Great buildings such as Palau Nacional, built for the 1929 International Exhibition, speak of times when Barcleona welcomed the world. The 1992 Olympics was another such occasion: the magnificent Olympic stadium still stands atop Montjuic, it is almost classical in its grandeur on a sunny day. Yet Barcelona has also been a battlefield: it was the last outpost of the Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War. It finally fell to the Nationalists in January 1939 after a bloody battle. I have seen spots of discoloured concrete on buildings along Las Ramblas and wondered if these were patched over bullet holes.

The people of Barcelona in 1992 and 2006 perhaps thought sorrow belonged to the past. After all, they had been fully admitted into the European family, war had been banished, prosperity had arrived. The city could celebrate luminaries like artist Joan Miro and cellist Pablo Casals without fear of being dragged back into the the darkness.

However, there is a second film of Barcelona, perhaps the best movie ever made, which provides a contrasting vision to Vicky Cristina Barcelona: it’s entitled “Biutiful”. It too stars Javier Bardem. The film describes a vastly different city. Indeed, the fact that it is Barcelona and not some dystopian vision is not immediately apparent. Bardem plays a street hustler named Uxbal, who works organising the production of cheap knock-off goods by illegal Chinese migrants and the sale of these items by just as illegal African immigrants. This Barcelona is a city of the dead and dying: Uxbal earns money on the side by conversing with the deceased on behalf of the bereaved, Uxbal himself is plagued by terminal prostate cancer and has very little time to sort affairs out for his two young children. Their mother is mentally unstable, his brother is an incompetent and uncaring petty criminal; he’s on his own. The best that Uxbal can do before he passes is entrust his children and the money he has to the wife of one of his African employees who is about to be deported. Life in this city is on the margins: the poor die unlamented, illegal immigrants are killed in tragic accidents, their bodies are dumped at sea and wash up on a beach, the Africans run in terror from the police.

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The truth of this film is evident even to the passing tourist. Take a train from Vila Seca to Barcelona: African men carrying faded and beaten up rucksacks or wares covered in black bin liners will get on board and later leave at the tourist spot of Tarragona, intending to hawk their wares. They have come from all over sub-Saharan Africa; I heard one group break into the occasional English phrase like “Not bad, not bad at all”. Others mixed French into their patois.

As “Biutiful” suggests, the Chinese are in Barcelona too: not far from Gaudi’s architectural masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, is a small restaurant. The decor is dated: red linoleum floors predominate, but the establishment is pristine in its cleanliness. There, I had a coffee, served by a Chinese man. His little daughter, with big bright eyes and pigtails, sat at a corner table, drank orange juice out of a box container and watched cartoons on the restaurant’s television. The establishment was nearly empty. The only other patrons besides myself, my other half and the proprietor’s daughter was an old man in a navy blue beret who leafed slowly through his newspaper, and a young woman who came in and ordered a glass of San Miguel. I wanted to ask the owner if he was disappointed with the choice he had made by coming to Barcelona. Were all the sacrifices he made in order to set up in a new land in vain? China has a future, Spain had a glorious past and an almost future. Now the proprietor was stuck with a good establishment amidst the tattered remnants of an economy.

After I left and walked hand in hand with my other half, it occurred to me that the damage created by real bombs is relatively straightforward to manage: we can see the blasted out buildings, discern the rubble strewn in our path. Once the guns fall silent and the airplanes stop flying overhead, regardless of who brings peace, tranquility does return and there is a chance to sweep up the mess. Barcelona is psychologically better equipped to do this than many cities; the Gran Teatre del Liceu is symbolic of its capacity to rise from the ashes. The theatre burned down in 1861, was damaged by bombs in 1893, and burned down yet again in 1994. Yet parts of the old facade remain, and the gilded letters “Teatre del Liceu” still tower over Las Ramblas with gravitas; this older portion is buttressed by a modern building. Its life and its place in Barcelona’s life goes on.

Man Asleep on Las RamblasThe damage caused by an economic detonation is far more subtle and much more complicated to clean up. While El Jardi is full of tourists, not far from there are stores going into final liquidation, screaming out in black letters on flourescent yellow signs that every last bit of stock must be sold. A man sleeps on a bit of grass at the harbour end of Las Ramblas: his Levis and brown jacket hint at former prosperity, the holes in both garments and his leathery skin indicate his good fortune’s passing. His face is turned towards the direction pointed to by the statue of Columbus, out to sea. Switch on the television back at the hotel: the queue of unemployed cover their faces as the news cameras film them going into the welfare office. Projects outside Barcelona appear to be abandoned: the station at Vila Seca bears a sign promising redevelopment by the Ministry of Transport, however, the concrete on the platform is broken, unfinished, guarded by a temporary steel fence that looks all too permanent. Graffiti, a scream of protest in paint, is everywhere in Catalonia: two young men assault the walls of Vila Seca’s railway yard with spray cans and are entirely unmolested and unchallenged. In Barcelona itself, the iron shutters which protect stores are also marked: virtually everywhere has at least some squiggle, line or scrawl. The metal sheds outside Barcelona Sants train station bear legends calling for revolution with the crossed out A for anarchy. So much for the gilded dreams of 1992’s “beautiful horizon” or the artistic meanderings of Vicky Cristina: the Barcelona of “Biutiful” seems to be chewing the rest of city up, bit by agonising bit. It is a template for disappointment, despair and perhaps even violence. Spain and Catalonia cry out, Barcelona bleeds, but because the wounds rarely are as striking as the image of a once prosperous man sleeping incongruously on a tiny patch of grass, it is ignored, consigned to warnings on the financial pages.

I repeat: Spain is important, Spain matters. Catalonia’s hour is close to midnight, it proceeds through time rather like Bardem’s Uxbal makes his way through the streets of Barcelona: it survives as best and as long as it can, having a few moments of joy, but finding life for the most part remorselessly bleak. Hearts may be moved to pity; however, it is worth remembering that not long after the Spanish Civil War ended, World War II began. As it was then, Spain now may be a preview of our own future: the sorrows of Catalonia are not necessarily confined to there alone.

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The End of the Conservative Party

April 25, 2012

Jeremy HuntOutrage, but no surprise. Jeremy Hunt’s close relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s empire is the subject of widespread disgust, nevertheless, genuine shock is rare. I was once told that each political party specialised in a particular type of scandal: the Conservatives’ corruption usually involved sex, e.g. David Mellor’s spanking activities while wearing Chelsea Football Club gear, and the Labour Party’s usually involved money, e.g. donations by Bernie Ecclestone to preserve Formula One’s exemeption from tobacco advertising regulations. This truism exists, perhaps, because everyone expects Conservatives to be on the take: look at their acolytes, whether dressed in chalk stripe suits or rolled up Armani shirtsleeves. The odour of privilege goes before them, stinking out the sensibilities of anyone who sees the love of money as pernicious. Jeremy Hunt, closely allied to Rupert & Co? Outrageous, disgusting, terrible, it shouldn’t happen: but is anyone really surprised? Without surprise, is it that much of a scandal?

Hunt will probably have to go; it won’t do to have him in place for the Olympics, during which he and his department are supposed to feature prominently. His departure may be a sad loss for the fans of Cockney Rhyming Slang, who hoped that James Naughtie’s botched but sensible introduction on Radio 4 would mean lasting infamy for the hapless Culture Secretary. No doubt Number 10 will push out a series of tiresome press releases and briefings which will lull the gullible or the ideologically motivated, like BBC Political Correspondent Nick Robinson, to say that the storm has passed. Life will go on, at least until the next scandal.

Is that it, though? Or is this a symptom of something more troubling? This may be an opportunity for one to gaze deeply into the soul of the Conservative Party, such as it is. Personally, I find nothing but a void. Hunt’s advocacy for News International points clearly to this soullessness. In fact, I think the question should be raised: is the Conservative Party dead?

I don’t mean that the Conservative Party has ceased to function as an organisation: throughout much of the land, there are the Conservative Assocations, party activists, the Blue Rinse Brigade, hangers on and the up and coming, all keeping the party machine ticking over. It also has plenty of wealthy donors willing to pay for images of badly drawn trees splashed onto glossy brochures. However, I recall a trip to Parliament I made as a student nearly 20 years ago. We were shuffled into a meeting room: I was impressed by the oak panelling, the green leather chairs, the musty odour of old books that seemed to pervade the place. We callow students were addressed by a Conservative MP whose name escapes me: one of the questions from my tutor related to the various ideological divisions within the Tories, in particular regarding how Britain should engage with Europe. The MP told us bluntly that the only principle which held the Conservative Party together was opposition to socialism. This seemed far-fetched at the time: after all, the afterglow of the Thatcher years still burned throughout the land, and regardless of her having to be taken out of office, her ideology was still in the ascendant. But look what happened once Labour stopped being socialist: they dropped Clause 4, the Conservative Party then surrendered itself to the violent passions stoked by membership of the European Union, Major presided over a fractured cabinet, the Tories were smashed in 1997. Some Tories, such as Shaun Woodward, found it relatively easy to walk across the floor and join a new, non-socialist Labour. Without the catalyst of opposition to socialism, the Tories fell apart and wandered through a dark wilderness which seemed to promise nothing but oblivion. Opposition to socialism had turned merely into opposition to the Labour Party: but as the Labour Party had apparently picked up many of Thatcher’s ideas, the Conservative Party was in essence ideologically opposing a reflection of itself: there were degrees of difference, not a particular contrast. No commanding heights of industry were nationalised during the New Labour years; businessmen were just as comfortable with Blair, if not more so, than they were with John Major. The Bank of England was made independent. The City was untouched. Mandelson was intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich. Don’t pay any attention to the inflating credit bubble: let the good times roll.

The saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum. Nevertheless, the Conservatives have hitched themselves to a vacuity, namely David Cameron, who was a public relations man. The ideological battles fought and won, what was left? The Big Society? Yes, that’s it, a slogan which requires the government to do little, but theoretically throws open the doors to self-improvement. My other half used to work in the Civil Service; not long after we met, I asked her the following question: “What do the Tories expect us to do? What are we supposed to be good at?”

She shrugged and replied, “They expect everyone to sort it out for themselves.”

This is as good a summary as any of Cameronism: schooling? Sort it out for yourself; open a free school. Benefits? Sort it out for yourself, there’s a cut on the way. Housing? You’re on your own, move out to somewhere cheaper. Health care? You’ll get choice, namely between Virgin Health and Serco, but it’s up to you.

Say what you will about Mrs. Thatcher, but as Andrew Marr rightly stated in his “History of Modern Britain”, there was a moral agenda behind her policies: she thought that deregulation and free markets would lead to a thrift-oriented, more hardworking mentality taking hold. Instead, it led to free markets running rampant on the back of get rich quick schemes which subsequently came undone to the impoverishment of us all; ask the question, is the nation more or less thrifty as a result of her time in office? Look at how personal debt has exploded for an answer. Are the British people working harder, or just working longer hours? Productivity growth has been a long standing problem although hours have increased. By Thatcher’s own yardstick, her ideology is a failure: but at least she had one. An ideology indicates a desire on behalf of those who craft it and those who believe in it that the world can somehow be made comprehensively better than it is at present. The Conservatives have abandoned ideology, shunned responsibility, soothed the remnants of conscience with drivel about the “Big Society” and now can be said merely a political lobbying group on behalf of the corporations and rich individuals who sponsor them. As a fountainhead of ideology, a defender of a political faith and a purveyor of a comprehensive point of view, it is effectively dead. Or rather, it is a zombie: it wanders in the land of the living, but it has no soul. It only holds power because the Labour Party faced a crisis of renewal: familiarity breeds contempt, mistakes accrue and once they threw in a leader untutored in the arts of public persuasion, the last Government more or less collapsed. Perhaps voters understood this on a subconscious level and chose not to give David Cameron a majority on his own: unfettered by Coalition, unencumbered by a particular programme apart from the naked achievement of gain, how much worse would the scandals be? Would we know about them?

Jeremy Hunt’s removal is almost a given. Even if his name doesn’t make into the lexicon of Cockney Rhyming Slang, he will have a good deal of infamy to live down. I have no doubt that Cameron in the end will present his loss as a burning sacrifice, which will serve as an example to other ministers and indeed act as a catalyst to cleanse the Conservative Party and politics as a whole. No one will truly believe this, but then again, in the dead Conservative Party, belief doesn’t matter: all that is worthwhile is taking the call from Richard Branson or Bernie Ecclestone or Serco or whoever paid to be at the top table, doing their bidding, and carrying on. Not to a bright future, nor towards a land of a free people, rather there is no destination, just continuance.

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Shopping Blues

April 23, 2012

Entrance to the Trafford CentreThe Trafford Centre is an undeniably impressive place. I could see its large glass dome from the motorway. The areas allotted for car parking are vast. I went in along with my other half via an signpost marked “The Orient”: this was followed by a set of tall columns and a stone statue bearing gilded lightning bolts which overlooked the huddled masses of automobiles. Inside, it was just as palatial: a gargantuan set of marble steps led up to the first floor. As we proceeded further inward, we saw a “cruise ship” motif take hold, complete with lifeboats and a painted starry sky above. The Centre’s “neighbourhoods” such as “China Town” and “New Orelans” were just as passable as anything I’d seen at Epcot Centre. It is truly a temple to modern consumerism.

I wasn’t there because I wanted to be, however. My girlfriend approaches shopping with a gusto that is only matched by my loathing of it. One of the reasons why I’m an internet devotee is because I cherish the idea of never having to go into a shopping mall again. I like the idea of not having to be asked if we can go to such and so place, a query which barring fatal disease can never be answered “No”. I despise having to break up the pleasures of a quiet weekend to turn the key in the ignition, hear the engine coughing to life, watch the automatic windscreen wipers coming on to deflect the rain, then the backing out, the slow procession of traffic, the maze of yellow signs and speed cameras which must be navigated, the struggle to find a parking space and finally going into a store which holds absolutely no appeal to me and the interminable quest for something which is invariably a compromise.

Like everyone else, I have my specialist areas of knowledge: fashion is not one of them. Thus, I’m frequently being put into the following impossible position: my other half wants my opinion on what she wishes to buy although I have no idea whether it’s good or not. My understanding of haute couture is so poor that I cannot recall which kind of stripes, horizontal or vertical, are supposed to be slimming (I believe that there are a number of opinions on the subject). If Fashion TV was hacked into and replaced with endless repeats of “Top Gear”, I’d laugh. Yet, I often find myself sitting in a quiet corner in places like Monsoon, checking my mobile phone and hoping that I’ll have a few moves to complete in Online Scrabble. Failing this, I’ll peruse Twitter. Meanwhile, my other half will be ransacking the store, looking for a dress, a scarf, a blouse, or shoes.

For me, clothes are a completely practical matter: they prevent nudity, a forestallment which in my case is more than welcome, and provide cover from the Yorkshire chill and rain. My sole fashion statement is usually a political one: I have an enviable collection of t-shirts devoted to lost causes including my purple “Yes to the Alternative Vote” shirt. My shoes are comfortable, my coat is aged, I have a lot of hand-me-downs, I only buy new when the old wear out.

But as I sit in the usual nook devoted to shopping’s malcontents, I’m painfully aware this isn’t my other half’s view. Somehow, the idea has gotten into her head and as well as that of the others with furrowed brows as they examine gossamer blouses and flimsy shoes that the wrapping is as important than the present. This runs in contra to reality: for example, I didn’t decide to be with my girlfriend because she was well dressed. The first time I met her, it wasn’t her jacket or shoes or dress which impressed me: it was a brilliant smile and a modest little shrug on a warm spring day that caught my eye, as these were indications that she was happy to be right where she was. I also saw modesty, a sense of humour and an endless joie de vivre in her demeanour. It didn’t require being fashionable: fashion changes, being wonderful never goes out of style.

Nevertheless, her devotion to shopping is a quirk which I accept just as readily as she accomodates my foibles. Offering an opinion is still a minefield: there are few things more difficult than to present a view when one has a blind spot. How does one avoid being offensive while noncommittal?

The question comes: “Do you like this?” I am looking at my other half wearing a black and white striped dress. I think of zebras. I recall seeing them in Africa and charging across an open plain away from a Land Rover. Are zebras fashionable? Or was that in the 1970’s?

Safe option. “It’s OK,” I reply, “Do you like it?”

Of course, one could be cynical and say that my views don’t matter and what is being sought is a confirmation of her opinion: I believe that’s incorrect. If I actually hated it, I presume she wouldn’t buy it. But for me, there is no passion associated with this. My other half picks up something with a floral print. “Do you like it?” she asks. “It’s OK,” I reply. “It looks like wallpaper,” she retorts. “William Morris, perhaps,” I say. She carries it with her.

I look around and see similar conversations between other partners taking place. There are plenty of people who appear just as fatigued as I am. I cast my gaze to outside of the store and I spy a Starbucks across the way. Normally I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near there as their coffee has the unmistakable petrochemical hint of having been roasted by a flamethrower, but at this moment it looks like a refuge from the multicoloured silken hell in which I presently reside.

“Do you like it?” “It’s OK.” As I say the response, I mentally tick over an odometer. There are only so many times that one can use the term “OK” before it becomes irritating. I mull over alternatives: acceptable, suitable, agreeable, not bad, fine. All of them, I think, sound much worse than “OK” which is the perfect adjective for the indecisive who don’t want to appear so. I would like to echo a Monty Python sketch and say “Splunge” but as she’s not a devotee of Michael Palin and Co., she wouldn’t get it.

After several cycles of trying things on and subsequently rejecting them, she makes a few choices. We go to the payment counter. I breathe a sigh of relief and am glad that there isn’t a branch of this store in Bradford. I take her bag for her and we walk out. Wandering among the rows of shops without actually going in is much less stressful, indeed pleasant on a changeable day. A bit of afternoon sunshine is intermittently cascading down through a skylight. Her hand clasps mine, the next store looms ahead.

I know that eventually the shops will close for the day. A young man in a bright red Trafford Centre jacket will press a button and a steel shutter will slowly slide down, preventing further ingress. There will be a lot of disappointed people who didn’t find the shoes or shirt or jacket they wanted. I know that lurking in the background there are forces which are also frustrated by this failure: the Chancellor wants us to splash out in Monsoon because he collects the VAT on the goods and the corporation tax on the profits. The company wants people to believe that they need more than what is necessary; the CEO may have his eye on an Aston Martin or Bentley, the brochure with models and colours circled in Mont Blanc blue pen discreetly tucked away in his polished walnut desk. Society somehow expects people to wear certain shades, to be painted a particular way, to be, in essence, more perfect than they are. This is modern consumerism’s motif: it’s rare that any wholesale questioning of its value takes place except on the political fringe. The closest society came to crying “halt” was during the worst of the financial crisis: something was truly, deeply wrong and there was a lot of soul searching as to why. Eventually, we found it easier just to blame the bankers for their greed: this was certainly a major cause of the collapse. But perhaps the worst thing that the financiers did was prevent us from blaming ourselves: we extended our credit limits to the point of bursting, not just for clothes, but for electronics, homes, cars, all the accoutrements of a lifestyle that we had borrowed, not earned. This hasn’t stopped, it’s just been slowed. We are still filing into the Trafford Centre, which was sold in January 2011 for £1.6 billion, an indication of how valuable it remains. We are still throwing credit cards after dreams of fulfillment which are better served by a captivating smile and a modest shrug on a beautiful day in May. In other words, the fall has happened and we are being set up to fall again. But why break the habit of a lifetime? Do we like it? As it resides in our collective blind spot, our reply seems to be, “It’s OK”.

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Memories of Turkey

April 19, 2012

A Pool at the Paloma Renaissance“Did you enjoy your stay?”

The question, posed by the young lady stationed at the reception desk of the Paloma Renaissance in Beldibi, carried no hint of being rehearsed. Doubtless it was something she had been trained to ask: the query’s formulation was as professional and crisp as her tan jacket. Nevertheless, she looked hopeful rather than stoic.

I smiled. “Yes, very much,” I replied, “we’ll be back.”

“Oh please do,” she said. She then offered me a card with some contact details so I could send in my feedback.

I thanked her and walked off to another part of the lobby; there, I awaited my bus back to the airport. As I settled into a dark brown leather sofa and held my other half’s hand, I took one last look around me: I’ve stayed in some very fine hotels, but I don’t recall ever being more comfortable. The first time I saw the Paloma Renaissance was after a long bus ride from the Antalya airport: beyond the resort’s gates, the drive was lined with tall trees. It looked cool, lush and inviting. When my girlfriend and I stepped into the lobby, we were impressed by the marble floors, the tasteful decor, and the very helpful bellhop who took our suitcases inside. Our room had a balcony which overlooked some magnificent mountains. The bed was super king sized. The main restaurant had enough delicious food to serve an army. The a la carte restaurants (in particular, Safran, which specialises in Turkish cuisine) were wonderful; the fresh hot Turkish bread went well with the hummus, the chicken kebab with bulgar wheat was mouthwatering. The Efes pilsner was good and cold, the Turkish coffee was strong and had the right amount of sugar when ordered “medium sweet”. On our first night, my other half and I strolled down to the beach: there was the scent of grilled fish in the air from the Sunset restaurant. We found two deck chairs and looked across the water to the bright lights of Antalya. The waves gently rolled in. There are few moments of perfect contentment in life, but that was one of them.

We did have a few hiccups: for example, there was a wake up call that kept disturbing us at 2:30 AM. The response from Tom of Customer Relations was exceptional: he not only changed our room, he also sent someone into our former accomodation at 2:30 AM to await the call. The phone rang, apparently; the next day we were sent flowers, fruit and a bottle of red Turkish wine as an apology.

Did I enjoy my stay? Absolutely. We’ll be back.

My memories of Turkey are not just confined to the pleasures of the Paloma Renaissance; for example, we visited the Roman ruins at Perge and Aspendos. This tour was only partially spoiled by the fact it was an excursion offered by Diana Travel: for example, our guide only knew about several paragraphs’ worth of information about Perge. She mentioned the Hittites and completely missed out that it was the home of the great Greek mathematician Apollonius of Perge, the man who gave us the ellipse, the parabola, and the hyperbola as we now know them. The missionary visits of St. Paul and St. Barnabas to the city were also left out; I looked up most of this information on Wikipedia later. Fortunately while I was there, imagination kicked in and I was able to envisage what it was like for myself; I’ve read Byzantine and Roman history sufficiently to have an idea of how it must have been. As I mused how the streets must have appeared, sounded and smelled when they teemed with Roman centurions, market traders and politicians, I passed by groups of German and French tourists: my German and French language skills are sufficient for me to know that they received a more thorough explanation and that their guides’ grasp of their languages was better than our guide’s English. Never mind. At Aspendos, I climbed to the top of the ancient amphitheatre once the guide left us to our own devices. It was precarious at times: the authorities had patched up some of the stones, but many were very worn down by time. I felt the heat of the afternoon sun on my neck, my heart pounded as I reached the top. When I finally got there, I looked down and waved to my other half who, perhaps wisely, had decided not to accompany me. She waved back, a tiny figure in the distance. I looked out of a portal and saw rolling green hills stretching off into the distance. The magnificent carvings in alabaster stone at the front of the amphitheatre were even better from an elevated angle. It was a moment when the stones of antiquity speak for people who don’t want to be forgotten; they aren’t.

Additional memories were provided by another Diana Travel excursion: my other half wanted to shop for gold and leather, I wanted to go to the old part of Antalya. We went on a trip which offered both. I had a mental image of how this would run: I thought we’d go to some souk in ancient Antalya, a place crammed with craftsmen selling leather jackets and gold trinkets made somewhere in the city’s winding back streets. My other half is an expert at haggling; I thought she’d enjoy it and we’d come away with some bargains. Then we’d be able to wander amidst the cobbled stone streets holding each other’s hand, alternating between sun and shade as we walked.

My heart sank when we were provided with the same tour guide as we had on the Perge and Aspendos excursion. My heart sank further when we were first shuffled into a large modern building belonging to a company called “D’Enver Leather” located not far from the city airport. We were seated in a room with a catwalk: the lights dimmed and models strutted out wearing a variety of leather outerwear. I did some mental arithmetic: to pay for the opulent building and the models, the prices would have to be extortionate. The lights went up and we were guided into a large showroom. My other half found a jacket she liked and looked at the label: it was in excess of €1800. We were told that we could bargain off about 60% of the price but even then the costs rivalled that of Paris, Milan and London and without the benefit of a designer label to justify the cost.

Shopping in Turkey is not for the fainthearted. Merchants are often practically doing cartwheels in front of you in order compel you to do business; at D’Enver, however, this commercial impulse was enhanced to the point of being positively creepy. My other half and I were followed around by a tall saleswoman with curly hair who refused to understand that we found the prices extortionate. Like many in our party, we fled quickly, but not before having to run the gauntlet of a concession which sells leather bags and belts, also at very high prices. Outside, however, there was relief: the sun was shining, the skies were clear blue. Two very young tabby cats were in a courtyard chasing crickets. One of them was quite friendly and bid us hello by rubbing its head up against us. I stroked its head in reply. “And now we’re happy,” my girlfriend stated. “Good morning,” I said to the kitten, “thank you for making the trip worthwhile.”

We proceeded out to an overpriced café where a large number of French and German tourists were waiting to leave; in retrospect, this probably was unsurprising as it was difficult to see how D’Enver catered to either French fashion consciousness or Teutonic frugality. In the distance, the mountain range which overshadows Antalya was on display: the snowcapped peaks were beautiful.

It should come as no surprise that the gold part of the tour was very similar to the leather portion. We were brought to the Club Hotel Sera on Lara Beach: the Turkish government sensibly banned gambling some time ago, so what was once the casino had been turned into a jewelry centre. We were again shuffled into a lobby; the decoration was a combination of over-gilded faux Ottoman Empire and Liberace; think of a Seventies American designer with a surplus of gold paint trying to capture ancient Oriental opulence and you’re not far off. We were met by an English speaking host. His name escapes me: I think of him as Mr. Smarm. He chided us in a rather oily way for not having visited Turkey or his hotel before; he suggested that the extravagant decor was Byzantine. Oh really? As there was no religious iconography and the effect was tacky rather than holy, this was a preposterous statement. Either he thought we were stupid or he simply hadn’t read his history. Never mind. Mr. Smarm told us, with a smile, that what lay ahead was “Heaven for ladies, hell for the gentlemen.”

Again, what we found was overpriced. One of the salesmen showed us a ring that he proudly boasted replicated a Tiffany setting; I wondered what Tiffany would think about this potential theft of intellectual property. After deflecting this advance, my other half wasn’t feeling too well: there were a couple of comfortable red chairs in a corner. A sign said that they were reserved for tour guides: given that no one was sitting there, we didn’t see the harm in her having a seat for a few moments. As she sat, we mused about the benefits that the tour guides get: we were provided a basic lunch on the Perge / Aspendos tour, our guide and the bus drivers had a separate table and much better food. Generally, tour guides get plush seats and free coffees. We also wondered if there were financial benefits, possibly a commission, accruing from the likes of D’Enver. We didn’t have much time to discuss this. Very shortly after we’d sat down, we were chased out by one of the salespeople. She told us curtly that if we wanted to rest, we’d have to go outside to the café. I gathered that the idea was to keep tourists flowing past the various display cases in order to keep the pressure on. I understand that people have to make a living, but pestering someone who was feeling unwell was too much; we left immediately. Again, we found ourselves in a café. It was even more overpriced than the last, and it was positioned by a dusty and busy road. But the sun shone through; despite the cost, I had another Turkish coffee.

Statue of Ataturk in AntalyaI think our guide gave up on the group after this point; my guess is, although we had paid for the tour, she saw us as tight-fisted and uncooperative English people who weren’t going to lay out the money so she could get a good commission. After a further bus journey, we arrived at the centre of Antalya; there is a large and impressive statue of Atatürk there, and she gave us a cursory explanation as to who he was, namely the “father of the country.” Well hang on, back up: there is a reason why his face is everywhere in Turkey. He appears on advertising billboards and on every banknote and coin; many of the shops I went into had his picture hanging on the wall. From a British perspective, it would be rather like finding Lloyd George’s portrait hanging up in every Tesco. The reason for this veneration is that Atatürk saved his country and set it on a modernising course: after the end of World War I, in which Turkey was allied to the defeated Central Powers of Germany, Austria and Bulgaria, the empire was smashed up, the Sultanate discredited and dissolved. Atatürk defeated a Greek invasion, clawed back territory, set up the Republic, encouraged science, education and industry and went so far as to switch the Turkish alphabet from Arabic script to European letters. More importantly, he restored the nation’s pride: in my experience, only the United States utilises its flag as often and in so many ways as a motif as Turkey does. He is central to understanding modern Turkey. He’s also the man responsible for setting up the systems and laws which enabled our guide to have her career, such as it is: treating him so lightly bordered on disrespect. I was glad to get away and proceed into the heart of the old town with my other half’s hand in mine.

A View of Old AntalyaWe did have one more commercial interaction that bordered on the shuddersome. As we passed two gentlemen sipping Turkish tea, we were asked where we were from. My other half replied “England”; this was a mistake. A thin fellow with a balding head and extravagant moustache came over and told us that his cousin lived in Newcastle but had a home in Antalya. He lured us into his silver shop and showed us an anonymous picture of a baby on his mobile phone: apparently this was his nephew. He then invited my girlfriend to examine his wares: she wasn’t particularly impressed. We politely told him we wanted some lunch: he recommended a restaurant just further along and wrote down its name and the name of its owner. He made us promise to come back for tea later.

We found the restaurant: it was in a sunny courtyard next to some crumbling stone buildings. The furniture was basic black aluminium lawn chairs with cushions adorned with a red tulip pattern. Nevertheless, there was a certain amount of pride: the flowers in the centre of the table were fresh, and the beer was cold. The grilled chicken in paprika was tasty; however, time was short and we settled up with the owner, a burly gentleman wearing a blue and white striped shirt. He saw the piece of paper given to us by the silversmith: he explained that the silversmith was his “friend” and they were both Kurds.

“The Mayor of Old Antalya,” I thought. Down the winding streets of this old town, I imagined, everyone knows each other; I guessed he knew more than most.

My girlfriend and I proceeded deeper: there were more cartwheels of commerce turned in our path. However, we finally happened on a silver shop she liked. The window frames of the store were made of polished light oak; the displays were less ostentatious than most, indeed, tasteful and laid out in green velvet. We went in and met the silversmith: he was a short man who wore wire frame glasses and had thin grey hair. The tools of the gentleman’s trade were resting on a desk, a white and grey cat was fast asleep on a chair with a green cushion. As a cat owner, I know that they are very selective about whom they choose to associate themselves with: the fact that the cat had chosen this jewelery shop to rest was a good reference. We talked for a while, my other half tried on several rings. Time was pressing: we took his card and proceeded on.

We continued in what appeared to be a long, winding loop: I smiled and gripped my girlfriend’s hand more tightly. This was the walk in sun and shade that I so desired. Then all of a sudden, the Mayor of Old Antalya emerged from another silver shop. He was not threatening, but it was uncanny to say the least: he queried us about our promise to have tea with him. We told him, truthfully, that we were doing a tour around the old town and that we wanted to go to the mosque. He led us through the back streets, being careful not to pass any other store. A man with grey hair and a sizeable belly came up to the Mayor, with what I presume was his young son in tow. The man seemed somewhat desperate; he pleaded for something. The Mayor carried on regardless, only throwing a few words over his shoulder. Somehow we escaped with quick apologies and made it to the safety of Antalya’s old mosque.

The floor of the Antalya MosqueI entered it with bare feet; my other half covered her head with a sheer green cloth. The red and blue carpet, marked out in individual squares for worshippers, was soft. In the corner by a window, a man sat on his knees and quietly read what I presume was the Qur’an. Two gentlemen in another corner knelt and prayed. There was a stone stairway up to what looked like an altar with a scroll draped in green velvet with gold lettering: I presume that was the Qur’an in scroll format. I looked up at the dome; black plaques with gold Arabic script were positioned around its base. I whispered to myself “In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was God”. It was one of the few places in the city that wasn’t bustling. I enjoyed the moment of peace. We left quietly.

As I think about it, there are many memories which rush in. I recall the remarkable taste of mulberry flavoured Turkish Delight, a confection that puts our terrible facsimilies to shame. I remember the food market at the town of Göynük and the fish seller who was delighted to be photographed and the taste of green almonds. I recollect sweating in places I didn’t know I could perspire from at a Turkish bath. I think about my struggles with a hammock on the grounds of the Paloma Renaissance and finally settling in, watching the beach and the waves beyond the end of my feet. I recall staying up beyond midnight writing and sipping yet another Turkish coffee. I remember waking up late and feeling like it didn’t matter, and truthfully, it didn’t. I remember dipping my feet into the clear water of the Mediterranean, only to find it was very cold but nonetheless refreshing. Not everything beyond the Paloma Renaissance was perfect, but it’s seldom that the best vacations are totally pristine: it’s a combination of sights, sounds, tastes, experiences that allow one to luxuriate in one’s comfort zone and just as firmly be pushed out of it.

The young lady at the front desk who asked me if I enjoyed my stay couldn’t know how good everything had been. I’d built up a treasure trove of memories which I’ll revisit long after the last piece of mulberry Turkish Delight is consumed. Yes, we’ll be back: though next time we’ll bring a bigger guide book and rent a car rather than go on a pre-arranged excursion. We’ll find the souks we seek and explore much beyond Antalya; I saw on my last day that the Paloma offers a quick Turkish language lesson on Fridays, we’ll do that too. Yes, we’ll definitely be back. Above all, it’s passing sweet to know that our potential hosts’ reply to this prospect is “Please do.”

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The Dead City

April 16, 2012

A Stone at PergeI have been to a dead city. I am not referring to a town that inspires the sentiment of “Marietta’s Lied” from Korngold’s “Die Töte Stadt”; rather, I speak of the Roman city of Perge. It once thrived but now only is home to stray dogs, of which there are many to be seen sleeping amongst the ruins, and tiny black tadpoles in stagnant pools. These residents cannot appreciate the cracked marble which once adorned magnificent facades, the deep cold pool of a Roman bath which once was filled with water and now contains only brown and green moss growing on its floor. They don’t know that it was a place of learning: the famous Greek mathematician Apollonius of Perga once resided there. They have no means to discern that it had significance in the life of St. Paul and his companion St. Barnabas, who preached there twice.

Renee Fleming "Marietta´s Lied" Die tote Stadt

Perge was once one of the wealthiest and most splendid cities in the ancient world. Now the grand avenue now runs towards a bleak horizon, and smashed columns and blocks of stone litter its sides. Only the occasional plinth inscribed with Greek or Latin words or a column with a figure carved into its top provide a discrete clue as to its former residents.

Where are they? Fled, felled by disease, murdered, bred out, died. Gone, long gone. The electricity pylons on the surrounding hills were built by a people who speak a different language and inhabit a land that has vastly changed due to the work of their hands. Their cities are alive; the red flag with white crescent and star flutters over a vibrant nation. The dead city is kept as a monument to their vanished predecessors.

As I walked over broken stones, I wondered how such things happen. After all, the people who lived in the dead city once had everything: food was plentiful, indeed, a wild grape vine was to still be seen. The baths, the focus of Roman life, were large and splendid. Scratch beneath the dirt and magnificent marble tiles where its patrons once walked are to be found. No doubt, the city was once filled with the scents of bread baking, odours of animals and the omnipresent aroma of olive oil. Its streets echoed with voices speaking a variety of tongues: arguing, talking, selling. Eventually, Roman proprietorship shifted to the Byzantine, and afterwards the city lasted well over a millenium. Why did it then die?

The historical record suggests that Perge declined due to Arab raids, and then was gradually abandoned during the Seljuk period. But is there more to it than that? I cannot help but think of the old dictum: hubris turns to nemesis. The moment of victory is the time when the seeds of eventual defeat are sown. The inhabitants of Perge worked to build a magnificent city, which stood as a tribute to effort and invention. But having arrived at that destination, they could not sustain their place at the pinnacle of success. Hubris turned to nemesis: complacency perhaps set in, mismanagement and corruption may have followed thereafter, the quality of leadership probably declined. The Arabs, inspired by the fervour of new-found religious faith might have seen decadence as weakness and brought Perge down. Now all that reigns there is the quiet, apart from the chatter of tourists and their guides, the soft ripples on the water from the tadpoles, the gentle patter of the stray dogs feet.

The desperate sadness I felt at seeing Perge made me glad to leave. It was tremendous comfort to climb into a modern, air conditioned bus and drive away from the site. A lunch by a nearby river, a cold beer, a moment to bask in the sunshine awaited. But I couldn’t escape the thought that what happened to Perge could just as easily be our fate. Antalya bustles with life and construction: I wonder if it is on its way to becoming the Turkish equivalent of Miami. Men sit outside in shirtsleeves under the shade of orange trees and drink thick Turkish coffee while chatting happily to friends. This, end? How could the wide paved roads of Antalya or of London or New York turn into the broken avenues of Perge? How could the shattered skyline of the dead city be transposed onto our modern metropoli?

I cannot know the precise means, but history does have an inescapable logic at work: that which rises, must fall. We may collapse due to a change in the world order, perhaps one as profound as the rise of Islam. The present ascent of China suggests a possibility: maybe the cities we know won’t die in that instance, but change beyond all recognition.

An environmental catastrophe is another potential fate: I recall the pictures which beamed into my television set after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. A picture of a harbor is burned into my mind: a tide of black water rose and swept all before it, overturning large boats and collapsing river defences. This was a strong reminder that nature has the power to frighten and scatter: while this is not what happened to the dead city, Perge does resemble the remains after a natural catastrophe.

We could simply destroy ourselves. Our technology may run far ahead of our wisdom, and in the process, we could cause a catastrophe which causes life as we know it to stop. Our efforts to manipulate genes could go wrong. Our use of nuclear energy could go haywire. Our desire to embed computers in every nook and cranny of existence could be a recipe for disaster.

However, we just don’t know, and so we cannot prepare. We have only graves and poetry to remind us of our impermanence. Shelley’s immortal words came to me as I looked upon Perge’s shattered agora and overgrown aqueduct: “look upon my works, ye mighty and despair”; they echoed in my mind as the bus climbed a hill and the golden sunlight of a beautiful April afternoon penetrated the dusty windows.

If we accept that our time of glory as a civilisation is as fleeting as life itself, then perhaps we can stop being obsessed by it. I notice that the Americans are still locked into the idea of being “number one” in the world; they believe that their selection of a President this November will somehow make a difference. It may or it may not, but the idea that America can dominate the world in the same manner as it once did is madness: as other nations rose, America’s stature was always going to suffer a relative decline. It’s what you do with your legacy that matters: the Romans left us a legacy of law, literature and culture which remains with us today. Were I to examine every piece I’d ever written, no doubt Roman and Greek DNA would be found in the vocabulary and grammar. The very framework by which I view the world is influenced by the Graeco-Roman tradition that lingers in Western education. Perge is dead, but the legacy of its inhabitants is very much alive. Perhaps rather than worry about how we will remain on top or at least in contention, we should focus on what kind of legacy we leave, how our voices will carry down through the generations. How do we become people whose skylines may one day be shattered and visited only by passing tourists, yet still remembered?

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Cruel Sports

April 15, 2012

İbrahim AratNot far from here, the European weightlifting championships are taking place. This is apparently very important to the Turks: the triumphs of their countrymen Sibel Şimşek and Fatih Baydar are matters of national pride, lauded in newspapers and on television. I watched some of the competition on Eurosport in my hotel room (much to my other half’s chagrin): the camera panned to the crowd whenever a Turkish competitor took to the stage. Flags waved, the crowd roared: I think I saw Mr. Baydar’s mother cheering and praising her son from the stands.

Weightlifting is like many other highly competitive sports: there is an element of cruelty in it. Earlier today, I saw other parts of the contest: a young woman from Slovakia took up her stance before the bar and as she began to strain, a vein started to bulge and throb on the right side of her head. It looked alarming, as if a blood vessel was about to burst. Fortunately the ordeal did not last long. Eurosport had the courtesy to show her coach’s reaction: he urged her on, and looked crestfallen when her arms sensibly decided to drop a weight that was far too heavy. This was by no means the most alarming spectacle: a Turkish woman, perhaps inspired by the crowd’s enthusiasm to take risks which were obviously too much for her, missed being struck by the bar by only a matter of millimetres. After her, German woman wobbled as she hoisted the weights, collapsed and nearly escaped injury. The competition looks simultaneously insane and impressive to an outsider: the athletes have striven for years to reach the peak of physical condition, and are risking a great deal the moment they leap onto the stage. A sensible person would step out of the way, the brave push it to a point, and the obsessed teeter on a precarious pivot, tempting disaster to strike. However, ultimately it is the choice of the athletes to do this; they pick the cruelties to which they subject themselves, whether it lay in physical pain or the zealotry of an aggressive coach. Those who earn gold medals here in Antalya are no doubt deserving of their prizes.

In contrast, the news about the Grand National race reached me via Twitter: two horses dead, and I’ve read rumours about three others being injured. Apparently it was the closest final for some years and thus was a thrilling spectacle. Certainly the jockeys deserve both credit and sympathy for the race they’ve had to run, but what about the horses?

It’s impossible to know the precise emotional state of a horse in such a situation: however, one can make some educated guesses. The horses are lined up in such a way that they are quite close to one another; the scenario is quite unnatural. There is a human on each horse’s back. The human brandishes a riding crop. The race begins, the crop flies and strikes the animal repatedly: it is possible that a sense of panic ensues as well as pain. The crush of horses together perhaps heightens the tension. The sound of galloping hooves is deafening, the mud flies, the push onward from the human becomes more insistent. The heart races, the lungs can’t take in enough air, the legs hurt and strain. Obstacles are in the way, leaps are made despite whatever risks may be. Sometimes the calculations are wrong, there is the hard landing, the cracking of bone, the rush of blood and agony, and eventually eternal sleep. Other times there is the breaking free of the pack, the finish line, the long slow trot back to the stable and quiet at last. The horse doesn’t know why it is subjected to such trauma: it never had a choice in the cruelty to which it submits. It can only be terrified, run, and survive. If it’s very lucky, one day its sole duty will be to sire other horses.

Why do we like this? Why do we tolerate it? What is wrong with human beings that we cannot accept the kind of personal risk we see in weightlifting as sufficient sport, rather we need to subject animals like horses and fox to our need for entertainment?

It is straightforward to ascribe some of the blame to the legacy of the class system: after all, indulging in sports such as pheasant shooting, fox hunting and horse racing tend to be the purview of the landed aristocracy. Certainly, betting on the horses has extended into other social castes, but nevertheless, the aforementioned sports and in particular events like the Grand National and Royal Ascot are primarily associated with the old upper class. Could it be that since the old aristocracy no longer feels itself the master of the land or its people, that their appetite for dominating something still needs to be whetted? Could it be that the class system has had the after effect of creating a “utilitarian” view of both people and human beings: that their worth lay in their utility to the user? Is it some ritual that is preserved merely for asserting privilege which no longer exists?

Turkish Fighting CocksThat said, it’s probably not fair to blame solely the aristocracy; certainly they are no help. However, yesterday afternoon in a Turkish market, I saw two cockerels locked in a wire cage. I presume that this was not for the purpose of serving them for dinner later. Dog racing is not a particularly posh activity, nor is badger baiting. It may be that there is a terribly ugly streak in human nature which suggests that we treat the gifts of the earth as our property rather than something that is on loan while we reside here.

To be fair, there are sports in which human and animal work together in partnership: I refer to polo. Thanks to Michael Palin’s documentary series about the Himalayas, it was possible to witness a relationship between horse and rider which suggested that something other than raw terror was going on. The purpose of the Himalayan polo match was to stretch both horse and rider, but neither was taken to breaking point. Respect was key: the rider cared about his horse’s emotions as well as his health; it is difficult to see how that could be the case in a scenario in which the metaphorical gas pedal is always pushed to the floor.

The arguments for preserving fox hunting were overcome, eventually. Its elimination from the British countryside is not just a matter of law, but also a change of heart: some did so enthusiastically, more are shifting with reluctance. No doubt there would be howls of protest if Ladies’ Day at Royal Ascot ended: hat designers will be up in arms, celebrities will be mortified, gossip columnists will write seething calumnies. But think of the horses, think of their terror, think of responsibility humans have, as the only animal capable of the stewardship (as well as the destruction) of the earth, to be wise and kindly caretakers of the land. Yes, the Racing Post may go out of business and Sir Clement Freud may spin a few turns in his grave: but better that than to preserve cruelty, even if it bears the name of sport.

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The Mosque in Göynük

April 14, 2012

My other half captured some of the scene in Göynük with her iPad; hopefully this brief video can convey some of what words fail to express.

The Mosque in Göynük

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A View from Antalya

April 14, 2012

Göynük MosqueThere’s nothing quite like the Muslim call to prayer. I heard it earlier this afternoon while walking through an open air market. The air was full of the sharp scent of citrus, the earthy smell of fresh vegetables, and the spiky odour of fish out on display. Mothers and grandmothers manned their stalls, haggling with patrons and keeping an eye on children who played at their feet. Chickens strutted and clucked in the background. The occasional stray cat poked his nose around corners. A small boy in a red sweater snuck his hand into a tray full of green almonds, snatched a prize and his diminutive naughty face broke into a smile as he devoured his treat. Then the voice of the muezzin rang out true and clear from the silver, white and lilac mosque: his voice didn’t waver, but wrapped around the Arabic words in a close, loving embrace. I don’t speak Arabic, but I did catch references to Allah; there was no mistaking the praise for Him from all His creation.

I am not a Muslim, but it was at that moment that I understood the faith most clearly: if the universe can seem a void, then the words, or rather the Word, effectively fills it with God’s presence and meaning. He may seem distant, but He is simultaneously close. The universe can seem random, but the Word reassures us there is a plan beyond our reckoning and we should grant all honour and glory to Him for it and granting us a place in it.

The call finished. The voice changed. What I presume was a sermon began in Turkish. This is apropos: I am presently in Turkey, and I was on an expedition to the town of Göynük, which is just a few kilometers away from the city of Antalya.

It had been my hope that I would take a trip to Turkey some day, but the genesis of this trip lay more in necessity than desire. Sometimes it’s essential to take a break and open up the gift of free time: Turkey is a wonderful place to do so. While the Mediterranean sun has been an inconsistent companion during this trip, the hospitality shown to myself and my other half has been outstanding. For example, after our trip to the market, we wanted to have a snack. We found a small restaurant which served lamb meatballs (Köfte), fresh Turkish bread, and a garden’s worth of salad. We were attended to by a young man who literally ran from table to table, taking orders and serving customers. Did we want more food? Ice cream? Turkish tea? We chose the tea and weren’t charged. I also believe this is the only occasion in which a waiter has shook my hand after he finished serving me. Nevertheless, the restaurant itself was half complete: as we sat and ate, welders were working on the roof: sparks flew onto the pavement below. I thought it was a miracle that nothing and no one caught fire. However, the workmen pressed on.

The Turks are working relentlessly to make their nation into a rich country. My trip to the market was in two parts: prior to the food section near the mosque, which was where the locals did their shopping, there was a street’s worth of stalls full of handicrafts and grey goods, e.g. Louis Vitton and Polo knockoffs, which were intended for tourists like us. We were pursued by the stall holders in multiple languages: every time we were offered a good price on something special, something brand name, something, anything they could sell. This entrepreneurial spirit is not the prerogative of the open market: yesterday, I along with my other half experienced a Turkish bath. The bath house appeared to be a new establishment: it was a gaudy building clad in white and obviously intended to resemble the Taj Mahal. We paid a basic price for a sauna, steam treatment, a wash and a massage, but just prior to going in, we were given an entirely new menu of options. For an additional €60, I could have had a longer massage which no doubt would have excellent health benefits. A polite refusal did not deter the salesmanship later in the process: after being roasted in the sauna, frozen in the bitter shock pool, steamed like a lobster (albeit with menthol vapours) and then washed by a man who possibly tenderised veal as an additional employment, I was massaged. During this, a worried looking colleague of my masseuse came in carrying in a clipboard and told me my body was tired (which given that I was obviously on holiday wasn’t much of a guess) and loaded with toxins. Was I sure I didn’t want the extra massage in order to get rid of them? No, no thank you. After the event was over, I overheard one of the managers say to another customer that at peak times they had between 600 and 700 patrons a day; assuming that a significant portion of that crowd is more susceptible to men with clipboards, they’re making a fortune.

Entrepreneurship displays itself in less “in your face” ways. En route from the Antalya airport, I noticed that there were several miles of very large car dealerships for nearly every conceivable make, ranging from Chevrolet to Mercedes. The size of the dealerships as well as the width of the road were American in scale: what caught my attention also was that dealers of the same make were so close to each other, no doubt locked in fierce competition.

Quee ElizabethIn the city of Antalya itself, it appeared that every last portion of commercial space was crammed with shops. Virtually any good or service that one wanted, whether it was an Efes pilsner or a Turkcell phone was on offer. And despite it being late afternoon, there was no indication that the commercial activity was tailing off for the day. It doesn’t matter if a few sparks fly or if too many hotels are being built in the vicinity of Göynük, of if the Queen Elizabeth hotel in Göynük centre has lost the “N” on its sign and the fountain pumps don’t work fully leaving the hotel resting in a stagnant pool – there is an energy and dynamism that shows that the nation is pushing ahead. I have no doubt that the N will be put back, the pumps repaired or the hotel will be simply demolished and replaced with another, which will be bigger and better.

I wonder if part of this raw ambition comes from the Turks’ stated desire to join the European Union. If we accept the idea that symptoms are messages arising from the subconscious, then two items will suffice in this instance: first, Turkish license plates are already in a European format. On the far left hand side, there is a blue strip with the country’s abbreviation in white letters. All that’s missing to make it in line with virtually every other EU license plate is the circle of yellow stars.

Turkish Lira and Euro coinsI can find another bit of evidence by opening my wallet. There are striking similarities between the 1 Turkish Lira coin and the 1 Euro coin. Furthermore, most merchants in this area will take Euros just as readily as they take Turkish money: one shopkeep told me how he and his colleagues wanted to serve “Europäisch” customers (As a student of the German language, I’ve found it interesting how German and English cross over each other here). However, lately, most of the tourists were Russian.

This leads to some troubling messages for those who still believe that Western Europe and America dominate the world; this is not the case insofar as the people of Antalya are concerned. I’ve seen a Turkish barman speak fluent Russian to a customer at my hotel. Many of the shop signs are in Russian as well as Turkish and German. If I go back to my hotel room, I’ll find more Russian than English channels on the television and one of the English channels is Russia Today. We are broke, and as a result, the entrepreneurial and progressive Turks will turn to those who do have money. We are broke, and fewer of us will be able to indulge in the distinctly middle class privilege of the all inclusive holiday to sunnier climes; the market signals are clear, the raw capitalism that predominates in Turkey causes a course correction. We are broke, and this perhaps will eventually feed through to the Turkish consciousness: their revered leader, Kemal Atatürk, whose likeness is to be seen throughout the country, pushed the nation on a modernising, European course. But what’s the point of being European if it means you burn up like Greece? Cast aside the English and the Germans and the French, Russia is open for business. If Turkey isn’t offered a European destiny, it may choose one which means that Europe will not get the benefit of its zest and dynamism. The French and Germans may be under the impression that Turkey needs the European Union more than the European Union needs them: a view from Antalya suggests quite the reverse.

No doubt I will uncover more wonders prior to my departure. On Sunday, I will take a trip to Antalya old town; on Tuesday, there will be a visit to the Roman ruins in the vicinity. I am hoping some touches of the ancient and Byzantine will make themselves evident on the latter trip; will I get a glimpse of the places where Hadrian, Diocletian, Heraclius once stood? It all seems possible, and then I’ll return to a comfortable hotel where a Pina Colada is one order away and the sounds of America’s heyday, Sixties rock and roll, will echo in the halls. This is Turkey, a broad, diverse, and fascinating place. No doubt, I’ll be back.

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A Mayor for Bradford? No, Thanks!

April 4, 2012

Boris and KenI don’t think anyone ever thought there was much love lost between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone. The explosion of expletives that Johnson let fly at Livingstone in a lift yesterday merely confirmed matters. It’s unedifying to say the least: London is an ancient and venerable city, and yet it finds itself potentially in the thrall of either a right wing buffoon or a firebrand who is well past his prime. Some may challenge this description of Ken, however, let’s be honest: if he was still gripped by the same fervour as he was in his youth, would he be structuring his tax arrangements so carefully and evasively? Whatever happened to being the tribune of the people?

I look at these two, Eeney and Meeny, Miney and Moe, Larry and Curly, and think of the opening line of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” – “I celebrate myself and sing myself”. While they couldn’t be more different ideologically, they do share one unappealing trait: rampant egotism. They both wish to stand astride a colossus, to inflate self-regard with every press appearance and poster that is stamped with the mark “Mayor of London” with the “on” printed in a different colour. They celebrate themselves and sing themselves through public office; meanwhile, London is a mess. I am sure that the mayor’s office would love to throw out all sorts of statistics about crime and public transport, but step out of a dirty, teeming London Underground station and breathe the air. Look at the traffic. See the homeless selling the Big Issue. Try to ignore the thought that much festers in the great city, and Boris and Ken, Zipedee and Doo Dah, are not the likely purveyors of a cure.

Meanwhile, mayors have been tried out in other cities with similarly questionable results. In Hartlepool, they elected the mascot for Hartlepool United FC: literally, a man in a monkey suit. In keeping with this, he ran on a platform of free bananas for all. In Doncaster, a representative of the peculiar English Democrats became mayor. There are very good reasons to prefer the monkey. The mayor of Doncaster, Peter Davies, is notable for ending his city’s twinning arrangements with European towns. He also wanted to get rid of community cohesion officers: however Doncaster doesn’t have any. Among his more intriguing beliefs is his faith in the use of the birch as a tool of discipline in schools. To call his views antediluvian is to lend them a modernism they lack. Never mind, Davies presses on, enjoying the trappings of office as he celebrates himself and sings himself, at least until a referendum on May 3, in which the citizens of Doncaster may decide to abolish his post.

On the same day, Bradford will be voting on the exact same issue: the city has been offered the option of an elected mayor. David Cameron more or less threatened Bradford with isolation if the vote went against the proposal: he stated that only elected mayors would get a seat at the top table. To be fair, there are other advantages: councillors tend to get lost in a crowd, a single mayor is easy to identify. As a former New Yorker, I know that a good mayor can be a rallying point at a time of disaster, as Rudy Giuliani was on September 11th, and like Ed Koch, can be a great salesman and promoter of trade. But note the difference: the powerful, well-regarded mayor is primarily an American institution. In other words, this is an alien transplant, and its graft onto the British political system is yielding truly strange fruit. The British way of local governance may be more anonymous, but deliberation by committee seems much more democratic, as layers of elected representatives have to decide on issues of local import; the rise of mayors is indicative of a fad or fetish. We have seen this motif in business as well: there remains a widespread belief that a single high-profile individual can somehow dramatically improve the running of a large organisation in a short amount of time. With the collapse of Sir Fred Goodwin’s reputation along with that of many other CEOs, the “heroic” form of leadership should be discredited. But here we are.

There are particular pitfalls for Bradford. The Respect Party said last week it wants to capitalise fully on its success in the Bradford West by-election; it stands a greater chance of winning the mayoralty than the English Democrats did in Doncaster. Perhaps sensing this, Respect wants a “yes” vote in the referendum; this may be the only issue upon which they’ve found agreement with the Tories. A Respect mayor could end up being more focused on setting up Bradford as a “rebel citadel” than attending to the city’s needs. Given the genuine poverty and unemployment that exists here, Bradford needs to show that it’s open for business. A good mayor would perhaps try to work on making the city into a hub for high tech startups: Bradford has low rents and high availability of fast broadband. It is difficult to stimulate interest in these advantages if you’re telling entrepreneurs, and by no means are all of them in it for achievement of pure avarice, that their property is theft.

Of course the current council has many failings; furthermore, it’s often difficult to discern their agenda let alone gauge their successes. However, there is a safety mechanism: should a council leader step out of line, they’re responsible to their peers and can be swiftly removed. Meanwhile London languishes as it waits, and then it seems it can only replace Boris with Ken.

The drive for mayors does have the admirable goal of improving governance; however, it’s rare that big structural alterations in either government or business yield prudent changes. Prudence rather suggests that the citizenry should become more involved in their own governance by becoming acquainted with local issues, joining political parties, standing for election, and participating in the open meetings which are one of the many admirable features of British democracy. This is a sedate form of progress, almost boring, and thus unappealing to politicians addicted to the narcotic of quick wins. But a silver bullet is neither necessary nor desirable: it’s a remedy prescribed by quacks and charlatans. Vote no.

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Me And My Blog

Picture of meI'm a Doctor of Creative Writing, a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle, a published novelist, a technologist, a student, and still an amateur in much else.

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