Writer’s diary: 27.12.2013
They grant crucifix carrying Christians Christmas day off where I work. When I say grant, it is with the same level of compassion and tolerance one might expect on swimming into a famished great white shark expecting twins. So, on Christmas eve I stood in line with the other shameless foreigners (Amish, Protestants, Mormons, Jehovahs, Creationists and the like – desperate to humiliate ourselves and betray our belief systems for a day off – and presented my tin-foil crucifix – retrieved from the back of my desk drawer where it was discarded this time last year, bent back into shape and buffed up on my tie – and after ‘proving’ my faith, had my pass stamped. I’m glad I wasn’t after a Jewish holy day off. The way the rubber stamp was brought down on the desk would have brought tears to my eyes, at best, stitches at worst.
As the rest of the household in which I find myself trapped (surely living in marital bliss? Ed) were to be engaged in normal everyday activities – going to work, going to school, going to hell – I had promised myself a quiet day at home editing and working on one of the fourteen novels I currently have under construction (variety is the price a struggling author with a multiple personality complex must pay for his art). However, when I whispered my plans for the big day at the workplace urinals I was chastised for not doing something special with that thing which is locally judged worth more than its weight in unicorn semen – a day off.
And so it was that trudging home from work on Christmas eve in the seasonal dusk, stepping carefully over and around the islands of faeces left by the stray dog population of this fair city – like a blindfolded man might navigate his way through a field full off turnips and landmines; keeping my eyes peeled for the occasional motorcyclist who views the pavements as just another lane for traffic; averting my eyes from the arithmetically challenged blind woman selling home-knitted pullovers (one can have too many three-armed jumpers. The novelty does wear off, I can assure you) I decided to indeed treat myself to a day’s sightseeing. The editing, like fixing the broken toilet flush and doing the washing up, could wait another day. And it is, I understand, important for writers to get out and about: observe, soak up atmospheres, experience life so that we might write about it with some authenticity. In other words, any excuse for a bit of procrastination. Ahem.
The weather on the 25th of December in Istanbul was sunny and after the early morning chill dissipated a pleasant warmth pervaded in the metropolis.
For a Christmas treat I decided to take myself up the Bosphorus. When I say ‘take myself up the Bosphorus’ I mean go for a tour up that ancient waterway that cleaves in two the city once known as Constantinople. (It is a common euphemism in these parts that taking someone, or even oneself, up the Bosphorus refers to a rather sordid and depraved pastime punishable by public stoning. Something Sid James might be scripted to remark to Kenneth Williams as the latter contorted his features and camped it up accordingly.)
I had a truly splendid day out. It’s always just as pleasurable to experience Istanbul in all its challenging nakedness as it is wonderful to get away from everyone I know for a day. The cherry on top was my visit to the Kucuksu Palace. See here if you care. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%BC%C3%A7%C3%BCksu_Palace
For five lire (less than £2) I had the place to myself. It’s beautiful and stunning in its decadent opulence. It’s perched on the Asian shoreline of the Bosphorus amid peaceful surroundings and with a stunning view of the water, the regular shipping, the second of the cities huge suspension bridges and the ancient fortifications on the opposite European bank. As a scribbler of fiction, however, all I could think about was writing a story where it got burgled by a gang of international art thieves who used the Bosphorus as their getaway route. Alas, such is the curse of the writer, I guess.
But Istanbul is not a limitless bowl of cherries for all who call it home. I saw many sad sights on my travels. And they weren’t all staring blankly back at me from over-sized shop windows. Much deprivation and degradation, much suffering and want, much need and squalor, much disrepair and despondency. As I strolled the back streets of the shoreline enclaves being pursued by cold and hungry street dogs sensing an easy meal (that’ll teach me to wear shorts in a built up area in winter with legs that look like leftover chicken drumsticks from a Boxing day buffet) my day out put me in mind of a poem by that great man himself Mr Kipling – he of the manufacture and purveying of specialised tarts and fancies (he’d have had stiff competition from the fancy tarts in this city). As I sit and ponder next month’s opportunities for a religious holiday and wonder where I can get a turban and false beard at such short notice, I would like to share with my loyal readers that verse which so sums up the city of broken promises for me.
If you can keep your gaze averted from all the litter and filth
Neglect, disrepair and dog poo,
If you can brace yourself when child beggars appeal to you,
And remain unmoved by their pleas too;
If you can walk without seeing and not be tired by walking without seeing,
Or being beseeched, don’t deal with street vendors,
Or being hassled, don’t give way to giving in,
And yet don’t look too rich, nor talk too posh:
If you can sightsee—and not make sightseeing your master;
If you can gaze—and not make gazing your aim;
If you can meet with Need and Greed
And treat those two great evils just the same;
If you can bear to hear the calls for alms spoken
Twisted by the poor to make a trap for tourists,
Or watch the things you came to view, obscured,
By them and step aside and look again:
If you can make one heap of all your spending money
And risk it on one cheap touristy lunch,
And wish you hadn’t,
And never breathe a word about your dodgy kebab;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sphincter
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on to your bowels when there is nothing left in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on! For God’s sake, please, let me hold on ‘til I get home!”
If you can ignore crowds and keep your temper,
Or walk with other tourists—nor lose the will to kill,
If neither locals nor interlopers can hurt you,
If all men are nothing to you, but none too much of nothing;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of poking fun,
Yours is Shitstanbul and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’re welcome to it, my son!
Mr Kipling wrote exceedingly good verse.
(I love the place, really.)