Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Crescent Moon is Absent as the Sun Sets - Thoughts From Istanbul

I wish I could have got a better photo of the moonrise that night. It came up over the Bosphorus, blood red; mirroring the colours of the western sky as the sun died away. A beautiful end to a beautiful day.

I had just returned from my first trip into the centre of Istanbul, emerging at the local Metro station which sits at the top of a nearby hillside in the north-west of the city. I wandered through a local neighbourhood which had shown a bustling high street, quiet backways and the call to prayer echoing up from the valley below. I descended towards the water down steep slopes populated by stray dogs, wild cats and domesciled saloon cars from Central Europe, and along winding roads that snaked through the Mediterranean greenery. When, suddenly, it rose - not crescent but crimson.

The whole scene was so close to Provence that it might have just been another stretch of the coast down beyond Nice. Though, from space, the Bosphorus looks broadly straight, on ground level it seems to never stop curving and bending like the Riviera coast; every now and then giving way more drastically to create beautiful, blue bays - sometimes wide and sometimes narrow - with little marinas here and there, and always a seafood restaurant or ten going on as they always have done. "They've been here forever," my host tells me.

It is an area that lives off the water. You see it in the many men who can be found fishing from morning to night, or through the constant stream of container ships sailing north and south. They are strangely majestic through their ugliness: gliding serenely in the sunlight, or proceeding quietly and darkly in the night. They are constant but they do not detract from the beauty of the strait.  A local billionaire - who has made his money out of the often dubious real estate trade - scoffs at Brits who might compare the Bosphorus with the "shitty River Thames". He is quite right. Whereas no money on earth could induce me to take my chances in London's river, this waterway is so inviting that I would gladly take part in the Cross-Continental swim that happens in the summer (unfortunately, swimming is forbidden for the rest of the year owing to the strong currents and heavy traffic). The waters are clear and, just a short stretch of coast up from where I am staying, they meet the third of three mighty bridges traversing the Bosphorus. Beyond there, the blue water gives way to the Black Sea and beyond there... unhappier lands.

Or, perhaps, I am too quick in that comparison. Istanbul is vibrant, grand and hospitable, but it is one that shows its turbulent history visibly and tangibly.

Some cities are scarred. Take Berlin which, for all its grandeur, both new and old, bears a deep wound which is two bricks wide and runs through the middle of the city where the wall once stood, and it is left there as a lesion - a clear sign of where the city was marked by history. Istanbul has that too. Or, rather, should I say that Byzantium has it too? Or Constantinople? For this is a city that wears its scars beneath centuries-worth of plastic surgery.

As we all know - or as we all hope - time heals all wounds, and the oldest ones in this city are the best healed. The day of the moonrise, I climbed the Galata Tower which is nearly 1,500 years old. It was built by a Byzantine Emperor as a lighthouse. From it, you can see the all of the historic places. Chief among these is the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica which is roughly as old as Galata. In 1054, that holy sight was the place where the Christian church split between East and West. 400 years later, the Ottoman Mehmet II had conquered the city. The Hagia Sophia was changed from being the heart of the Greek Orthodox Church to a Mosque that was the crowning glory of the Ottoman Empire's conquests. It is there that one sees the cosmetic surgery that the city has been given. Old Orthodox mosaics of Christ and Mary have been revealed underneath the crumbling Islamic decorations that still cling on above. The sight is no longer used for worship. The politics are too intractable, and it is now a museum.

Meanwhile, the Galata Tower had been rebuilt by the Genoese and was called Christ Tower. By 1580 however, the tower was being used to detain "forza": the name for Christian POWs. From its giddy and unique perspective, that building saw some of the greatest divisions and bloodshed that religion ever engendered. What pain must this city have endured?

Then, when the Ottoman Empire fell and Ataturk eventually succeeded not as an Emperor but as a President, Turkey began a new age, but a far from settled one. A man on my plane from London said that Ataturk was "more than a prophet to the Turks". The new Republic's first President introduced sovereignty of the people, secularism, the Latin alphabet and surnames - his own meaning "Father of the Turks". However, he did not introduce a modern democracy, and whilst the will of the ballot box has steadily gained respect, the "state" of Turkey has remained a battleground of competing institutions that are frequently opposed to each other. For instance, whilst Turkey has been governed by numerous governments of different colours, many of them have been overthrown by an army which often sees itself as the true guardians of the secular Turkey. The most recent such attempt was last summer, when the army vainly sought to remove President Erdogan.

However, perhaps they were not mistaken in standing up for the secularism that so many Turks hold so dear. Though he would deny that he is doing so, the current President is threatening that national character. Recep Tayip Erdogan is a uniquely successful politician, and his sense of the mood of the people is unparalleled. When he was running for Mayor of Istanbul in 1994, he was caught in a scandal - he had built houses without planning permission. At a debate, he was challenged on this and asked if he would destroy illegal housing. He did some straight-talking, honest politics and said "No, I live in illegal housing." Those who study Turkish elections have a clear consensus: this served to help Erdogan. Why? Because many citizens also lived in illegal housing, and others didn't care.

Erdogan's Islamist, socially conservative, Justice and Develoment Party (AK) speaks for many of the traditional Muslims, especially from the country's more rural areas. Erdogan champions "traditional Muslim values" and (whilst he is seemingly keen on joining the EU), he is not so keen on Western ways. For instance, although alcohol remains legal, it is illegal to advertise alcoholic beverages. It should also be noted that Erdogan has a terrible attitude towards freedom of speech and the press, but this doesn't make him unique amongst his predecessors. This is a country where it is a crime to insult Turkishness and, throughout the history of the Republic, journalists have frequently been tried and media outlets closed by a vengeful state.

Erdogan is mercurial. Across his fifteen years of dominance in Turkish politics, he has at times seemed like the hope for secular liberalism. Now, however, he is anything but. Come Monday morning, he may be the most powerful President in Turkey since Ataturk. The referendum this weekend could abolish the role of Prime Minister and install President Erdogan as Head of State and Government. The role of Parliament will be greatly reduced - they will not even have that most basic of parliamentary rights: control of the budget. In terms of reform, it seems close to the ones enacted by President Medvedev so that Valdimir Putin could resume his position as the ruler of Russia.

Such a move seems thoroughly un-Western. Certainly, it will serve to immobilise Erdogan's ambitions to join the EU, though many speculate that he has never had any intention of joining. The theory is rather, that he uses the hope of doing so as a political tool: he pleases liberals by saying that he wants to join, and then berates the West for stringing Turkey along when it suits him, to the delight of traditionalists. Erdogan's large support seems likely to translate into a referendum victory but (like all the fashionable referenda of this day and age) it looks like it could be tight. Many are wary of the fundamental change this might make to Turkey's character.

From this outsider's perspective, it seems to jar most keenly with the character of Istanbul, which is overwhelmingly a city of the West. This may not seem immediately apparent. English speakers are hard to come by, and the language itself - whilst not a million miles away from continental tongues - is from a totally different family. Whereas in Spain, Italy and even Germany, a native English speaker would have a good chance of deciphering a sign, here you have no touchstones that you can use. As you wander through the landscapes of the suburbs, you are immediately struck by how many minarets you can see. Mosques are alien to a Westerner's eye and they sprout out of the landscape on either side of the Bosphorus like dandelions out of grass. They are beautiful, and your eye is immediately drawn to them. I wondered whether - if I paid attention to how many spires there are in London - I might discover that churches are as ubiquitous at home. My suspicion is that I would not, but of one thing I am sure: whereas Mosques continue to proliferate here, we are not building new churches at home.

But beyond all of this superficiality, on the ground and in the centre of this place, this city harkens to the West. There is a grand financial district that has been copied and pasted from London or Frankfurt or Paris. Think of that island of skyscrapers you can see from the Eiffel Tower - that is what we get in Istanbul.

Meanwhile, the city itself continues that Mediterranean theme. There are times that you could be in a Tuscan town if it weren't for the undulating, urban thrum that accompanies every breath of the town. There are cobbled streets, shaded alleyways, shops that are dedicated to selling the craftwork of the artisan and, despite the disapproval of Mr Erdogan, there are bars. They are not regular, and in the suburbs it is rare to see wine or beer being drunk. However, more people than not drink the local tipple - Rakı - a softer version of absinthe, served with still water and ice. Nevertheless, you can be surprised by the sights you see in the watering holes and eateries. I had not really thought about what I had expected from the drinking culture here, but I never expected to see a Muslim woman drinking a hard-earned Guinness at the end of a day; good things come to those who have had enough of rakı. And then, talking of Western extravagances, I encountered in the suburbs a truly stunning thing - a genuine E-Type Jaguar. If that was not enough, the next car along was a vintage Ferrari. What is more than this, they prove to be utterly civilised by standing on the right of escalators, and doing so far better than Londoners do. The people of Istanbul would fit into any European city with consummate ease, and you sense that their compass pulls them away from the East.

But then, of course, the East is another country. On the other side of this nation, there are the terrible forces of division, war and racism. Syrians pour over the border to refugee camps that (whilst they are made to look like a Holiday Inn in comparison to Calais' jungle) are straining with the pressure. Tensions with the Kurds have rarely been higher - and that really is saying something. The whole picture is a world away from this metropolis that is so comfortable in its modern and peaceful ways that we have the time to spend hours in traffic jams.

Turkey has always been a bridge between two worlds and something of a misfit. We don't know whether to be welcoming or wary, and Turkey itself is torn between the Islamic world and the European. All of which underlines that this country is a key, strategic ally.

Which makes Sunday's referendum all the more troubling. One can see Erdogan's personal conflict - he is not your typical megalomaniac. His family comes from the country's East (though he was born in Istanbul, he regularly returns to the the family home and has opened a Mosque there) and, in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, he represents a large number of conservative Muslims for whom assimilation to the West is terrifying. But there is more at stake here than such fears. An Evet (yes) vote on Sunday will make this country very distant from Europe. Meanwhile, Mr Erdogan's roots as a champion of Islamic values have been trampled under the weight of his ego. His poster adorns the city and his is the biggest cult of personality since Ataturk's. Erdogan appears to be to Turkey and its Republican history what a stray dog is to Istanbul. You see him everywhere, and he is shitting on everything.

So, this land stands on another historical turning point. Though I began writing this on my second full night here, I end it on my last at the Suleyman Mosque - the most majestic and stunning of Istanbul's grand places of worship - and it is bathed in light at the dying of the day. I sip my chai and stare out across to the Golden Horn and to the Galata Tower, and then to the Bosphorus and beyond to Asia. The light is turning from orange again, and any moment now the red moon will rise once more. And it shall be strange and fearsome and grand. But it only rises when the sun is setting.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Films of 2015

Given that it is the end of the year, and it is the season of self-indulgence, and I like writing lists, I have written a Films of 2015 list.

This is not a list of what I think to be the undisputedly "Best" films of the year (I haven't seen nearly enough films in order to do that). Rather, these are the films I saw this year which I would recommend most. 

10. Bridge of Spies – in the hands of any other director and actor, this would have been merely solid. However, this is a really-good thriller with an old-fashioned feel. It doesn't quite reach the heady heights of some of Spielberg's similar works, but Hanks is on top form with a funny and intriguing script. Good turn from Mark Rylance in this tale of the importance of every individual's rights.
9. Steve Jobs – a witty and interesting look at the enigmatic man behind a corporate personality cult. Uneven though it was, it is one of the most intelligent films you’ll ever see and when it hits top gear it is electric.
8. Selma – A powerful film on MLK, with a spellbinding performance from David Oyelowo. It tells an important story well without much bombast.
7. Carol – a beautiful and tender portrait of forbidden love that is played so perfectly by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Todd Haynes gives it a visual flair (all reflections in windows and glances through thick plumes of cigarette smoke) and evokes the 50s period with delicacy.
6. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – J.J. Abrams saves the franchise and gives it heart and soul and a new lease of life. If you’ve been hitherto unconvinced by Star Wars, then this is the one to transport you to that galaxy far, far away.
5. The Lady in the Van – brilliant comic filmmaking, driven by Maggie Smith’s knockout performance and Alex Jennings terrific incarnation as two sides of Alan Bennett. Bennett’s script is as poignant as it is hilarious.
4. Brooklyn – a lovely, lovely film about love, family and home. Saoirse Ronan delivers a thoroughly deft performance in this emotionally honest elegy which beautifully moves from comedy to tragedy to hide-behind-your-hands emotional drama.
3. Inside Out – the only imperfection with this film is that it isn’t really for its young audience. I cried like a child, but no child could understand why. Heart-breaking and wise – this will nevertheless be vitally important for slightly older children. A work of heart and genius.
2. The Martian – I can rarely remember a more joyous experience. I certainly cried once from pure joy during the "Starman" sequence. A whip-crackingly quick script, Ridley Scott producing all of his visual flair and Matt Damon being magnificent as the lead of a great cast. It never dropped its energy or its imagination, and had me enraptured from start to finish. What more can one reasonably ask of the cinema?
1. Whiplash – a near-perfect little film. Pumped with French Connection-esque adrenaline, tension and magnetism, this has the sheer cinematic energy you’d expect from an action film. But it’s a film about men sitting in a room playing drums. It’s an extraordinary achievement that thrills, terrifies and exhilarates from the first percussive beat to the last. Miles Teller is a revelation, but J.K. Simmons is a master.

(And two to look out for that haven’t yet come out on general release)
High-Rise – A bizarre and unsettling film about social collapse, where every inch of every frame appears to have been meticulously and beautifully designed.

Trumbo – A very timely film about the screenwriter who was blacklisted during the days of McCarthyism. It tells the story with oodles of wit and charm, and doesn’t beat you over the head with its message. Features a terrific big screen turn from Bryan Cranston.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

NByNW Diary: Bidding Process to host EU Referendum Result "Mired in Secrecy"

10th December
Manchester has the won the not-so-much coveted right to host the result of the EU referendum. The Electoral Commission announced the news this morning, but has attracted criticism for not holding a formal bidding process and there are even accusations of corruption.
No sooner had the EC announced the decision, then Cornwall announced that they were launching a probe into possible corruption, using a legal team drawn from their large French population.
“It is highly suspicious,” said the Mayor of Truro, who had led their David-versus-Goliath bid to host the result. “There’s been no transparency in this. What has Manchester got that Truro hasn’t?”
The Electoral Commission says that the decision was made after much consideration and has nothing to do with throwing yet another bone to the publicity machine behind the idea of a Northern Powerhouse.
The decision has drawn much interest from international figures. Seb Coe said that he was sure that the bids were considered properly, although there doesn’t seem to be much evidence supporting that view.
International expert on secretive bidding processes Sepp Blatter said “The Electoral Commission was in a battle between the devil and the angels, and I have no doubt that the authorities have sided with the angels. In this case, the angels of Manchester. If anything, their bidding process has not been secretive enough.”


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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

NByNW Diary: Statement on Preventing Donalds Immigrating

Tuesday 8th December
North by N. Westminster is calling for a total and complete shutdown on people called Donald entering the United Kingdom until our representatives can figure out what the hell is going on. According to the weary anger on social media, there is a lot of discontent towards one man called Donald, and we see no reason why we shouldn’t judge the entire group of people called Donald on the basis of the actions of one rambling extremist who preaches hate, prejudice and in favour of bombing.

In a statement, we said “Without looking into the issue in any great detail, it is obvious that the racist rhetoric of all Donalds is incomprehensible. Where this lunacy comes from and why we will have to determine. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victim of the stupefyingly damaging and batshit crazy comments from people that believe only in simple blanket answers to complex questions, and have no sense of reason or respect for human diversity, human harmony or human hair.


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Friday, December 4, 2015

NByNW Diary: UKIP's Implications Leave us Little Room to Infer

Friday 4th December
1.00am
In the end, it wasn’t a catastrophe for Labour. Not even close. Jim McMahon held Michael Meacher's long-held seat of Oldham West and Royton comfortably with a majority of 10,811 (given the reduction in turnout, that’s broadly the same result as in May 2015).
This was contrary to the reports which had been put about by many of the perennial arms of the Murdoch and Right Wing Press, namely The Guardian and The New Statesman.
Ultimately, no-one expected Labour to lose, but no-one can use this result (as they expected to be able to) to claim that Jeremy Corbyn is a doomed prospect.
However, UKIP will use any fact to prove anything, and what this result apparently shows is that a bunch of people who look different have imposed their will on people who don’t look different. If UKIPers get upset with me when they infer that that was what I thought their Deputy Leader Paul Nuttall was implying when he said that Labour had engaged in “dangerous identity politics”, then let me say that he implied and I inferred. And I inferred from his implications that the phrase "identity politics" was undoubtedly attempting to divide people on the grounds of race. Which is, if I am right in this assessment, entirely shit.
Furthermore, Mr Farage says that the Postal Vote was bent. He claims this comes from an impeccable source. Easy to tweet, but you better substantiate it you frog-faced divisor.

Have I got it wrong? If so, please explain to me how? I’d so hate to think you’re bigots simply because you’d left some grey area on that matter. I normally like my non-bigots to be unequivocally non-bigots, and explicitly non-bigots. But, you know, maybe that’s too much for me to expect from a 21st century multicultural democracy.

P.S. If you didn't want me to misinterpret, you might have tried speaking clearly rather than insinuating. After all, if you're not bigots, why would you feel the need to obfuscate.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

NByNW Diary: Hilary Benn's Mysterious Phone Call

Thursday 3rd December
6.00am
Hilary Benn wakes up. Same time as he does every day. Nothing feels any different from any other day.
6.01am
Hilary Benn’s phone rings. He answers
“Hampsted 001138, Benn Household, Mr Benn speaking.”
“Is it safe?” says the posh voice on the other end of the line.
“I hope so,” says Mr Benn. “I’m still in my pyjamas”.
“You cannot know who I am.”
“You sound like Tristram Hunt.”
“No, no. I’m definitely not him.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” said Mr Benn, putting his trade mark specs on.
“I am a member of the insurgency.”
“Insurgency?” asked Hilary.
“Against Jeremy Corbyn.”
“I thought he was the insurgency.”
“We’re the insurgency against the insurgency,” said the posh voice.
“That’s rather confusing. Like a party with a leader and foreign secretary with completely different foreign policies.”
“Okay. We’re like the rebellion in Star Wars.”
“Don’t let a Corbynista hear you say that,” warned Mr Benn. “They’ll beat you to death with a plastic lightsabre.”
“The point is – we’re trying to save the Labour party from Corbyn.”
“Oh, but he’s a decent man and he has a mandate,” said Mr Benn.
“No! Hilary – your speech last night. It’s changed the way people see you. People are talking of you as a future leader. A future Prime Minister.”
“Oh – I’m not interested in that. I just want to do my job and my duty and then come home and cook excellent vegetarian food, washed down with ginger beer.”
“No!” said the voice once more. “It has to be you.”
“Look, last night I just spoke from my conscience and said what I thought was right.”
“Yes, and it was the first time a Labour moderate did that since Robin Cook. It was electrifying.”
“I just want to go and have my Corn Flakes and go to work.”
“Look – when Corbyn speaks from his conscience, all of his fans think that he’s some kind of vegan, atheist Jesus. When one of us speaks from his conscience, the Corbynistas think that we’re evil, agnostic Jesus. But you could be different.”
“I want an atmosphere of free debate and to work with the elected leader of the Labour Party.”
“Fine!” shouted the angry voice. “Do you not want power?”
“No.”
“Oh,” replied the other voice, audibly shocked. “Really? I don’t understand.”
“I just spoke my mind not because I wanted to advance my career but because I thought it was right. You’d think that a supporter of Corbyn would admire that.”
“You think they might?” asked the voice.
“I hope they will,” said Benn.
“Good luck with that.”

Our preview of today's Oldham West and Royton By-Election is here:

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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

NByNW Diary: Benn Steals the Day by Opposing a Bennite

Wednesday 2nd December
It has been the sort of day which encapsulates the best and worst of our democracy.
The best in that the most important issue of all – the matter of war and peace – was openly discussed in great depth and at great length.
The worst in that those who made mistakes in the heat of the moment were too proud to apologise for it.
Last night, the Prime Minister let his legendary temper get the better of him and said to those Tory backbenchers who were going to vote against military action in Syria that they would be voting with (amongst others) “terrorist sympathisers”. It was insulting and unstatesmanlike, and at the start of today’s epic debate he attempted to play down the scandal, but like a child who was being told to say sorry for something he didn’t feel sorry about, David Cameron did not apologise.
Then 10 hours of debate followed. Numerous speeches were excellent. Both for and against. Yvette Cooper, Margaret Beckett, Andrew Tyrie, Sir Alan Duncan, Angus Roberston all excelled themselves, to name but a few. Hell, even Tim Farron rose to the occasion. In contrast, David Cameron was hampered by his outburst the previous evening, and Jeremy Corbyn was halting and lacking in coherence.
However, like many a Shakespearean drama, the best moment came from the subplot, which has been about the Labour party and the divisions within it. It was encapsulated when Hilary Benn stood up to speak against his leader’s position.

Benn’s famous father Tony may not have delivered the speech that his son did tonight, but he was somehow, seminally present. His son stood up for what he believed. He spoke with passion and verve and if you closed your eyes just a bit you could have seen his progenitor in the mannerisms and gesticulations that he used. When talking of the “fascists” of Daesh who hold everyone else in contempt, he produced a grand sweep of his arm as he pointed to every member of the House. It was a Bennite expression, and will live long in the memory.
Hilary Benn’s speech was about the matter at hand and he made a clear case. But the speech was also about the soul of the Labour party. His leader sat grim-faced behind him, and he got grimmer and grimmer as Benn’s rhetoric soared and drew purrs of approval from the opposition benches behind. It spoke of Labour’s role in founding the UN, in being a party of internationalism. It was not just opposed to his leader’s view on Syria, but to his leader’s foreign policy almost entirely.
As Daniel Finkelstein noted this morning, after the 1970 election defeat his father asked Harold Wilson whether he still had to speak with the opinion of the Shadow Cabinet. Today, his son took on that spirit but the irony of all ironies is this: Hilary Benn tried to reclaim the soul of the Labour party from a Bennite.
His speech was greeted with applause (unparliamentary, but allowed by the fastidious Speaker Bercow), and cries of “outstanding”. His opposite number, Philip Hammond, called it one of the great speeches. When he sat down next to Jeremy Corbyn the tension was palpable. John McDonnell looked crestfallen. The speech of the day had been given in opposition to their position and by their own Foreign Secretary.
Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, to see someone to speak with such passion and energy and conviction and good conscience and import in such extraordinary circumstances is the true celebration of what our Mother of all Parliaments gives a platform for.
The votes began and a hush descended before the result was announced. The motion was carried by 397 to 223: a majority of 174. The word was that 15 Labour waverers were swayed by Benn.
A severe moment, and it is worth echoing the words of Toby Perkins (Labour, Chesterfield) from the debate: “I envy those who describe this choice as a “no brainer”… It’s not been obvious to me, it’s been very, very difficult indeed.” He voted against military action.