Istanbul is full of surprises

 Posted by at 1:54 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Nov 302006

So here in front of our very eyes – ‘We are lowered into it, we listen.‘ – there was THIS shoe-shining event taking place (see yesterday’s photo in the post ‘Definitely out of Order’)).

In the context of asking Uncle Walter (see yesterday’s post – ‘Definitely out of Order’) about what to do about righting the wrongs, either of a fob-watch being broken by a twelve year old boy, or over two millenia of slavery in the Mediterranean; first about the man doing the shoe-shining. Let me say right away the Turkish people are enormously proud of their Army and their miltary traditions, and have successively beaten the S*** out of:

1. Byzantium – culminating in the ‘Great Miracle’ of the Conquest of Constantinople in 1453

2. The British – at the great repulse of Gallipoli

and in more recent times…

3. during the partition of Cyprus – despite the current EU impasse

4. and the Kurds in eastern Turkey – up to the present day

For instance, walking in Istanbul an hour earlier, we had heard a drone that gradually overcame all other noises in the City, and had looked up and seen a flight of five military helicopters in perfect formation, like gigantic bees passing overhead. And we had walked among many men whose height accorded with the opinion given by Major Lowe writing in 1801 that the Turks were – ‘invariably men of large stature who appeared to look down on us’ [quoted in Fit for Service: the Training of the British Army, 1715-1795, J A Houlding (Oxford 1981)]

And women too.

But Uncle Walter was not tall. Nor was he an effeminate man. One should add that. As regards the heavily muscled Uncle Walter, short in height as compared to most men but a ship’s stoker, it would never have been wise to make jokes about or insinuate an effeminancy (or humourous insults of that kind, made perhaps in the tradition of the common ‘Islamicist’ cultural sneer frequently adopted in the past by British and other writers in the West – about the effeminacy of the East, and of the Ottoman in particular – and exposed to such great effect in the writings of Edward Said). Walking in Istanbul we had seen few if any effeminate men, and Uncle Walter I wish to repeat the fact was not effeminate.

Nor of course was Uncle Walter actually the man shoe-shining the woman’s boots, such a coincidence would have been too far-fetched. But let me say again, Turkish men with their long  military traditions, are not used to being in this position. This was an uncommon occurrence, but not exceptional… for instance in the photograph, the man on the pavement walking past appeared indifferent.

In Istanbul women may broadly go and do as they please. Most do so with some restraint, some wear Islamic styles of clothing, some wear western, but clothes exposing nakedness are not to be seen. There is also a refreshing absence of sexually-orientated advertising, so that after a few days in the City, to suddenly see a bus shelter with a huge poster of a deep bronzed woman advertising suntan lotion caused me to remark about it. I noted in that respect how calm I had become in Istanbul, and this in contrast to the continual assaults on the senses and attempts at inducing sexual excitement made by so much advertising in London and the West.

So the surprise in the first instance was not one based on a sexual charge. It was the surprise of juxtapositions, immediately after the meeting with the super-charged Uncle Walter, and the physicality of his ship-stoker’s wisdom, that of immediately meeting this other kind of powerful wisdom. How to describe it? She was attractive, but her appearance to a contemporary western eye was in certain respects out of place and strangely old-fashioned. The focus of this wisdom was all on the shine itself, the delicacy of the high-heel boot being balanced on the wooden block, and the humility of the man as he crouched over attending to his brushes. The attraction was in the being looked down upon; this other super-charged wisdom of how somebody is put in their place; this other way of righting the wrongs.

Her face of course is hidden and her name, as it must be, remains unknown.



 Posted by at 11:30 am  Atelier, IN Conversation  Comments Off
Nov 302006

I went to see the film Zidane the other evening. The subtitle, A 21st Century Portrait gives the clue that it’s a film we might see, at the National Portrait Gallery (as was the film of Beckham sleeping–perhaps still is) or Tate Modern, as video art. Equally it might also have been seen on television within the remit of nature or wild life tv.

It’s not often that I have the sense of seeing “life” so evident in a human being without the mediation or protection of masks. The word pure comes to mind. Unmediated life: the physical, the emotional, intentionality, drive, thought. From brutal killer, to tragic hero, to vulnerability, even humour (that was a surprise–I smiled with him).

The football was in a way irrelevant–here was a portrait of what it is to live through the “game”, the “war” with him.

As I thought about it, I came to my image, my sense of Christ and the form of words that the early Church Fathers came to in their (admittedly very difficult) concept of Christ as being fully human and fully God; fully incarnated and fully spirit.

Here was a portrait that gives a taste of what was being described.


Matters arising

 Posted by at 8:25 pm  Atelier, ON the STREET  Comments Off
Nov 292006

Gone Cold

By two o’clock the body-thing’s gone cold;
Chilled stillness of the morning’s wordwork.
Looking out for real live people:
Lover/café/chat–the buzz of game-for-anything eyes.

Mind you the lover’s long since disappeared down the rain soaked street
Only a few ghostly reflections
Smudges on corners
The singsong tone of her laughter

Hanging in the frail air, snagged on bare winter branches.
For a moment I could have sworn she was wearing yellow
But that can’t be right. By the way do ghosts get things mixed-up?
Forget the part they’re supposed to be playing?

Particles, it occurs to me, lead a charmed existence
Details just so, bright and bushy tailed immortals
Highly structured, wild and free
And as formless as the smoke rising

From that Chinese woman’s cigarette. She reminds me
I could fall in love at the drop of a hat; machinery’s functioning well enough
Though I can’t find that vital je ne sais quoi–
Robbed blind, I shouldn’t wonder, something slipped into my drink.

Alan Kirby
November 2006

“Definitely out of order”

 Posted by at 1:00 pm  Atelier, ON the STREET  Comments Off
Nov 292006

The facts were these: a wrong had been done, concerning an object, following which to a certain extent matters had been taken in hand and retribution meted out, quite violently too. But the broken object itself had been hidden and it was therefore unrestored. The record therefore might say that it was broken beyond recovery.

About History :

….. And breaking up in the sun.

The sun whispers into a microphone under the ice.

There’s a seething and burbling. Far out it sounds like a sheet being snapped.

And the whole thing is like History: our present. We are lowered into it, we listen.

Tomas Transtromer wrote this whole poem about it. I’d recommend it.

The object in one instance was a watch, an old-fashioned watch and chain, one of the old wind-up ones with a chain that could be fastened through a waistcoat button hole, and the watch slipped into the waistcoat pocket, and then periodically examined in the palm of the hand. An ancestral time-piece,  it was the kind of watch that was traditionally handed on, father to son, although after the last war they were mostly being replaced by the wrist watch, and the custom was dying out. Nevertheless, for a 12 year old boy to steal it from a friend’s house was a serious matter, and then later on walking in the street to show it to his friend with a sly look, swinging the father’s watch on its chain in front of the son’s face, was asking for trouble. The conversion that made menace visible, what happened next remains locked in the CONFIDENTIAL files. – "Somehow one had to live alongside the shame" ak recently wrote in his post on some aspects of his Family History the other day.

The object in another instance is much bigger, the Mediterranean Sea. AboutTHIS sea, I was reading – ‘… Barbary appalled because its corsairs converted the sea from an emblem of commerce, freedom, power and proud British identity, into a source of menace and potential slavery’. [Captives, Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850, Linda Colley, London 2002]. The conversion that made menace visible, ships that stole ‘our boys and girls’ (it was mostly boys, but a few girls were also take), from both within the Mediterranean Sea itself and abroad as far as the coastal villages of the West of England and Ireland, over a two hundred year period, and a retribution that began in 1816 when the British Navy undertook a sustained bombardment of the city of Algiers from the sea. What happened next remains locked in THIS sea, distinct from the wider oceans of the minds and myths of empire makers, and the histories, ancient and modern, of Slavery and of Islam: aboutTHIS sea – "Somehow one had to live alongside the shame".

The conversion that made a menace visible. Or the changes, (as I quoted in an earlier post) when it is asked – ‘ What does it mean to say that a place underwent a change from being pagan to being Christian, or from being Christian to being Muslim?’. AboutTHIS sea, and Istanbul.

Here on the streets of Istanbul. I desperately wanted to speak to ak’s Uncle Walter again. Because my inclination was to side with those who undertook instant retribution, and I was confident that he would know exactly what to do about these wrongs that were in South London speak – "Definitely out of order". Uncle Walter would know what to do; neither the choice of swords, as the South London gangster Kreay brothers had used in the 1950′s in London; nor the level of atrocities undertaken by Balkan Nationalists, the echoes of Serbian violence that we had seen – We are lowered into it, we listen - a few day’s earlier in Belgrade; but a ship stoker’s wisdom, full of muscularity and coal fires, super-charged.

Imagine my surprise when, here on the streets of Istanbul, this is what I saw next:Autumn2006pics_045_1


“a Mediterranean… phenomenon”

 Posted by at 5:57 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Nov 282006

About THIS sea, and the power to cross it. The thought I had just had that Uncle Walter might have crossed the Mediterranean several times as a stoker on cargo ships, and already visited Istanbul before. But he had already been lost to view down the sidestreet where he had disappeared, so there was no chance of asking him myself.

- In those conditions what provided you with the power to go on? I wanted to ask him. About making the crossings of THIS sea: or "a Mediterranean… phemonenon" as I had heard it called by Abdallah Laroui [Pp244, The History of the Mahgrib: an Interpretive Essay, Princeton NJ, 1977]. Abdallah Laroui had said that captive-taking and slave-making was universal, "a Mediterranean… phenomenon", and not just the well-known activity of the Sultans of Istanbul. All the nations of the Sea had engaged in slave-making, those of the West, those of the North, and those of the East, and the many islands contained within the Sea, as well as the corsairs and ships operating out of the Muslim countries of North Africa; and the visitors from beyond had engaged in it too, Norman Dukes, Knights of St John, the ships of the Dutch Republic, and those of the British crown; even the Americans during later times.Autumn2006pics_092

About THIS Sea: leaving Istanbul two days later, I was to have the opportunity of crossing the Mediterranean myself and experiencing the characteristic of the waves; of the waves that built the great African city of Leptis Magna for the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus; of the waves that built the great Palace of Diocletian at Split on the Adriatic coast; of the universal waves that constructed the protecting walls of Constantinople and Aghia Sophia, and the waves that had come before and the waves that came after when it became Istanbul; the uneasy phenomenon of the waves, and the power that made slaves.

Uncle Walter of course had made his Mediterranean crossings as a free man, shoveling coal by his own free will, not as a slave. But as a stoker he knew how to measure the power of human muscle to drive a ship accross these waves, an intimate knowledge of the pains of it. And when his nephew ak posted about his ‘shame’ in the recent CONFIDENTIAL file, I thought of slavery and slaves and similar muscular pains nonetheless.

And that we needed to find Uncle Walter again.


Uncle Walter

 Posted by at 12:04 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Nov 282006

I was first introduced to Uncle Walter walking in the crowd on the wide pavement of the road leading back to Aghia Sophia in Istanbul. He was a short man, and was wearing a blue sailor’s cap, under which his hair was still thick, but flecked with grey.  His neck was sun bronzed and seen from behind, which is how ak first pointed him out to me, the thickness of his neck and the broadness of his shoulders and upper body were accentuated by the broad check shirt he was wearing. – Heavily muscled, I thought, like a weightlifter. – He was a stoker in the Merchant Navy, ak told me.Autumn2006pics_044_1

He had the body of a man used not only to sustained physical effort, but also to working in the heat, shoveling coal into the fires of steam turbine boilers, so that ships could run and trade could be carried over the seas. -  Stoking fires, and he had a fiery temprament to match, ak warned me. – Difficult to get to know, I thought. Irrascible, but a good man to have on your side in a tight corner.

He turned to walk down a side street, and as we allowed him to become separated from us in the crowd, he became almost lost to view.

I wondered what routes he had sailed, and how often he had come accross the Mediterranean Sea here to Istanbul.


Raw Materials

 Posted by at 10:36 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Nov 272006

How to use the raw materials of walking and talking and writing:

1) Find space inside the parallax of views

2) Make a mark on the paper

3) Watch

4) Watch some more

5) Take note of what emerges

6) Talk about it, reflect on it, go for a walk

7) Make another mark on the paper

And in the mirror . . .

 Posted by at 3:11 pm  Atelier, IN Conversation  Comments Off
Nov 252006

Of course, a couple of days after remarking on the style of Serbian men, it becomes apparent that a mirror is being held up, inviting me to look into it. Oh yeah, there I am, and there’s somebody behind me waving a piece of paper around, actually it’s more of a file, and it’s marked in big bold letters: CONFIDENTIAL.
Is nothing sacred?
My ‘fight to see’ is modified by shame: look, but deny it; look, but don’t look too closely; look, but don’t join up the dots.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Secret pages on sale in Istanbul

How did my Uncle Walter get into all this?
I remember revealing to mmj, as we walked down the street we came to call the spine of that segment of Istanbul, (turn right or left and descend to either the Golden Horn or the Sea of Marmara), returning from “danger” near the City Walls, that he was stoker on ships during WW2, later a stoker in power stations. Short and burly, given to imflammatory talk and much humour. He and my Dad used to go to watch Crystal Palace play. Never me, though I do remember (when I was about 12) going to Crystal Palace V Chelsea–I didn’t like footbal anyway and I was no good at it which must have been a great disappointment to my father. My father, football enthusiast and who may have been good enough to be considered for a chance as a professional when he was fifteen, had been a fire fighter in London during the War, more peaceable, more given to reason than Walter’s hot-headed retorts. One lighting the fires, the other putting them out.

Who could I turn to for help? No brother, and not my father, it would seem; nor as it happens Walter or the other brothers–all locked into worlds that I didn’t understand and there was no available evidence that they could see me–in order to mitigate my shame.
Somehow one had to live alongside the shame.
Talking to a friend on Thursday afternoon about Serbian men. She had her experience these recent years of meeting with groups of women in Bosnia: she wondered about what the Serbian men had done to women . . .

My shame was of not being ‘big enough’ to deal honourably with situations of conflict.
I lead with shame, Serbian men appear to lead with their honour, out front, so to speak.