Meander – East to West along a Turkish River – Jeremy Seal (Chatto and Windus)
Review by Jon Berry
It was Tom Miller who said that the finest travel writing describes what’s going on when nobody is looking. Jeremy Seal’s new book is remarkable proof that Miller was right. Meander takes us to a forgotten river and a land whose history and culture, significant as they are for bridging East and West, old and new, are all but neglected. It’s wonderful stuff.
The book’s premise is a relatively straightforward one – the author starts at the source of the river which gave its name to the very idea of aimlessness and determines to sail along it to the sea in a canoe. But the river’s name is clue enough that Seal’s journey will be anything but straightforward and we soon learn that the remoter parts of Turkey are no place for those on a tight deadline or with a fixed agenda.
Seal finds the river’s source with some difficulty – he notes with some frustration that ‘the army had always had the best maps in Turkey’ – and is greeted by a riverbed littered with beer bottles, tins and discarded CDs. His first efforts with an unfamiliar canoe are disastrous and plans later go awry when the river, pillaged through industrialisation and irrigation, dried up and disappears.
If the river is the arterial centre of this book, it is the people, past and present, who make it work so well. Seal’s detours in to the history of the region are thorough but the writing is at its strongest when describing the local people of the present. We learn early on that the Turks ‘prefer to bestow hospitality than to sell it’ and Seal has little difficulty in securing beds, transport and sustenance. In doing so he takes us in to the homes and lives of a people whose stories are rarely told – but which are well worth telling.
Seal’s Turkey is a nation of beauty and generosity but of transition and conflict too. The secular constitution is under threat from religious groups, the landscape from industrialisation, the culture from the onslaught of western modernity. We are taken to towns where McDonald’s and Starbucks vie for business with stalls offering sacrificial lambs and where the call to prayer must share its audience with a TV cops and robbers show – but in remoter parts we pass the poppy fields that inspired Coleridge’s Kubla Khan and anonymous graves that remind us not only of the region’s long history of war but of its widespread illiteracy too. Seal is never blind to the country’s shortcomings but this is a book that celebrates the dilemma in which it finds itself, which records with sensitivity a story that is both epic and intensely personal.
Evelyn Waugh once wrote that the Englishman abroad likes to think of himself, until proven otherwise, as a traveller rather than a tourist. Most, I suspect, are fooling only themselves but in Meander, Jeremy Seal has succeeded. This is a fine observation of a landscape and its people and of a country whose efforts to define itself have been as circuitous as the river itself.