Author, journalist and round-the-world record-breaker Julian Sayarer‘s writing has appeared in several issues of Boneshaker over the years. Here, in a special long-form feature from the road, he shares thoughts on an unravelling in Europe…
Four years ago, leaving the UK for the summer, I began what in my twenties had become a regular journey and set cycling to my second nation, Turkey, and the city of Istanbul. London was abuzz with Olympics and self-anointed ‘capital of the world’, Francois Hollande’s socialists had defeated Nicolas Sarkozy in France, Italy and Greece were embroiled in debt crisis and Turkey, though in less dramatic form and seemingly in its post-coup adolescence as a nation, was shut in its permanent condition of simultaneously both acceding to the EU and never acceding to the EU. In the end, I wrote a short series of on-the-ground European politics by bicycle, for the New Statesman.
Setting out to ride to northern Spain, and Bilbao, a week after Britain’s 2016 EU referendum, I had been aware of the likelihood I would end up doing something similar. Like many, where I had been wrong was in an assumption that the writing would be about a narrow victory for the United Kingdom to remain in the EU. That “we live in interesting times” has become, since then, the adage of the hour, though somehow it reads more as an oblique, profound confession that those who use it can no longer profess to understand what is happening. Particularly since the attempted coup of July 15th, it is clear that, for anyone with a stake in Turkish politics, times in Europe were interesting – and fatally so – well before June 23rd.
You can, nevertheless, understand the concern on the part of UK commentators and politicians. The murder of MP Jo Cox took a turgid, dismal referendum campaign and suddenly made it mortal rather than only political. The referendum result – turning predictions of a narrow victory for remain into a million-strong mandate to leave – puts us in unchartered waters whilst, as with the UK general election of 2015, confirming that the old methods of polling and measurement in those waters have become at least partially obsolete, so that we are clamouring in the dark. Finally, the evening of my leaving for France, 41 people were killed in a terrorist attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, my aunt having flown out that morning, and a further misery for the continent’s politics, but moreover a reminder that Brexit is far from the drama its warring language consistently sought to conjure.
How all this corresponds back to a bike ride out of London, through France and Spain, sleeping at roadsides and pedalling through minor towns along the way, consistently feels both entirely self-evident and also hard to define. With much debate of the referendum focussing all too late on the realisation of filter bubbles, cycling through countries, and away from any of the regular channels for doing so, suddenly feels like being in liminal and uncontrolled space. The internet takes us from one complete portal of information to the next, in many ways so too – aside from the hours inside the non-places of airports and aeroplanes, does air travel. Meanwhile, pedalling along a quiet road in central France, outside the town of Etampes, a Front National poster stands at the roadside, but has not gone without the attention of opponents endeavouring to peel it back, so that the image – though totally ordinary – has about it a sense of messy, clumsy reality. Everyone on the road will see the poster and its message (not only the audience of a specific website or profile) and both the propaganda and protest have become one image, so that the response is not sorted away, below-the-line and out of sight in a comments section. Where we have otherwise become accustomed to moving from one fairly absolutist idea to the next, the poster is its own historical record of a social issue and the reaction it prompts.
Looking back after a couple of weeks away, largely outside of my regular news consumption, it is telling how little actually happened. Andrea Leadsom dipped in and then out of the Tory leadership contest, saying ridiculous and borderline spiteful things about Theresa May and motherhood as she came and went, but the substance remained the same. Labour, similarly, simply plumbed different levels of disarray while I was gone. I missed some episodes, but was still well up to date with the series, and returning home caught up quickly and reached the conclusion that our approximate day-by-day or week-by-week news intake is important, though the hour-by-hour version we have come to ingest – even at such a changing time as this – is perhaps less so.
It is this sense of perspective and context, but so too the sense of a connectedness in events, that travelling by bicycle seems to inculcate. Mindfulness has become risky currency, bandied freely and for cynical motives such as demonstrating corporate commitment to employees’ mental health, not necessarily improving it; but travelling on a bicycle and thinking about the world has always had in it, since before the term became widely used, a great and powerful sense of what it is to be mindful. On the first day riding south, considering the circus I’d left, for some reason I recalled an old poster from Sky News, advertising the leadership debates going into the 2010 General Election, at the time a first in UK politics. An image had shown, in high-definition, a close-up on the cheek, eye’s edge and nose bridge of then Labour leader, Gordon Brown. It’s premise was that the debates, through Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News, brought us up close to politics so that we need not miss a thing. Six years later and political news, like most other media, obsesses over pixels and misses broader pictures, the whole time spinning this high-definition perspective as if it were some triumph of accuracy. To indulge another metaphor; we delight in describing each tree, all the time lost in the woods.
Frontiers, so pivotal to the debate about what it now is to be in Europe, similarly take on new meaning when travelling on a bicycle and, irrespective of national boundaries, living from only a tent stored over the back wheel reminds you how many frontiers we live with on a daily basis. The rooms in a house (shared or otherwise), the distinctions between pavement and roads in an urban environment, the events that charge a fee or do not, the crowded retail environments of a high street where brands and loyalties and subtle demands and offers butt-up endlessly against one another in different promises of what they should mean to us as individuals. Travelling through on a bicycle has in it far fewer frontiers, and in that setting a mind becomes free to drift further. Often when riding I think of the words of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the controversial but brilliant French writer of the twentieth century, and his words in the opening of his 1932 masterpiece-debut, Journey to the End of the Night : “Travel is useful, it exercises the imagination. All the rest is disappointment and fatigue. Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength.”
In riding south, my thoughts went consistently east to Turkey, and west to the United States; with Turkey a nation I count as a home, however distant, and the US a country where I have written extensively from the roadsides. Differently so, these countries represent various positions in the same extremes seen in both world politics, and so too Brexit. A belief in exceptionalism is a harmful thing, whether that is some positive vision of a national superiority, or a negative vision that imagines deep structural flaws and failings as merely the prevail of foreign lands. The long, torturous Brexit season brought to the surface much rot that had been largely hidden in UK politics, a country that – like others – makes light of the idea that the USA and its population are possessed of a somehow unique stupidity, arrogance, or disregard for the outside world. Extreme became mainstream, and – though it should not have happened anywhere – there is a tragic irony that it was we who were left to mourn a dead MP, after a year of looking with disdain at the dangerous levels of rhetoric and confrontation that the US was seeing in its age of Trump.
Substantial amounts of this, furthermore, have long been foreshadowed in a country like Turkey. The rigid walls of east and west, developed and developing, blind us to useful lessons in human interactions with one another, with politics and society, that are consistently taking place further afield. It is significant that, the day I left London, the bombing of Ataturk Airport came in response to the renewal of normalised relationships between Turkey and Israel and Turkey and Russia; an unusually clear ideological strike from actors whose regular trade is plied exclusively in hate and fear. Whatever the ugly, imperial posturing (played out in Syria) that marred Ruso-Turkish relations, and whatever the brutality with which Israeli-Turkish relations nosedived after Israeli security forces stormed and shot dead nine Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara aid flotilla to Gaza in 2010, there is no doubt that keeping diplomatic channels open between nations is a positive thing, necessary for the greater good of us all. In an age of hyperbole, breezy comparisons have become too common, but it seems harmful to ignore the commonality of worldview in Donald Trump’s wall with Mexico (not forgetting that a fence already exists), the leave campaign’s depiction of European union as harmful not constructive, and a fundamentalist attack against an airport and the idea of Turkish diplomatic ties.
Turkey has significance, however, beyond only its status as a gateway to troubles in the Middle East, and as the regular victim of violence emanating from its own and neighbouring conflicts. The country, more than any other, has come unwittingly to define Europe globally, and despite there being no likely time at which it will not be shut outside of the European Union. Not only does Turkey delineate Europe’s far frontier, it has become something of a clearing house for the continent, offering the buffer where Syrian refugees are kept, and to which they are repatriated, depending on the benevolence or otherwise of the EU’s refugee policies. It is, more dramatically, a sort of purgatory for European values, and the closeness with which the EU has been willing to engage with and appease the anti-democratic regime of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has presented a stern test of the its balancing act between expedience and morality that, if pressed, it can only be said to have failed. In exchange for people-hosting services in the nation’s east, the EU has made warmer overtures towards the AKP of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan than it did for many years when Turkish politics were in a far less violent and perilous condition.
Perhaps more significant, and of more immediate interest to Western European and North American politics, over the years Turkey has proven to be a good marker on cultural and political trends. Owing to determined twentieth-century efforts to settle a secular republic, the country, though far from a conventional western nation, has numerous western features. The outcome of a failed coup, with a population demanding a democratic and not a martial approach to political problems, shows a nation hardly European but also one that is neither Syria nor Egypt. As evidenced in the social media mobilisation the attempted coup prompted in opposition, technology and technological communication is widely adopted (Turkey has the world’s fourth-highest rate of Facebook usage) and now governs much social interaction and popular opinion-forming. The country has a dysfunctional political system but a political system nonetheless (Erdoğan has to change the constitution to legislate for his dictatorial intent); it has poor standards of universal education, but universal education; and it has institutions that govern society, though they are weak.
As western institutions are defunded or made vulnerable to market forces, our education systems monetised and students steeped higher in debt, Turkey’s bellwether status might arguably become ever more accurate, but to watch it closely for the last ten years has been to see much of what is lamented in a western politics now riddled with populism. Donald Trump and then Brexit’s disdain of experts and fact was reminiscent of 2012 criticism of theatre directors, in which Erdoğan attacked the “despotic arrogance” of intellectuals, similarly equating as much with their luxuriant tastes in, amongst other things, alcoholic spirits. While Erdoğan has, in recent years, authorised severe attacks against Turkey’s Kurdish population; much of his time in office has sought to sow division primarily along class lines, creating an atmosphere in which the “White Turks” of Turkey’s wealthy, (but more specifically) better formally-educated middle classes were pitted against an apparently more authentic version of the Anatolian Turk. As with the remain campaign’s often derogatory comments about leave voters, middle classes identifying the stupidity of those falling victim to the strategy only served to enhance its potency. Despite the AKP having presided over a dismantling of much that Turkey needed for meritocracy, transparency and social mobility, they remain the country’s single most popular party, and – football club style – offer evidence that people will vote against their own best interests, and even for totalitarianism, if they feel that what they get is what they voted for; they are – for once – on the winning side, and even if a demagogue is in fact sticking it to them, they are singing their praises in a way others have not troubled to. Meanwhile, there is often something to be said for sticking it to the perceived snide upstarts in a socially superior class. On the heels of images showing tanks on the streets of Ankara, there is no question Turkey is further along the continuum of an unravelling social consensus and the anxieties it brings; that said, the increasingly politicised nature of shootings in the US, and the void where an effective opposition party is needed in UK politics (not to mention the murder of an MP) should help clarify that there is no place for either isolationism or complacency in repairing our damaged social fabrics.
Perhaps as much as anything, Brexit showed that populations above all else seek a spiritual sense of meaning, and those meanings have to be found with a greater reflection and calm than contemporary politics and its discussion allows. The only thing that has been able to challenge that need for meaning in its pre-eminence has, for the last decade, been a faith in markets, and yet the spurned economic advice from directors at JP Morgan, and Mark Carney at the Bank of England, confirm that Brexit struck chords which instated a clear hierarchy in which a promise of meaning – however fraudulently created by the leave campaign’s principal architects – has come to be valued higher than markets. Nearly a decade since the financial crisis, people have grown numb to those eerily familiar threats of financial deterioration. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, which harkens simultaneously both back and forwards to a time when feeling and honesty governs politics, seemingly struggles to create a political alternative that will be viable within the mechanics and rigidities of our existing, first past the post and party-based systems.
There are no simple answers to any of what is happening. The news, amplified by the direct and deeply personalised nature of our relationships with those devices we consume it on, has a growing tendency to seem out of our control. The silos of information and opinion we live inside only demonstrate a tendency to first blind us to reality, and then reassure us convincingly when those things we feared but did not expect come surprisingly to pass. Political comment, for its own part, has a habit of looking more at formal events – at policies and politicians – than those people living very ordinary lives that cumulatively make up our nations and political systems. As I cycle through Europe’s towns and villages, I recall how much comment on both Brexit and the US presidential campaigns focussed on road trips, rental cars and a journalist travelling to places they otherwise would not. In a world of cost-saving measures, and fast communication from the ease of a single desk, it is now fetishised rather than assumed when opinion is formed from a journalist’s movements through the vast, imprecise lands of ‘out there’.
Rolling through Europe at its inherently humble pace, limited to the human scale and human immediacy with the real world around it, the bicycle offers some sort of reprieve from the pace of a world of screens. In it there is a slight concession to our impossible, inward desire that everything might do us the favour of, just for a moment, slowing down.
Julian Sayarer is the former world record holder for a circumnavigation by bike. He is the author of Life Cycles, Messengers and, most recently, Interstate (published October 2016)