Söke is a medium sized town in Turkey on the main road from Izmir to Bodrum and Altinkum. Many British tourists will have driven through it on their airport transfer to the resorts. If they looked out of the window, they’d have seen a few factory shops and an army barracks with young soldiers doing their compulsory national service mounting guard. It’s a town of factories, tractors, agriculture, clothing and production. Picture Post once characterised Newcastle upon Tyne with a majestic picture of the Tyne Bridge in 1939 with the (patronising) commentary – “they don’t set much store by the arts, but you can’t teach them anything about engineering.” Well I don’t know anything about Söke’s art’s and cultural scene, but I doubt you could teach them much about irrigation systems, cement factory design, construction, agricultural engineering and many essential things.
It’s not a tourist destination. There’s a railway track crossing a main road, there’s a dried up river bed, there’s a busy bus station, it’s surrounded by productive agricultural land. The ancient city of Priene is a few miles away where village Turkey returns and archeologically inspired travellers climb up the marble steps to view the beautiful temple columns and wonder what Alexander the Great did when he was there. The great cities of Magnesia, Ephesus and Miletos with their stadia, theatres and ruins are within 20 miles. The beach at Kusadasi with its shops, bars and cruise liners is a 15 lira (75p) dolmus (bus) ride away, where you can speak English, German or many other languages; in Söke, you need some (lucky for me), basic Turkish.
Söke is more interesting to me than those places at the moment though. Ancient cities can fill you with a sense of wonder and awe. The sheer weight of the marble slab at the Temple of Apollo at Didim would defeat most of our modern civil engineers; the stadium at Magnesia could hold chariot races in front of 40,000 people again – with a couple of weeks tidying up; seeing and hearing a symphony orchestra play in front of the Library of Celcus in Ephesus (Tchaikovsky and Bernstein and very good it was) was wonderful, but not as unexpected as Söke High Street.
Söke High Street
Söke High Street was an accidental discovery. I was on my way to a shopping centre, the relative difficulty of navigation making the thrilling necessity of getting there all the more attractive. The third dolmus ride a new adventure made easy by the friendliness and hospitality of the driver and passengers. So instead of driving down the main road, where I’d been many times, I’m in the town, looking out of the window of a local minibus, not having a clue where exactly I am and wearing a toon top because it’s comfortable in the heat and helps explain my lack of language.
Söke High Street was busy. It was full of what seemed to be healthy young people buying lots of quality stuff. Branded sports-wear, quality clothing, gold and silver jewellery, hairdressers and barbers, banks and showrooms for furniture, appliances and equipment, all busy, all modern, all air-conditioned. It made Shields Road look poor, old, unhealthy and sad. It made Northumberland Street look a bit tired, and made me think why anyone would swap their home in the Turkish sun for a perishable existence working in a barber’s, restaurant or takeaway. My friend in Selcuk informed me that Turkey was having a problem keeping people working in agriculture, but “shepherds emigrating from Afghanistan” were helping.
The area around Söke is the great fertile plain of the Menderes Rivers (big and little; “buyuk Menderes or kachuk Menderes”). Everything grows, sheep and cattle graze contentedly, goats are distinguishable in the dark by the ringing brass bells they wear and roadside stalls for excellent honey and olives are ubiquitous. The words “artisan” “craft” and “real” are unnecessary and unused superfluities. The roads, of course, are better than ours, although I don’t fancy the way they do roundabouts and motorway junctions. The Turkish food markets make our equivalents look tiny and lacking in quality and choice, although our carrots maybe look bigger.
In short, it’s probably true that the kind of wage that can be earned now in a semi-rural Turkish town won’t be anywhere equivalent to their British equivalent, but that will change. We have managed to get into a situation where we can’t produce our own food, ships, steel, arms and clothing. One shipping logjam by Evergreen in the Suez Canal knackers whole swathes of our retail businesses. Our dependence as a nation on consumer spending (70%) is second only to the USA (Figures from Invesco Perpetual May ’22), but we’re skint by austerity and rising commodity prices. I’ve seen speculation that we “pay ourselves” as a nation a third more than we produce, we make that up by borrowing. I wonder from whom, and when will they “review our account”.
Angry and ashamed
As a man approaching his seventh decade that makes me angry and ashamed; if I was 30 years younger, I may consider practising my Turkish, or at least asking questions of our politicians about engineering, infrastructure, exports and food production. When documentaries on Radio 4 feature clever civic planners talking about growing food on the roofs of multi-storey carparks because of mental health and “food security”, we’re entitled to wonder when we start “digging for survival”. And why we’ve lost access to our closest European markets?
The cities that surround Söke were bigger, prettier, grander and more famous, but they’re ruins now. With the exception of the cruise liner destination of Ephesus, they are quiet backwaters inhabited by tortoises and lizards; they support a caretaker and a few guides and archaeologists – in the case of Ephesus a couple of dodgy shopping mall tourist-traps too. Food production, water for irrigation, engineering, education trade and the ability to build a road and fettle a tractor were all more important than culture, art or games, vital though they are. Newcastle upon Tyne knew that before, it’s high time we re-learnt that lesson before we are engulfed by history.