Booze run: shoppers making the most of whisky and gin price cuts at a London off-licence, 1965. Photo: Getty
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Nicholas Lezard: It’s one thing to have a reputation, another to have one that’s so undeserved

All over London, men who should know better are going on the lash and then claiming that they’d been with me, simply in order to remove all notions of their own agency or responsibility.

A month or so, or more, ago – I would rather not be precise – someone, I had better not say who, came round to the Hovel to enjoy a glass or two of wine.

“I can’t stay too long,” he said. Why, I asked. “Well,” he said, “I went out a couple of weeks ago or so and got absolutely smashed. I was so pissed I even fell over trying to get through the front door. Badly enough to have to use a makeshift walking stick for the next couple of days.”

I tut-tutted, saying that it was hardly the behaviour expected of a devoted husband and father. This world may be a vale of tears, and we should be allowed to mitigate the pain in any way at our disposal, but I disapprove of excessive drunkenness, or behaviour that vexes the reasonable; and in fact I can tell you exactly the last time I got pickled in such a way as to be noticeable to the casual observer: it was on 16 May, when I met up with the old British Telecom gang, and if that is not an excuse to pluck the gowans fine and hear the chimes of midnight, then I don’t know what is. And all I did then was act a bit tiddly and goggle in temulent indecision over the display at the snack bar on the platform of Sloane Square Tube station.

Anyway, to return to my friend. I also wondered (for there was something in the way he had imparted this information that had rung a faint alarm bell) what this had to do with me.

“Surely,” I said, “your wife had something to say to you the morning after, if not that night?”

“No, it was fine,” he said. “I’d told her I was going out with you.”

The emphasis, one of those slight but subtle emphases that can so much change the meaning of a line of poetry, was, in case you were wondering, on the word “you”. Not – though I grant it would have made the beginning of a much funnier and more complex anecdote – on the word “out”.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Well, she was expecting the worst,” he said. “Pretty much anything short of a call from a police station at 3am was going to be acceptable.”

Hmm. It is one thing to have a reputation; it is another to have one that is undeserved. And it is a more complex thing to have a reputation that is undeserved and yet that one would be hard-pressed to refute should this kind of thing ever come up in a court of law. After all, is not this very column in part predicated on the idea that not only do I, too, behave in a fashion that is contrary to prevailing medical advice, but boast about it without apology or excuse?

But it’s not like that, not really. The censorious will always have the advantage over the do-what-thou-wilt. For example: everyone, even the dictionary, thinks “Epicurean” means “self-indulgent”, or something along those lines, a calumny that has been around ever since the pious needed a stick with which to beat the atheist Epicurus, whose actual idea of a blowout was a plate of olives and a few pieces of cheese. It was when he answered the question “Do the gods listen to our prayers?” with the words, “I don’t know, I’ve got more important things to think about,” that alarm bells started ringing and rumours began to be concocted; rumours still going strong over a millennium later.

As it happens, this evening I am meeting for dinner a man who has been on the wagon for nearly 20 years; and yet, such was his reputation, that it is only in the past five that people have begun to let the notion sink in that he isn’t sinking a bottle of whisky every afternoon or, in John Peel’s memorable phrase, rubbing heroin into the roots of his hair.

It’s so much easier to rely on hearsay rather than get yourself up to speed with the facts, isn’t it? The other day someone on The Archers had a Martini (an almost unbelievable event in its own right) and the phrase “shaken not stirred” was trotted out, perpetuating the entirely erroneous notion that this is how the cocktail should be prepared.

Meanwhile, all over London, men who should know better are going on the lash and then claiming that they’d been with me, simply in order to remove all notions of their own agency or responsibility.

Look, I like the idea that people think of me as a fun person whose personality is so strong that no one is able to put a hand over their glass when I’m pouring. But I really do wish you’d stop doing this, lads. One day, someone’s going to get hurt. 

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 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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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