Lez Miserable: "I'm more Byron Burger than Lord Byron. Is that why I can't get a date?"

Meet our new columnist, Eleanor Margolis, as she takes a frank, funny and cynical tour through life as a twentysomething lesbian. In her second piece, she describes what it's like to fancy women who wouldn’t give you the time of day on their ironic 80s Ca

A bunch of us are round at The Austrian’s, drinking wine. As usual, I’m being boring about my bad luck with women. The Austrian is having none of this:

“Try harder,” she commands.

The others agree. They set me a challenge for the next time we go out: if I say some words to a real life attractive female, they’ll buy my drinks for the rest of the night.

It strikes me that even my best buds have no faith in me. I don’t have to take this hypothetical woman home, I just have to do some talking with her. That is my insurmountable task.

But some lesbians have this really specific way of being aloof. Let me paint you a picture:

Nikki is 25. She’s skinny, gamine and lovely, with a Mia Farrow circa ’68 haircut. She enjoys cups of tea and riding her bike through the ‘queer poetry’ section of bookshops in Hackney. She DJs at a club night called ‘Minge Attack’. She once knitted an entire house and lived in it for a month as an art project. She claims never to have bought a chain store item of clothing in her whole life, although every time she goes into Urban Outfitters on Commercial Street, the staff wave at her.

Yes, I know she’s pretentious, but I still kind of fancy her.

Yet, if she existed, Nikki wouldn’t give me the time of day on her ironic 80s Casio watch. I’m stubby and veering towards moustache-y. And if I took penicillin, I might die.

I run into a lot of Nikkis on the hip ‘n’ happening East London queer scene. They ignore me because I use phrases like “hip ‘n’ happening”. So it goes.

Then again, it’s not like I’ve ever made a real effort to talk to a Nikki. I’m no chatter- upper of women. I’m more Byron Burger than Lord Byron. More of a “watch nervously from a distance” kinda gal. My face even has this special shade of red reserved purely for when a woman catches me checking her out. I call it “Just Go Home And Have A Sad, Quiet Wank Vermillion”. Weirdly, this was rejected by Crayola when I suggested it to them as a new shade. 

So, the night out arrives. We’re going to Club Lesley, a lesbian club night at the tit-achingly cool Dalston Superstore. I put on some Prince and apply red lipstick like war paint.

As we walk into the Superstore, I’m confronted by what looks like a swarm of American Apparel models. I already feel like the complimentary bag of salad that comes with a take-away curry.

And then I clock her, over in the heaving crowd around the bar – it’s Nikki. I find myself veering towards her, leaving my friends behind, looking tense. My feet are moving, while my brain is sending out distress signals:

“What do you think you’re doing, you sad, hairy twit? Do not attempt to engage.”

My feet have other plans and suddenly I’m next to her. I know it’s creepy, but I can’t help noticing how nice she smells – like pencil shavings and CK One. It’s uncanny – she ticks every single Nikki box: the pixie haircut, the Urban Outfitters shirt, the aura of someone who may have once knitted a house. I’ve accepted that my brain isn’t on my side, so I do what I’ve never done before - I listen to my vagina.

“Packed tonight, eh!” I announce, over a remix of some early 00s R&B hit.

She glances over at me. My God, she has pretty eyes.

“Uh-huh!” she replies. We’re both having to shout over the music.

“Ahh, gotta love this song!” I say, while my brain says, “You have absolutely no idea what this song is, you complete and utter wanker.”

“Mmmm. I prefer their earlier stuff, to be honest!”

“Oh yeah, classic!” I reply, while my brain is now screaming the word “arsehat” at me repeatedly.

I spend the next few minutes staring at my feet, while waiting to be served. I order a gin and tonic and flee.

Flustered, I return to my friends.

“There. I did it. I spoke to someone.”

“Yah, and then you ran off like a pussy,” says The Austrian.

I’m not even going to bother fighting her on this one. Technically, I’m owed a night’s supply of drinks, but I know I don’t deserve them.

I spend the rest of the evening dancing limply, while keeping one eye on Nikki and frantically thinking up reasons why I hate her. “Look at her over there with her eyes, and her shoes, and her possible cool job in the media. I loathe her.”

At around two in the morning, I realise that my face hurts from frowning so much. All I want to do is lie in bed, eating a kebab and crying. I head off, leaving the others to enjoy the rest of the night.

The next day, I meet The Austrian for a hung-over brunch.

“You know,” she says, “Zat girl you spoke to last night – she liked you.”

I nearly choke on my eggs Benedict.

“What the..? How? No she didn’t.”

“Yeah, we got talking to her and her friends later on. You know what she said about you.”

“Oh God, what?”

“Your mate is cute. Kind of aloof though.”

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose column "Lez Miserable" will appear weekly on the New Statesman website. She tweets @eleanormargolis

Legs. All the legs. Photo: Getty

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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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