Tourists in Taksim

The helicopter buzzing overhead was the first hint of trouble.

We didn’t pay much attention: we’d arrived in Istanbul late afternoon, just in time to enjoy a fish dinner sitting out in a pretty cobbled street.  People wandered by, enjoying the balmy Friday evening.  Our waiter looked up as the helicopter passed low overhead but no-one seemed worried.

After dinner, we took a leisurely stroll along Istiklal Caddesi, enjoying the festive crowds, the old tram laden with passengers, the smells of roasted chestnuts and coffee.   The shops were open, people sat in pavement cafes eating baklava.  We were almost at Taksim Square (though we didn’t know it) when we turned back towards the opulent Pera Palace Hotel where we were staying for a  romantic weekend with the kids left behind in London.

The next hint of trouble came from a woman near the hotel who told us in terse, broken English to get inside and stay there.  Bemused but untroubled, we wandered up to our room.

And saw the news

By this time, the bridges spanning the Bosphorus had been blocked by tanks and Twitter had exploded with speculation of a coup.  No-one knew where President Erdogan was.  He’d left the country and was on his way to Tehran.  He’d landed in Germany.  He’d been taken captive.  Rumours abounded.

From our balcony the city looked tranquil – a waxing moon glowing softly over the domes and minarets on the skyline.  But below us people were streaming along the road, the glow from smartphones lighting many faces as they consulted social media as they walked.

A Belgian couple emerged on the balcony next to ours.  No, they didn’t know what was going on either.  We’d heard the bridges were blocked but we could see headlights of traffic crossing the water.  Newbies to the city, we didn’t realise that we were looking at the Golden Horn.  The bridges that span the immense Bosporus were round the headland and events there were unfolding rapidly.

We talked about Ghent and Brexit with our neighbours while we watched the people passing below.  There were rumours that social media had been blocked but we continued to get most of our news from the Twitter storm while Facebook messages tinged in from anxious friends and relatives back home.

Sometime during the dark hours after midnight, the mosques started to broadcast the call to prayer, the rise and falling chant eerie in the moonlight.

A call to prayer in the middle of the night?

It was, we learned later, a rarely used form of prayer which was widely recognised to be a call to action.  Ironically, Erdogan – who has tried to block social media in the past – had used Facetime and texts to call the people to the streets as he raced back from his holiday in the south of the country.  The mosques took up the summons.  Soon we saw chanting crowds heading to Taksim Square but it still seemed that the coup could go either way.  Helicopters buzzed overhead and there was the sound of gunfire in the distance.

By about 4am we decided to try and get some sleep but were soon back at the windows as fighter jets ripped through the sky, low over the city.  Jittery, we eventually fell into an uneasy doze for a few hours.

By morning, it was already becoming clear that the coup had failed.  We were the only guests at the hotel breakfast buffet, the shell-shocked staff admirably carrying on as normal even though they were on double shift while they waited to see if the morning shift would make it into work.

‘Don’t worry’, everyone said, ‘things are back to normal.’  Even flights were resuming although a couple who had set off that morning had returned, unable to reach the airport.  Amid rumours of coup leaders still holed up in the Old Town, the staff advised us to stay inside for a few hours but sounded calmly reassuring.  The events of the night felt surreal.

At lunchtime we ventured out, discovering the astounding beauty of the Old Town with few other tourists to be seen.  We bought ceramics from a young man who proudly told us that he had gone to the squares the previous  night to push back the military.  Stories from the night were filtering through. The death toll was rising and so were the number of arrests.

Nightfall brought the reassuring blinking lights of commercial flights back in the air space over the city though, alarmingly, a fighter jet also tore through the sunset.  Many cars passing below our balcony were waving the Turkish flag from the windows or had draped it across bonnets .  Horns blared as passing cars acknowledged the peoples’ victory- young men and women in headscarves hung out of the windows cheering as they drove up and down.

Back up on Istiklal, chanting crowds carried flags as they marched up to Taksim.  Dotted among the young men were occasional women and children and the atmosphere was festive, triumphant, but very different from the relaxed, strolling crowds of the night before.  Shops were closed, the chestnut sellers were absent.  Few tourists braved the streets.

A little intimidated, we ducked into a wine bar where we found an Argentinean couple eager to chat, the four of us united by our bewilderment as we shared sanctuary over a glass of wine.  We wondered if we would be able to get home, if the flights really were returning to normal after tanks had closed down the airport

Our hosts offered a huge selection of Turkish wines and, over an excellent red, the owner joined our conversation.  Wasn’t it rather wonderful, we asked, the people bravely facing down the military to defend democracy?

He shook his head despairingly.  How could a coup have happened at all? And what was the country’s future under an increasingly repressive regime with Erdogan stronger than ever?  Democracy is important, he said, but money in the villages bought  votes.  He was afraid that he would come under increasing pressure not to sell wine any more.  And would the tourists keep coming?

IMG_6170Sunday brought a few more tourists to the Topkapi Palace but we still saw only one other couple the entire time we were inside the fabulous Harem.  In the main palace there were tour groups from Asia and groups of Middle Eastern tourists, but Europeans were a rarity and Americans more or less absent due to a US ban on flights in or out of Turkey.   In the cobbled streets around the Palace, carpet sellers and restaurant staff gathered on corners to chat or grouped around TV sets showing the news.

Sunday night and the people again took to the streets.  By now the shops along Istiklal had reopened and at least tome tourists remerged.  Over dinner, the restaurant owner told us that she had gone to the market that morning to buy food with no idea if people would come for   dinner.

‘I can’t believe you are here’, she told us.  Our guide book told us that a booking in her establishment was essential but, apart from us, there were only two other couples eating there that night.  There would be a lot of food left at the end of the evening.

She told us that she feared for her country’s future.  She had joined protests in Taksim Square in 2013 to fight for her country but now she could see nothing to fight for.  She couldn’t help but say what she thought, she told us, and she’d end up getting in trouble for it.  She’d decided to leave the country.  Costa Rica looked nice she thought.

Our waitress was born in Germany and had an EU passport which clearly gave her much comfort.  The schools had made religious studies compulsory, she said, but her children were exempt because they were German.  She also planned to leave.

taximBack on the streets it felt safe enough to go to Taksim where a small crowd waved flags and listened to someone speaking through a microphone.  On our way back down Istiklal, however, we passed big crowds coming the other way.  Young men walked beneath a giant flag, taking selfies.  Occasional motorbikes weaved through the crowds.  An old lady in a headscarf held her smartphone high to film the processions while a toddler wore the flag like a superhero cape. As we walked away from Taksim, we were pushing against the flow of people, often standing to the side to let larger, louder groups go by.

All night long the horns of cars driving up and down the road below our balcony blared once again.  At one point the patter of something like gunfire had guests looking anxiously through the curtains but we concluded that it was only firecrackers.

So we were bleary eyed when we emerged to walk down to the Grand Bazaar on our last morning.  We stopped to buy scented soaps on the way and the young proprietor could barely stop yawning as he served us.  Yes, he said, he had been in Taksim every night since Friday.  Of course.

The elegant arches of the Grand Bazaar were, like the Old Town, weirdly deserted.  Vendors chatted over coffee: there were no customers to serve.

“Let us help you spend your money!” they called as we passed.  But we had no Turkish Lira left to spend as we were on our way to the airport to go home.

IMG_6225“Because of the trouble?”

“No, no,” I reassured them.  “We only came for the weekend.  We arrived on Friday afternoon.”

“On Friday afternoon?  Were you scared?”

“A little, when the fighter jets went over,” we confessed.

“Ah, that was just a message,” one guy said.

Another rolled his eyes comically.  “Yes,” he replied.  “But what message?”

Brexit explained for our European friends

Right.  It’s all getting a bit confusing here so, for the benefit of our European friends  who are wondering what is going on, here’s a quick summary of where we’ve got to.

The People have voted to Leave and that’s a big victory for change but we shouldn’t worry because everything will basically stay the same.

We will seize control of our borders!  But we’ll still have pretty much the same levels of immigration.  Just really controlled immigrants.

Some people still think it’s about immigration even though we now know that it isn’t because Boris said so.  But some not-very-nice people are still telling immigrants to go home (though presumably not their Leader’s German wife).  The rest of us stand firm against racism and have decided to take decisive action.  We will all start wearing safety pins and that should sort that out.

It’s a victory for ordinary Brits who want their country back, says the Eton-educated, third generation Turkish-immigrant Leader of the Leave Campaign.   By the way, did anyone see Boris’ Dad on TV charmingly arguing that he doesn’t want to Leave because he’s worried that we will forget that we’ve got some quite important stuff we’re meant to be doing about the environment?  Most People here in London didn’t notice: we were too busy dealing with apocalyptic floods on the day of the Referendum to worry about the nonsense people say about climate change.

Where were we?  Oh, yes, Jeremy Corbyn argued we should Remain – and lost.  Now his party are trying to get rid of him because they suspect he secretly wanted to Leave all along.  And – as Leaving is what the People want – they’d better make sure they get rid of him pronto.  That’s because we have a democracy and we like that a lot.  We’re electing a new Leader right now and every single Conservative MP will get to vote on the new Prime Minister of this noble, democratic country.

The new Prime Minister who will implement the Leave agenda might well be a Remainer  because the guy who wanted to Leave was too busy painting on the sides of buses to spend much time thinking about what he’d actually do if we really did Leave.  Silly Boris.

7% of Leavers have decided that they’d like to Remain after all because it turns out that the thing painted on the sides of buses was a mistake.  Silly Boris.  Quite a few people who voted to Leave apparently didn’t really even want to Leave in the first place but a two box referendum was much too confusing for them.  But we can’t let anyone change their vote now because we must do what the People said wanted to do on Referendum Day even if we secretly suspect that it isn’t really what the majority want.  We call that democracy i.e. respecting the will of the majority.

Scotland threatened to Leave the UK a while back before narrowly deciding to Remain.  Now it’s probably going to Leave because it wants to Remain.  That jolly nice lady up there who looks more Prime Ministerial than the whole lot of the Whitehall crowd put together, says that’s because of democracy.

Meanwhile London would like to Remain too.  London is going to Leave.  That’s that democracy thingy again.

Young people are passionately upset because they desperately wanted to Remain.  Estimates suggest that at least a third of them felt so passionately that they even turned up on Referendum day to cast a vote.

By the way, European friends, I understand that we still want to work closely with you, it’s just that we don’t want to be bound by laws made by unelected Eurocrats.  So we will bring back all our elected MEPs, and then probably sign up to the Single Market and let the elected representatives of all the other EU countries decide the rules that we will be bound by instead.

Glad to have cleared that up.


When a Pantser Tries to Plot

Are you a pantser or a plotter?  It is my ambition to be a plotter but I’m afraid it is my inclination to write by the seat of my pants.

The way I wrote A Place at Tumaini was this: I spent an inordinately long time trying to come up with intricate plot ideas and then rejecting them and never making any progress with the actual process of writing.  Then one day, while walking along the beach and getting frustrated with the loops going round in my head, I decided that I just needed to start writing.  So I did.

I had a couple of characters I liked and knew their back-story and their starting point and that was about it.  It wasn’t an efficient way of writing.  I wrote the first draft and then had to cut most of it and weave in other story lines and – to be honest – the final version is barely recognisable from its early beginnings.  I’ve probably written about three books worth of words.  But it was such fun!

Characters went in quite unexpected directions, a minor character was so adorable that he ended up stealing half the plot and, somehow or other, everything fell into place and made sense in the end as if there always had been a coherent story buried away and I just had to find it.

But when I started thinking about a second novel, I was determined to learn lessons from the first time around.  Writing a novel is, after all, a serious business.  I read up about how to plot scenes, identify conflict, work through the different phases of the story – basically how I thought I should write a  novel.  Then I wrote reams about my characters, sketched out the plot and then fleshed it out so that I could see what was going to happen in each chapter.  And finally, I started writing.

But there was a problem.  I was bored.   Now, when I was writing A Place at Tumaini, there were certainly days when I was frustrated, unable to write or fed up with what I had written.  I was, however, never bored of the story.  So what was wrong this time?  I had characters I liked, a plot line that twisted and turned and an interesting setting.  The things is – I knew too much about what was going to happen.

Last week, while on our family holiday, my daughter asked if I would write a book for her.  We created a protagonist together and started plotting and – as she has all the patience of the average ten year old – there was no point in telling her that we needed a clear outline for the whole novel before we began.  So I leapt in a wrote the first chapter for her with only the sketchiest idea of where the story is going.  Even though I was on holiday, I didn’t mind because…I was having fun.

So what do I do now that I am back?  Should I plough on with my carefully plotted storyline?  Or take my daughter’s character by the hand and see where she takes me?

In truth, the way probably lies between the extremes for most authors and that’s where I need to find my path.

But most important of all, I probably need to remember why I am writing in the first place and just have some fun.

Do you dare to Flash?

Yesterday I was dancing round the kitchen having just heard that my entry to the National Flash Fiction Day Awards has been Highly Commended and will be published in their anthology.

I’ve never thought of myself as a writer of Flash Fiction, in fact this was my first attempt at something so short.  To be honest, I was intimidated by the task of crafting a story in just a hundred words.

A hundred words?  I can hear my non-writer friends scoffing already, convinced that they could knock one up before breakfast.

But writers know that a good Flash Fiction piece is like a drop of essential oil, distilled down to something powerful and pure.  That’s why a tiny bottle of essential oil costs a fortune.

When I first started writing, I preferred the longer formats as that seemed to offer more room for character to find their voice and the story to grow.  Gradually I’ve learnt the painful way that, even when writing an 80,000 word novel, every single word of every single story has to be there for a reason.   I’ve found that writing short stories has been good for me: it’s amazing how often a story of 3,500 words can be shortened to 2,000 simply to make it eligible for a competition and yet end up better than the original.

So I’ve become increasingly intrigued by Flash Fiction, discovering an amazing range of styles given the word limitations.  Some are comic genius, others are astonishing descriptions of an instant in time.  But the ones I love best retain the elements of good story but in micro form: a beginning, middle and end and – most importantly – a story arc in which something changes by the end.  There’s something intriguing about my favourite pieces of Flash: like songs that get better each time they are played, they need re-reading despite their brevity.  They stay with me as I go about my daily chores  and let me flesh out the story that has just been told in hints.

Is that really possible in just 100 words?

Oh yes.  Take that most famous of examples of the ultimate in Flash (often attributed to Ernest Hemmingway though its true origins remain uncertain).

For Sale: baby shoes, never worn

Yes, I know it’s rather hackneyed and over-quoted these days.  But in these six words we have an entire story arc of joy to grief.  If six words can do it, then a hundred should be plenty!

But did I dare to Flash?

When I saw the National Flash Fiction Day competition, I decided to give it a try.

My first entry was wrung out of me on a day when I was full of angst and pain while walking in a rainstorm having been rejected for a job I really wanted.  I was determined to harness all that emotion in a positive way so I squeezed out each anguished word and sent it straight off.

It was awful.

So I had to try again, if only to restore my wounded pride.  My second effort was better.

Yesterday the results were announced and there are some well-deserved winners.  My two personal favourites are the Highly Commended ‘Illumination’ by Judi Walsh which leaves a powerful image and the hint of a complex storyline, and the Third Place Winner, ‘Storm’ by Gemma Govier (perhaps I particularly like this one because it’s exactly what I was trying to achieve with my first entry but done with so much more style and elegance).

Rereading them reminds me how good they all are and I am super proud to see my entry up there.

Take a look: after all, the entire top ten are only 1000 words so you can read the lot while the kettle boils.  But be warned, they may linger in your head long after your tea break is over.

My Story Garden

The other day I was helping my daughter with her school project.  She has to grow a plant and record progress in a photo diary so she went out to the shops and proudly returned with a packet with a colourful photo of flowers on the front and some unpromising-looking bulbs inside.

We read the instructions carefully: ‘Plant between Feb-May for flowers in July.’

In a flurry of excitement we dug shallow holes, placed the bulbs carefully inside, and waited.

In the anti-climatic days that followed, as my daughter took regular photos of bare earth, it occurred to me that her wait for a flower garden was not so different from my wait to see if my competition stories will yield a crop this year…or not.

Both processes start early in the year: while gardeners are preparing the cold February earth, short story writers are getting their competition entries ready.  Spring is the time for planting in the garden as well as the time for most short story competition deadlines so both seeds and stories need to be in before it gets too late.

Then it is the long wait.  While my daughter waters the bare earth, I monitor social media and websites for the first hint of results.

Hooray!  A few seedlings have broken through the soil!  And two stories have made it onto long lists!

But there is a long way to go.  There are slugs and late frosts….and long listed stories that wither away before the next stage.

As the Spring days lengthen and the sun warms up towards Summer, the young plants are looking more sturdy and – with luck – a story or two might appear on a short list.  Water, wait and hope!

Will the buds open?  Will we have a bank of pretty flowers or, better still, prize winning blooms?

There’s nothing we can do but wait and see what Summer will bring.

Except, of course, my daughter is already planning for Autumn.  Some pumpkins perhaps?  And she’s right to plan ahead: there are plenty of September competition deadlines too.

And maybe something slower growing: she’s looking at trees while I have started plotting my next novel.  Maybe one day, we will sit in the shade of a sturdy tree and read my book together.

After all, that’s another thing that gardeners and story tellers share: the ability to start with a blank space and imagine something beautiful growing there.

What’s growing in your story garden?