SOMETHING IN THE AIR

Gas MasksThe title of this post is lifted from the 1969 chart-topper by one-hit wonders Thunderclap Newman, a song that seems to encapsulate within its grooves a moment at the end of the 1960s when the tumultuous events of 1968 hadn’t entirely exterminated the optimistic spirit of ’67. Though very much a project sponsored by the same state that was simultaneously slaughtering peasants in Vietnam, the momentous achievement of putting a man on the moon suggested the general cultural zeitgeist remained forward-looking and convinced better days were just around the corner. John Lennon expressed as much when profiled in an ATV mini-series aired in December ’69 called ‘Man of the Decade’; the belief may have been misplaced or naive, but it was genuine and heartfelt. A generation born in a collective air-raid believed a different way of doing things was possible. Imagine no heaven, no countries, no possessions.

It certainly feels as though something is again in the air in 2016, though the odours of that something are not of incense, peppermints or even napalm; I can’t really put my finger on it, but there are a lot of people I know who seem to be wading through a dense, noxious fog as dense and noxious as that which permeated every nook and cranny and rookery of Dickens’ London in the memorable opening of ‘Bleak House’. Granted, many are experiencing personal crises that aren’t necessarily specific to 2016, ones that could have happened at any moment in history, in any turbulent chapter of this planet’s story as much as in any so-called Golden Age forever recalled with nostalgic reverence. They could have taken place in 1916 or 1966, and the world outside their window wouldn’t have played any discernible role. But all of the internal events that are affecting the lives of loved ones right now appear to be synchronised with external events to an unsettling degree. Perhaps that’s the impact of the age of 24/7 social media; perhaps not.

A close friend who is finding life exceedingly heavy going at the moment said to me last week that ‘everything seems to have gone wrong since Bowie died’. I thought of the vinyl label of Bowie’s 1973 LP ‘Aladdin Sane’; the song from which the album took its title is listed as ‘Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)’. The information contained within the brackets marks the two years prior to the twentieth century’s twin global conflicts and clearly taps into the paranoia of the time by suggesting a year in the 1970s will serve the same calm-before-the storm purpose. True, it could merely have been Bowie playing with that paranoia for artistic effect or simply reflecting his own nihilistic worldview that he took onto another apocalyptic level with 1974’s ‘Diamond Dogs’. But ‘Aladdin Sane’ was released just a few months before the bleak economic meltdown of the Three Day Week, an era marked by rumours of right-wing military coups instigated by MI5 and/or retired colonial colonels with private armies on one hand and left-wing communist coups instigated by Moscow on the other.

What appears to be in the air today is not so black and white, but a multi-layered mosaic of malodorous uncertainty. It is the murder of Jo Cox as well as the ongoing massacres in the US; it is the litany of unexpected celebrity deaths as well as the terrorist atrocities on the Continent; it is the failed Turkish coup d’état as well as Brexit; it is Donald Trump as well as austerity; it is Syria as well as curbs on free speech; it is incompetence and corruption in public services as well as refugees drowning at sea. Possibly because of the way in which we are able to instantly access news, to quickly switch from one horror story to another or to be bombarded by them on Facebook and Twitter even when we’re not seeking them out, they seem bigger and uglier than they ever would have seemed in the past, when limited television news bulletins and 24 hours-later newspapers exerted breathing space between each horrendous headline. It’s a theory, anyway.

Were that the root cause of events in which we have no direct involvement seeping into our individual neuroses and exacerbating them, fair enough; but I wonder why so many seem to be struggling in the first place? If we compare the comforts we can call upon to the real hardships endured by our grandparents or great-grandparents, we haven’t got a leg to stand on when it comes to complaints. The dazzling variety of choice, whether in relation to electronic goods, TV channels, food, clothing or virtually every luxury item that constitutes an acquisitive society should suffice, yet endless choice itself can actually be quite overwhelming and incapable of filling the inexplicable inner vacuum that our forefathers seemed capable of filling without any of our fripperies.

I suppose age could play a part as well; most of my friends are over 40; I myself am careering towards 50. But recent surveys suggest the kind of social isolation that appears quite commonplace within my own demographic is as high amongst teenagers. And it’s a vicious circle. Something awful in the news drags us down when we’re already feeling low because we’ve just received some stupid bill that we can’t afford to pay, making us vulnerable sitting targets for the next horrific news event as well as the next dispiriting demand on our limited finances; it can get to the point where the internal and external are practically interchangeable as sources of anxiety and helplessness. I think a sense of helplessness is crucial too: we don’t have the money required to pay the bill and we can’t do anything to alter whatever depressing news story has invaded our private space via the mass media. Both feel as though they are ultimately out of our control.

I don’t know what the solution is. Watch less TV news and don’t regularly buy a paper? I started doing that about a decade ago, but I wasn’t online back then. It’s so much harder to avoid the big stories now. They eventually find your address. And, if you’re feeling lousy to begin with, these big bad wolves will huff and they’ll puff and they’ll blow your house down. But one little pig did survive, of course; so maybe we should simply build with bricks and we’ll get through it.

© The Editor

THE PRIZE: TURKEY

TurkeyBack when the world was a bigger place than it is today, the annual ‘Blue Peter’ summer expedition served as an eye-opening introduction to far-off foreign destinations and indigenous cultures for a UK audience of children, many of whom (like me) had never ventured beyond the British Isles at the time. One particularly memorable moment came in 1975 when John Noakes stood in the middle of the Bosphorus Bridge and pointed to one end, declaring over there was Europe, before pointing to the other and declaring over there was Asia. Funny how these things have a habit of returning to the forefront of one’s thoughts at the most unexpected moments. When news broke of an attempted military coup in Turkey a couple of days ago, the very same bridge was back in the headlines, closed to traffic due to the emergency.

The ‘Blue Peter’ trip to Turkey – just a year after the country had invaded Cyprus – was sandwiched between two other military coups, taking place in 1971 and 1980, though there had already been another (back in 1960) long before John, Pete and Lesley flew to Istanbul. That 2016 should witness a fourth is not really a great surprise. The Turkish Army takes its role seriously as an upholder of the Turkish Republic’s secular constitution, as established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1922; and a country that acts as the gateway from one continent to another has always had powder-keg potential whenever relations between Europe and Asia are fraught, especially where interpretations of faith are concerned. Threats to Turkey’s avowed intention to not be governed by religious doctrine, along with the increasing censorship of the polarising Islamist President Erdogan, appear to have sparked this latest military uprising which, unlike those of 1960, 1971 and 1980, has failed.

Erdogan has been a divisive and dictatorial figure ever since his election as President in 2014, following eleven years as the country’s Prime Minister. His Islamist political stance was evident early on, even resulting in a prison sentence for inciting religious intolerance in 1998. His two years in office as Turkey’s President have been marked by a clampdown on freedom of speech and regular accusations of human rights violations, both of which have continued to stall Turkey’s ongoing attempts to join the European Union and both of which are too close to hardline Islamic states for comfort. His conservative Islamist leanings have also been seen by some as placing Turkey’s proud tradition of secularism in peril.

It was notable that the rebel forces within the Turkish military that spearheaded this aborted coup saw capturing television stations as a top priority, for Erdogan’s attempts to control state broadcasting appear to have been based on the Putin model. Unlike the Soviet Union, the Ottoman Empire is no longer within living memory, and the independent republic that rose from the ashes of the old Ottoman possessions carved up by the allied European powers at the end of the First World War was a deliberate break with the old Islamic imperial past. However, just as the pop culture of the defunct GDR has something of a nostalgic cult following in East Germany, the legends of Ottoman conquest exercise a sentimental grip on many of those who subscribe to Islamic Fundamentalism; and President Erdogan often seems possessed by the spirits of the deceased sultans.

Anyone ascending to the pinnacle of political power in Turkey is conscious that the military’s loyalty is not so much to the nation’s leader, but to the founding spirit of the nation; and Erdogan has used canny means to neutralise any potential challenge from the military to his authority, rounding up hundreds of army officers in two separate high-profile court cases based on spurious rumours of coup-plotting. The removal of those whose loyalty to him wasn’t guaranteed enabled him to promote those whose was. Along with military personnel sentenced to lengthy prison sentences were numerous journalists and opposition politicians hostile to Erdogan’s rule. Even before he became President in 2014, Erdogan’s lengthy spell as Prime Minister served as a warm-up to his tyrannical presidency, with public protests ruthlessly crushed and controversial judicial reforms laying the ground for the virtual Absolute Monarchy he appears to be creating for himself. ‘Insulting the President’ has now become an offence of a nature that would be more familiar in Iran, bracketed as an effective terrorist act.

The manner in which Erdogan has imposed his law upon Turkey and the way he is viewed by his opponents as threatening the country’s cherished secular foundations was bound to provoke military response sooner rather than later, yet the failed coup d’état of last week, which has so far claimed over 250 lives, has been suspected by some as a stunt instigated by the President himself. In many respects, it gives him the remit to suppress all dissent that he has been waiting for. His immediate response to the coup – arresting almost 3,000 soldiers and over 200 politicians as well as firing over 2,000 judges – has been swift; some foreign observers have made the point that the President’s hand is now stronger than ever; he has carte-blanche to enforce his authority in what the New York Times has labelled a counter-coup.

‘He is a weak ruler who needs religion to uphold his government; it is as if he would catch his people in a trap.’ So spoke modern Turkey’s venerated founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The country’s unique geographical position has always placed it on the frontline of any East-West tensions, yet as a secularist state it has managed to act as a successful bridge between two regularly clashing cultures. How much longer it can continue to do so with a man like Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the helm remains to be seen; but the signs aren’t great.

© The Editor