Saturday, 27 May 2017

Will It Ever End?

Being in Manchester this past week has meant being involved in the aftermath of last Monday’s suicide-bomber atrocity. We can only imagine the grief of those who were bereaved, or the suffering that will be endured by those who were maimed. We express our sympathy awkwardly: a public gathering with speeches and poetry; makeshift shrines made with flowers, candles and messages; a minute of silence observed in the city centre; all of this unrehearsed, impromptu and heart-felt. However, beyond our shocked reactions to the callous, cruel carnage, there remains the big question of what can be done to prevent this kind of thing happening again.
Throughout the inevitable commentary on the event there runs one particular thread: of this city standing together, of its various communities working as one to combat terrorism. However, therein lies a problem. For all the talk of pride in Manchester and its record of pioneering social equality, there is evidence that the city, like so many others, is rapidly deteriorating into a fragmented entity in which “standing together” is increasingly difficult. Housing shortages, inequalities in educational opportunities, homelessness and ghetto-isation are trends emerging here – as elsewhere – as a result of its land being treated as an asset to be traded for maximum profit, often by outsiders. Taken to its logical end – rich people living in luxurious central towers, the rest housed on cheap estates, or not housed at all – how will it be possible for a city to function as a whole, to nurture all of its citizens and to take care not to marginalise anyone to the extent that they will turn against their own?
Currently showing at the city’s public art gallery is an exhibition of photographs of Mancunians taken by Shirley Baker during the time of the post-war slum clearances. They give an overall impression of poverty and desolation, although there is a bright future in the offing in the form of hygienic, humane housing . And, despite the ruination, children are playing, apparently happy and unsupervised, on the grimy, dilapidated streets and un-cleared bomb-sites, a reflection of the spirit of community they enjoyed. Subsequently, however, that spirit was too often broken by the removal of families to housing estates and high-rise developments, the work of urban planners who, at that time, worked on utopian principles that omitted some of the binding ingredients of community, such as interaction on neighbourhood streets. (See, if you can, the documentary film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City about the woman who spearheaded a campaign in the 1950’s which thwarted plans to ruin New York neighbourhoods with ill-conceived developments including urban highways and population segregation.)
Social alienation in itself is not the root cause of an individual’s determination to kill their neighbours, but it is certainly fertile ground for the recruitment of people who might be persuaded to do so. The religious beliefs that underpin the death cults of ISIL and Al Quaeda are, to the majority of religious believers, contradictory of the idea of a deity who is wise, loving and merciful towards its diverse creations and has an interest in seeing them flourish. As the author Rebecca West once put it: If there is a God, I don’t think He would demand that anyone bow down or stand up to Him. The blame for barbarity in the name of religion lies not at the door of any god but in the hearts and minds of people. To quote another, more famous, author, Voltaire: Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
The ultimate prevention of atrocities committed in the pursuit of religious fanaticism is not within the power of our armed forces, intelligence services and law-enforcement agencies but in the spread of enlightenment, knowledge and compassion delivered via communities bound together by shared interests.

Friday, 19 May 2017

A Confluence of Coincindences

Although I am back from Cyprus physically, my mind will not disengage readily from the place and the way that its combination of deeply-rooted ethnic traditions and more recent ‘global village’ trends can produce interesting variants on what we are accustomed to. There is, for example, a shaded restaurant courtyard in Nicosia where delicious mezze are served by the urbane proprietor to a soundtrack of his favourite Blues and Gospel music, while his caged canary sings along to BB King’s guitar-licks and twitters ecstatically in sympathy with the backing singers. Much as I was amazed and amused by the novelty, I am unsympathetic to the practice of caging creatures and, really,  hope it dies out soon.
 Returning home is comforting despite the fact that, seen from a perspective refreshed by travelling, there are aspects of one’s life that could benefit from re-evaluation: one of these is our duvet cover. Perhaps it’s the recent memory of all those exuberantly foreign fabrics but, despite its excellent quality, it does appear dull. Its drab colour does nothing to lift the spirits and it is time to give up on the idea that because it ‘tones’ with the decor it qualifies as a suitable furnishing. My partner readily agreed that life is too precious to share with a dismal duvet, so I took it on myself to find a brighter one.
On the brief walk to the shops I encountered a couple of friends who have been living abroad these past few years. They had just arrived in town and, had I left the house seconds earlier or later, our paths would not have crossed. Such coincidences, we agreed over coffee, are quite rare. Or are they? After we parted company, I bumped into someone else I had not seen for a while. I began to feel it might be a lucky day to place a bet. And then I found a pleasing duvet cover at the very first shop! I headed triumphantly for home but was stopped on Market Street by a polite young man with a clipboard who asked if I had time to answer a few questions about socks. It so happens that I have strong views on socks and was therefore willing to share them. However, all he wanted to know was how many pairs I owned, whether I ever wore odd socks, whether I had any “lucky” ones, my age and email address. I was miffed not to have been given the opportunity to share my enthusiasm for the hygienic properties of bamboo-fibre and merino wool compared with synthetics, but it was my first disappointment of the day and, incredibly, was mitigated moments later by my bumping into yet another acquaintance I had not seen in years.
The duvet cover gained the full approval of my partner and I went off to meet a friend for an early dinner followed by a concert by the Brad Mehldau Trio. I was telling him about the day of coincidental meetings as we made our way from restaurant to concert hall when – as if to prove my point – my partner stepped out of the doorway we were passing. She was leaving the gym and on her way home to make up the bed and was just as surprised by the encounter as we were. By now, both my friend and I were convinced that supernatural forces were in play and that, in the concert-hall foyer, some long-lost friend or lover would step over and buy me a drink for old time’s sake. However, despite the fact that the place was heaving, I saw nobody even vaguely familiar. It was my second disappointment of the day – and a practical demonstration of the fact that you can’t anticipate a coincidence. Perhaps it’s just as well I didn’t place any bets.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Cultural Mash-ups

Here in the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC) there is a mosque in every hamlet and every suburb of every town yet, after two weeks, I am still not sure when to expect the five-a-day Call to Prayer. This can be inconvenient, as when I chose to have lunch in a quiet, leafy courtyard next to a mosque and the loudspeakers burst into action as I was about to place my order, drowning me out and reducing me to pointing at the menu. The waiter was unfazed.
The Call itself, when executed by an accomplished singer, is exquisitely musical, although it represents a dogma with which I have no sympathy and is, in that sense, unwelcome. It is a reminder of deeply-rooted cultural differences. After last week’s ramble around the archaeological ruins I was inclined to the view that history is all explained by geography but, apropos cultural differences, I now appreciate the point made by the writer Robert Lynd, that history may be read as the magnificent rearguard action fought during several thousand years by dogma against curiosity. I look everywhere for proof of his hypothesis and here, in the TRNC, I am somewhat encouraged: I have yet to see anyone flock to a mosque.
In Cyprus, where East has mingled with West for centuries, some dilution of traditions, even some cross-fertilisation is to be expected. Colonisation started the process and tourism continues to push it, albeit informally. But the process is haphazard. This region, despite its dependence on tourism, does not appear to have grasped how the industry has segmented and become more sophisticated. The coastline is littered with unfinished ‘developments’ – holiday villages, villas and huge hotels – which sit between a host of established facilities already catering to that market. Meanwhile the many sites of cultural and historic interest are neglected by the authorities and treated as if they are of no consequence. Evidently, they have failed to count the coach-loads of older, cultural tourists to be seen on the car parks of Salamis and the other accessible antiquities. This is a growing market and, if they need help, the National Trust could teach them valuable lessons in how to monetise it.
The same can be said of the many restaurants where the only offering is kebab, salad and chips. After a couple of meals one pines for home cooking. One restaurant I went to offered a partial remedy for this with a menu comprising a mash-up of British and Turkish staples. I was attracted by the possibilities – and its perfect sea-front location – but I had reason later to regret my choice. The interior was decked out cheaply, like a French-style Soho joint circa 1975, and I ordered kleftiko which came not in a pot, but dried up on a plate and with a dish of buttered vegetables – back again to Britain in the ‘70s. The clientele comprised ex-pats – apart from a party of Cypriots for whom this was an exotic location for a birthday celebration. The experience was cross-cultural, but at a low level of accomplishment.
There is, however, an emerging awareness of the value of eco-tourism, not only in terms of revenue but also of preserving the environment. Its development is confined – inevitably – to the remote eastern peninsula where the roads are basic. I stayed for a couple of nights there in a small eco-hotel owned and run by an earnest husband and wife team. She cooked kleftiko for dinner and it was the real thing – Turkish to the marrow. It was so delicious I forgave our hosts the background music – a slow passage of Vivaldi – certain they were only trying to please their European guests. Then, after a few mouthfuls, the Call to Prayer wafted across the veranda and the two soundtracks met, the Arab singing intertwining perfectly with the European violins. East and West in harmony, sort of, for a few moments at least.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Castles in The Sky

Having just arrived in Larnaca on the south coast of Cyprus, I found a beach bar where, at the dimming of the day, I sat outside and took that first sip of Keo beer. Is it possible, I asked myself, that it tastes the same as it did 50 years ago? Probably not: it’s more likely that the familiar-yet-foreign tang, combined with the place itself, was causing me to reminisce. I lived here as a young teenager – part of the ‘camp-following’ of the occupying British Armed Forces – and have returned from time to time to explore aspects of the island’s culture in which young teenagers are not ordinarily interested. The next day I travelled to the north coast, crossing the border created after 1974 when troops landed from Turkey, ostensibly to protect the ethnic Turkish population from the violence that had erupted between them and the Greek Cypriots.
The two ethnic groups used to be quite jumbled up on the island but since the invasion there has been much relocation, resulting in a Muslim culture separated from an Orthodox Christian one and, although tempered by years of proximity and mutuality, the two are determinedly distinct. Reunification talks are on the table but they are, inevitably, tortuous and protracted. Meanwhile there is considerable military posturing in the north compared with the relatively free-wheeling, EU-centric south. I am dismayed by the number of army garrisons everywhere I go, by the paranoia-driven unavailability of up-to-date road-maps, the fact that sat-nav is “unavailable” and that Wikipedia is blocked. I sense the dead hand of the authoritarian Turkish regime and its undeclared preference for annexation to the mainland. Nevertheless, the people are friendly – at least to tourists, which is what I am. After descending from a mountain hike (something I am not used to doing without a detailed OS map) I walked through a picnic spot where an extended family was feasting. They waved hellos and ran over with a bowl of stuffed vine leaves, insisting I eat my fill. They were much better than the tinned ones we get at home.
History is all explained by geography, if what we mean by history is the ongoing story of powers jostling for control of territory, and the evidence is plain to see in Cyprus, an island which, because of its strategic location, has been fought over for millennia. The mountains along the northern coast are topped by a string of castles, established by one dynasty or another and augmented by those succeeding. The castles, precariously perched on precipitous peaks, are astonishing in their ruined state and must have been even more so in their heyday. Just contemplating the effort that went into building them and the constant to-and-fro up and down the mountains to keep their occupants supplied makes me feel fatigued. In the end, however, the castles proved ineffective against sea-borne Arab raiders and when the Venetians took over they sensibly abandoned them in favour of coastal forts.
The mountains were also the favoured location for abbeys and monasteries built by the religious orders and subsequently sacked by the Arabs. The ruins are an important part of the tourist trail, though seeing them always makes me feel sad that once-magnificent buildings are reduced to a few stone arches, bashed-up pillars and shattered mosaic floors. Sadly, this kind of destruction is not limited to bygone ages. In many of the villages hereabouts stands the windowless, doorless hulk of an abandoned church, its interior stripped and vandalised: usually, there is a pristine mosque close by. At one such church there was, unusually, a caretaker, a friendly, loquacious, 82-year-old ex-policeman who had served under British rule. We swapped reminiscences, he lamented the division of the island and when it was time to go, we shook hands warmly. In that moment I felt the approving presence of my long-deceased dad.