The man who used me as a guinea pig for herbal Viagra is back. And he's got brothel creeper shoes

The last time I saw the Guvnor was about a year ago, at the launch of my book, accompanied by a Russian, blonde ex-model, about six inches taller than him, who had the air of a woman upon whom it would be unwise to try any oompus-boompus. Now he's back ag

Ping! A text from, of all people, the Guvnor. For latecomers to this column, the Guvnor used to be the landlord of the pub down the road. Patrolling the tables with mild menace, he would occasionally startle favoured customers with asides of quite extraordinary obscenity, the product of a mind that was as quick as it was filthy.

Every so often if you were having lunch there and he took pity on you, he would join you and start bringing over bottles of wine from far nearer the bottom of the list than the top. You would stagger out of the place at about 5.30, barely able to see.

He once had a porn film shot on the premises; only, this being a British porno, it revolved around the visit of a couple of supposedly oversexed female health and safety inspectors. I ended up learning far more about the separation of meat and dairy products on kitchen shelves – absolutely no innuendo intended – than I did about sex. (He triumphantly produced the DVD towards the end of an extended luncheon I’d been having with the Moose, and the latter, a man of delicate sensibilities, nearly fainted.)

If he wasn’t doing that, he was using me as a guinea pig for the dodgy herbal Viagra he’d taken consignment of, a job I did only once, on the grounds that the stuff nearly killed me. (It worked, in a way, and I wrote about it in these pages.)

Then the Guvnor got exiled from the pub by his wife, who had wearied of his ways, and he became elusive. The last time I saw him was when he came to the launch of my book about the Olympics which none of you bastards have bought, accompanied by a Russian, blonde ex-model, about six inches taller than him, who had the air of a woman upon whom it would be unwise to try any oompus-boompus (as Bertie Wooster once described one of his aunts). He looked well dressed, sleek and happy.

After that, I heard nothing. I imagined a period of forced exile, or a spell in one of the more comfortable correctional establishments. He popped up again at the pub a few months ago but when I asked after him from the staff, I was told he was never coming back, ever, and I got the sense it would be a good idea not to press the matter.

Anyway, here he is again, and he wants to buy me lunch and discuss matters of some import with me, so why not? I arrive a couple of minutes early at the Social Eating House in Poland Street, go to the bar upstairs and fail to enjoy a disgustingly sweet attempt at a Martini served by a boy with the stupidest beard I’ve ever seen – and you see plenty these days – and in walks the Guvnor, wearing, as well as more conventional clothes, bright blue brogues with brothel creeper soles (which, I later learn, cost £540 the pair).

It turns out that he has been suffering from ennui and has been relieving the tedium by idly scanning the pages of a website devoted to single Ukrainian ladies. One of them has taken the fancy that he is some kind of intellectual and has been dropping in references to Proust and Boris Vian. Boris Vian, for Christ’s sake. The Guvnor, whose idea of a library is two copies of Razzle, has been getting busy with Wikipedia but thinks it might be wise to ask me for advice. He shows me her photograph.

“Looks like Kate Moss, doesn’t she?” he says. “Guv, that is Kate Moss,” I say.

He shows me another picture of her. “OK, maybe not,” I say. “But you’ve got to admit there’s something fishy going on here. You say there are 28,000 women on this website. They can’t all look like that.”

The sommelier arrives and although the Guvnor does not bother with the French pronunciation, the look in his eyes tells the wine-man that he is not to be trifled with. I used to feel, when in his company, that I was in a rude, postmodern episode of Minder. Right now, I feel I’m in a Martin Amis novel. But he is soft-hearted and at some point during the next bottle starts showing me pictures of his kittens (his last cats were called, brilliantly, Sid and Nancy). The restaurant, full when we entered, empties. The manager suggests we repair to the bar upstairs. The Guvnor laughs him off; the manager backs away. You don’t argue with people wearing shoes like that. They’re capable of anything.

In my column last week, I said that Irvine Welsh was very nice to me after a disastrous reading I once gave. My memory is even more scrambled than I let on: I meant Stewart Home. My apologies to both writers.

One bottle of wine with an old friend: how dangerous could it be? Image: Getty

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue