Scrabble is like life: you’ve got to be innit to win it

Not much doubt about the big news of the past couple of weeks: there are a dozen new words allowed in Scrabble. You can now get points for INBOX (only 15 years or so after it entered everyday vocabulary), WAGYU (upmarket steak, guaranteed to psych out your opponent, who will conclude that you can afford to eat in more expensive restaurants and are thus a more accomplished wordsmith), and - perhaps controversially - TWIGLET (as in, er, Twiglet, the wheaty snack). They've also opened the doors to VLOG (a video blog and a deeply uncomfortable word to say out loud) and QIN: a boon to anyone who's been frustratingly stuck with a Q, the queen of letters but among the most intractable. Yes, like I said, this is big news. I can't wait to play QIN, have someone challenge it and smoothly refer them to a recent news story. I might carry around a laminated copy of the Guardian story that broke the news, in anticipation of just such a challenge. There's nothing like ruining someone's day with a laminate.

Game changer

Some people, undoubtedly, are going to get annoyed when the new words come out. They'll be hot under the collar that INNIT (as in, yes, "isn't it") is suddenly a legitimate strategic play, rather than - as it should be - something you hear on the train and try to pretend didn't happen. They're the same people who complain bitterly when you win the game by playing AA or XI or JO. "Those aren't real words," they moan. "It's not a fair test of vocabulary. I put a lot of effort into saving up my letters until I could write CAMEL. You should be ashamed of yourself."

What these people fail to grasp is that Scrabble exists in its own autonomous universe. It's not obliged to be faithful to the genuine patterns of popular word usage, any more than Monopoly should be condemned for popularising the idea that you can buy Mayfair for a few hundred pounds (although its rail system, which becomes more and more profitable the more stations you annexe, eerily presages the modern age of privatisation). Scrabble is about tactics, not words. If you know the tricks, you'll get ahead; if you show too much sentimentality towards your favourite words and objects, you'll be bulldozed. In this respect it mirrors real life very well. It's not really fair that people get cheaper train tickets just because they book earlier than you; they're still taking up the same amount of space on the train. It's unjust that a reality TV show winner sells a thousand times as many records as a more gifted but obscure singer-songwriter. Nevertheless, this is the world we live in. On almost every level, it's a competition, just as evolution is a competition to see which species make it and which die out muttering about not being able to use their Zs. We can learn from Scrabble. Life is about winners and losers. Be a winner. Commit the word WAGYU to memory now. It's 24 points on a double-word. I don't need to say more than that.

If further proof were needed that modern life is even more of a cut-throat competition than it always has been, you should see the current series of Masterchef in Australia, where I've spent the past three months. Masterchef is popular enough at home, but down here it brings the populace to a standstill. Never has food been spoken about with such seriousness; never has a silver cloche been lifted, to reveal a dish of steak and kidney pie, with quite such portentous musical accompaniment.

Half baked

On the episode I watched yesterday, three contestants faced a sudden-death Baked Alaska contest. The tension at the unveiling of the dishes would not have been out of place in an operating theatre (which might be an idea for a future TV series: Britain's Got Surgeons, perhaps). The judges nibbled at the desserts as if the creator of the least impressive one would be put to death. The contestant with the worst Baked Alaska, teetering at the doors of elimination, wept and said cooking was his dream. He was reprieved and someone who hadn't cried was eliminated instead.

Fair? No - but once more, a useful lesson in the way to get ahead. Presentation is more important than product. People can complain that reality TV has made us all shallow and vacuously results-driven, but it only reflects a trend that has been in progress since cavemen first began to compete for wives, cave-space and the survival of their genes. Life is a game with winners and losers. It's no more than a glorified, feature-length version of Scrabble or Masterchef. If you don't like the rules, find a way to beat them. Innit. l

Next week: Nicholas Lezard
newstatesman.com/blogs/mark-watson

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0

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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