City Hall, London: invitation to a reception for London’s Turks, hosted by the Mayor, Boris Johnson, himself of Turkish ancestry, an Ottoman minister for a great-grandfather.
We queue for bags and briefcases to be searched at the ground floor check-in desk. The women are large, big-haired, heavily made-up, or younger, slender, with straightened dark hair. The men are uniformly in suits, some lads with ornately cultivated stubble. We make our way to the elevators, up to a large, semi-circular, well-lit reception space with a stunning view of a London winter evening through a curved wall of huge glass panels.
A handful of local councillors I recognise from east London, no one else. I go out to the balcony for that view. There’s a familiar, towering man already out there, who I know from previous such civic events. The director of an umbrella organisation for Turkish community groups, he helped organise tonight. We exchange a few words. Then back into the room.
An obvious outsider, I am soon approached by a friendly-looking trio, an Azerbaijani newspaper editor, a director of a community centre, and a tall, chiselled Iranian man, who informs me he is in fact an ethnic Azerbaijani. Apparently Turkey and Azerbaijan share culture and (nearly) a language. We all say what an honour it is to be invited here. The Mayor is 25 minutes late, we note, according to the strict schedule on our handsomely-printed invitations. The room is full, there must be 300 people here. Then, a spike of excitement amid the bustle: the blond emerges from a side door, surrounded by functionaries. He makes slow progress through a thicket of hands outstretched for shaking. He glides infinitesimally to a lectern by the central panel of the curved glass wall.
Instant hush. He thanks us all for coming, apologises for being late. Of course, he says, he is a descendant of a Turkish immigrant, who came to this country from…er, um, Turkey. This elicits the first of several eruptions of warm laughter from the room. Little digital cameras and phones thrust before him, journalists and preservers for posterity indistinguishable. He tells the room that it is important to meet London’s people, and in particular the Turkish community, which contributes so much to London’s economy and society. He says that his great-grandfather would be very proud to know that one day his descendant would become Mayor of this great city, London.
The jovial atmosphere Boris effortlessly propagates is growing while he speaks, from a breathy quiet to a murmur. A few more detonations of laughter and, after a brief speech of barely five minutes, he hands over to a Conservative councillor from Enfield. A few questions from thronged reporters are answered in moments, with forthright waves of the hand. While the councillor loudly declaims and rankles with party political swipes – the room audibly growls at these – the cloud of functionaries around the Mayor buzzes into action, he is departing. Realisation is infectious – the Great Man is leaving us so soon. The murmur becomes a waterfall of concern, confusion, question, complaint. The towering organiser’s turn to speak. He struggles against now thunderous eddies of debate concerning the unexpected sudden exit. The assembled descend upon a waiting buffet before he can finish. It is over.
The reporters are packing away their cameras, notebooks. They’ve got what they need, are polishing off plates of food, ready to leave. The crowd has thinned by more than half. I move to the organiser and commiserate with him on squaring up to a tough crowd. He smiles, but with a sadness. I say goodbye to those I ate and drank with, and make for the lifts.
First published in July, 2009, in Lucid Magazine; available in This Is The World That We Live In, a collection of Lucid Magazine articles (2010): http://www.lulu.com/gb/en/shop/sylvia-arthur-and-athena-kugblenu-and-paul-knipe-and-james-willsher/this-is-the-world-that-we-live-in/paperback/product-12034251.html