Against the Clock

Review of ‘Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsü’ by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar


Dergah 1961 (17th Print 2012)

This wonderful book tells the story of Hayri Irdal, a man adrift from the times he lives in. He begins as a successful member of the Time Regulation Institute, but very quickly we learn that it’s all gone wrong and he proceeds to tell his rambling story. He grew up in the shadow of a clock called Mubarek (blessed) though his father occasionally cursed it as menhus (unlucky). He has a short apprenticeship with a watchmaker which shapes his life. The story unfolds through his childhood and his fathers ill-luck, particularly comic in respect to their adventures in gaining something from his rich aunt. He marries and is followed by wild rumours about an old beneficiary which somehow lead him to a stay in an asylum where he meets Doctor Ramiz who introduces him to Halit Ayarci, founder of the Time Regulation Institute. The institute itself is a monument to bureaucracy of the most pointless kind, large overbearing and terribly serious. It can’t last.

Through the whole book Hayri Irdal befalls a bewildering number of misunderstandings. His descriptions of his second wife and her escape into the evening matinee movie are hilarious. Hayri is constantly amazed by the world around him and how little he understands it. The book is a deep and darkly comic satire, occasionally veering into almost slapstick. It truly is a timeless classic.

The good news is that a new English translation by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe was released at the start of the year. I haven’t read the translation yet, but if its anyway as good as the original it’s well worth a read. There’s a review here and a rather wonderful post about the cover illustration of the Penguin version.

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (23 June 1901 – 24 January 1962) was a prominent Turkish author writing during the time of transition from the Ottoman Empire to the modern Turkish republic. He was born in Istanbul but as his father was a judge, moved frequently through his childhood. He taught literature at schools throughout the country and was a member of the Turkish parliament between 1942-46. In his writing he combines elements of Turkish and western literature with special interest in psychology, moving with the times, dreams and the effect of society on the individual. There is an annual festival held in his name in Istanbul each year.AHT Saatleri Ayarlama.indd

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Get Real


It can be easy to assume that life exists in the screen these days. It’s where work comes from and friendships are kindled and continued, it’s where we go for entertainment and distraction and, especially relevant in Turkey, our source for news. As I write there are 3 screens in front of four people in this sitting room. (One now replaced by a tiny square of cardboard and 6 disks, providing a far more engaging game.)

In order to pay more attention to the physical world around me I’ve started using Instagram to document things that catch my eye in the world around me. This gives me an excuse to get out and smell the flowers, get dirty in the soil and feel the raindrops (this counts as a rain song we’ve had a very dry winter, raindrops I promise to dance as you fall, when and if you do fall!)

So far I’ve looked closely at the blue of our hyacinth and the patterns in our wood pile. A paradox of the delicate and rough, each pretty in their own way.wpid-IMG_20140123_215012.jpg


Categories: Being Myself, Uncategorized | Tags: , | 3 Comments

Pinning the Butterfly

I’ve been putting off writing this blogpost. It feels a little like pinning down a butterfly. Flying around it creates wonderful glimpses of colour but I know if I don’t pin it down, it will flutter on its way and the memory of it will fade.

I attended a poetry workshop in the local university a few weeks ago. It’s the first time to my knowledge that an English-language poetry workshop has been held so I jumped at the chance to attend.

So I found myself sitting in the Turkish Australian Cultural Centre with an acting lecturer (as in one who lectures about acting), two English teachers (one of whom was American), several literature students past and present, and one genetic engineer. We sat expectantly looking at our fearless leader through flowers, feathers, wooden cats, incense sticks and scarves. Oh, and two stones, one small smooth marble and the other an odd-shaped water-sculpted stone from Bozcaada.


Image from Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University website

Robyn Rowland was our guide for the workshop. She’s from Australia but lives part-time in Connemara. With nine books published, she is currently working on poems about Suleyman the Magnificent.

Our first session was spent with the particulars, the nuts-and-bolts of poetry, and how the senses are stimulated by a good poem. After lunch during our second session we immersed ourselves in water. Pictures of waves and tsunami and dry lake beds (complete with warning signs for swimmers), and a pitcher of water to dip our fingers in. We talked and read some poems before meditation followed by writing. Afterwards we read our work in turn and finished an hour late without even realising.

The next morning we reconvened, this time on the topic of journeys. Not only did we have pictures of trains and rafts and hot air balloons, there were toy cars and trains too. After a discussion which nearly rambled off in unexpected directions, as the best journeys do, we had another writing session.

That evening Robyn had a reading at the campus downtown. Accompanied by students from the music department, Robyn read some of her newer poems, mainly about her time in Turkey. Some of the poems have been translated so we heard some in Turkish as well. The music was very good, a haunting rendition of “Uzun Ince bir Yoldayim” was a particular highlight.


Image from Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University website

It was a very stimulating few days and hopefully the start of some friendships too.

Categories: Being a Writer, Being Myself | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Falling Off the Wagon

It’s not been long. I’ve only been on the wagon (that would be the writing and blogging wagon) for the last month. I can already feel I’m flagging. Now I could say it started last week when I failed to get a post up, but that would be denying the scale of the problem.

It probably began before that when I spent a day idling and feeling blue. I did not write the two posts I had planned and I also refused to get stuck into the novel.

The next day was the same.

The next was worse. I had peace and quiet and a house to myself and I still failed to do what I had ostensibly planned to do.

So why the breakdown between apparent aim and reality? What goes wrong? I want to do something, I know it will take effort, I know the payback will be long term not short term so why not just do it?

I don’t know the answers and I’ve spent too much time trying to find them (otherwise known as procrastination…). So let’s ignore the whys and wherefores and move on.

One thing I’ve become aware of is that waiting is a bad thing. We all know how hard it is to exist in a state of vague uncertainty, will something happen or not, when will I be told. Must check the mail again. Last week was spent in this state, waiting to hear and waiting for the end of the school holidays. And having wasted a week in anticipation, the answer was negative and the waste is felt all the more.

But the children are back at school (after a happy dance yesterday morning from both of them!) and I achieved more yesterday than I did in the weeks before.

I know that being kind to myself will allow me to move on far more quickly than recrimination.

So another day, another post, another clamber back onto the wagon…

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An Uncomfortable Truth

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This post transported me back to the early days after moving to this town. When it was all new and foreign and different. We wanted out. We were not going to have children here, not going to buy a house here, definitely not going to send the kids to school here. Twelve years later here we are. Still here.

The town has changed in some ways; it’s a little prettier, has sprawled and is more crowded. There are signs of community at work, in town councils and civil initiatives. The shopkeepers are still rude and believe a customer only comes once (perhaps because of the atrocious service?). The tourist buses pass through more frequently. There is a single cinema where there were once two.

We have changed, doubled in numbers with both young ones in school. We bought our house and built a wall. We are aware of the advantages of living here; terrific views, a house and garden a walk from the straits, good schools, a quiet life. But our roots are shallow.

We are known at the fish shop, nodded at in the supermarket, recognised by our car. We have assimilated into the school community (only little more than a week to go before we reconnect!). We have settled into work. But we are at a remove. There are many reasons for this; living a little outside town, a strange atmosphere in work, hideous traffic downtown, a joy in being just by ourselves.

Reading about Seamus Heaney in the days since his death, it struck me how much a part of communal life he was. He knew his roots. He spent his life examining them and in the process strengthening them, inviting the world to feel part of them. But with those roots firmly planted, he took off into university life, to the States, to Dublin, to the Nobel. He gave generously of his time and became such a feature of arts gatherings in Ireland it’s hard to conceive of one without him.

I am floating, suspended somewhere between Ireland and Turkey. In this internet age living a dual (or more) existence is more and more common. This has little to do with the physical location we live in, that may always have some disadvantages. And if it does we can live too much in a place that doesn’t exist, spread between all our interests and not alive to the world immediately around us.

In many of Seamus Heaney’s poems the physical world takes centre stage. His descriptions are distilled so we feel and smell and hear. The musician’s tune, the spade through soil, the physical act of peeling potatos, all gain a larger relevance to the spiritual life of the poet and his readers. Again rooted, he takes flight and brings us with him.

Living in a less-than-optimal location, for any reason, affects moods, interests and even personality. It can block creativity or spark it into existence. The internet can make us feel part of a distant community or emphasise just how far away we are. In this interconnected age, the paradox that physical location matters so little, while still affecting us so much, is an uncomfortable truth.

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Categories: Being an Expat, Being Myself | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments



Review of ‘Bir Türk Ailesinin Öykusu’ by İrfan OrgaTurkLit

Translated by Dr. Arın Bayraktaroğlu

Everest 2009

I was a little confused when I bought this book. I thought as it was written by a Turk, that it had been first published in Turkish. I was wrong. It was first published in 1950 in the UK under the name “Portrait of a Turkish Family”. It was published in Turkish 44 years later.

It tells the story of İrfan Orga from his birth in 1908 until his mother’s death in 1940. It starts with a picture of a well-off extended family living in Istanbul with all the privileges of wealth. You can guess it can only go downhill from here…

The young İrfan lives with his young parents, his mother only 15 when he was born, and his grandparents, nanny, cook and servant in Sultanahmet. All is good, in spite of his grandmother’s dictatorial side and a strict grandfather. The details of his childhood are told with affection and warmth, even his circumcision is an event to remember fondly.

However just as young İrfan begins school the effect of the First World War begins to be felt. His grandfather has died, the family business is sold and little by little the servants reduce, a smaller house is bought and food shortages are spreading. His uncle and then father are conscripted. Then a fire destroys their house and all their savings. İrfan, his mother, his brother and baby sister stay a while with their grandmother who has remarried, but soon move on to a cramped apartment. Their mother struggles to find out where their father is, as news comes that their uncle and aunt have died. Their grandmother joins the household, full of rage that her new husband wrote her out of his will. His father died on the road to Gallipolli.

Now the family really begins to know poverty. From never leaving her house alone, his mother now walks the streets, bargaining for every penny. She finds a job sewing uniforms in a sweatshop in Gulhane. She becomes a more distant figure to the children which is cemented by the boys being sent to school in Kadikoy, separated for the first time. Two years later İrfan is brought home after illness and neglect at the school. His brother is sick, and when his mother finally sees him, she does not recognise him.

By 1919 things are beginning to look up, his mother’s handiwork is bringing in a little more money and the boys are sent to Küleli Military School to be educated by the government, with the stipulation that they then attend the Harp academy and serve 15 years in the military afterward. The school is more than a little disorganised, not surprising considering that the country was being invaded by Allied troops. From there the story continues with training in Anatolia, holidays in Istanbul. He joins the airforce in 1931 and is based in Eskişehir. He moves the family to join him and from then his mother weakens. She begins to act oddly, believing İrfan’s grandmother wants her dead. Eventually she is committed.

This book was both intriguing and incredibly sad. Many of the relationships are dysfunctional, some by virtue of circumstance more than anything else. There is much anger unspoken throughout the book. Some actions are very hard to understand and yet it is easy to see the ripples spread out through the future relationships. A sense of helplessness and being tossed about by waves of external circumstance is very strong. And yet the pacing is such that you keep turning the page, wanting to know what comes next. Hoping it will be better.

One part I found particularly interesting was when his mother first refuses to cover her face when out in public. His grandmother is incensed but his mother is aware that times are changing and as she steps up to head the family, she will step out in public too.

One thing that could have been expanded on was the incredible changes that Turkey went through during those years. Living through the War of Independence while in military school would surely have brought some insight into the confusion of life in allied-occupied Istanbul. He mentions viewing Ataturk’s body after his death but does not tell us much more, especially surprising when it turns out that İrfan Orga was a friend of Ataturk’s adopted daughter Sabiha Gökcen.

There is an afterword where İrfan’s son, Ateş, tells the rest of his father’s story in brief. His marriage to an English woman, move to the UK and relationship with his son unfortunately carries some of the same sense of loss that marked his early life. He died in 1970 aged 62.keverest95676


İrfan Orga (October 31, 1908 – November 29, 1970) was a Turkish fighter pilot, staff officer, and author, writing in English. He published books on many areas of Turkish life, cookery, and history, as well as a life of Atatürk, and a universally admired autobiography (Portrait of a Turkish Family, 1950). He also wrote two educational books for children. Orga witnessed at first hand not only the hardships of war, but also the Allied Occupation of Constantinople, the end of Ottoman Empire, and the birth of the modern Turkish republic. In 1942/43, while he was in the UK on a three-year diplomatic posting from the Turkish Air Force, he met a young married Norman-Irish woman, Margaret Veronica Gainsboro née D’Arcy-Wright. Since living with a foreigner was then a military offence in Turkey, Orga, having resigned his commission in early 1947, eventually fled the country for the UK, arriving in London just before the Christmas of that year (in absentia, he was convicted and fined in an Ankara court in September 1949). He never returned. After Margaret’s divorce was finalised in January 1948, they married. 

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Outlining the Plan

One of the things that aids a good procrastinator, sorry I mean distracts a good writer, is that there is endless debate about the best way to go about writing.

So first you must decide if you are a planner or not. This refers to whether you will plan your manuscript to the last comma before setting pen to paper or whether you just sit down and let it all flow freely.

I’m not sure either of these extremes really work. Any time I’ve just written I’ve ended up with a rather large rant about whatever happens to be bugging me at the time. Therapeutic, definitely; good quality reading, not at all. And most importantly not a good foundation for something as large as a novel.

I tried to emulate a good friend and her exhaustive planning and research but it sucked the, admittedly fragile, spark of enthusiasm out of me. The planning was tiring and tiresome.

I did find something helpful in the National Emerging Writer Programme when Carlo Gebler described writing as similar to stringing a tightrope between two points (in the Start at the Beginning video). You know where you start and have an aim in mind and then whatever you do, you don’t look down. Just keep going until you reach your goal. I’m not sure I’ll write an ending just after my beginning but I did think it was important to know where I was heading. So I started to outline my story. I found these rather helpful questions and I’ve worked my way through them. And I know where I’m starting from and where I’m heading.

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Now again there are a million ways to go from here. I’ve already done a bit of work on my characters. I know who they are and roughly what their lives are like. I know their timelines though this may be subject to revision. I haven’t done a huge amount of research as this appears to be a large black hole of procrastination. There are some dates I need to be aware of but that’s about my limit for the moment. If something comes up as I write, then I’ll reconsider. I’m trying to let the writing lead, not the other way around.

I feel I need to do some blocking, just as a stage manager would. This group over here for that, seeing where and who the main players will be at any point. It’s not going to be particularly thorough. My aim is to make sure that there are no major problems in my timeline and give me a rough road map for writing.

At some point during my avoidance of outlining, yes even having decided to do it and knowing the value there is still resistance to be overcome, I realised something – bribery is a good thing. There I was thinking it was only good for keeping the children in line, but now I’ve realised it can work for me too! I can bribe myself too. So when I finish the first draft I will reward myself. The first draft is only the beginning I know, but with writing being the problem for me, finishing the first draft is my first major goal.

And the great thing is it gives me a focus for my procrastination…

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Cloudy Weather

Review of ‘Bir Sonbahar Akşamı’ by Sait Faik AbasıyanıkTurkLit

Edited by Raşit Çavaş

Doğan Kardeş Kitaplığı/Yapı Kredi Yayınları 2009


My first encounter of Sait Faik was a TRT series way back in 2002. It was called ‘Havada Bulut’ and took place on Burgaz Adası where Sait Faik lived. Bearing in mind that my Turkish was pretty poor back then my impression was of a sad man with an altogether too-inquisitive postman, a quiet thoughtful man, an outsider in his community.

From reading more about his life he obviously lived a lot more than the series gave the impression of. He was from a well-off family, taught a bit, failed at business and eventually lived off his inheritance and his writing. He lived in Beyoğlu and Burgaz Island and died of cirrhosis at the age of 48.

The stories in ‘An Autumn Evening’ are observations of ordinary life. The young man’s grief in Semaver, a trip from train station to hotel in Meserret Oteli, the inquisitive postman in Havada Bulut. The stories skirt the dark side of life in many cases; a woman gets no help from her community in Kim Kime, workers troubles in Şahmerdan where one ends up in the water, the other bleeding on the dock. In many cases the stories are more internal, the struggle between the life led and the ideal, the hoped-for. A man is transported to his innocent childhood by two glasses of milk in Süt, only to return to the straitjacket of everyday life as he steps into the street. As in many Turkish stories what remains unsaid is nearly more important than what is spelt out. The stories capture the everyday details, the slight fear of what a stranger will look like, the response a query will evoke.

The outsider observes in many of the stories but that does not convey how sensual some of them are. We drink and smell the warm milk, scan the skies for the last birds, feel the flurry of snow through the teahouse door. The language is deceptively easy. Reading you get carried away by it, his descriptions are magical. Attempt to translate any of it, as we did in a session with Maureen Freely in the spring, and you realise just how much he packs into a single sentence. Past, present and future, kaleidoscoped with description and emotion.

There’s much more to say about this book but I’ll sum up by saying read any Sait Faik stories you can find and make up your own mind. This book is one I’ll return to again and again, as each reading reveals another aspect of the stories. They are among the Turkish classics and rightfully so.


Sait Faik Abasıyanık “created a brand new language and brought new life to Turkish short story writing with his harsh but humanistic portrayals of labourers, fishermen, children, the unemployed, the poor” according to Wikipedia. He was born in 1906 in Adapazarı. He was educated in Bursa and studied in Switzerland before living in France for three years. After teaching and business he devoted his life to writing in 1934. He died in 1954 of cirrhosis diagnosed the previous year. His house on Burgaz Island is a museum run by the Darüşşafaka Society.

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Words on the page…


Anyone who mentions how many thousand words they throw out before breakfast, anyone at all on the #amwriting hashtag, any completely unhelpful “10 great writers who wrote prolifically” get THE LOOK from a not-writer. The one that says – I’m trying to be cool here but the truth is I’m jealous and will now resort to making personal comments because my argument really is that weak.

So why not just write? You’ve got these ideas you say, characters and plots and so on, so just get it down. It’s what a writer does.

Here’s where I have to admit something – I am ambitious.

It doesn’t sound so terrible but there’s something else I have to admit – I am impatient.

And when ambition combines with impatience it’s a recipe for disaster. It means that every word, every phrase, every sentence is criticised before it’s even complete. Criticism is one thing, but the factor that kills creativity dead is the judgment. Everything is judged as though up for the Man Booker, for the Pulitzer, for the Nobel and even for the Oscar (screenplay, adapted).

You see, before I have even got a word on the page I have already been through the writing (easy), editing (super easy), publishing (bit difficult, but not my problem) and critical acclaim (super ego boost amazing). So when I finally write a few words they don’t live up to the critically acclaimed, award-winning novel that I’ve not written.

And it gets worse – it’s damn hard to get those words out. Hard and then they’re rubbish, what gives?

So within less than a paragraph I’ve hit headlong into a wall of discouragement. I go make some coffee and eat some chocolate and browse the internet until my time is up and I have to go do other things.

The next day I sit and I see the discouragement seeping out of the file on the computer. I ignore the sensible self who says practical things about needing to write words, about writing being the reward, about starting being half the battle and finishing the other, just do it. Instead I allow lack of motivation to take hold. I skip any words at all and go straight to coffee and browsing.

And then before I’ve noticed six months have passed and I am still a part-time not-writer.

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Oh Well!

A few days ago I came across a post by Chuck Wendig that summed up a quandary I’ve been in lately. When I say came across I actually mean read in my Feedly because I follow his blog. But that sounds boringly practical, so instead imagine me wandering aimlessly through the wild grasses of the internet before stumbling over the tree stump of enlightenment.

The post just consisted of the flowchart below…

9456250274_647a048802_bAnd I was forced, as all devious flowcharts force you, to ask the questions and probably more surprising, I actually answered them honestly.

“Do you write?”


“Oh well, not a writer.”

So that’s that then…

Truth be told it’s a bit of a relief. It means I’m now free to take up knitting, deepen my bread-making skills and finally get The Entertainer down pat on the piano. It will mean more quality time with the children and no more hours of guilt when work and housekeeping get in between me and the blank page. I can read without trying to deconstruct and generally relax.

There’s just one small problem with this picture of content. I spend my days thinking of characters and stories, plots and settings. I can’t stop thinking about these things. I have tried. I have tried to ignore but the characters don’t go away. I don’t sense any great impatience from them, just a weary kind of waiting – we’re here and we’re not going anywhere.

The other thing is that my not-writing is what is preventing me from doing all these other things. I don’t feel I can devote myself to other creative endeavours because I haven’t done my words, I haven’t achieved my daily goal in my main field of interest, so I’m not allowed play in any other areas.

I am the one holding these poor characters in limbo (a rather apt location considering they all seem to be Catholic, though some would definitely go with the doctrine, while others would pine for the days when limbo was a “real” place). They want me to tell their story and I’ll admit I’m reluctant. It leads me into areas I’m not sure I want to deal with.

This is fear talking. Fear of speaking out, of saying things that will upset someone, of being honest. It kills a writer dead. But I’m not going to let that happen. I’m going to face the fear and write what needs to be written.

In short I am the cause and the solution.

And I am a writer.

Categories: Being a Writer, Being Myself | Tags: , | 1 Comment