The end of an era?

 

This blog is my writer’s diary. I try to make one entry a week. The entries are mostly about my journey as a writer. This week I have some significant news to record for posterity regarding my writing life.

No, not that.

I’ve known my news for a while but have waited to share here until the time was right. This is the last week of school in Turkey where I work full-time (ahem) teaching English – the time is right for sharing my news.

MY NEWS: This is not just the last week of the academic year, if things work out this is also the last week of my teaching career.

We are moving cities after the summer. Goodbye Istanbul, hello… Ankara. (Cue non-functioning party popper and stunned silence.) It’s not exactly the frying pan to the fire. It’s more frying pan to the pile of cold, grey ashes dumped behind the coal bunker. In partying terms, we’re moving from Turkey’s thumping, pumping heart to its brain-dead-head. The reasons are not particularly important. Just the deal I managed to thrash out over the negotiating table (surely dinner table, ed.) with she-who-must-be-dismayed.

I only had one condition regarding a proposed relocation: we move I get to try writing full-time for a year. If I can physically and mentally hack it (easier dreamed about than done) and make it work for me as a lifestyle, I’ll try another year. If I can’t, I’ll be looking for another teaching job. (One thing about being a native English speaker with a teaching qualification, you never have to be out of work in this world.) I will be busting my behind trying to make it work.

What do you know about Ankara? I’ll tell you what I’ve found out about the place in the half-a-dozen visits I’ve made over the years. It’s quite possibly the most boring capital city in the world.

Apart from the little bit of old-town slum stuck somewhere in the middle, infrastructurally (if that isn’t a word it should be) and architecturally it’s intensely uninteresting, plain, without imagination or inspiration or flair or colour or definable style. It is dull and often oddly soviet in appearance. But it is functional, more orderly than Istanbul, quieter, cleaner and less frantic.

Geographically: in the surrounding area there are no mountains, no forests, no great rivers. And it’s quite flat. A flat featureless landscape slowly being gobbled up by apparently unregulated, sprawling development in every direction; a gently expanding flow of concrete, glass and tarmac, like something from a futuristic magic-porridge-pot fable about the destruction of the environment. And being in the centre of the country there is no sea for about a million miles in any given direction. I think that will be one of the biggest challenges for me living there – no sea to stare at wistfully, to throw stones into, to fantasise about doing a Reggie Perrin with. I’m British. We need sea around us. As David Booker once said: it’s in our DNA.

For anyone wondering about the objectivity of my take on the capital of Turkey, Ankara has more shopping malls per square yard than any other major city in the solar system, allegedly. That in itself is an indication of how little there is to do there.

Well all that will suit me fine. I’m going there to work, to try to carve out a new way of life for myself, a new career. Distractions, I don’t need. I can do a year.

Vancouver! Vancouver!

 

Talk about fresh air.

Ah, Vancouver. So good they should have named it twice and got old blue eyes to sing about it. Maybe I can make amends for the artistic neglect suffered by that fair, far-flung foreign field by composing and dedicating a short poem to it and its people:

Vancouver Vancouver

No Heimlich Manoeuvre

Could clear my airways so.

Vancouver Vancouver

No oeuvre in The Louvre

Can match thine landscapes, oh.

Vancouver Vancouver

No Hoover runs smoother

Than British Columbia’s flow.

Vancouver Vancouver

No shaker and mover

Has shaken and moved me like you.

(If nothing else you can see why I don’t write poetry. I think even Pam Ayres’ bile might rise at that.)

In case you haven’t worked it out yet, I spent last week mostly in North Vancouver. Vancouver’s in a region of Canada called British Columbia. The local vehicle licence plates refer to it as ‘Beautiful British Columbia’, and it is. It’s other things too. If I were half my age I’d be applying for working visas instead of writing this.

The Vancouver I saw is clean and neat and ordered and orderly and well-maintained and spacious and obviously loved and cared for by the people who live there. (Sound unfamiliar? Maybe you live where I do. In these things Istanbul is the antithesis of Vancouver.)

The people I encountered were about the friendliest and politest people I’ve ever come across. Pedestrians acknowledge each other and often say hi. (Until I got used to this I kept looking behind me to see who they were talking to.)

Drivers ALWAYS stopped and indicated that I should cross the road in front of their vehicles, even when I wasn’t using a designated crossing. I don’t carry a white stick or walk a Labrador. (Having lived in Istanbul for a few years I have learned to shy away from crossing roads with moving vehicles around. You just don’t do that sort of thing here unless you’re feeling suicidal or drunk.) Not once did I nearly get run over on the pavement by something on two wheels with an engine. And Vancouver’s pavements are wide and litter, faeces, parked motor vehicle and tripping hazard free.

The people who worked in the customer service industry were friendly and polite and smiley and helpful. And other customers waited their turn to be served. The elbow shaped bruises on my upper arms have almost completely disappeared.

Public transport was excellent: frequent, cheap and clean and (you probably won’t believe this) when passengers get off the bus they often call out their thanks to the driver. Thanks to the driver! Honestly, it’s like Walt Disney had one of Martin Luther King’s dreams and went into town planning.

The great outdoors is on the doorstep and in the winter the local mountains are havens for winter sports enthusiasts. I had some great hikes in stunning scenery, but to really get an idea of what the place has to offer, a twenty minute seaplane flight laid everything out perfectly – a buffet of British Columbian delights.

I stayed at a place called the Lonsdale Quay Hotel. The room and facilities were more than adequate. But the real bonus of this location was that the bottom two floors of the building are occupied by eateries and drinkeries of the organicky, home-producey, home-madey and bespokey style. Nothing franchised. I’ll name and reference three of them that I used almost on a daily business.

Sharkys Chophouse – https://twitter.com/SharkysHotMeals

The Soup Meister – https://twitter.com/thesoupmeister

The Green Leaf Brewery – https://www.facebook.com/GLbrewery

There were others: a brilliant bakers, a super smoothie maker and a bumper breakfast provider among them.

The hotel is situated right on the edge of the channel of water that divides Vancouver’s south and north shores. It’s a busy shipping channel, which reminded me a lot of Istanbul’s Bosphorus, except that I never saw one empty plastic bottle, discarded carrier bag or dead body floating in the water. I did see an otter, a heron and a couple of seals though (all alive and doing their thing). Much nicer.

Talking of nice and nicer, I’ve come away from Vancouver believing that there has to be a correlation between people’s behaviour towards one another and the physical characteristics of the cities they inhabit.

I returned to Istanbul full of good intentions to be nicer to everyone, to smile at strangers, to say hi and after you and thank you (in Turkish) more often. It lasted as long as it took for me to try to get off the Metro with my suitcase. As soon as those doors opened I was stampeded, knocked to the floor and trampled on by travellers who weren’t interested in standing aside and waiting the seconds it would take for travellers to disembark first.

The only downside with the trip was the jet-lag. Fine going but my body clock was seriously skewed when I came home. I took the Halfling to the park the day after my return and fell asleep on a bench. I felt particularly bad about this because I’d left my son locked in a swing and while I was asleep it rained hard (fortunately my bench was sheltered under a broad-leafed tree). I woke up to the tapping of a policeman’s baton on the sole of my shoe. On the bright side, I’d made fifteen Lira in change in the baseball cap that had fallen off my head. (I hadn’t shaved for a week.)

*

For anyone who’s reading this because they want news of my writing, my apologies. My news is: I took my hard copy of R&M#5 with me to work on but I didn’t even finish reading it through once. In fact I didn’t even get half-way through it. It’s not that it’s bad but Vancouver kept me distracted and tired (especially that brewery with bar.) I might have got some work done on it in the evenings, but my daughter – the reason I was visiting North Vancouver – took one look at my hotel room with two queen sized beds facing a 42” plasma TV with a digital package and decided to move in for the week. (After seeing her digs I can understand why.) We stayed up every night watching crap on the food channel and loved it!

It’s snow time!

As Bob Dylan famously crooned: How many roads must a man walk down before he says: this compass is broken?

My compass has been giving me some questionable readings for a while now. It’s high time I had a good look at where I am, take some bearings, consider some important questions.

Last week saw another couple of snow days come Istanbul’s way. They are a bonus from on high, from the patron saint of teachers (yes there is one apparently and the clue to her identity is the opening image) working a little magic to reward her faithful disciples. My domestic arrangement for snow days is that I get a good chunk of the day to myself, as long as I make myself scarce i.e. go out. No problem there.

Snow days' work station.

Snow days’ work station.

The number of snow days we’ve enjoyed this winter has led to me becoming quite familiar with this table in this coffee shop that overlooks the Sea of Marmara. It’s not the best coffee in town but it has a good ambiance and Wi-Fi and it’s warm and it’s within a fifteen minute walk of home.

I find this time productive – I usually add a couple of thousand words each day to my latest writing project – and enjoyable – there’s coffee, it’s quiet and no one bothers me. It’s also given me time to think on a few of those burning questions: Where am I? Where do I want to be? How long have I got to get there? Can it be done? What am I prepared to risk/sacrifice on the way?

I know the answers to these questions, I really do, and I know what needs to be done in order to get to where I want to be. But I also know that if I follow my dreams, as the lyrics go…there may be trouble ahead.

Couple of photos I’ll include because I took them.

Istanbul in the snow.

Istanbul in the snow.

There are quite a few fir trees dotted around the streets where I live. I had no idea that snowfall could have such an effect on them. Lots of limbs off and several big trees toppled over under the strain. Probably something to do with stunted root systems.

I wonder is he was insured for trees falling on his car.

I wonder is he was insured for trees falling on his car.

(According to the fount of all knowledge, the patron saint of teachers is Saint Catherine. This painting done by Caravaggio. I do wonder at the significance of the broken wheel. Perhaps she also doubled up as the patron saint of wheelwrights in the school holidays.)

Riding that wave of learning.

That's better. I was feeling a little agoraphobic for a moment.

That’s better. I was feeling a little agoraphobic for a moment.

Still working on Smoke & Mirrors. I’ve given it another read through this week after the wake-up call, which has led to me striking nearly 4000 words from it. I’m very happy about that. It’s now down to 90,000 words. There are some weeks where I feel that I’ve really learned something about the craft of writing. This has been one of them.

And that's just the title page.

And that’s just the title page.

I’ve learnt that I don’t like adverbs and I should use them sparingly. I’ve learnt that the use of clichés should be a birching offence. (I think that to include them occasionally in dialogue is acceptable. People do use them in speech.) I’ve learnt that there isn’t anything much more distracting and irritating for me in a story than a cringe-worthy home-made simile. (Good ones are worth their weight in unicorn semen. But use sparingly.) I’ve learned to stop saying something and then saying it again differently. I’ve learned not to be so verbose. I’ve learnt not to tell so much. I’ve learnt that Hemingway was right when he said writing is rewriting. I’ve learnt that Elmore Leonard was right when he said if the author’s voice comes through get rid of it.

I’m not saying that my stories from now on will be free from all the above but I’ve learnt to recognise them better and the need to weed them out/do something about it when I do. I believe that is an important step towards becoming a better writer. (For those thinking: about time, Rome wasn’t built in a…oh crap – is that a cliche?)

I’ve enjoyed myself on this. I didn’t relish the prospect of taking the knife to the text again but as I was going along I found the removal of every word and phrase something satisfying.

The most important thing is that I am much happier about the book. I’ve said it before and it’s worth repeating (some things are): my aim with every book I bring out is that each addition should contribute to the series. I don’t want to disappoint anyone, ever. And I don’t want to let myself or my characters down. That brings a certain pressure to bear. But then no one said being an attention seeking vanity publisher was going to without its challenges.

I am determined to have Acer #3 out before Christmas.

Smoke and Mirrors 0602 (Medium)