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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A Plague of Hobgoblins

April 2, 2012

No Fuel SignWhat a difference a panic makes. Last Thursday, I decided I’d go shopping on my way home. As I approached the turn, I noticed that there was a queue of cars going the same way; they were coming in from every conceiveable direction. Reluctantly, I joined the stuttering, coughing procession and turned up Radio 3 to pass the time. After all, it was a bright afternoon and there were worse places to be than behind the wheel.

Slowly, gingerly, I proceeded towards the gates of the car park. I saw that there was a young man dressed in a flourescent vest. He leaned in and interrogated each driver in turn; I had a fair idea what it was about. I wasn’t surprised when I arrived at the front that he asked, “Are you here for fuel or to do shopping?”

“To do shopping,” I replied. I was directed to enter via an exit; I drove in, parked and cast a glance at the petrol station forecourt. There were cars of every type: Ford Transit vans, small Japanese compacts, a highly polished Mercedes, a couple of careworn Peugeot estate cars. The drivers pumping fuel were as diverse as their motors: middle aged mums, grey haired executives, an Asian man in a skull cap, a teenage girl in sunglasses. Surrounding the forecourt was a messy lump of cars, unable to form into an orderly queue. More supermarket staff in flourescent vests ran from car to car, trying their best to direct and guide.

“You idiot,” I said. My comment was directed at Francis Maude. His ill advised statement about stocking up on fuel had led to this. People can’t afford to not get to work: unemployment here is above the national average. Jobs are precious; my local surgery recognises this and has late opening hours to accomodate. A young woman who waited on me at Akbar’s Cafe on Saturday couldn’t do enough for my girlfriend and myself; I assumed it was because she felt lucky to have a job and was clutching the opportunity as tightly as possible. People must get to work: to do that they must have fuel, and the petrol station was overrun.

I shook my head as I walked into the store. Had David Cameron acted quickly and prudently, this situation was entirely unnecessary. He could have sacked Maude and said without equivocation that there was no reason to panic. After all, no fuel truckers’ strike had actually been declared. What was more, the Fire Brigade was incensed by Maude’s remark about storing fuel in jerry cans; this had the sickeningly sad result of a woman in York suffering 40% burns this past Friday.

I did my shopping and then headed for home. The queue was as long as ever: if anything, it was getting bigger. I shook my head again. Cameron, Maude, Osborne, et al, they are all educated people, surely at some point they must have learned about the power of words and how they convey meaning even if it isn’t explicitly stated. Saying there was potential for a fuel crisis brought the possibility forward in the minds of many people: they could foresee the feeble excuses they’d have to make, their pay being docked, the ever increasing bills not being paid. Oh no, oh no, must get fuel, have to work, cannot be immobile.

48 hours later, the panic had dissipated. I went for a shave at my usual barber and went to fuel up at the same supermarket. En route, I noticed that Murco still was charging 10 pence over the odds for a litre of fuel, whether diesel or unleaded. I found the supermarket forecourt now to be nearly deserted: I didn’t have to wait. I got out, took in the cool early afternoon air, and fuelled up. The price had spiked up by 1p a litre since last time; my eyes still water when I think of the costs involved. But nevertheless, I was done quickly, and I drove off, ready for all the driving the week ahead would require.

Later, I perused the internet and found that the Conservative Party was telling itself that the fuel crisis was its Thatcher moment, comparable to the war waged against the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980’s. My instant, sarcastic reaction was that it was difficult to see this comparison being valid unless the police were set to deal with queuing motorists with truncheons. More seriously, the idea that one would seek or exploit such a crisis to some political end, indeed to “humiliate” the union, while at the same time risking lives and livelihoods was disgusting. I couldn’t help but think of the sage words of H.L. Mencken:

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

This government has decided to wreck the existing arrangements for the running of the National Health Service; in other words, they’re privatising it. The effect is already being felt: the Yorkshire Post weekend edition made clear that the local health authority is going to have to find £250 million in savings. It’s difficult to see how this will be achieved. I once went with my girlfriend to the Bradford Royal Infirmary: the waiting room was full to bursting with patients of all kinds, some writhing in pain. The average wait for these patients was 5 hours.

That scene is not the forefront of the government’s mind. One of its major priorities is cutting tax rates for the most well off. Furthermore, it has blessed Vodafone’s avoidance of paying its back taxes in full, yet simultaneously has decided to penalise the most poor and vulnerable by reducing their benefits.

Miliband and Balls Buying PastyCities like Bradford suffer from such despair that they are willing to turn to the likes of George Galloway, a human megaphone, in the hopes of being heard. Yet the media’s attention has mostly been transfixed by an entirely imaginary and avoidable fuel shortage. The Labour Party has abdicated from its responsbility as the opposition by focusing its attention on how Cornish pasties are going to be taxed more, provided they’re served above ambient temperature. The hobgoblins dance and weave and do pirouettes in front of the television cameras, while the giants of want, greed and neglect ravage the land. When a seismic event such as the Bradford West by-election happens, the leaders of both the Conservatives and Labour try to dismiss it as a one off: the current spin is that Galloway is a formidable campaigner whose ideas found a willing audience with both “young Muslims” and “Muslim women”. Of course, Bradford West is a diverse constituency and the Muslim vote alone can’t explain his 10,000 plus majority, but never mind. Look at the pasty tax, look to the fuel shortage: don’t look at genuine poverty and true grievance. Stick to existing arrangements and vote Labour if you’re in an industrial town or Conservative if in an affluent suburb: the present order must be preserved.

I would like to present the internet as a means by which the hobgoblins can be slain: however they just as frequently run amok. Yet, to borrow a phrase from the “X Files”, the truth is out there. The truth can be acccessed, cross referenced and verified. There is no fuel shortage. A pasty tax is irrelevant. Our National Health Service is worth saving. Bradford speaks for much of the nation. The Conservative Party represents a gilded elite and the Labour Party speaks increasingly for no one except themselves. And yes, we can do better.

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Why Galloway?

March 30, 2012

Galloway SpeaksGeorge Galloway shouldn’t be a Member of Parliament. Apart from his overblown theatrics, his comic turn as a cat on Big Brother, and his incessant desire for the limelight, he simply is not an effective representative for his constituents. As the non-partisan “They Work for You” website makes clear, when he was the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, he had a well below average rate for speaking in debates and attending votes. His average turnaround of 2 to 3 weeks in response to a low amount of correspondence is troubling. This record suggests that the regular, routine duties of being an elected representative bore him. Perhaps it’s because there’s no glamour or headlines in it: worthy, sober and responsible – these are not adjectives which could apply to him. It may have been this lassitude which prevented him for standing for re-election in Bethnal Green.

Galloway definitely shouldn’t represent Bradford West. Bradford West has an 8.2% unemployment rate and youth unemployment has tripled in the past year. Furthermore, 32% of young people are in poverty. It is difficult to see how a man who has no roots in the community can be fully acquainted with such problems; Galloway’s most consistent place of residence is his holiday home in the Algarve. Furthermore, he apparently lacks the diligence to learn and the application to work in an disciplined manner to try to solve the grave issues facing his new constitutency.

What perhaps makes his election even more inexplicable is his party’s platform. The Respect coalition appears to be more focused on preventing war than solving Britain’s ongoing economic crisis. A simple glance at their website shows that the latest newsletter for the party has the headline, “The Drumbeats of War Are Getting Louder”. A graphic on the right hand side of the page highlights the “Palestinian Right of Return”. Galloway slams the recent budget in a blog post that appears below the fold, but Respect’s main focus has consistently been about the futility of military conflict. This is out of step with today’s concerns about cuts in public spending, questionable reforms to the NHS and out of touch with a populace that is ready to panic on the mere suggestion of a fuel shortage.

So what happened? Labour bears a large portion of blame: when I moved to Bradford last year, I made an effort to acquaint myself with the three MPs who represent the city. For Labour, there was (the now retired) Marsha Singh in Bradford West and Gerry Sutcliffe in Bradford South. For the Liberal Democrats, there is David Ward in Bradford East. Out of the three, David was the only one I’d ever heard of, largely because of his campaign against excessive motor insurance charges. Marsha Singh hadn’t even bothered to set up a website, which struck me as odd. Somehow, the Labour MPs for Bradford had a transparent quality to them, they blended into the background; yes, Gerry Sutcliffe is the shadow minister for immigration, an important post, but somehow he hasn’t turned this into a great platform for discussing the issues which matter most to his constituents. This is symptomatic of a deeper problem: Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Harriet Harman, all seem to be of a type that doesn’t “speak Bradford”. They’re from the south of the country and appear alien to the people who live here.

I would add that Labour hasn’t done as much for Bradford as they could have. For example, I can see the effect of the Blair / Brown years on Leeds: there have been a lot of regeneration projects there such as the splendid Victoria Quarter . The effect on Bradford is more difficult to discern; the town centre features an odd mix of tired discount shops and palacial banks. Worse, the local Labour council is viewed as incompetent: the most prominent instance of their perceived incapability is the botched Westfield Bradford project which has still not been completed 8 years after it began, despite numerous false starts. There is now an empty space in the centre of the city which residents un-lovingly refer to as “the Hole”. Labour’s candidate for Bradford West, Imran Hussain, is the deputy leader of the council. Labour appears to have assumed that anyone donning a red rosette was a shoo-in.

The Conservatives should not escape some of the opprobrium. They were the main opposition to Labour in Bradford West; their vote collapsed by nearly 23% in this by-election. This was greater than Labour’s decline. David Cameron has much to answer for: he came to Bradford in support of his candidate, Jackie Whiteley, and proceeded to demonstrate he simply doesn’t understand Bradford’s problems. I was aghast when he said during his visit last week that the Tories had “done a lot” for the city; I don’t believe I was alone in being appalled. Given the statistics for unemployment, youth unemployment and poverty, this was an unbelievably complacent and arrogant statement. Furthermore, Mrs. Whiteley was a particularly tone-deaf choice: when she recently appeared on an item for BBC Look North, it was clear that she didn’t “speak Bradford” either. Hers sounded to me like a voice belonging to the shires, upper middle class, and drives a Range Rover. One wonders if the Tories were deliberately trying to fail and fail badly.

Given these circumstances, it is difficult to see what the people of Bradford West could have done: when the two main parties offer no good choice, the Liberal Democrat presence isn’t what it should be (and hindered by coalition), and you want to cry out to a distant establishment that isn’t listening, what do you do? Galloway may not be effective, disciplined or even rational, but he certainly is loud. He has already had an effect: the eyes of the country are focused on Bradford this morning. The best that may come out of it is that in the process of examining the why this has happened, the real reasons will be uncovered. Maybe the establishment will realise that any area that elects grandstanding, pompous and arrogant George Galloway is issuing an SOS, whether it’s in the slums of Glasgow, the impoverished terraces of East London, or in the faded neighbourhoods of Bradford West. Maybe, just maybe, in order to prevent someone so obnoxious and loathsome holding office again, they will do something about it.

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Springtime in Bradford

March 27, 2012

Blue Skies Over BradfordIt is generally far easier to criticise than to praise; however the reverse is true at the advent of Spring. Perhaps it’s due to sunlight coming in at a more direct angle, the dawn being brighter, the days being longer. Perhaps it’s because of the evenings during which cool, rather than cold, breezes sweep across the back porch and the bedroom windows are kept open: this means when the morning hour comes, birdsong wafts in. The cherry tree in which the birds’ nest resides has adorned itself in white and pink blossoms.

Here in Bradford, Spring is especially welcome. Winter in West Yorkshire is a sullen, leaden affair: it’s punctuated by grey skies and long nights illuminated solely by orange sodium lamps, chill that cuts to the bone, mornings which are dark and the only sound that echoes is the scraping of frost off of car windows and the frequent patter of rainfall. Spring is resurrection: yes, there are setbacks, mornings when the scratching of ice off of glass is still heard, but then there are blue skies and warmth. Last Sunday, I drove past Bradford Moor Park: families were out playing. Fathers pushed their children on swings, people from a broad spectrum of origins and socio-economic groups lay in close proximity on the vast expanse of green, soaking up the sun’s rays. I drove on and noticed the explosion of daffodils in and around the city. Winter kept us in a deep and sombre sleep, but now the earth itself seems to be telling Bradford and its denizens, “Wake up, wake up.”

This past weekend also marked another fresh start: the new City Park opened on Saturday. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend the event myself as I was with family. But nevertheless, I was in its orbit: I was at the Leisure Exchange with my significant other, her sister and her partner and their two kids. It was the birthday of one of the children. We ate at Frankie and Benny’s and went bowling. My performance was pathetic, the result of years of being out of practice: nevertheless, a good time was had by all. As we emerged into evening air, there was the sound of fireworks. Bradford was awake; it was as if no one wanted Saturday to end. Teenage couples were holding hands as they walked through the narrow avenues of the Exchange to the Cineworld: dads let toddlers sit on their shoulders. Shirt sleeves were shorter than they had been. Clothing colours were brighter: browns and greys traded for azure, yellow and lilac.

I look around me as I leave for work in the morning: despite the clock change to British Summer Time over the weekend, my eyes are not quite dimmed by the resulting fatigue. The plants that my other half planted are in bloom: crocuses, clematis, azaleas. I found out yesterday that my partner left a hydrangea in the downstairs shower prior to heading off to St. Helens for an overnight trip; apparently this was to give the plant more moisture. Normally, I would have thought it being indoors in such a place wouldn’t be good for it: however, perhaps the air itself is vivifying. Its pink blossoms were in full bloom, the leaves almost bursting with green vitality. I will put it out on the back porch tonight, so it can greet the dawn tomorrow.

Spring enhances detail. I notice little things: the landscape itself seems to have softened; green fields have turned a brighter hue. In my mind I can almost hear the opening bars of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (No. 6). Any sudden downpour seems to be only there as a prelude to rainbows. I confess that since arriving in Yorkshire, I’ve seen more of these brilliant spectacles of colour than I’d seen in many years.

Amelia the CatSo the earth renews, invites, becomes more gentle, and beckons us out of doors. My cats Amelia and Sarah Jane are not immune: last night, I let Amelia out the back door. She paused before leaping out; she sniffed the air as if she was appreciating it, and then bounded over the garden fence with a running leap. She came back later, yawning, and then curled up in the spare bedroom: sleep is easier for both cats and humans, perhaps, because one is merely drifting off to dreams rather than fighting against the chill. No doubt her dreams were punctuated by chasing more birds and sitting quietly, as is her wont, amidst verdant plant life.

The earth challenges us to be as fresh as it is. Over the weekend, my partner urged me to get a hair cut and we went to the establishment owned by Mr. Imran Khan on Killinghall Road. I sat waiting for his colleague’s attention as he finished up trimming the resplendent beard of another customer. In an adjacent chair was a young boy getting his Spring trim. His father was standing closely by, watching the proceedings: he had his arms crossed but a smile on his face, and he urged his son ever to be brave amidst some light teasing. I looked out the window: the shadows were in retreat, the sunlight glanced off of passing cars. The bearded gentleman was finished first: he threw off the barber’s smock and revealed grey shorts, a blue t-shirt saying “Italia” and a pair of sandals; I took his place. I was trimmed and lathered and shaved as if the gentleman doing the work was a sculptor trying to massage more attractiveness out of my lumpen features. He did all he could do. I felt better for it afterwards, as if I had shed an old skin.

Not far from the barbers is Habib’s restaurant, and as I drove past it on Sunday, I noticed their doors were open and the windows folded back to invite the season in. What looked like a wedding party was there: out of the corner of my eye, I saw women dressed in fine silks, smiling and chatting to each other. My other half told me that there was a bride carrying flowers. Perhaps it was an arranged marriage and love was just as fresh and new the day itself. Perhaps it was a long standing relationship which had achieved the ultimate milestone and a point of renewal.

My imagination wandered: I considered paths strewn with white rose petals as a bride and groom stepped out into the sunlight. I thought of the gigantic fountain in the new City Park and it shooting jets of water into the air. I thought again about the families enjoying the sun at Moor Park: the people cycling, the children playing. I came to the conclusion that Spring is a romance. It is like a cheerful visitor who lands on the doorstep bearing a bouquet as a surprise. It is a poem written in nature. It is a song without written notes but full of tuneful melody. I have seen many before, but as I delve deep into memory, I cannot recall one that I have been happier to see, nor felt was more rewarding. Springtime has come to Bradford. No doubt its attractions will fade and desiccate in the heat of summer, but for now, it is there to be loved.

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A Modest Proposal

March 25, 2012

Corrupt CashI remember 1997. I know what it was like to live under the last Conservative government. I recall when “Tory” and “sleaze” were synonymous. I recollect with disgust the antics of Neil and Christine Hamilton, Graham Riddick and David Tredinnick and “Cash for Questions”. I also remember Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer perjuring themselves and going to prison.

I remember 1997. I remember the arrival of the New Labour government. I recall Tony Blair’s promises of a fresh start: “Things Can Only Get Better” playing in the background and Blair asking, “A new dawn has broken, has it not?” Then there was Bernie Ecclestone and the Formula One exemption from the ban on tobacco advertising. There was “Cash for Honours”, and questions from the police. There were loans to Peter Mandelson on terms that were all too favourable to be considered kosher.

Corruption is nothing new. Read history: a Whitehall fixer named Maundy Gregory sold peerages on behalf of Lloyd George from 1918 onwards. There has been a bad odour lingering over politicians for some time, a result of the rot of immorality; it’s also a stench arising from a decayed and decrepit establishment. Cameron supposedly had learned from all this, and suggested that his Conservative Party was no longer the “nasty” party. And here we are: Peter Cruddas, £250,000 gets you “into the Premier League” and apparently policy can be directly influenced.

Perhaps what’s worse than the corruption itself is what it signifies: there is a class of politicians who live a life quite detached from that of their constituents. Does David Cameron know what it’s like to go shopping at Aldi? Has he ever wondered if Rossini beer is a good accompaniment to a takeaway curry? Has Ed Miliband tried to secure a rental flat in Barnsley while living on the minimum wage? Does he look at Gumtree to find furniture? Does George Osborne know what it’s like to claim benefits…in Hull? These “Right Honourable” gentlemen live a life that is smoothed by a certain knowledge: it’s highly unlikely that anything truly bad will ever happen to them. William Hague won’t get too deep in hock to Wonga.com, Harriet Harman won’t struggle to pay her electricity bill, Michael Gove will regard the rise in fuel prices as a mere blip on his radar. If they’re deprived of office, it doesn’t matter: directorships, lucrative positions with think tanks and lecturing tours await. Theirs is an existence which will feature custom-made suits and polished black limousines with cream leather interiors to the end of their days. If they make mistakes, well, that’s too bad: but infamy isn’t something they feel on their skin. Hubris is a way of life and we’re definitely not all in this together.

Modesty is a possible antidote. There are few instances of this in modern politics, but one in particular stands out: Dave Nellist, a former Labour MP and now Socialist councillor in Coventry, refused to take a wage that exceeded that of the average skilled worker in his constituency. No doubt, given the peripatetic nature of being a Member of Parliament, this proved to be costly at times. Nevertheless, he retained a basic link to those he represented: he had to make ends meet with a salary that didn’t make the task easy. It was information that helped him draw conclusions about what policies he should favour. While I disagree with many of Mr. Nellist’s proposals, at least he set a good example. We need a political class that follows suit: I suggest that every MP and minister should be paid the average salary of a skilled worker in the poorest city in Britain.

Location is also important. My father once said to me that he thought the President of the United States should be forced to leave Washington and settle in Minot, North Dakota.

“Why?” I asked.

“There’s nothing there,” he replied. He had been there once, apparently.

My father then identified an additional benefit: at least the President would live among real constituents rather than a coddled and champagne swilling Washington elite. A North Dakota based Presidency would also be less insulated from rural poverty, the effect of food prices on people’s livelihood, and the implications of directives from on high. This stands in stark contrast to the present scenario: there is one world “inside the Beltway” as Washington insiders would say, and a very different one outside it.

Similarly, the Westminster elite presently have access to the glittering attractions of the capital, from West End shows to high class restaurants. It is possible to lead a life there that entirely bypasses squalor; it proceeds down a golden corridor stretching from Whitehall through Belgravia to brick terraces of Chelsea. They can turn a blind eye very easily, as there is nothing to see.

I suggest my father’s proposal be adapted for British circumstances, namely, the Prime Minister of the day and Members of Parliament should live in the poorest city in the country. Their housing should reflect the relative affluence or lack thereof of their location. Their assets and income should be placed in a blind trust, which will only be returned upon completion of service.

I imagine that the enforced modesty of income and circumstances would raise a howl of agony from many Members of Parliament. No doubt they feel that their present rewards are a just return on their commitment to public service. However, public service should resemble Holy Orders in one respect: it should be a vocation, something one does for one’s community in exchange for the privilege of living in a free country. Furthermore, the imposition of stringent conditions of service might mean that there would be more turnover: without money and all the accoutrements of office, politics is less of a career option. Finally, and most important of all, it restores the link between the government and the governed. Samantha Cameron might have to pick up something for the weekend at a Middlesborough Lidl. The members of Parliament might have to contend with the decay of decrepit town halls. Perhaps proceeding to and from legislative sessions they’d finally see homelessness, unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction, despair and actually do something about it. After all, it’s one thing to endorse policies from afar that drop an economic bomb on a community that’s far away: it’s quite another to do it to people with whom you interact on a daily basis. Furthermore, the addition of the accessories of politics, i.e., journalists, broadcasters, television production companies, would provide an economic stimulus to communities which need it most.

I know that these proposals will never reach fruition, though it’s amusing to imagine the likes of Zac Goldsmith trying to pick out a flat in St. Helens: the best option on the table at the moment is the Liberal Democrat proposal for campaign finance reform. Changing how parties are funded is both beneficial and worthwhile: but even if a comprehensive programme of reform were enacted, it would not be the end of the story. The gap will remain, and given the history of Conservative scandal, there is every chance it will widen in the coming years. This is supposed to be a democracy, namely, we are supposed to govern ourselves: but the government is not us. Until we have a proposal for modesty, the fundamental inequity of this situation will remain as entrenched as ever.

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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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