Jane Tuna Akatay reviews – The Walking Bush Swings By – Tales of life in a Turkish village, by The Old Groaner aka John Laughland with illustrations by Bea Bonchis.

“This book is essential reading for anyone planning to live in a village anywhere in the world or should they be in one already, guaranteed to raise a smile as they wonder whether there is something in the rustic air that brings out the eccentric side of people’s nature – and that’s just the author.”

The truth is that the personalities of John Laughland and The Old Groaner (his nom de guerre) are pretty much one and the same. This is because they are indeed the same man. A quirky, sometimes difficult individual, in his mid sixties, who likes his beer at pretty much any hour of the day and has just about survived the last quarter of a century in a rural Turkish valley, by seeing everybody and some of the most mundane daily events as a potential for humour, albeit with the occasional twinge of pathos, self-criticism and from time to time bathos. He is the quintessential “Grumpy Old Man”, as he says when asked, about himself.

His colourful vignettes of village life are at their best acutely observed, amusing and entertaining. At worst they could be seen as over simplifications of a complex, sometime’s irrational societal structure, reduced to a series of patronizing stereotypes. In any context there is always a risk when an outsider (Turkish townie or foreigner) has the audacity to pass comment on his village hosts, except in a rather obsequious way.

Let it not be said that the Old Groaner is in any way ingratiating, heavens no, but on the other hand he is deeply loyal to his fellow villagers, especially while he is teasing them. At no time are his stories mocking or contemptuous and he is always happy to be self-deprecating. Furthermore, many of his more barbed comments are reserved for his own tribe – the expats – and for tourists. Having got that out of the way, in essence it would be a sad state of affairs if these stories were dismissed for being culturally insensitive.

The real 'walking bush' a donkey with hay!

For many people, regardless of where they live the best way for them to survive and see a way through the tangled web of life in a village anywhere in the world, is not to take it too much to heart or too seriously. The Old Groaner is certainly good at that and it is quite certain that his sideways glances and tongue in cheek digs are as a result of a deep love for his adopted home.

This book is essential reading for anyone planning to live in a village and should they be in one already, guaranteed to raise a smile as they wonder whether there is something in the bucolic air, which brings out the eccentric side of peoples nature – and that’s just the author.

For example, we must not for a moment think that the picture he paints of Nearly Normal Nuri, and his stainless steel teeth in the tale from which the book takes it’s name is anything other than a portrait of a simple soul, who could be found hanging around anywhere in the world but on this occasion just happens to be in southwest Turkey. For anyone who knows a man like this it is a penned portrait showing deep affection.

In the book, which is a compilation of his regular contributions to various national and local English language papers, the same characters are revisited in different situations. The reader can begin to understand how the flow of life passes by the Old Groaner’s house and occasionally enters into it. The house becomes a stage set where some witty, some sad events are recalled. All have an element of poetic licence and a bittersweet taste of Laughland’s colourful imagination.

His wife Beatrix Bonchis’ linguistic abilities allow Laughland an insight into Turkish village culture that he would not otherwise see, owing to his lack of the same skills but together they address each event and add their own idiosyncratic touches. She also adds a visual element with her well-observed pen and ink drawings of the people, animals and invariably bizarre scenes as they unfold.

The everyday prose style of Laughland in Old Groaner mode and Bonchis’ cartoon style, combine to make an imaginative tapestry, which most people who live in Turkey would be able to recognise. From all the stories in “The Walking Bush Swings By” one that probably highlights one of the main bones of contention, for most people who live and work in this part of the world, has to be the time when the Old Groaner and his Frau’ are asked to attend a meeting.

As with many others, the cringe making truth is that on the whole he describes events with such canny accuracy that we can feel our skins prickle with self-recognition verging on embarrassment. The meeting time is 14:00 and the Old Groaner has ignored his instinctive feeling to avoid another such gathering… based on experience.

He arrives and then has to wait with the rest of the group for more than an hour, in case someone “more important” turns up. Long speeches finally are made and then as he puts it “the flood gates have been opened and the meeting becomes a series of break away meetings in small groups. No-one calls for order and at no time is a proposal made, a vote taken or a decision made.” In fact this story has been used as an introduction to local expats who are thinking to join a local committee. It is a painfully accurate description, more often than not.

Those who fail to take the country where they live (through choice or birth) seriously enough are at more often than not at risk of being criticised. While there is always a risk of being seen to be ‘laughing at’ not laughing with’ the characters he describes but although he is writing through the eyes of a foreigner, his incisive wit linked with acute observational skills means that he can and should be excused and accepted as an honorary Turk in this instance.

In conclusion, this book can either be seen as a speck in the eye of an expat or possibly a handy pile of stones inside a fragile glasshouse (there are lots of these around here.) That could well be the case if the commentator were to consider himself superior, advantaged or vitriolic and offensive. However, in the case of the Old Groaner, he has confined himself to no more than a gentle flow of teasing, loving observations and let’s face it, they are written by a man who would find something to moan and groan about wherever he happened to find himself.

It may be purchased at a price of 15TL, post free in Turkey and 4TL p&p to Europe. Mail orders to: kaya_arts@mail.com or telephone 0252 618 0164.