Noxious vapours

Good wishes to those troubled bankers, the perils of sniffing damp repelling liquid and how to touch

Oh, those poor, innocent bankers and traders. Especially at Lloyds/TSB –they didn’t in anyway blight 10 years of my life. I’m sending love to them. I think it’s love – something that makes my ears bleed, anyway.

I’ve spent three days distracting myself from their plight by painting my mother’s house (located in what are now the rice paddies of Warwickshire) with a damp-repelling liquid that comes in an extra-large tin to accommodate all the health warnings about noxious vapours and instructions to wear a hazmat suit, goggles and a flannel vest.

Possessing none of the above, I have been – to use a complex medical term - poisoned. I also appear to have finished two new short stories - this leads me to suspect I am trapped in a brain-damage-induced delusion. At least that’s what I deeply and sincerely hope. Otherwise, I’ve assaulted a complete stranger in a shop.

Allow me, for the good of my soul, to explain. There I was in momentarily-sunny Stratford-Upon-Avon, waiting for my mother to finish purchasing a bushel of spring bulbs, or some such, when I turn round, see someone I know and begin the standard manoeuvres associated with Hiyahowareyoudoing. It is only at this point – which is to say, much too late – that I realise I have warmly greeted someone I do not know at all and who does not at all know me – the internal dialogue running roughly as follows…

Hang on , whoa… don’t know him. Shitshitshitshit, just touched the arm of someone I don’t know. That’s assault. I’ve assaulted a stranger.

Oh fuckingshitbolloxnononononono I do know him.

No, you don’t.

We’re not going to get out of this with denial.

We are if I say we are.

That’s-

Shut up.

That’s David Tennant. Right there. Right here, in fact.

I said shut up. Do you think he noticed ?

Is there anything about his performance style that suggests he has one lifeless arm ?

Shitshitshitshit. We’ve just assaulted David Tennant.

We’re sure that’s who it is ?

Oh, gimme a break.

He’s looking at us.

Well, wouldn’t you ? Is he immensely pissed off ?

More like he’s guessing – inaccurately – that we’re not wholly unhinged and is suggesting strongly that we shouldn’t draw a crowd.

I’m rubbish at drawing.

If you can’t say something useful... Look normal, apologetic and reassuring.

You want me to look three things at once ? You are joking. If anybody here can look three things at once it’s not me. I’m nodding, is that reassuring ?

No, that’s our head twitch. But it might help. Can we explain ourselves ?

“Trust me, I’m a novelist.” Yeah, that always works. Especially when we look more like the cover of a colour supplement with a special feature inside on mental health care failures. Anyway, to explain our extremely rude intrusion we’d have to make him stop listening to his personal stereo which is more of an intrusion still.

Hope it’s a nice tune. Bugger. Just mouth something sensible and go away, disappear, attempt never to have been.

VERY GOOD.

Did you just mouth VERY GOOD ? VERY GOOD ? How many awards do you have for word-slinging and all you can come up with is VERY GOOD ? VERY GOOD is what you say to someone who is five and has eaten all his crusts. VERY GOOD is not what you tell a very grown up you have only recently seen take Hamlet, shake it, turn it inside out and use it as a fetching hat. Jeezuz.

If we just run for the Avon… we’re wearing a big coat. It’ll weigh us down. We could be bobbing peacefully against the weir in no time.

As usual, I can only hope to be forgotten as soon as possible and try not to resurrect my last attempt to congratulate an actor I admire: to whit, “Excuse me Mr. Holm, if I could just say how much I’ve enjoyed all your work.” Which isn’t too shit a start and I was in a helpful context and therefore credible. Naturally, Ian Holm then asks what in particular I’ve enjoyed and I suddenly can remember nothing, nothing, nothing except for “From Hell” – an abortion of a movie in which he was, nevertheless, splendid, but even so. Dear God, there are occasions when my levels of self-loathing are shamefully inadequate. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Lord, give me people I’ve made up earlier any day. Amen.

GETTY
Show Hide image

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