Requiem for a Bren gunner

I asked Don if he had ever killed a man.

He looked up slowly from his beer….shot me one of those sideways glances, you know, not engaging, not fully locking on. Looked around the bar. A shadow passed fleetingly over his deeply pock marked countenance, and, exhausted, looked down once again at his drink. Sighed. Shifted, barely perceptibly on his stool, cupped his hands. Sighed again. And I knew he had. Killed a man. Maybe more than one man.

But he took awhile to confirm what I already knew.

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Don was one of my regulars, you’d maybe call him a bar fly. He was also a Bren gunner.

I was working shifts in and around Crouch End in between acting jobs. It was 1982, March – I remember clearly as my birthday falls at the end of the month – and we were effectively at war with Argentina. The talk in the bar was about war, how we were going to take it to the Argies, get our territory back, kick them back to where they had come from. There was much patriotic, gung ho talk. A lot of bravado, not always from men who could deliver.

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Don, who was more often or not accompanied by his wingman George, an albino, similar age, late 60s, alcoholic, was ambivalent about the impending carnage in the Falklands. But, unlike most of the younger regulars in the bar, had experienced war first hand. From the business end, as he used to say – but he would never be drawn on his experiences. There was a tacit agreement, it seemed, that those engaged in that war would not discuss what they had been through. It was their prerogative.

After a fractious start to our relationship as barman and punter – Don had demanded i changed a beer which he deemed flat after sinking the best part of the pint – we gradually struck up a rapport. Don had recently lost his wife, and, like his pal George – also a widower, although I could never work out what poor soul might agree to married life with George – had concluded the best way to while away a few hours in the middle of the day was propping up the bar at the Queens Head in Crouch End.

It was one of those old gin palaces, now fashionable. In those days there was little to rhapsodise over. The Queens Head was a shabby joint, with filthy, beer sodden carpets and nicotine stained walls and ceiling. Impeccably grim, but If you were momentarily detained, you may have seen fleeting ghosts of the regulars down the decades. Don and George, solemnly contemplating their mid day beers, had already taken on that deathly hue synonymous with men of that generation. Grey men, in the autumn of their lives, from time to time allowing their minds to dwell on the past and what might have been.

I recall Don had very large hands – I remember thinking that, like George Foreman, he had killer fists. Despite the passing summers, Don was a big bloke who could clearly still look after himself. I liked him. A Londoner, he’d joined up when called, did his duty, as he said, that’s what we all had to do. He looked at me plaintively. What else were you going to do? It was war.

Draining his third pint and cocking his glass towards me for a refill, Don looked across at George, sighed again, loudly, and said, finally, after taking in a deep, deep breath….yes, I killed men. I killed a lot of men. And you know what, I can still see …I can still see….I can still see all their faces. He whispered. They were young men, like you, young men. Yes, I killed men, he said, his gaze now falling quietly on a group of builders in for a lunchtime beer and shouting loudly about how we were going to reclaim the Falklands and that the only good Argie was a dead one.

Don stared down at his pint, lit another cigarette and, in his slow, deliberate north London argot allowed a fleeting glimpse of the demons he carried with him over those long years.

I was 22, we were in France – Normandy – it was late October 1944, we were just outside Caen, some little village, I don’t remember what it was called – they all looked the same – but it was right on the front line.

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We had to hold the village. There was one night, it was so very cold, a clear night and we had not slept and were hungry and had not been resupplied…the Germans kept counter attacking – it was scary as there was so many of  them. I was a….Bren gunner, said Don. Do you know anything about the Bren? He locked onto me, holding up those huge hands, making a trigger action.

I shook my head, no Don, only the sort of stuff you see in old war movies, but….no, I don’t .

Fucking gun, incredible fucking thing, fired 540 rounds a minute. A minute, 540 rounds  A FUCKING MINUTE said Don, now animated, for the first time looking up from the bar, glancing behind him, then sinking back down, almost as if he did not want anyone to hear him. He dropped his voice to barely a whisper. George motioned to me for another beer, and then leaned in to Don. George put a steadying hand on Don’s left shoulder. It’s alright mate, you’re….you’re alright mate….

Don stuttered, mumbled, and then got off his stool, sank the remainder of his pint, slammed the empty glass down on the bar, and then assumed the stance of a Bren Gunner. He’s on his feet, crouched, shoulders slightly stooped with the imaginary weight of the machine gun. I’m worried. Worried that Don is about to lose it.

Don is standing in the middle of the bar area, sweat glistening at his temples. But he is calm.

You see ..they were….they were ….everywhere, he said, voice now tailing off. Exhausted, Don sank back down onto his stool and gestured for another beer. Quietly now. We were waiting for them, probably a platoon, they came up on us, bunched up far too close together, I was surprised like, you know, the Germans were good, we always thought they were the best, but who knows, maybe they were tired, i dunno, it was the middle of the night, but when they were nearly on us I ….I …Don, rose to his feet again , now swaying slightly, brought the Bren up to a firing position, and pulled the trigger.

They all just ….just fell over…..they all went down….and then it was quiet. You could have heard a pin drop, said Don, slowly lowering those pile driver fists.

Now the braying from the young builder contingent in the bar fell silent. A real warrior was present among them.

Don looked at me, expressionless,  frozen, and I saw then in the refraction of his grief that night in northern France a tiny village with a handful of nervous young men facing other young men who were determined to kill them and I heard cascading down through those long years the harsh bark of Don’s  Bren gun and the screams of the dead and dying. I saw the cold moonlight playing on the bodies of those who Don had cut down. And I heard the silence of death.

Don, like an actor caught momentarily in the spotlight, centre stage, turned slowly towards me.

It seemed like I was firing for ages, but it was just the one mag – it was probably no more than three or four ten second bursts…that’s all….that’s all it took..

Stricken with grief, tears rolling down the fissures of his grey face, Don stumbled back to his stool. Yes, you asked, and now I have told you.  I have killed men. George was silent. There was an awkward shuffling at a table adjacent to the bar. The silence resonated.

Don stared at his reflection in the faded, cracked mirror and I saw there his place in the universe and his life which started and ended in a small village in France nearly 40 years previously. But it was a life.


Last orders for a fly boy – oh, how we did weep….

I’d never met a fighter pilot before. I don’t know what they were supposed to look like, but when I first met Colin, reeking of sour whisky and leaning laconically against the massive concrete mixer he operated on the sprawling construction site back in that harsh winter of my youth, I found it hard to believe that he had flown Spitfires in the heat of combat. That he had killed opponents – warriors – like himself.

But he had.

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Almost 30 years before we met, and spent long evenings animatedly debating the climb dynamics of an ME 109 and the rate of fire from a Spitfire Mark 3’s eight wing mounted Browning machine guns, and what it was like to feel the cold sweat clamming over you when you threw your kite into a dive at 30,000 feet because you had two hostiles closing you down out of the sun, Colin was a front line pilot with 783 Squadron.

The Firm, as he called it, was ironically based barely three miles from High Wycombe, where we found ourselves working on the site which was being built to house currently serving US Air Force personnel.
There were many characters passing through that site back then. Work was pretty easy to come by, and if you didn’t mind the occasionally back-breaking nature of it and could adjust to the harsh conditions that went with the territory, then it was not a bad life.

I was drifting myself back then. I didn’t have a plan, thought maybe one day I should get myself a proper education, who knows, even a proper job, but for the time being I was happy enough driving a dumper truck on the site, building up my young body, getting strong, having a laugh on a good day and getting a weekly wage, solemnly handed over by the terminally depressed looking site agent on a Friday afternoon. The boys called him The Wasp – because he’s always fucking buzzing around getting in your face, said Frank the Slab Layer. The Fucking Wasp. I liked that.
It was all cash in those days. I took home around £46, the notes tucked neatly into a small brown envelope. The envelope had a window cut into the middle, the tenners and fivers tantalisingly revealed inside. Already I had mentally allocated where they would be spent.

Most of the men I worked with had alcohol issues. I recall one guy, a huge labourer from the south west of Ireland, Maurice – maybe 23 stone, massive – throwing up in a trench one searingly cold Monday morning.

Long night, Maurice, I asked pleasantly, looking down, perched as I was on the relative safety of my dumper, as he shuddered and shook, his terrifying bulk swathed in a filthy donkey jacket.

Jesus fucking Christ Lord God Almighty, whispered Maurice, his huge, spade-like face ghostly white, haunted and haggard despite his youth, framed against the translucence of that freezing late November morning.

Hell of a night alright, he managed a watery smile, before exploding into a coughing fit. A lock in. The van picked me and Frank up from the pub early this morning. What a fucking night – he pronounced it foook-in’.

Could be a long week, I heard him say to himself, as he picked up a shovel and dug deep down into the trench, could be a long week.

Most of the men drank steadily through the day, one way or another. Morning nips from well-used flasks were common, as was the obligatory dart to the pub to neck a few pints on a lunchtime – and it always struck me as miraculous that there were not more fatal accidents, such were the levels of drunkenness on site at any time of the day.

But Colin, who kept himself by and large to himself, could drink most of his fellow labourers under the table.

One Friday, late afternoon in early December, as the day was closing in and ice was already starting to form its familiar criss-cross patterns on the pocked puddles which punctuated the site, we all downed tools, shuffled into an orderly line, and picked up the brown envelopes.

Piling into one of the death trap vans perennially on hand to whisk us down to the Jolly Angler pub – a true horror of a drinker if ever there was one – I found myself in with around 15 blokes, most of whom were hell bent on getting as drunk as skunks as quickly as possible.

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The Jolly Angler had a terrible jukebox which only ever played four songs, as I recall. Rock Your Baby, by George McCrae, Wichita Lineman by Glenn Campbell – which would incidentally always bring a tear to my eye once I had downed a few beers, Angie by the Rolling Stones, and a haunting, tragic Danny Boy. When the latter came on – as it did many, many times throughout the evening, the boys, many pints up, would throw their heads back and howl, oh-hhhh….

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Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling.
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side.
The summer’s gone, and all the flowers are dying.
It’s you, it’s you must go and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow.
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow.
I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow.
Oh, Danny boy, oh, Danny boy, I love you so.

Once they had sung, and the song had finished, there would be tears and then, in those long and cold nights as I fought to make my transition from boy to man, I would marvel silently at these enormous men, gladiators, hard as nails, weeping silently into their beers, thinking perhaps of back home and girls who had got away, parents and families they had not seen for many a long year.

So we’re drinking and I see Colin, swaying unsteadily towards me, glassy eyed, huge, with one of those fly-boy moustaches glistening with sweat. He had me in his gun sight.

Colin is a big guy, around 6.2, gangly but very strong. He clamps one of those big paws on my shoulder, cobalt blue eyes boring into me, and tells me how it was to put your kite into a dive at 37,000 feet and hammer down towards the 109s escorting the bombers far, far below.

He is very drunk, topping up over the day, now making sure he gets properly shit-faced before having to return to the solitary horrors of the caravan.

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Did you really fly Spitfires Colin, I asked, not wanting to doubt him, but wondering, did he, did he really sit in the claustrophobic space of that cockpit all those long years before. Did he take off into the grey light of dawn with death on his mind as a young man barely older than I was then.

Came over in ’42, Hell, kid, I didn’t ask for it – we got called up, I could fly a kite, was brought up on gliders, then officers air training corp at college, next thing I know I’m on the fucking banana boat over here. They gave me three weeks training on Spits, then you’re on your own.

Colin was leaning against the fag-stubbed bar, pulling on his thirtieth Camel of the day and ordering a pint of watery lager to chase the whiskeys he had lined up.
The more he smoked, the more he drank, the closer Colin leaned in towards me. The whiskey fumes threaten to overwhelm me.

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The kite is bucking and kicking, you’re hitting past 600 and you’re thinking the wings are going to tear off, he whispers.
Colin stands up from his stool, unsteadily, and you know he is back in the cockpit, thumbs hovering over the gun buttons. He has not changed out of the threadbare sheepskin coat he wears from dawn to dusk on the site, and the long since faded and greying once white polo neck sweater is liberally daubed with beer and ancient food stains. His ill-fitting trousers hang loosely from his now emaciated waist, and the site boots he still wears are deeply encrusted and caked with an off green mud.

And you’re looking at your airspeed indicator which is going off the fucking scale, and you’re running the gun checks and adjusting the sights and wondering if any of those fuckers have sneaked out onto your tail, and you are thinking, you are thinking, fucker it’s me or you and it ain’t gonna be me, oh no not today.

And you’re there – what, it’s been maybe a 15 second dive to get down to the 25,000 and there they are all over the fucking sky and I lock onto one of the outriders – you know, he’s like riding shotgun for those fucking bombers – as if they can just waltz in and drop their bombs all over us – and he comes up in the sights and I hit the gun button….and….and…
Colin wobbles, steadies himself against the bar rail, stumbles backwards momentarily, before composing himself. Suddenly he is ram rod straight, now transported back to a tiny cockpit high above the Kent down-lands framed against a deep blue sky, the white trail of aviation vapours and staccato blasting of wing mounted machine guns and sharp tang of cordite lingering somewhere in the distant rim of a fading consciousness.

We were standing at the bar. No-one was saying much, but watching Colin, wondering what he was going to do next. Very slowly, he bowed his head, fumbled for his whiskey – brought back those massive shoulders, slugged back the drink.

I got a few, you know, he said quietly. Always difficult to prove a kill, but yeah, I got a few. Colin, now swaying, barely discernibly, held one hand above the other, demonstrating how he came up behind his enemy in a 600 miles per hour forward dive.

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He’d come out of the sun – my wingman, dude called Charlie Johnson, Charlie, who didn’t make it back that day, had shouted for me to break and I managed to flip the Spit out and over, rolled back into the dive and I swear to all that is good and Holy that I saw that boy and he was a boy glancing over to me as he flashed past. Kid didn’t believe that he could have missed me.

His fucking mistake, Colin grinned at me – I cut him out when he was turning into his climb to come at me again in another pass, locked him on and gave him a two or three second burst and – boom – he was gone. I watched him go down, said Colin, lighting his umpteenth Camel of the night and slugging back his whiskey, sinking exhausted back onto the grimy bar stool.

Danny Boy was on again, and the boys were singing along tunelessly, mournfully. Colin, head bowing now, looked up at me, eyes no longer focused. Can you sing, kid, he asked? Me, no, rubbish at singing I am Colin. Do you, I asked? I used to sing kid, used to be able to hold a tune, just like I used to be able to climb into a kite and climb up into the sun and go to war.

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I used to, he said, slumping forward now onto the bar as the day and the week and the long years that went into Colin caught up, finally. And in that night I looked into his cold blue eyes laced with shimmering lines of red and saw there the darkness and solitude that he took with him 30 years before as he climbed up into the morning sun to meet his enemy.

And so we stumble forward into the world, heads set silently against the wind and knowing that we must go on or fail, and as the strains of Danny Boy echoed and faded around the decaying walls of the chestnut bar and Colin sighed and silently faded from my life I knew that dawns and the pleasure of the dawns for all of us had been afforded by Colin and his ability to climb into the tiny space of a fighter plane and know that he was, somewhere, loved.

I never saw Colin again after that long day’s journey into the frosty night. When I arrived on the site for work on the Monday, I swung past Colin’s caravan to bid him a good morning and to make sure he had survived the weekend. But he was gone, the few belongings he had also swept up, gone with him.

I didn’t think too much more about him, until one of the boys told me several months later that Colin had been found lying dead in a local bar after a particularly heroic session. There was no-one to claim the body, no known family. He rests in a lonely grave, just outside of High Wycombe and far from home.

He had, finally, been shot down. And I know he wouldn’t have wanted to bail out from this final tail spin.


Musings on Madrid - boom and bust in the beating heart of Spain

A couple of days before I arrive in Madrid, the streets of the Spanish capital were jammed with ‘Marches of Dignity’ demonstrators protesting at the government’s austerity measures.

Madrid Old CityUnder the slogan, “bread, work and a roof for all,” many thousands of Spaniards demanded an end to government budget cuts and debt payments they say are strangling the welfare state and helping impoverish the majority of Spaniards.

Spain is enduring horrendously high levels of unemployment, most acutely felt in its under 25 work force. Around 50 per cent of all working age Spaniards under 25 are out of work. Their frustrations were evident on that Saturday prior to our arrival, as the demonstration unfortunately ended in violent skirmishing – nothing like the horrors which tore through London in August 2011, but unsettling nonetheless.

While the UK is enjoying a steady return to growth, Spain, in common with Portugal and Greece – and to a lesser extent France – remains mired in a stubborn trough. And it is not looking like it will recover any time soon.

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Approaching the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza for the major Cezanne retrospective, I notice two elderly women, both destitute, slumped by the walls of this most imposing of galleries. Well-dressed Spanish bourgeoisie file past, barely sparing these desolate creatures a glance. I am reminded of George Orwell’s impressions of Madrid in the mid-1930s, when the great writer allied himself to the Socialist side during the bitter fighting of the Spanish Civil War. It was, said Orwell, a city of extraordinary contrasts, with unrelenting poverty rubbing shoulders with relative prosperity. Not unlike Orwell’s observations of Paris and also London in the 1930s.

But now Spain, once the go to destination for so many Brits wanting a place in the sun is one of the sick men of Europe, saddled with an economy which has thus far failed to drag itself back from the brink.

So why has the UK bounced back and Spain, which had also been enjoying a pretty good run up until the wholesale collapse of its economy at the end of 2008, been left behind in a cloud of toxic dust?

Whereas the UK’s recovery has been partly driven by a recovery in manufacturing demand, and a gradual return to pre-recession employment levels coupled with a booming financial services sector in London, Spain’s economy has been heavily dependent on real estate and construction since General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in the 1950s.

When the country’s banking system all but collapsed in late 2008, its construction and development industry went down like a pack of cards with it – and there was very little to fall back on. The tourist industry was also concomitantly hit for six, as fellow Europeans slashed their holiday budget. In short, no-one wanted to go to Spain.

What a difference a decade makes. Back in the 90s Spain’s economy roared ahead at nearly 4 per cent a year, leaving much of the rest of Europe marvelling at how the canny Spanish had done it.

Now the ongoing fall-out from the collapse has seen the country riven by bitter divisions. Inevitable in a country with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.

But wander around the streets of Madrid, and, I daresay, Barcelona and you will struggle to find many obvious signs of misery and economic hardship, my examples of the forlorn street women notwithstanding.

I wonder what George Orwell would have made of it all.


And quiet flows the Bosphorus…

I’m waiting for a tram in Istanbul’s majestic Old City.

It’s a late Sunday afternoon in mid-December, and the limp, watery sunshine filtering through the minarets of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque – or Blue Mosque as it is popularly known – is about to fade entirely.

It’s going to be a cold night. There’s a biting wind ripping through from the Bosphorus, and I consider jumping a cab. But the choked roads and furious cacophony of horns from the static traffic – Istanbul’s perpetual Achilles Heel – persuades me to take my chances with the jostling crowds.

Judging by the grimly determined countenances of my fellow passengers, I’m thinking it’s going to be touch and go, getting onto the next one.  Like everywhere in this teeming city, the tram stop is rammed. Locals returning from a day’s wandering around the maze of ancient streets with their families, tourists and workers finishing yet another long shift. An elderly man standing next to me sighs loudly, and then, like Moses parting the Red Sea, extends his arms, and astonishingly creates some personal space. He lowers himself gently onto a shoe-shine box, and waits.

He must be at least 75 years old – maybe 80. Gosh, I think, looking more closely at the deep rivulets carved into that striking face, this guy could be pushing 90.

He’s been out cleaning shoes all day – I noticed his own robust looking boots carried a gleaming, impeccable shine – and now he is grateful for a brief interlude, a sit down. Another long day closeth. A hard day, I don’t doubt. For that is the economy of the street, where hustling and badgering for a few Turkish lira a day is the lot of millions and millions of workers in Istanbul. With an official population of 13.9 million it is the second biggest city in the world and the furiously pumping engine powering one of the fastest growing global economies.

The lengthy shadows cast by earlier imperial masters – the Romans were quick to see the city’s potential for commercial gain back in 330 – resonate down through the centuries, and everywhere I look there is a relentless energy devoted to squeezing every opportunity for a few more lira.

But Istanbul is also a city of extraordinary contrasts, and for all the wealth pouring in to underpin the massive property and infrastructure development programmes, there is also a grinding poverty, where workers like my ageing shoeshine man labour all the hours under the sun for pitifully small reward. I’m told by locals that the typical take home wage in the city is around the £600 a month mark. For the more prosperous middle classes this can climb to around £4,000 – a salary nudging £50,000 a year can go a long way in this city. But the vast majority of workers earn nothing like this. Then there is the uber class, the rich, a relatively small pocket of entrepreneurs who have mined the city’s rich seams to be rewarded with gilded lifestyles way, way beyond the hopes and dreams of the indigenous population.

There is of course nothing new in this scenario – wander into downtown Shanghai or Mumbai and you will see extraordinary levels of wealth and ostentation rubbing cheek by jowl with extreme deprivation. It is the way of the world, and one senses that locals are too busy earning a crust – or simply too exhausted by the logistics of trying to access their places of work through some of the most congested roads in the world – to worry too much about the massive economic divides apparent in their community.

Sauntering along the river, collar turned up against the biting wind, I step into the road to overtake some dawdling teenagers, and leap almost out of my skin as the impatient driver behind the wheel of a Ferrari 458 blasts his horn before snarling down through the gears and fishtailing up the road, only to be stopped dead by the inevitable traffic jam which awaits a few hundred metres along. Extraordinary, I think, I’m almost taken out by a £175,000 motor in a city where the economy is officially classified by the IMF as an emerging market. Ferraris – and that’s not to mention the many, many other high end petrol muscle on liberal display – usually suggests to me that an economy has long since emerged.

While the likes of Spain and Portugal and – to a lesser extent, France – struggle to recover from the global financial recession, the Turkish economy expanded by 9.2% in 2010, and 8.5 percent in 2011, effectively making it the fastest growing economy in Europe. The country has long been on the Brit holidaymaker radar, but the vast majority of UK tourists head for the sun-soaked beaches of the south of the country, taking advantage of relatively low prices compared to France and other European destinations.

But you get the sense that they are missing out on the real Turkey, as evidenced by the vibrancy and hustle of Istanbul. It’s a city which never sleeps. Restless, eager.  A city still perpetually in search of itself. And if they can ever sort out the traffic jams, then who knows what the city can go on to achieve.

Taking my reluctant leave of Istanbul, I found myself heading out to the airport in the back of a beaten up yellow Fiat cab.

My driver was a young gunslinger, barely in his 20s. He greeted me with a beaming smile before tearing away in a screech of tyres, propelling me back in my seat, weaving in and out of traffic as fast as the straining engine would allow. The rear seatbelt had long since given up the ghost, and I resigned myself to a fraught journey, hoping for once that the volume of traffic would force a less frantic ride. I was wrong, of course, as my driver joyfully embraced the difficult conditions, roaring through heaving four lane traffic as if he were on a track day at the Nurburgring. Along the way, to take my mind off wondering how we would fare in a collision with an Audi A8, we had a fragmented chat about the local economy. Are you making good money, I asked the young Aryton Senna. Yes, yes YES, he said….it is all good. Very busy – good money to be made, especially driving to the airport, he shouted above the revving howl of the engine.

Lots of foreign people now coming to Istanbul, he beamed, swerving neatly in front of a brand new 5 Series BMW. I looked nervously at the speedometer. 120 kilometres an hour. I could feel the sweat building in my palms. That’s great, I said, wondering if the Range Rover hovering around a metre from our front bumper realised we were there. I hoped so.

Foreign people, developers, foreign MONEY, chuckled my young driver. It’s good. Good for Istanbul. Good for Turkey. Good for me……

Screeching up to the departures gate, I stumbled, dazed, out into the thronging crowds. Lots of people leaving, thousands more pouring in. To spend more lira.

GETTING back to Brighton, and running along the sea front, I’m thinking of the relative calm of my home city compared to the manic bustle of the one I have just left, and the contrasting energies of place.

I jog past the two guys still sound asleep on the covered bench looking out to the old pier, sleeping off the night before, I reckon, if the empty vodka bottles which are littered around are anything to go by. And I think back to the old guy waiting, with the patience of Job at the tram stop, and the dignity of his labour in a land where there is no safetly net, no bail outs, no State-provided pensions or benefits and I think, ok, each to their own, but while the streets and walk-ways of Brighton are liberally sprinkled with those who have long since given up on any ambitions to contribute to our economy for whatever reason, that is not an option for the shoe shine man or his millions of fellow workers all those long miles away in Istanbul.