I often get asked to review books. I usually politely decline. But sometimes something grabs my attention and this is one such time. A great title helps and this is a great title – Twelve Camels For Your Wife: An Englishman’s Lifelong Love Affair With Turkey. This is what I thought.
AuthorGeorge Dearsley isn’t the first Brit to fall for Turkey and he certainly won’t be the last. But his account of a longstanding love affair with the country is a real delight – an astute, beautifully-penned story of an Englishman abroad. What starts as a madcap road trip to Japan in a royal blue Bedford van, twists and turns, anecdote by anecdote, into an entertaining and touching tale of a courtship with the land he now calls home. It made me feel so nostalgic for my own times past. There are some very funny and well-observed scenes about things that many expats will instantly relate to: the unfathomable bureaucracy, the language mishaps, the surprising customs. And there are some wonderful turns of phrases (‘We came, we saw, we conkered. The area was awash with chestnut trees.’). But it’s his depiction of the Turkish people, the friendships he makes along the way and ultimately his affection for a small village 40km northeast of Selçuk (‘There were many more horses and donkeys than cars’) that tugs at the heartstrings. Funny, insightful and poignant.
Before the miracle of modern medicine and universal health care, life for most was plagued by illness or the fear of it. People croaked in their beds from mundane diseases that today we pop a pill for. Many a cottage stairwell was too narrow for a coffin so some featured a trap door between floors called a ‘coffin hatch’ (or sometimes a ‘coffin drop’, for obvious reasons). This allowed the dearly departed to be laid out at the end of a bed in their Sunday best for the procession of mourners who came round for tea and sympathy. And it provided a more dignified exit to the graveyard. Much better than bouncing a stiff down the stairs.
Our cottage may no longer be an unsanitary hovel with cholera in every cup, but we’ve still got a coffin hatch, though not an original. It was constructed by the previous owner when he moved the staircase to a different part of the house. This modern hatch is just the thing for hauling up and down the big and the bulky. We’ve even hit on the idea of using the hole for a lift, as and when the stairs get too much. We’re rather taken with the thought of dying in our sleep – from old age we hope.
To misquote Mark Twain, ‘The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.’ And I hope that’s also true of the long-anticipated demise of the high street. The great shift to online shopping may have been accelerated by the pandemic but I, for one, relish the experience of grazing and browsing in the real world. And so do many others judging by the queues of masked punters we saw shuffling towards the entrances of various Norwich stores when we ventured into town. Sure, some retailers have gone to the wall while others limp on but a little imagination and a lot of fairy dust might be all it takes to stop the rot and save our city centres from becoming ghost towns. People are nothing if not inventive and fairy dust is plentiful in the retail trade.
One thing an online shop can’t provide is the conviviality of a post-shop bottle and bite. This we sought in the Lamb Inn, our favourite city centre watering hole. The delightful lady at the gate recognised us. ‘One white, one red,’ she said. She’s Spanish and I was delighted that Brexit hadn’t put her off from sticking around. What she didn’t know is I had a brand-new axe in my man bag. I’ve never gone tooled up before. I felt like a criminal. And that’s another thing you can’t get online – an offensive weapon. Well, not legally anyway. Rest assured I bought the axe to chop up firewood, not run amok. Norfolk isn’t Midsomer.
As we took our seats for the bus home, I looked through the window at the YMCA opposite. I began to wonder if ‘it’s fun to stay at the YMCA’, as suggestively sung by the Village People. I doubt it. This is Norwich not New York and these village people have long since hung up their leathers and feathers.
A few more lockdown restrictions were lifted this week and we were able to enjoy a bottle or two in the garden of our local hostelry. It was pleasantly sunny to match the mood of our hosts and fellow punters. Relief all round was the order of the day.
The weather’s been unseasonably cool of late despite the spring sunshine, with a definite chill in the air. But, after over three months under house arrest, a force nine gale wouldn’t have put us off. We supped well-wrapped in thermal long johns and bubble jackets accessorised with gloves, hats and scarves. It was like après ski but without the ski.
Last summer, Mr Mole was that unwelcome guest at a party who refuses to leave. We tried everything – organic repellent, castor oil spray, coffee grains, stomping and wailing too – all to nought. Mr Mole simply moved home to a different corner of our small plot. In desperation, we invested in an industrial strength sonic spike to drive the little bugger out. Despite plenty of hard evidence to the contrary, it worked. Rather than buy a pair of ear plugs, Mr Mole upped sticks to greener, less noisy pastures.
Chances are it’s a lost cause. We’re surrounded by fields and thickets littered with molehills. Flat, wet and fertile, the land serves up a juicy banquet of bugs and grubs – enough to fatten an unholy legion of the pesky pests. Our weekly constitutional takes us across Chedgrave Common, a boggy meadow punctured by muddy mountains of stone and soil, an obvious sign of the city of moles that lies beneath.
This is their party and we are the unwelcome guests.