The open fridge: We've all been there. Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images
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Late at night, in my dressing gown, I search the fridge for a piece of cheese and contemplate my fate

"I could be Nick Clegg". Nicholas Lezard sees desperation by the fridge light. 

It’s about 11 o’clock at night, I am deadly sober, and I am searching the fridge for cheese. This is not as easy or even as fun as it sounds. With a full compliment of people in residence in the Hovel, the fridge fills up fairly quickly, and things tend to accumulate. Largely this is my fault. Ever thrifty, or at least careful to economise where I can (that is, without doing anything crazy like giving up wine), I find it hard to throw away carcasses with some meat on the bone, rinds of Parmesan now solid as aeroplane chocks, mugs and jars filled with the fat rendered from roasted joints.

Even the remains of the Christmas goose are still around – admittedly, not in the fridge but double-wrapped in plastic bags on the table on the back terrace. Winter is a kind of fridge but by now this goose must be getting a bit ropey. What am I waiting for? For it to grow wings again and fly away south?

Back to the fridge: I am strangely relieved to note that there is a litre of soya milk that was never mine but has been there since before Christmas. Maybe the other inhabitants each think it belongs to the other. I am fairly sure no one thinks it’s mine. It doesn’t take a great deal of acquaintance for people to work out that I’m not a soya milk kind of person.

I find some Brie that is entering the so-so period of its existence; it would do, but what I want right now is hard cheese. I know I have some Cheddar uneaten in there that cannot have got mouldy yet. Briefly I entertain the suspicion that someone else has scoffed it but immediately dismiss it. If there is one thing life has taught me, it is that when something of mine goes missing, it is not because anyone else has nicked it or thrown it away by mistake, however pleasing to the indignation centre of the brain this is. It is because I have mislaid it.

So I rummage through the fridge’s packed, chaotic shelves, and think: I’m rummaging through a shared fridge in my dressing gown in the middle of the night, and I’m 51. Assuming I peg out around 75 – and with my lifestyle that’s a fairly generous estimate – that means I’m three-quarters of the way through existence. What have I got to show for it? Three great children and a pile of brown envelopes I am too terrified to a) open or b) throw away. That, and a phobia, quite well justified, as it turns out, of answering the phone unless the screen shows it is coming from a number already known to me.

Hard cheese, indeed.

A nearly full tub of Tesco Mascarpone and tomato sauce commits a felo de se by rolling off one of the shelves and landing on the floor. If it had landed on my foot that would have hurt. Also, by some miracle, the top stays on, so I do not have to spend another 20 minutes cleaning up, eating into my schedule.

So: things could be worse. I could be wrapped in sleeping bags and pissy newspapers in the Marylebone Road underpass. I could be looking forward to the next of my 50 lashes courtesy of the “government” of Saudi Arabia, as well as the rest of my life in the nick, just for pointing out a few flaws in the system.

I could be Nick Clegg.

See? There’s always a ray of sunshine when you look for it.

But somehow, in the still watches of the night, these arguments fail to console. My love life has gone quite spectacularly wrong, partly as a result of having made the cardinal mistake of trying to be decent, which, let me tell you, upsets everyone concerned and invariably lands you in the shit. I am writing this, as I mentioned in last week’s column, on a computer held together with Sellotape. Which isn’t even holding it together. I am seeking cheese in the middle of the night because I’ve been feeling peaky all day, and when that happens I always entertain the thought of dying in my room and no one finding out until the smell gets unbearable. And, as I have said, I have at most two and a half decades left to play with, and something tells me that when I look back on tonight, I will say to myself: those were the good days. C’est là ce que nous avons eu de meilleur.

I wonder: is this self-pity, depression, or just a good, hard look at the situation? People say the life unexamined is not worth living but I am beginning to wonder whether the opposite is true. Tomorrow, I vow, trudging up the stairs with a corner of slightly furry Brie, I am going to start drinking at six on the dot and not stop until I conk out.

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 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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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