Men in Sheds: A Celebration of The Den

I’ve written here before of how the men of fashionable Kemer Country build dens for themselves in the cellars of their homes, disappear there after work, and get up to God knows what!

But what is it that God knows they get up to, when down there? Do they watch porn, or gamble stocks and shares over the Internet? Maybe they simply view movies? Soccer, even in Kemer, is watched on the largest television available and this is generally in a family room – maybe a salon or even a dedicated home-cinema?

A stereo image

A stereo image

The tradition of creating dens goes back some time. The most stylish were perhaps first created in the Victorian era. They are called studies. There the master of the house could cheerfully smoke cigars and examine lewd photographs, possibly with a stereoscopic viewer. Only he would be admitted to this room. Parlor-maids may lay and light his fire, but the lower classes were paid to be so discreet that they became invisible, at least according to the dominant narrative of those times.

It is a mistake, however, to think of the den as the sole province of the idle, or aspiring rich. Common folk had their equivalents: lofts converted to dove cotes, outhouses containing cages filled with ferrets, and of course during the 1930s the rise of the ubiquitous garden shed. Here, we chaps, might build our model, or real, aircraft and, if there were a spare moment, service the lawn mower.

It matters not what activity takes place in these private spaces – save that they were then, and must even today remain sacred and private. For a while I lost control of my room. Mrs Bray moved into my study, started a business on a corner of my desk. Within a few years she had taken over the entire room. In the end we had to move simply so that I could breathe.

Now I once more have my own space I find myself, within it, servicing ‘the precious things’ that identify me as a chap. After such a long absence from these activities I had begun to think myself as an oddity but this past weekend when researching the properties of cigarette-lighter flints on the Internet I was amazed to discover just how many others are engaged in related all male preoccupations.

Someone took the trouble to make one video, lasting two and a half minutes, instructing us on How to Replace a Flint in a Zippo.

ZippoScanThe Zippo lighter is a classic American brand. It has managed the impossible by displacing cleaner, more flexible, butane lighters that dominated the market during my youth, with older, smellier, alternatives from an earlier era. The Zippo is perhaps today’s top brand. It has its own fuel, but it works when filled with gasoline, or aviation spirit. G.I.s did this during wars in Europe, and Asia. The brand was once advertised with an incredible story of how it worked after being recovered from the belly of a dead fish, although whoever penned that copy it was not Don Draper, the suave if psychopathic writer depicted in the AMC T.V. series Mad Men, who uses a Zippo in almost every scene in which he appears.

The number of projects created by men in sheds related to just this one brand is enormous. Some are testing different household flammables to use as lighter fuel. Others are modifying their Zippos with bicycle inner tubing, or paper clips. It’s suggested by one survivalist that you wrap luminous tape around your Zippo, just in case you drop it in total darkness. The same guy even went so far as to make his lighter a special leather case, although he omits to give instructions for doing so. Moreover, the leather case rather defeats the object of the luminous tape because if you drop the lighter in its case the luminescence can’t communicate itself.

There’s a video about carrying a Zippo even if you don’t smoke. In it the author asks if you get funny looks when playing with your Zippo during work breaks, or if you have amusing anecdotes about ‘carrying your knives, or flashlights‘!

Many of the videos commence with a list of items required. To do basic maintenance on your Zippo, for example, we are told you will need: “A Zippo lighter . . . (der), a pair of long nosed pliers, some flints, a spare wick, and some lighter fluid.

But what of my research on flints?

Here YouTube surpasses itself. Men seem as preoccupied with not wasting the flints in disposable BIC lighters, as finding ways around the cost of official Zippo fuel. Whilst one chap instructs us on: ‘How to remove the flint from an empty BIC, and cut it to size to use in a Zippo‘, others go one better by showing us ‘How to refill disposable lighters using map pins, and grommets purchased from Cosco‘. This process evolves in another unusual video into ‘How to make a disposable lighter refillable‘. The items required to do so include an electric drill. A gas valve inserted into the base of the lighter costs ten dollars, for which you can probably buy an inexpensive refillable lighter of similar quality, but that’s not the point. You are advised by this guy not to attempt to transform your dead BIC if you’re ‘no good with tools’!

One video even tests the strength of a Zippo lighter’s casing under gunfire to see if it might deflect a bullet and save your life.

This lighter fetish is just one variety of activities performed by men in their dens and sheds. There are many, many, more – take for example, servicing your collection of fountain pens and inks. Don’t go to  YouTube for information on these topics my friends. Should you do so you will be lost for days. There must be hundreds of examples of videos discussing ink, as well as how to sand the nibs of pens with fine emery paper to resolve those annoying scratchy sounds, which blight the lives of penmen.

I love the diversity of interests people have, their willingness to share their skills for free, and communicate with like-minded folk via videos over the Internet. It’s not true that men always waste time, boozing, watching football or consuming porn in the hallowed spaces of sheds and cellars. Indeed you are far more likely to find us inserting grommets into some disused widget to make an original, and useful, whatchamacallit.

Ransomware and The Tao

Sometime before Christmas some files on my computer became corrupted. At first I thought this was by chance but then, as time passed, and more and more files seemed affected it became clear that a virus had somehow got through and begun to affect the system. It turned out to be a polite form of coercion for on closer examination of files I found a courteously worded demand for $500 and a set of instructions about how to pay if I was to ever be allowed to use files that the virus had encrypted.


I won’t go into details as to how the money was supposed to be paid, suffice it to say that it was the digital equivalent of leaving home with a bag full of used and unmarked notes, receiving calls at payphones, and driving around the countryside at speed. For a fraction of the ransom demanded I was able to obtain software that removed the virus, and which continues to protect the system from all manner of threats, many of which I think we take for granted.

Unfortunately, those files that were encrypted couldn’t be saved. To my surprise I found myself unaffected by this even though they included the text of an entire book, and several original photographs. Where in the past I may well have cussed, and shouted in disgust, imagined that God and his angels were set against me, and perhaps even taken it out on the computer, which after all is simply a machine – I found myself insouciant.

Strangely, this unperturbedness also became a source of mild excitement. It was as if I were watching some other person than me calmly going through the steps necessary to correct the attack, whilst at the same time remaining confident that any loss of data might, if not a good thing, rather be simply as it must.

Some years ago I hired some young people to work on some projects for me. When they failed to deliver, as they had promised, they retorted: ‘It was never meant to happen’. This I found to be an irritating tautological defence, because on the one hand I agreed with them. I believed, even then, that the world is how it is rather than how I, or others may prefer it; and recognized that as a human being it’s impossible to control events. None the less, I was peeved.

This time I suffered no such discomfiture. I was immune to the attack upon my computer for even my work, much of which had taken hours, if not days to prepare, no longer seemed a part of me. Naturally, I started to question how this change within my personality had come about. I had not willed it, for indeed I had not the wit to recognize that such as state might exist and, if I had, that it could be such an enjoyable experience.

I remembered that my state of mind had a name in ancient China. Thomas Merton wrote of it:

Wu Wei

‘The true character of wu wei is not mere inactivity but perfect action-because it is to act without activity. In other words, it is action not carried out independently of Heaven and Earth and in conflict with the dynamism of the whole, but in perfect harmony with the whole. It is not mere passivity, but it is action that seems effortless and spontaneous because performed “rightly,” in perfect accordance with our nature and with our place in the scheme of things. It is completely free because there is in it no force and no violence. It is not “conditioned” or “limited” by our own individual needs and desires, or even by our own theories and ideas.’

Chuang Tzu (莊子) and a frog

Chuang Tzu (莊子) and a frog

As I write in Photography and Zen, the philosopher who wrote those words was a Taoist called Chuang Tzu. Unlike Lao Tzu, who many know through knowledge of the Tao Te Ching but may never have really existed, Chuang Tzu is documented as a real person who lived during the 4th century BC. His contemporary Confucius, a former government official, stressed discipline and effort as virtues needed to lead a noble life. These attributes, of course, are exactly what are required in order to administer a state.

Chuang Tzu, however, took a different stance:

‘Fishes are born in water
Man is born in Tao.
If fishes, born in water
Seek the deep shadow
Of pond and pool,
All their needs are satisfied.
If man born in Tao,
Sinks into the deep shadow
Of non-action
To forget aggression and concern,
He lacks nothing
His life is secure.’

The difference between the approaches of the two philosophers is that, where for Confucius, right mindedness is an active process demanding thought, discipline, ritual and effort – Chuang Tzu thinks of it as ‘forgetting’. I agree with him, for it was not by dint of effort that I overcame any feelings of disquiet when my computer became infected, but rather, a kind of emotional forgetting that I should be feeling upset in some way.

*All quotations from Thomas Merton (1970)’The Way of Chuang Tzu’, London: Unwin Books. Text copyright 1965 The Abbey of Gathsemeni

Photography and Awareness

Last year, (2014), Michael Eldridge, Colin Tracy and I exhibited a series of photographs at the Marmaris Municipal Gallery and Art House. The combination of our work seemed to be well received, and gratifying words were written in the press.

Our Exhibition was titled ‘Awareness’.

Pine Tree, (Amos), Digital C-Print. Photograph Stephen Bray, 2010

Pine Tree, Digital C-Print. Stephen Bray, 2010

My photographs initially evolved from an earlier expression shared with Michael, (in 2010), at The Netsel Gallery. We named it ‘Trees and Sky‘. My contribution was a series of six monochrome images inspired by the illustrations I once saw in a book about Zen. In it there were wonderfully simple paintings of landscapes in which the tranquility of unbroken wholeness is expressed. Each painting revealed more than simply the contours of hills, but also was a signature, not simply of the artists’ personalities but rather of that completeness with which they were simultaneously separate parts and also absolute totality when they moved their brushes. In other words these were non-dual images.

Demonstrators in Taksim Square, 15 June 2013 - image Creative Commons 3 (Fleshstorm)

Demonstrators in Taksim Square, 15 June 2013 – image Creative Commons 3 

Little were Michael and I to realize that our work, supporting of the wholeness each of us shares – and which perceives itself within every rock, tree, lake and flower – was to presage those demonstrations in Istanbul and elsewhere where artists and other folk came together to protect some trees in Gezi Park.

People died in those protests. Doctors were arrested for treating the victims of tear gas, and skin irritants sprayed via water-cannon. Lawyers too found their way into gaols, whilst rebellious soldiers supplied protesters with gas masks. It was a violent time, and not at all what Michael and I had in mind when we made our exhibition.

I prepared for the next exhibition with him some uneasiness. Michael is pretty unpredictable, his energy enlivens every event in unexpected ways, so perhaps to balance his effect, but mostly because I thought they would get on well together, I invited Colin to contribute.

Between the exhibitions I wrote two books. Photography and Psychoanalysis is about the evolution of emotional persuasion using photography in marketing and other forms of social manipulation. It exercised my writing muscles in preparation for the second work titled Photography and Zen.

In the course of writing Photography and Zen it occurred to me that just as Soto Zen seeks to invite people to experience wholeness through sitting meditation, and sometimes the result is conveyed in the kinds of painting I refer to above, Rinzai Zen attempts the same thing by providing the intellect with an unsolvable riddle. In this way the rational mind is forced first into a crisis, and then to drop away and thus reveal the unbroken screen of awareness upon which we are dreamed and in turn dream up others, with all our triumphs, sufferings and dramas.

Marcel Duchamp -Original picture by Alfred Stieglitz, 1922

Marcel Duchamp – Fountaine, (public domain),  photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, 1922

I decided to put together a second set of images – one of everyday objects photographed as impeccably as I was able. I hoped that their effect would be akin to the kind Marcel Duchamp achieved when he submitted a urinal as a competition entry to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. They rejected it but when you really can see it, without commenting to yourself about it in any way, a beautifully crafted object surrenders before you. Most simply look at and it say: ‘Oh it’s just for peeing in, what’s it doing here?’

Rooster (Giclée Print) Stephen Bray

Rooster (unpublished test image) Stephen Bray

In a dream the image of a chicken’s head came into my mind, so I set out to find the chicken and make her portrait. It didn’t take long. People tell me it’s a cock! Soon several other images were added: a decaying leaf, a fire hose, a battered aluminium can, and a sticking plaster poetically joining a crack in a pathway. The combined work now forms part of the Marmaris Municipal Art Collection, and a smaller replica is currently on display in the foyer of the Turkish Muscular Dystrophy Association, who will auction it later in the year.

Farkindilik, (Awareness), a series of five photographs comprising one work, Giclée print on canvass - Stephen Bray 2014.

Farkindilik, (Awareness), a series of five photographs comprising one work, Giclée print on canvass – Stephen Bray 2014.

Recently I visited the Marmaris Municipal Art House and found displayed in the gallery, among other paintings by Yüksel Diyaroglu, something surprising. I recognized upon the canvas the same all seeing chicken beneath an egg that had been tattooed with the words ‘Shitty World’!

Shitty World by Yüksel Diyaroğlu

Shitty World, (oil on canvas), Yüksel Diyaroğlu

As I looked around I realized that Yüksel’s entire collection was politically charged. He had retreated from the Istanbul streets due to the astringency of the tear gas, but found himself motivated to protest via his paintings.

I don’t share his view that this world is any more ‘shitty’ than it can otherwise be. History tells us that there was never a ‘golden age’, and that nowhere, except as an idea, has it been possible to create the ideal republic that Plato refers to. Roses blossom from shittiness, truth implies lies, health – illness, ugliness – beauty. I find it remarkable, however, that my chicken found its way onto a political canvas or, indeed, that any of my photographs are ascribed any political significance. I see them simply as invitations to see ourselves and our world differently.

Stephen Bray discusses Photography and Awareness on Marmaris T.V.

Blokes: Do You Suffer With Those ‘Bridget Jones’ Moments?

There are many amusing scenes in the film of Bridget Jones’ Diary but for me the funniest will always be the one in which she attempts to cook a sophisticated meal for her best friends. One dish requires shoots of leek and celery to be bound with string and boiled until they are reduced to a soupy consistency.

Unfortunately the only string Bridget owns looks like the kind used by farmers to tie bales of hay, moreover it is blue. The inevitable result is that her potage becomes an inedible blue gloop.

It’s a light scene in comparison to some in this film and its sequel. What makes me laugh so much about it is just how it illustrates so well how matters can go so hilariously wrong when we make effort to reach out to something new when attempting something others find straightforward.

I experienced more than one ‘Bridget Moment’ myself this past week.

It all began nearly a decade ago in our beach house in Amos, on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. Mrs. Bray and I decided to see if it would be possible to live there all the year round and, since I’m always writing, my goodly wife on impulse bought me a largish desk.

In the course of various jobs I’ve used a number of desks of different style ranging from those grey metal monsters, dating from the post war era when drawers never seemed to fit, right through practical models from the 1970s with black metal frames – veneered block board tops and drawer fronts. Later came adapted Victorian dressing tables and genuine antique desks located in private clinics.

I cannot claim the ‘Amos’ desk as the most elegant I’ve owned, but it was the probably the best solution for me that stores in Marmaris have to offer. I used it without incident for a few months before we decided to renovate our little stone house. This involved us moving out for a few months whilst builders gutted the place.

The new desk fell victim to the movers. Its top received a deep scar. This was to become the first of many gashes and indentations, each signifying an attack upon it by cleaners and other artisans.

I do not complain. Two books were written on that desk, as well as countless articles, advertisement copy, and a course to train psychologists and psychiatrists in family therapy. I have read legal papers behind it and constructed witness statements for English court proceedings both as an expert witness and as a consultant to the legal profession.

Three computer monitors have stood upon it and whilst two have gone to the local landfill, as happens with most consumer durables, the desk despite scuff-marks, has endured.

One day Mrs Bray set her laptop computer on one corner and began to type and talk to people over Skype. This gradually grew into an on-line counselling practice, which ate into not only desk space, but also made it pretty near impossible to make phone calls myself lest the sanctity of her ‘session’ be disturbed.

In the end I bought her a somewhat smaller version of my desk, but that didn’t do much to help. Somehow she continued to take up more and more space in my study, which she started to refer to as ‘our’ office. I didn’t ‘twig’ at once that this was probably a preamble to getting a larger house, but as the months turned to years my discomfort increased. I was still able to produce both written work and photographs, but the situation continued to cause problems.

When in September last year we finally moved the desk suffered further indignities from the movers, so many in fact that last week re-polishing and re-varnishing its surfaces seemed long overdue.

I read somewhere that where Europeans like things to appear as ‘new’, bright and untarnished, in the East this isn’t the case. Indeed it’s said that the more chipped a traditional Japanese teacup the greater is its value. I am unsure this applies to modern western mugs from the supermarket, but certainly the tradition was to rub gold leaf into the glue used to repair pottery in olden times. This not only means that the glue sticks broken parts together, but also that the damage is permanently marked in a precious indelible way.

Chinese Editing Desk, twelfth century - image public domain.

Chinese Editing Desk, twelfth century – image public domain.

I like this idea. With it in mind, decided upon a policy with respect to the restoration of the desk.

Policies are, to my mind, rather like epistemologies. You can view the world through one or more belief systems and filters, yet even the most entrenched nihilist ‘cannot not’ have an epistemology – for theirs is one of nihilism. So it is with regard to policies as they relate to projects. A newspaper, or magazine, without an editorial policy is likely to drift aimlessly in an unseen sea, indeed any business that cannot identify values and purpose will most likely fail.

I resolved, as this project’s policy, not to attempt to fill any gouges, but to re-stain areas where the original deal was showing as a result of damage. This decision would lead to my first ‘Bridget Moment’.

Go to any DIY store in the UK and you can shortly walk away with a can of wood stain. This is not so in Turkey. Here people want to sell you coloured varnish. I bought a pot of brown varnish from a store in Marmaris, then thought better of it and set out, again, in search of wood-stain. After visiting a couple of stores I found one displaying a plaque of wooden tiles of different tones under a bold banner headed: ‘Wood Art’. Imagining this to be wood-stain was to be my mistake.

Once the surface of my desk was thoroughly prepared I applied dobs of ‘Wood Art’ to all the gashes and grooves. Wood-stain would, of course, penetrate the wood – darken only the scratched area and leave the surface ready for varnishing. The stuff certainly looked like wood-stain but, as hours passed, it became apparent that Wood Art had no intention of sinking into the grooves. When it dried the whole surface was like an adolescent’s nightmare of raised facial pustules. These would need to be rubbed down.

Wood Art was, I later discovered, simply another brand of varnish renamed by advertisement copywriters as something they thought would win extra sales, but which in fact only disguised the true nature of the product.
Much sanding followed. I put the ‘pustules’ down to experience and did my best to obliterate them with emery paper. The process whiled away some hours. Moreover, bands of compacted varnish would build up in the abrasive paper, so care had to be taken in order to ensure that these didn’t add to the number of scratches on the desk’s surface.

Finally, everything seemed ready for a full coat of varnish. This was to be my second ‘Bridget Moment’. Here, in Turkey, Turpentine Substitute is referred to as ‘Tiner’, and in my shed I have a small can of the stuff, which I’ve kept for many years unopened. I decided to apply some Tiner to a cloth and rub it over the surface of my desk to ensure it was thoroughly clean before applying varnish.

“Eeeeeaaah”, now all the surface of the desk was bubbling like jam, when it’s being cooked by Granny at her house. ‘Tiner’, this time, clearly meant ‘thinners’, which is one effective way to remove varnish, as well as plastic or oil based paints from any surface; so back to stage one!

Some hours later I was finally able to varnish the desk, and then each day I’ve rubbed it down using a sanding block, and applied a coat of ‘Wood Art’. It’s not been straightforward, and in times past I may have become frustrated.
Diligently I’ve thinned the varnish with appropriate solvent. The emery paper of finer texture has been used with each successive layer. The finest grade of abrasive paper was used with soap and water to prepare the surface for the final thin coat of varnish.

It has been a good and grounding experience – not at all like in the past when apprentices would polish wooden boards using their bare hands and brick dust; the blood from abrasions and blisters creating the patina that is so valued today.

As I wrote last week, however, something is being polished here. It turns out I may simply have been referring to the top of my old writing desk?

E-mail and ‘Brideshead Revisited’ Visited

I made no resolutions this year, nor planned anything, Life has continued, mostly with a relaxed energy and efficiency. One thing I’ve noted is that I’ve started unsubscribing from e-mail marketing lists. Now, not only am I going out more into the world, but also getting far more done. It wasn’t my intention to unsubscribe, it just crept up on me, but as opting out got out got under way it seems to have gained a momentum of its own.

Castle Howard has been used as the setting for 'Brideshead Revisited', both as a T.V. series and a movie. (Photo: Pwojdacz Creative Commons 3.0)

Castle Howard has been used as the setting for ‘Brideshead Revisited’, both as a T.V. series and a movie. (Photo: Pwojdacz Creative Commons 3.0)

Evelyn Waugh‘s great novel Brideshead Revisited is about a painter, Charles Ryder, relating to a family of Roman Catholic aristocrats. It contains a phrase that has a reassuring ring to it:

My cousin Jasper had told me that it was normal to spend one’s second year [in university] shaking off the friends of one’s first, and it happened as he said.”

Brideshead Revisited is also a work about love, initially late adolescent homosexual love and later the passionate heterosexual kind, in which Ryder melds Julia a kindred-spirit soul-mate. In the background, however, something subtle and powerful is happening.

I wonder if you remember the story mummy read us the evening Sebastian first got drunk I mean the bad evening. ‘Father Brown‘ said something like “I caught him” (the thief) “with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

Whilst I am not a Roman Catholic I have always enjoyed the prose in Brideshead Revisited, not simply because it’s so beautifully written but more because there’s something moving about Rider’s struggle to discover contentment. At beginning of the story Charles Ryder seems a broken despondent man, with few personal resources apart from class and cynicism. He struggles as an army captain to run a platoon as well as cope with his life losses and middle age:

Perhaps that’s one of the pleasures of building, like having a son, wondering how he’ll grow up. I don’t know; I never built anything, and I forfeited the right to watch my son grow
up. I’m homeless, childless, middle-aged, loveless, Hooper.’ He looked to see if I was being funny, decided that I was, and laughed.”

At the very end, and almost on the same page as the quote above, he finds a kind of redemption in the form of, if not faith, a kind of acceptance and appreciation of the beauty of the world as it is. This is how the experience is written:

Something quite remote from anything the builders intended, has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time; a small red flame – a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.’ I quickened my pace and reached the hut which served us for our ante-room.”

In an uncanny way the story in that paragraph is so powerful, even if told so briefly, that it overrides everything in the book that precedes it. It has everything, builders, a house, a chapel, knights, a crusade – which in turn implies faith and the tragedy of wars fought because of it. There is symbolism and the acceptance of tasteless design, which becomes regarded, in this context, as perfect. It all ends in a small flame signifying what?

Only you may answer this.

We are invited to imagine that following his experience Charles Ryder is liberated from the burdens of the past, as well as those of age and military responsibility. There may no longer be the sexual passion, or the fusion of souls, but an intensity may be found for what we may simply call experience.

I feel something of this as 2015 takes root. A sense of exquisite uncertainty, a direction with neither map nor compass, a purposeful purposelessness in which there’s no space for distracting e-mails which are designed to serve the owners of marketing lists. Something is being polished here. For me, God has no part in it. Yet sunshine, coldness or heat, the world seems right – and life, sans e-mail, feels good just the as it is!

All quotations from Brideshead Revisited, (1945) by Evelyn Waugh.

Looking After Your Health And Hair In Turkey

When I first came to Istanbul I became acutely ill. My body found it impossible to breathe and my mind went crazy thinking that I would die. Mrs. Bray had a new job and was travelling the length and breadth of Turkey, so it fell to my beloved mother-in-law to take me to hospitals and elsewhere to see doctors.

One day, after getting a chest x-ray she took me to see our newly appointed G.P. He didn’t let on at the time that the hospital had given me the wrong x-ray, but put me in an oxygen mask for a few minutes and prescribed fourteen items of medication including two inhalers. On the way home my mother in law took me to a barber for remodelling.

At first glance the salon seemed like those I knew whilst growing up in England. There was a kind of dentist’s chair, and a sink, a water geyser, combs in a dish of disinfectant, scissors and clippers.

My mother in law gave some orders in Turkish and left to drink coffee with her friend who owns the famous marzipan shop in Bebek.

I’m not usually nervous about having a haircut because as a youth my father discovered a shell shocked alcoholic who charged sixpence less than the local tariff. It didn’t really matter that he went there because by this time Dad had no hair, but I had plenty and as my testicles had dropped I also cared what it looked like.

That old barber would shake and twitch, which wasn’t so bad when he had the scissors in his hand but could be disconcerting when he brandished a cut-throat razor with which he insisted on trimming bits from the sideburns and back of the neck.

After him, any kind of haircut was comparative bliss, or so I thought.

But there in Bebek, over a decade ago, when I looked about the salon I found the barber squatting in a corner by an electric kettle on the floor. I thought he would be about to make tea, but soon discovered that the water was to wash my hair.

Traditional Barbers

Traditional Barbers

In England it’s unusual to have one’s hair washed prior to a cut, at least for men, and as I was struggling to make it clear that it was a haircut I required and not a shave, help arrived in the shape of an ancient looking man with dyed black hair dressed in grey flannel trousers and a navy blue blazer. The pocket sported some kind of heraldic device, which gave away the fact that he was out to make an impression.

“I was educated at Robert College”, he announced. Robert College was one of the first independent schools in Istanbul, founded by an American and lessons there were given in English.

After some discussion my new friend explained that my hair would be washed, and my scalp massaged, before being cut, Later I was to discover that hair would be removed from my nostrils and ears by a traditional method.

The barber and his customer chatted together as the hair was cut. Then when all seemed to have been finished he suddenly produced a length of button thread from his pocket. He deftly wound this around a miniscule hair in my ear and twanged it as if it was a string on a lyre. The pain was excruciating – “Ow!” I yelled involuntarily.

Beretta Model 1934 Pistol

Beretta Model 1934 Pistol

My cry startled the waiting customer who was seated in a chair behind me, and he stood up with a start. To my horror an automatic pistol dropped from his trouser band and dropped with a load crack on the tiled floor. He quickly swept it up and stuffed it back under his belt before asking me what was wrong.

“Oh”, I retorted, “I just wasn’t expecting that”. Several twangs later I left the shop feeling considerably worse than when I entered it.

After this experience there followed a few years of relative calm because I discovered the man who took care of workers who, at the time were digging up the streets of Besiktaş to renew the sewers. I would wait with them dressed in a business suit, they in muddy overhauls and brown Wellington boots. Outside everything was mud, like Deadwood in 1870s, but except for the lack of ‘Tit-Bits Magazine‘ which I have only ever seen or read in several of the barber’s shops in my home town, everything seemed quite normal.

Then one day after we moved to Turunç the day came when my ‘barnet’ needed a trim. The whole experience was quite amazing. It started with a shampoo, continued with a scalp massage, evolved into a, practically, shaven head, and culminated with my ears being set alight with methylated spirit before my chair was plugged into the mains and my bottom vibrated in a rather disturbing manner.

All these items were then totted up like l’addition at a restaurant and I ended up phoning Mrs. Bray to bring more funds because I was carrying around ten lira, the cost of my previous barber, plus tip, in Istanbul.

Anxious to avoid a repeat of this experience I went several months without getting my hair cut, and then one day in Marmaris I was accosted by an elderly looking man in the street who asked if I required a haircut.

It was a hot day, and a cut was long overdue. The man looked reassuringly traditional, and so even at the risk of having my nose plucked, or my ears set alight, I decided to risk it.

Once in the salon, however, everything changed. The old man sat me in a chair, and pointed to a photograph of a younger man who looked a little like Jason King of Department S.

“It’s me”, he said as somehow he deftly removed my shirt, in the manner of someone removing a tablecloth but leaving all the place settings on the table. “We are all men together here!”

With that he handed me over to his assistant, a young man of no more than twenty years who had half of his head shaved, and the other long with dyed black hair. He had two rings in his upper eyelid, one through his nose, I lost count of the number in his upper ears, and sincerely hoped that he would not also be removing his shirt.

The haircut was adequate, but not outstanding. The young barber was clearly displeased that I eschewed a massage, and most of the customary extras that can give rise to a heavy barber’s bill. I was pleased to get clear of the place and although I sometimes see ‘Jason King’ on the street these days I avoid his gaze.

One day I accompanied Mrs. Bray to her hairdresser and Turgay, her kuaför offered to cut my hair. I had not expected this but he made a superb job and so we have been having our hair cut as a family together regularly ever since.

Kuaför Tungay cutting Mrs Bray's Hair

Kuaför Tungay cutting Mrs Bray’s Hair

Yesterday, however, was different. I decided to drop by on my own. The salon was practically empty, following New Years celebrations and in the absence of other family members I received the services of not just Turgay, but also his two assistants.

They decided that I was suffering with dandruff, probably as a result of using Storax soap, purchased from ‘the Olive Man’ but that is another story, instead of shampoo.

Like clinicians they poured over my scalp, went into a cupboard, and emerged with a dark brown bottle. After Turgay had cut my hair, one of his assistants shampooed it in a backwash. He treated it with two products, the second of which required me to wait for ten minutes with it on my head.

The second assistant rinsed the hair, and also dried it, adding a little wax just to hold it in place. The whole process took around an hour and I left with a bag upon which the slogan ‘Don’t Be Rigid Everything Can Be The Opposite Of Everything’ on the side. It contained a bottle of the special shampoo.

Today, I thought about that slogan and noticed that under it was printed When I looked it up I found that the manufacturer of my new shampoo is a business with a complete, ecological, systemic, holistic, philosophy. Just take a look at this video about their work. You may be amazed!

P.S. I recovered from the near death experience in Istanbul after dumping all that medication.
Something within me decided to get well, and things have been looking up ever since 😉

How Boxing Day Snuck Up On Us!

A story of accidental traditionalism . . .

Just last week I wrote a how this year we decided to play down Christmas, partly because we live in a country where it’s not celebrated by most of our friends, and also because it has become more and more commercialized and this leads to public exploitation.

So no Holly, or Ivy, tree, pudding or crackers for us!

But Life has a way of playing tricks, and on Boxing Day, which for some families is the one when Christmas is celebrated, (Christmas Day being for the servants), we hosted a party of friends for what might have been Boxing Day lunch.

The story of how this came to pass is complex, but all the guests were employed at a certain establishment we have patronized over the years. Due to circumstances largely outside of their control each was forced to move on. When ever this happened our family felt a sense of loss, and since many of the people involved had been traumatized by their experiences of working at this place it seemed a good idea to bring them together.

We cooked some meat that was left in the freezer following the Eid al-Adha festival. It had been given to us by neighbors and at the time we didn’t really know what to do with it. In the event it spiced up rather well and with some roasted potatoes, sage and onion stuffing, carrots, and greens it contributed to an event that might well have been Christmas.

A few years back a friend cooked Christmas dinner for us, but then her daughter insisted on playing Ottoman court music as the background ambiance, which rather diminished the pleasure of pulling Christmas crackers.

To my mind, yesterday’s meal was far more what Christmas could, and should, be about. Celebrating Life with friends, healing, joy, laughter, and moving on toward a new year. But then, I’ve always preferred Boxing Day, because it is when you do what you want, rather than what you ‘must’.


The Stoning of Saint Stephen by Paolo Uccello

My namesake St. Stephen achieved eternal fame by being the first Christian to be martyred for his faith by being stoned to death shortly after Christ’s crucifixion. His day was probably designated as 26th, because it makes a kind of symbolic sense that if Christ was born on 25th, then the first Christian martyr should be accorded the first available date to follow.

When Good King Wenceslas Looked Out On The Feast Of Stephen, he was looking out on Boxing Day. The feast being the left overs from the Christmas lunch. In the Middle Ages the church collecting boxes were opened on Boxing Day, and alms given to the poor.

St. Stephen died for doing what he considered to be right, rather than the social norm of his day. It’s appropriate that his day is also one of celebration. Certainly I’m glad to have shared the day this year with friends, because much healing came out of it, and it also was the right thing to do.

The Best Christmas Ever!

In the run up to Christmas most of us today are wondering what we are to find under the tree. Will it be a Brompton Folding Bike, Tom Tom Golfer, or iPad? we ask.

Charles Dickens, maybe writing a 'thank you letter' in 1842, (The year prior to the publication of A Christmas Carol).

Charles Dickens, maybe writing a ‘thank you letter’ in 1842, (The year prior to the publication of A Christmas Carol).

Some of us have childhood memories of receiving unwanted, or disappointing, gifts and then having to laboriously sit and write thank you letters to our relatives who had dutifully purchased and packaged them.

In my home town the Christmas service was one of the few occasions when the drafty and decaying church was full, and even though cold and uncomfortable there still seemed to be something warm and comforting about singing familiar carols in the company of other towns-folk.

We had fewer presents in those days and, looking back, their quality seems basic compared to those of today. Maybe it’s my fancy but our imaginations seemed better then, for it was us that imbued objects with life, rather than the designers who today animate them with computer chips and other technology.

Even so, with the exception of construction kits, most gifts left me cold, or confused.

Why had I been given a water rifle that killed nothing, whilst I lived in a society that proclaimed ‘Thou shalt not kill’, but expected me to point it everywhich way and shoot what ever I could?

Why was my mother so horrified when two neighbours dressed in their Sunday best appeared at the fence shouting: ‘Stephen, shoot us, shoot us’. The bolt action on that toy could send a painful water jet thrity feet and I complied to their request with alacraty.

“Mum, Mum”, I yelled excidedly running into the kitchen, “I’ve just shot two old ladies and a dog!”

When, like most small children, I once crushed a bug the act immediately filled me with revulsion and self-loathing. I no longer wanted to eat meat, but since Christmas was all about greasy geese, or turkeys crammed both ends with sausage meat and other stuffing that was an impossibility.


Br’er Rabbit

Many years later I met Adrian Slack, a true British eccentric, who at the age of five declared himself vegetarian because he couldn’t bear the burden of eating Br’er Rabbit and his friends. His father, a stern man if Slack’s account is true, demanded he change but Adrian stuck to his guns and never ate flesh again. Later he was to become Britain’s foremost expert on carnivorous plants.

In these dark days I take comfort in knowing there are such men as Adrian Slack, although sadly he is no longer with us. Satish Kumar, the ecologist and Editor of Resurgence also comes to mind. When a young man of twenty five he learned that Bertrand Russell was going to jail as a result of his demonstrating for peace. Russell was ninety at the time.

The young Kumar suddenly asked himself what he was doing idly drinking coffee in India when Bertrand Russell at his grand old age was prepared to be jailed because he saw the proliferation of nuclear weapons as a terrible thing. He and a friend set out from the grave of Mahatma Gandhi to walk to the four capitals of the countries with nuclear weapons. With no funds they managed in two years first to reach Moscow, then Paris where they went on to London and met Bertrand Russell.

He bought them first class tickets on the Queen Mary to New York and from there they walked to Washington D.C. The whole trip was made as a pilgrimage and without funds. People helped them at every step of their journey as the passed through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and on through the former Soviet Union to Moscow. The same occurred when they travelled west from Moscow visiting the Poland, Germany and onto Paris. The French helped them to reach England.

As a young man I knew nothing of this, and instead simply pursued my self-interest. I was rather like the character Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones’ Diary. When one day Bridget attempts to make intelligent conversation with him by casually asking: ‘What do you think of the situation in Chechnya?’ he retorts: ‘I don’t give a fuck, Jones’.

My life, as a human being, began when in my early forties the career that had nurtured me for the first half of my life dropped away together with wives and children and a little more money than I possessed. I was sad, and frustrated, of course but also with the losses came a liberation. I returned for a while to the town where I grew up as a child. My contemporaries had aged, where I by comparison had not. A few had died along the way victims of the dark side of counter-culture, but many were pleased to see me and more than a few helped me to find my feet.

It seemed right to celebrate Christmas then because the nativity is more than the simple tale of a baby born in humble circumstances, it’s also the story of wise men and simple working folk coming together to revere the birth of something pure. Indeed some claim the whole story is based on earlier myths that have their roots in astronomy where these tales denote the the vernal equinox moving out of one constellation and into the next. In the case of the nativity this represented the passage from Aries, (the Ram often appearing as a symbol in the Old Testament), into Pisces – the sign of the fish which early Christians used as a sign of their faith and which today still appears as bumper stickers, lapel badges and the like to serve the same purpose.

I loved the way that old town celebrated community, be it Christmas, Easter, or an autumn fair. In some senses the place feels as much my physical self as these fingers with which I now type.

The difficulty I have with Christmas is that it’s marred today by consumerism and gluttony. It’s difficult to admit this because to do so invites accusations of being a ‘scrooge’, but Scrooge’s problem wasn’t that he did not agree with Christmas but that he failed to acknowledge the importance of anything in life apart from the acquisition of money. In this sense there are many more Scrooge’s in the world today than in Dicken’s time even if they celebrate the Yuletide.

If I had to choose a year to mark the beginning of the modern Christmas, I would undoubtedly set upon 1843 for it was then that Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ appeared for the first time and a young civil servant named Henry Cole set upon the idea of the commercial Christmas card as a way to stimulate the Uniform Penny Post. This service had been set up by Rowland Hill three years earlier but had failed to ignite the public imagination. Cole would later come up with the idea of The Great Exhibition, which resulted in the building of The Crystal Palace.

The World's First Commercial Christmas Card.

The World’s First Commercial Christmas Card.

Christmas cards were an overnight sensation, and continued to grow in popularity throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries until the decline of postal mail due to the Internet.

To have experienced the sense of optimism that fuelled the Christmas visions of Dickens and Cole must have been like taking L.S.D. Back then the effects of industrialization, especially pollution, were largely unknown and manufacturing seemed to herald a powerful, energetic, future. The mechanized slaughter of two world wars was yet to occur, and science was making inroads into curing disease, especially by reinventing effective sewage systems that kept waste out of drinking water.

The trouble is that this industrial dream turned into such a nightmare that we shifted our manufacturing base abroad so those in other places could wallow in the mire, and in exchange sink us in a sea of plastic Barbie Dolls, My Little Pony’s and this year’s ‘latest thing’ to make our children happy for ten minutes. Do you remember the ‘Cabbage Patch Dolls’?

Remarkably there are psychologists employed by manufacturers whose job it is to devise ways to entice children to make the lives of their parent’s hell unless they buy some God awful thing, or another, from the company catalogue. A society that rewards people for setting children against parents is not one to which I wish to belong.

Scrooge celebrates Christmas with Bob Marley, 1843.

Scrooge celebrates Christmas with Bob Marley, 1843.

This year we intend to mark Christmas modestly. It’s a relief to know that there will be no mince pies, pudding, fowl, or much more food than we usually consume. These days I rarely drink, and when I do enjoy it less and less. I will reserve it for when travelling by motor coach at night when a flask of whisky is an aid to slumber.

I continue to send stuff through the postal mail at different times of the year, because I want to and not because of any kind of seasonal obligation.

For the first time in memory I look forward to Christmas.

May God help the rest of you 😉

A Rant About Health and Education in Rural Turkey

After last night’s storm the air was clear. I went onto the bedroom balcony and looked down into the pool. There was a dead body floating on the surface of a foot, or so, of murky water in it. The body was face down. I could not see the face, nor make out the gender and unlike in the case of Gatsby there was no gunshot wound, or sign of a struggle.

‘Damn’, I thought, ‘this means trouble’, and trouble was the last thing needed today because since precisely two o’clock the previous afternoon my head throbbed as a result of sharing my daughter’s childborne illness, a gift from her school where there is an epidemic of coughing, nausea and sickness.

The village doctor is overwhelmed. But it’s partly her own fault because she insists on excusing children from their education one day at a time. When sickness goes on for three days she sends kids to the State Hospital where they can see a proper doctor who is better at making excuses.


How come in a family where most meals are wholesome, and study is encouraged our child got sick? It’s a totally state-induced phenomenon. She won’t use the school toilets because there is no toilet paper and they stink. This isn’t an oversight, it’s because the headmistress refers to the children as belonging to the families of peasants and thinks this is why they stuff the plumbing with whatever they can in attempt to strike a blow against the system.

My sympathies are with them. Ever since our daughter started school our lives changed for the worse. Teachers ask us how we manage to have such a bright, sociable and keen child? It’s not difficult, and a good start is to not think of her as a peasant, even though we choose to live in the countryside.

Holding your wee is a common cause of urinary tract infection. Lots of children hold their wee in our village school, and so there’s lots of urinary tract infections.

The African-American author and songwriter James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) described systems perfectly in his spiritual work ‘Dem Bones‘.

“Toe bone connected to the foot bone
Foot bone connected to the heel bone
Heel bone connected to the ankle bone
Ankle bone connected to the shin bone
Shin bone connected to the knee bone
Knee bone connected to the thigh bone
Thigh bone connected to the hip bone
Hip bone connected to the back bone
Back bone connected to the shoulder bone
Shoulder bone connected to the neck bone
Neck bone connected to the head bone
Now hear the word of the Lord.”

Unfortunately in bureaucracies little seems to be connected to anything else. The lack of proper sanitation arrangements in the lavatories at the school penalizes those who conform to the values of civilized toiletry, whilst scoring a victory for ‘the peasants’.

The ‘peasants’ are revolting simply because a system that sets homework tasks that last from two to four hours most nights means that in order to have a life they cannot comply with those demands. This in turn means that they see themselves as failing, and get called out by teachers who, in turn, regard them not simply as ‘peasants’ but also ‘ignorant peasants’.

No wonder they kick back whenever they can!

Our worthy doctor, she of the one day note, could be taking up the issue of the problem with the school’s toilet facilities, after all it has become a public health issue and the cost in her time and medicines, subsidized via the government health care system, would seem to warrant it, even if the health and comfort of those ‘peasant children’ under her charge is considered unimportant.

It is as if, to quote James Weldon Johnson:

“Ezekiel disconnected dem dry bones,
Ezekiel disconnected dem dry bones,
Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones,
Now hear the word of the Lord.”

The trouble is, however, whilst many claim to hear the words of the omnipresent and omnipotent Lord, who in turn, appreciates all these connections within creation the Lord for some reason finds it impossible to intervene. Professor Stephen Hawking expressed it thus:

“While the rules of the universe may have been ordained by God . . . it seems that He does not intervene in the universe to break the laws” (Black Holes and Baby Universes, p. 98).

No doubt our doctor, and the head of the village school feel that in the absence of a God capable of intervention it would be remiss of them to attempt to do more to come to the aid of those whom they are paid to help? Perhaps it’s more than their job’s worth? I wouldn’t know? Maybe it’s simply that the Lord ordained that doctors and head teachers in our part of the world are plain stupid . . . but I know that this is not the case, for both are doing their best whilst neither knows what to do.

The problems are systemic. No one is really to blame, except perhaps God who made a universe in which he finds it impossible to intervene. To be more constructive Nabi Avci, who holds a PhD in communication studies from Anadolu University, and is the Minister of National Education needs to take steps to reform the entire education system so that it raises the self esteem of students and teachers alike.

As I type the body is removed from the pool. A helpful man from the local council, a worker rather than educated doctor or teacher, did it. He understands corpses in pools are health hazards, and that health hazards are the responsibility of all of us. He did not complain, or refer us elsewhere but took action. No doubt our headteacher would have thought of him as a peasant yet to my mind he was today far more helpful than she and perhaps should be taking lessons from him.

Homicide is not suspected. We don’t know how the cat came to be in the pool just that its ninth life came to a wet and undignified end there.

Must You Still Dress For Power And Success?

I’m unsure whether I was first attracted to ‘Power’ or ‘Success’. Both were books written by Michael Korda before he became the Editor in Chief of the publisher Simon & Schuster of New York. Korda makes a big thing of being the nephew of Sir Alexander Korda, who did much to found the British motion picture industry, although he was Hungarian. I am unsure why he does so, because his own achievements are just as impressive – but there you are, even the greatest among us may be overshadowed by flamboyant relatives.


Power: How to get it and how to use it‘, and ‘Success: How every man or woman can achieve it‘ today seem dated. They are written for the business heroes of the 1970s, who were executives rather than entrepreneurs. I still have copies of both books, but sadly not here so I may refer to them as I write, but rather in my study in Istanbul where I rarely spend time and even more rarely write.

Stephen Potter, wrote of similar matters in a humorous way. SupermanshipWhat I remember is that Korda’s books were illustrated with cartoons that may just as easily have been printed in Potter’s somewhat tongue in cheek works on the same topics over a decade before. Lifemanship, Gamesmanship, Oneupmanship, and Supermanship could never be taken as seriously as Korda’s work, but they too contained elements of truth about the kinds of Games People Played back in the 1960s and 1970s.

So why am I writing today about these old books?

Well it’s because they are all about image making, and how you project yourself into the world. They suggest ways to show your status, and make the most of your history and family, even if you were born into poor, or modest circumstances. For Potter and Korda life was a battleground to be fought with every individual encountered, often through guerilla tactics if their written words are to be believed.

None of the books really helped me. At the time I acquired them I was in the wrong business for sporting a Cartier Tank Watch to impress boards of directors. It’s true Korda recommended that, as a Brit, my watch should be silver and thin – which it was until foolishly I decided to buy the kind of thing that Sir Dirk Bogarde might have worn whilst blowing up a bridge in wartime Crete, you know all dials and buttons. But truly, I doubt that sporting the wrong wrist watch did anything to dent my career.

A complications wristwatch, created for the promotional video for Photography and Psychoanalysis.

A complications wristwatch, created for the promotional video for Photography and Psychoanalysis.

That said, when I seriously sought promotion I bought a couple of really good suits, some tailored shirts and silk ties for use in interviews, and when I finally got the job I desired I continued to improve my wardrobe so substantially that one of my bosses referred to me as the best dressed man in the borough.

During the last ten years as a beachcomber sartorial elegance hasn’t played any part in my life. Like as not you would find me wearing flip flops, Crocs, or rubber boots. Often in shorts, and T shirts bought from the market life was simple and I was content. From time to time people would come upon me and take pains to show themselves to be superior, in wealth, or taste, or influence, and if possible all three, but their antics left me untouched. Besuited or T Shirted I am essentially the same naked individual underneath.

One such fellow remarked casually that if I went to China I could probably get a job teaching English as a foreign language. A few days later, and much to his chagrin, he met one of my students from Istanbul to whom I had taught family therapy just a few years earlier. “I had no idea you were a distinguished teacher”, he said apologetically. I was bemused at how without changing anything about my appearance, or demeanour, the behaviour of my neighbour had completely turned around.

Something similar happened to me this week. I have been filming some interviews and for the first time in many years was sporting a tweed suit. Suddenly a young chap gravitated toward me at speed across his bar. “Oh Stephen”, he exclaimed, “It’s you – I saw a distinguished looking man in a suit”, he meant a man in a distinguished looking suit, “and wondered who it might be!”

The very next day he introduced me to an acquaintance as ‘a reklamci’, which roughly translates as ‘Don Draper‘. Prior to the incident with the suit I was not held by him to have any profession at all, which is rather the way I like it. Nevertheless, this week I have experimented with smartening up my act, and lo and behold, I find that how you dress does impact upon how people treat you.

Sir Noel Coward once asserted that the way to success in any endeavor is to dress like an stock broker. He, of course, had superb sartorial taste – but he also had considerable talent. My belief is that dressing isn’t a matter of fashion, but rather of marking out who you intend to play in the game of life. Make no mistake if you fail to manage your own self image, others will accord all kinds of unwelcome projections upon you. How you deal with them is your affair 😉