Monthly Archives: June 2013

Books: The Peregrine by J.A. Baker

If there are any careful readers of this blog, they will have noted that although the subtitle reads “Words and photographs about Turkey, nature, and literature,” I have not in fact posted anything about literature. I’ve long meant to write pieces about books I love, but that do not necessarily have anything to do with Turkey. The aim is not to review so much as to write a short essay sharing and communicating my own enthusiasm, while trying to steer clear of those works with which everyone’s familiar. I expect to quote from them incontinently, and here is the first.

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“East of my home, the long ridge lies across the skyline like the low hull of a submarine. Above it, the eastern sky is bright with reflections of distant water, and there is a feeling of sails beyond land. Hill trees mass together in a dark-spired forest, but when I move towards them they slowly fan apart, the sky descends between, and they are solitary oaks and elms, each with its own wide territory of winter shadow. The calmness, the solitude of horizons lures me towards them, through them, and on to others. They layer the memory like strata.”

When it was published in 1967, JA Baker’s The Peregrine astounded England’s literary scene. The book was a birdwatching diary written by a hitherto unknown writer who had left school at 16 and was working as a manager at a local branch of a car insurance company. And yet from a small patch of the county of Essex, Baker squeezed prose of such distilled intensity and originality that his book would inspire a generation of British nature writers.

140 pages long, it is made up for the most part of a series of daily entries – wholly plotless – in which Baker charts his pursuit of peregrines wintering in the stretch of countryside and coastal estuary near his home. It is the kind of improbable, isolated masterpiece that could only have been written by an outsider, by someone unaware of or indifferent to the considerations of form that often conventionalize a literary work. Whole tracts of it read like a prose poem. This quotation is taken from a page chosen at random:

“A tawny owl calls from the wood’s dark hornbeam heart. He gives a vibrant groan; a long sensitive pause is held till almost unbearable; then he looses the strung bubbles of his tremulous hollow song. It echoes down the brook, breaking the frozen surface of the air. I look out at the west’s complexity of light. A heron, black against the yellow sky, kinked neck and dagger bill incised, sweeps silently down into the brook’s dark gulf. The sky infuses with the afterglow.”

It can be exhausting to read more than a few pages of Baker’s prose at a time. Again and again, I was jolted by the precision strikes of his language, the obscurely effective metaphors and turns of phrase. Flushed partridges are ‘like wound clockwork toys slowly spluttering into silence’; a peregrine ‘wanders idly around the blue cupola of the cooling sky’.

The book charts the evolution of Baker’s intense and remarkable relationship with the creature he follows: the peregrine, the fastest bird on earth and one of the most ruthlessly efficient of aerial predators. He relays in minute detail the peregrines’ habits. Over the course of six months in which they are wintering near his home, they come to recognise him to a point where he is able to approach within four or five yards of a bird feeding on a kill. He pursues the hawks – in particular two tiercels – with an obsession edging on the weird. 

“To be recognised and accepted by a peregrine you must wear the same clothes, travel by the same way, perform actions in the same order. Like all birds, it fears the unpredictable. Enter and leave the same fields at the same time each day, soothe the hawk from its wildness by a ritual of behaviour as invariable as its own. Hood the glare of the eyes, hide the white tremor of the hands, shade the stark reflecting face, assume the stillness of a tree. A peregrine fears nothing he can see clearly and far off. Approach him across open ground with a steady unfaltering movement. Let your shape grow in size but do not alter its outline. Never hide yourself unless concealment is complete. Be alone. Shun the furtive oddity of man, cringe from the hostile eyes of farms. Learn to fear. To share fear is the greatest bond of all. The hunter must become the thing he hunts. What is, is now, must have the quivering intensity of an arrow thudding into a tree. Yesterday is dim and monochrome. A week ago you were not born. Persist, endure, follow, watch.”

The Peregrine is often described as a kind of elegy for the English countryside and its wildlife, which were facing intense destruction in the 1960s.  It’s true that Baker was writing at a time when the pesticide DDT was decimating wildlife in Britain, particularly apex predators like peregrines. His evocation of the bird and its hunting grounds is shot through with the pain of imminent loss – a world bathed in dying light. One of his most avid disciples, Robert MacFarlane, now one of the most prominent English nature writers, wrote this of the book.

MacFarlane describes well the strangeness with which Baker invests the English countryside, but he makes The Peregrine seem provincial. Baker’s prose is also animated by something other than the desire to capture a cherished and threatened landscape. It is about the nature of obsession, the paradoxical impulse both to possess the object of one’s desire, and dissolve oneself within it.

As he zeroes in on his subject, he intuits the bird’s inner life. He builds its psychology from the outside in, through meticulous observation and small logical steps. He describes its favourite bathing spots, the exact manner in which it butchers its prey, the structure of its huge and complex eyeball. 

It is  about the nature of subjectivity and the yearning to unite, through the act of observation, one’s inner mental world with an external reality. “The hardest thing of all to see,” he notes early on, “is what is really there.” Throughout the book, he clings to this notion that he can spring the trap of subjectivity. Often he comes up against the closed strangeness of the creatures he encounters. The face of a barn owl is a ‘bland meditative mask’; a little owl’s eyes are ‘bright, yet quite expressionless, as though they had been painted onto its head’.

There is a feeling on every page that he is straining at the barred gateways of perception, never quite accepting the impossibility of escaping the prison of the self and fleeing into the animals and landscapes around him. 

It’s not a book you can read compulsively or casually. The plotless form, with its repeated descriptions of the same birds and the same landscapes, will strike some people as boring. He acknowledges as much on the first page: “Detailed descriptions of landscape are tedious,” he writes, before embarking on a description of the topography, soil, and woodland of his region.

The only comparable work I have read, so different in subject and origin though startlingly similar in method and effect, is Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Both books use repetition and the obsessive quartering of geographical space to break the strictures of narrative. Both writers are wise enough not to tax their reader’s attention for more than a hundred pages or so. But Jealousy has the drained feel of a literary experiment, as if Robbe-Grillet had made the machine but lacked the fuel to run it on. The Peregrine is complete, alive. A week after reading it, it lost the feel of a narrative and seemed a tangible object in my mind, soaring in its three-dimensional world.

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Reporting on the Taksim Protests…

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A game of giant backgammon in Taksim Square last week. Istanbul’s protests have spurred an extraordinary outpouring of fun, irreverence and creativity.

I have been pecking away at a keyboard over the past two weeks about the Taksim protests, though nothing I’ve written holds a candle to the work of my colleague Claire Berlinski, whose two pieces on the protests are, for my money, the best of the many good articles written on so far. Read them here and here.

Her second piece captures very well my own feelings about the demonstrations: the deeply moving and heartening creativity and humour of a generation of hitherto silent Turks, coupled with the brutal and senseless suppression of this movement by the government. I’m working on a piece on that at the moment.

I’m also reprinting here the story I did for this Monday’s Times, a weekly first person reportage called ‘From Our Correspondent’, as well as another piece I did on the unlikely alliance of Turkish football fans. Links to my other stories (most paywalled, some not), are also included below:

On Saturday evening in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, standing next to a makeshift barricade, was a man dressed as a penguin with a sign around his neck that read: “Antarctica is fighting back.”

Penguins have become an unlikely motif in the upheaval that has erupted in Turkey. Its origin? While a miasma of teargas hung over central Istanbul the previous week, CNN Türk showed a documentary about penguins. As scenes of chaos were beamed around the world, other Turkish news channels ran features about radiation on Mars and liposuction.

Never has it been so absurdly obvious to Turks that their supposedly independent media is in thrall to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Government.

When I moved to Turkey three years ago, the media seemed vibrant, varied and often critical. Last Friday, however, a swath of Turkish newspapers ran identical headlines, a quote from the Prime Minister: “We lay down our lives for democratic demands.” These days, divining what’s going on in Turkey from the domestic press can be almost as opaque a business as reading fortunes in Turkish coffee grounds. Media organisations, owned by huge companies whose main interests lie in other sectors, rely on Ankara for contracts. This creates a powerful incentive to make sure they don’t upset the Government. It is no wonder that Twitter has emerged as a “scourge” for a Prime Minister battling for control of the narrative surrounding the most serious crisis in his ten-year rule.

The mainly young, tech-savvy demonstrators who have flooded into Taksim have turned to it with alacrity. Even after midnight on the Friday when they started, 3,000 tweets a minute were being sent with hashtags related to the protests, one early study found.

The Government is trying to hit back. It has arrested 38 Twitter users and has also focused on foreign journalists, whom it accuses of fanning the flames of unrest.

On Monday, when Turkey’s stock market posted its biggest one-day loss in a decade, the Finance Minister, Mehmet Simsek, accused me, falsely, of “lying” in one tweet.

A contributing factor to the tension preceding the riots were incendiary tweets by local governing party functionaries. One read: “My blood boils when spineless psychopaths pretending to be atheists swear at my religion. These people, who have been raped, should be annihilated.”

This young, globalised generation of students, architects, doctors, engineers and the like who make up a huge proportion of the Taksim protesters are not typical agent provocateurs, and feel little connection to Turkey’s nationalist, xenophobic, old-school secularists. But they have been pushed over the brink by the creeping authoritarianism of an ever more overtly Islamist government.

“You know how I normally keep silent, but this time it’s different,” one friend of mine, an engineer and social media junkie, wrote to me. “I have an incredible fear and anger inside.” Over ten days this Twitter generation has burst from the web into the real world. In Taksim, a kaleidoscope of groups united in their opposition to Mr Erdogan coalesced around them, and they have injected energy, humour and irreverence into the style of protest.

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Musicians play traditional music at the Ataturk monument, which was wreathed in the flags of fringe political parties.

Here’s my piece on the football fans, from last Saturday’s paper.

They say war makes strange bedfellows, and while the clashes between police and anti-government protesters that rocked Istanbul last week may not quite be war, they have created an unlikely alliance between the city’s notoriously militant football fans.

In a country where soccer vendettas regularly stray beyond the stadium, the sight of supporters from the city’s “Big Three’ clubs standing shoulder to shoulder against riot police was almost unprecedented in the Turkish game’s sometimes bloody history.

Now, after playing a prominent role in clashes around the city’s Taksim Square, fans of Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray, and Besiktas are trying to thaw relations pitch-side.

A prominent Fenerbahçe fan group this week announced it will petition Turkey’s Football Federation to allow mixed stalls in an upcoming cup final against Galatasaray at Istanbul’s Atatürk Olympic Stadium on August 11.

“We want to transport the picture of union and togetherness that has become stronger since 31 May to the stands of the Olympic Stadium,” read a statement by the supporters’ group 12 Numara, calling for police to be absent.

“We want to end the bad image of Turkish football by, if needed, also inviting the Besiktas fans to the Super Cup.” The idea may be a wishful one, and other supporters’ groups have so far remained aloof, although fans from all three clubs have taken to Twitter in support of the proposal.

“These clubs hate each other, and literally want to kill each other – and I mean literally,” said one Besiktas fan, Kaan, 43, who sat with a group of fellow supporters in Taksim Square in the early hours of yesterday morning.

Only last month a Fenerbahçe fan, 19-year-old Burak Yildirim, was stabbed to death, allegedly by a group of Galatasaray supporters, while walking to a metro stop after a derby match between the teams.

“But last weekend, everyone came together and fought against the police,” said Kaan.

Besiktas’ famed “ultra’ group, Çarşı, has played a particularly big role in some of the fiercest clashes with police in the neighbourhood from which the club takes its name.

“We weren’t fighting with police, the police were attacking us,” said Cem Yakiskan, a key member of the group.

Çarşı, founded in 1982, has pronounced left-wing leanings, and regularly attends May Day demonstrations. “We see it as our duty to support the oppressed,” said Mr Yakiskan.

Every evening, after mass protests began in Taksim Square, Besiktas fans and residents rallied at the statue of an eagle – the club’s emblem – that lies in the middle of the neighbourhood.

Yakiskan believes police attacked them because of their proximity to the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s private offices at the nearby Dolmabahce Palace. On Thursday, to avoid further clashes, they moved their rallying point to Taksim Square.

From experiences at football matches, Yakiskan and other fans are no strangers to the kind of strong-handed police tactics witnessed last week. “We are used to tear gas,” he said, “it’s our perfume.” Okan Altiparmak, son of the legendary Fenerbahçe player Ogün Altiparmak, said enmity between the teams was heightened by a match-fixing trial last year in which Fenerbahçe were threatened with relegation from Turkey’s Süper Lig.

In the last few days, however, the atmosphere between the fans has been better than ever before. In Taksim, groups of opposing suporters have gathered to chant each other’s club slogans together.

“We’ve never embraced each other like this before because there was never a common goal,” he said. The main factor driving fans – many of whom describe themselves as “apolitical’, he said, was the sight of police attacking demonstrators.

“The police are the biggest factor for us, because we feel under pressure from them at every match. The common goal is working against oppression.”

You can see links to all my Times reporting on the protests here. Also, I have written stories for the Christian Science Monitor on 1) What’s driving Erdoğan’s tough stance? and 2) Why is everyone so worked up about a park? My first reflections on the protests were published in the new and exciting publication, Bülent Journal.

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Protesters throw tear gas canisters back at police on Cumhüriyet Avenue on Tuesday night.

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The Girl in the Red Dress

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Some people have asked to see my ‘Red Dress Girl’ story , so here it is. You’ll be disappointed to read that no, I did not interview her, but I did confirm her identity from several sources. She does not want to be interviewed since she feels uncomfortable about being an icon of the protests.

Nonetheless, she did give an interview to Radikal last weekend, here, perhaps before she had an idea of how famous her image would become.

It was a  short picture-led story on the  front of the foreign section today’s Times. The photograph, along with the series accompanying it, ws printed across a double page spread. Here is the slightly longer, unedited version of the story I filed:

To thousands of young Turks gathering each day in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, she is known simply as the ‘Girl in the Red Dress’.

 A now infamous photo of Ceyda Sungur, an academic in city planning at Istanbul Technical University, has become the iconic image of the protests that have rocked Istanbul and other Turkish cities for five days now.

Dignified and vulnerable in her bright summer dress and with a handbag casually slung over her shoulder, she appeared the very antithesis of the ‘vagabonds’ and ‘extremists’ on whom Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blamed the unrest.

And yet for many at the Taksim rallies, it was the image of a riot police officer spraying a jet of pepper spray into her face that drove them onto the streets in support of what started as a tiny gathering of activists fighting the redevelopment of a city park.

A Reuters photographer took the photo on the afternoon of Tuesday 28 May, when police first broke up the camp when Ms Sungur and around 50 other activists gathered at the threatened Gezi Park.

Within hours it had ricocheted across social media generating a surge of sympathy and anger on behalf of the small band of protesters.

“The Turkish media said that the protesters had attacked police, but I could see from that photo that they hadn’t attacked anyone,” said Melihcan Gokmenoglu, a 19-year-old mechanical engineering student sitting with friend in Gezi Park yesterday.

“I saw it on the Internet on Friday night, and I walked out of my dorm room and came straight here,” he said.

Ms Sungur, part of Taksim Solidarity Platform that is protesting the redevelopment of the park and square, last week told Turkish press there was nothing unusual about what happened to her.

“Every citizen defending their urban rights, every worker defending their human rights, and every student defending university rights has witnessed the police violence I experienced yesterday,” she told the Radikal newspaper.

She has since declined interviews, saying she feels uncomfortable being known as the face of the protests, said Cihan Baysal, another member of the platform.

However her image has now become a symbol of protests, replicated on posters and stickers plastered across walls.

In one cartoon version the woman appears much bigger than the policeman. “The more you spray the bigger we get”, reads the slogan next to it.

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