"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Reflections on the Bathtub of Ataturk

I thought that would secure your attention! Actually this is not a crafty attempt to offload my 84 holiday snaps but a thought about national identity. In Greece and Turkey such issues are impossible to ignore and nowhere more so than in Izmir (Smyrna to TS Eliot fans). During my recent imperial progress from Athens to Istanbul I stopped here and walked along the waterfront on a breezy Sunday afternoon amongst the courting couples, amateur fishermen, and boys on bicycles selling sandwiches or mussels. Evocative old photographs show the terrible sacking and burning of Izmir in 1922 after the Turks defeated the Greeks, whose ambitions to create a "Greater Greece" after the Treaty of Versailles ended in what is known in Greek as the Katastrofi (Catastrophe). This disaster resulted immediately in massacre and destruction and in a further social disaster when the two countries agreed a notorious "exchange of populations" by which millions of Muslims in Greece were sent back to Turkey and an equal number of Greek Christians went in the opposite direction regardless of the fact that these communities had in the past been happy to live alongside each other in their respective countries.

Most of the waterfront has been rebuilt but a couple of older houses remain including the stately marble facade of the house of Kemal Ataturk the great reforming modern Turkish leader who used it in the 1940s. It's a large but rather gloomy interior, full of dark, heavy, boring furniture (though I liked his bathtub) and the library seems to contain mostly endless dusty leather bound volumes of the Revue des Deux Mondes (heck, he was a man of action not a poet). Ataturk's modernising, secularist legacy is being challenged again by the new Turkish Government's greater Islamist sympathy but many in Turkey have no wish to ditch it. "A man's religion is between himself and his God," observed one elderly Muslim from Ankara to me in conversation and that's still how a lot of Turks feel.

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