Three months ago I set off for London to fit out my new canal boat. It doesn’t seem a long time but for a number of reasons it sometimes felt like an eternity. So much had happened in that small window of time that it is hard to know where to begin. Perhaps it’s easier if I just take up where I left off, which was my approaching transformation as a novice buying the shell of a boat to a person now capable (most of the time) of cruising along the canals of Britain. I also spoke about the up and coming election in Turkey, called more than a year early because of the countries rapidly slowing economy, which to no one’s surprise was won by Recep Tayyip Erdogan in June.
My plan had always been to fit out my boat in the relative cool of an English May. However, for various reasons the delivery slipped repeatedly so I didn’t fly to London until the end of that month and arrived during an afternoon of light rain. That was to be the last rain I would see until I left the UK almost 10 weeks later. The boat was finally delivered to me at a marina in Watford in the 3rd week in June. But by then June had proved to be unusually hot and prone to heatwaves… certainly not a good formula for heavy lifting and fitting out work inside the hull of a steel wide-beam riverboat. The heat pushed into the low to mid 30’s on many days and the surface of the canal quickly bloomed with a thick pondweed that even the coots and moorhens struggled to push themselves through. Some places where we stopped were also plagued by flies. So by the time I left London the Grand Union Canal felt more like some fly blown tributary of the Amazon or the Congo than the main riverboat artery through the capital.
Still as with any difficult project worth doing it eventually came to an end. Despite the tens of thousands spent trying to feed the fit-out in a just in time way and the layout changes and adaptations made and sometimes remade just to keep things moving – I am very happy with the result. I now have a wonderful floating home in England to escape to anytime I feel like a change from the tensions and drama that more and more reflect on our ability to enjoy living in an amazingly polarized Turkey. A Turkey where it seems you either love or despise the President and his party, with very little room in the middle for the very few who declare they remain politically uncommitted.
Predicted by many economic commentators the ongoing slide of the Turkish economy towards recession on the back of a rapidly devaluing Turkish Lira and soaring inflation was not unexpected. It was, as I said the main motivation for Erdogan calling the elections almost 18 months early. However, what has caught many out is the speed of that slide. In the week following the election the pound was sometimes trading at about 5.95 lira but less than a month later the exchange rate had crashed to almost 9 to the pound. The main cause – or so it seems – was an American pastor who few people had ever heard of not being released because Donald Trump wanted it to happen. The currency took a small hit as the rhetoric was ratcheted up on both sides. But it only went into freefall when Trump sent out one of his early morning toilet tweets imposing trade tariffs on Turkish aluminium and steel.
Like so many things Trump says and does this did not have its desired effect and resulted in even more entrenchment on both sides. It also gave Erdogan a golden chance to deflect some of the blame for the deteriorating economic situation in Turkey – which is actually as a result of reckless fiscal policies that so overheated the economy prior to the election. Instead the blame was levelled at the usual suspects of unspecified ‘outsiders’ or ‘the west’, or on some banking conspiracy and finally Trump – all of which was repeated and amplified by most of the cowed and now almost totally government controlled media machine in Turkey.
Eventually, the crisis passed and the currency slowly made a modest recovery but it was way short of where it was pre-crisis. However, it didn’t take long for contagion from the collapse of another emerging economies currency to hit the lira hard. And yet the average man in the street doesn’t blame bad fiscal policies or the crash of the Argentinean peso, which are the main reason for this week’s lira sell off, but once again they point to some amorphous plot from the west fed to them by government compliant news channels or newspapers. So while they will soon probably blame a hapless Trump again, despite him not tweeting about Turkey from his bathroom in weeks, I have yet to see one TV news item or newspaper headline in this country that is brave enough to apportion the blame for the looming crisis where it truly belongs – much closer to home.
Distracted by a steady stream of visitors and a number of game changing events I can only apologise for the late arrival of this month’s post. So to you concerned darlings who wondered where I was – I am not dead, in prison or off trekking in some distant jungle again – I have been here in Turkey all the time slowly preparing myself for what looks like it could be a big summer of change.
I finally ordered my canal boat for delivery early next month. Originally I was going to order something like the boat my brother ordered last year. Indeed, at one time I even suggested my specification would be nothing more detailed than “follow his 50 foot by 7 foot boat.” I should explain that canal living in the UK has sailed quietly along seemingly uninterested in anything as radical as decimalisation so nearly everything is referred to in feet and inches. This meant a certain amount a clawing back remembered fragments of the imperial measurement system, which we were all persuaded to forget as kids back in the 1970’s. Anyway, in the intervening months I have slowly persuaded myself by degree’s that a boat that size would be too small for myself and the cat to potentially live in one day. As a consequence it will now be a 57 foot by 11 foot (17.3 x 3.3 metres) wide boat that will be lowered into the water at Watford in a few weeks time. That is the easy part. The boat is only a sailaway, which means it is just a steel shell with an engine. The hard part will be the fitting out by myself and my brother. My own limited experience of all things nautical and DIY will thankfully be offset by his sound level of knowledge and skills but I will still make a willing labourer.
Here in Turkey summer seems to have come earlier than normal. I usually gauge the season by what I see on my daily walk. Tortoise numbers peaked last week, 2 weeks early after I sighted 7 in half an hour and my route had to change completely for a while after I realised the mating season for the deadly Ottoman viper had also arrived early. Another thing that arrived shockingly early here is election season after the President decided to call a general election for June the 24th. The fact this is almost a year and a half early has led many commentators to suggest that it is a panic move because of the deteriorating state of the Turkish economy, which will almost certainly be in a worse condition by the time the election was due in late 2019.
A quick look at the numbers may support this view i.e a full lira drop in value to the pound in less than a month from 5.55 on April 30th to 6.55 to sterling today. Also growing oil prices and a current account deficit that has grown to $16 billion for the first quarter of 2018, a shortfall that is almost double what it was a year ago. This has seemingly been caused by a big drop in foreign investment into Turkey something that continues to be exacerbated by Turkey’s active foreign policy such as its recent military interventions in Syria and changes in economic policy, which have caused high inflation in an economy already overheated by relatively low borrowing costs. A visit to the local market or shops will bear this out, with some items in particular 30% to 40% more expensive than they were just a year ago. Add to this the fact that a high proportion of my Turkish friends tell my they are struggling with debt after being bombarded for years with offers of bank loans, mortgages and credit cards and things begin to look a little more bleak.
All of the above said, this is still my home and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Yes I have taken measures to reduce my exposure to a weakening currency but I will still live here after the election and continue to contribute to the economy with my taxes. Quite where the country will head politically after an election that will hand any president vast new sweeping powers taken from Turkey’s parliament is anyone’s guess.
It will be a shame if Turkey becomes an even more authoritarian set up than the one we have watched evolve since 2011. By anyone’s measure the rule of law and things like freedom of speech or expression have continued to be eroded to the point that Turkey now sits at the top of the list for more writers and journalists languishing in jail. It is a fact there are more incarcerated here than the next two countries on that list (China and Egypt) put together. This is not a statistic to be proud of. As a writer myself, who once enjoyed the freedom to write pretty much anything I wanted, I have witnessed at first hand this tightening and narrowing of things you can and can’t express, which has created an atmosphere of insidious self censorship to the point that you almost end up writing in code, if you are brave/ foolish enough to discuss politics but want to avoid falling foul of the ever lengthening list of things you can and can’t say without risking arrest. Despite these truths I am one of the dwindling few who still hold onto a hope that the next phase in Turkey’s development will see an effort to actively heal the deep divisions that have opened up in this country so we can somehow find a way back to a place where other opinions and beliefs are not always regarded as threats but are, once again, actively tolerated and encouraged.
One way or another there is a lot happening this summer. Many commentators believe Turkey will change forever on the 24th June. But for the sake of this deeply polarised society I really hope it marks a chance for positive change. If not… then unlike most people here – I still have the option to leave the country. So who really knows; by this time next year maybe I will reluctantly have to say goodbye to my home of 17 years and may well end up living on that new boat I’m building somewhere on the river Thames.