Wednesday, 4 July 2007
Alex Horne – 4th July 2007
Exactly 231 years after the USA gained independence from the UK, my friend Owen Powell recreated history by taking himself off to Turkey for a holiday. And just as 231 years ago, people this side of the Atlantic had to get on with things as best as possible pretending they weren’t missing out on any sort of party over there (I’m guessing that’s what happened – for some reason we didn’t get taught anything to do with British colonies at school), so on July 4th 2007, I was the one, left behind, doing my best to keep things going.
Or something like that.
The trouble was, I had to go to Hackney and, more specifically, the Bodrum Café on Stoke Newington High Street where I’d arranged to meet a man called Julio. We’d had a brief and efficient email a couple of weeks before (thank you KM) which simply read:
Award-winning photographer Julio Etchart www.julioetchart.com
Currently exhibiting in Brighton, lives in North London
So I went to the website, sent an email, and was now on my way to meeting an award-winning photographer from Uruguay. Thank God for the internet.
Unfortunately, Hackney is a particularly Turkish area of London. Everywhere I looked I saw reminders of Owen’s jaunt; the Bosphorus Travel Centre, the Dogin Gida Bazaar, the Aziziye Halal Restaurant below the white-marbled Aziziye Mosque, and several mens’ clubs devoted to FC Besiktas and FC Galatasary. This wasn't fair.
Eventually I found the Bodrun Café. I should have guessed. It was a Turkish café. I decided to lay my envy (and any very weak Independence Day analogies) to one side and try to enjoy myself. After all, meeting an award-winning photographer called Julio in what seemed like a very nice snack bar is hardly hard work. I ordered myself some Turkish sausage on toast and a Bosphorus coffee and waited for my man.
From the moment I set eyes on Julio – and I knew it was Julio as soon as he came through the door with his bicycle panniers and swarthy face – I was a tiny bit in awe of him. He was a proper man. Someone who’d seen the world, done most of things you can do in the world, and who was pretty much happy with his place in the world. When I was growing up, this was the sort of man I wanted to turn out like. I haven’t. But at least I’ve met him.
He came to London 33 years ago from his home in Montevideo (one of my favourite capital cities – meaning, probably, ‘I see a mountain!’ – almost certainly with an exclamation mark). He’s now 57.
‘I left during the dictatorship’, he told me as we sipped our coffees. ‘It was about the same time as the coup in Chile’ (an earlier 9-11 that I know I knew very little about). He had been working as a scientist at the university before the fascist regime closed it down. ‘I was arrested’, he told me unblinkingly, ‘and thrown into military barracks a couple of times. But I was released without charges, my father got me a passport and I left’. I tried to look like this was the sort of stuff I heard all the time and nodded earnestly. Really I was thrilled to be hearing such a story and hoped that at least some of his experience would rub off on me.
‘I had a couple of friends over here’, he continued. He’s got a brilliantly gravely voice, by the way. So imagine all this being said in a low husky growl. Especially the bit about being arrested. Maybe go back and read that paragraph again with a rumbly intonation in your head. Or get someone like Steve McQueen or Sam Elliot to read it for you.
‘And I had a few friends in Paris but I came here for the Wilson government (‘oh dear -he knows about British politics too’, I thought, ‘I could be in trouble here’. I kept nodding). I arrived on the last day of the General Election. Of course Wilson won (‘of course’, I muttered) and that was great. I hadn’t been able to do photography in Uruguay – it was all so chaotic, so I got myself a place at Newport Art College and started getting some freelance work’. Newport College, he told me, was the only place at the time to teach documentary photography.
If you have a look at http://www.julioetchart.com/ you’ll get a better idea of what happened next than from anything I can write here. He’s photographed everyone from Nelson Mandela to Ken Livingstone, everything from Brazilian football to Bollywood movies, and everywhere ‘from the homeless of London to the child labourers of Brazil and Thailand and the refugees of Africa.’
I asked him how often he went back to Uruguay. ‘Oh, my friends ask me back all the time – but I’m not a political animal (‘ah ha!’ I thought, ‘so we do have something in common!’). I want to take photos and I’m into practical politics – things like Oxfam, Save The Children, War on Want. In that sense I’m political, but that’s it’.
He now has two bilingual children of his own. ‘My son is very proud of his dual identity. He asked me to speak to him in Spanish in front of his mates. That’s exceptional – most people his age would find that embarrassing’. He told me they’re quite unusual as Uruguayans in London too. ‘It’s not like the Brazilians, Bolivians or Colombians – most Uruguayans tend to go to Spain, France or Italy. It means I get to be on the guestlist for a lot of the ambassador’s parties! I think there are about 600 of us here’.
‘London’s changed so much in the last ten years. I really enjoy it now, it’s so vibrant. Back then if you wanted a decent cup of coffee you had to go to Bar Italia in Soho, now there’s Turkish coffee everywhere…’
‘Uruguay’, he went on, ‘is a much smaller country. I’m proud of it but it’s tiny. It’s also a very formal country. It’s been secular since 1918. My father was a humanist, my mother was a nominal Catholic but we never went to mass. I’m truly neutral…’
By now, as you can probably tell, Julio was doing most of the talking and I was contentedly listening and scribbling. I felt like the guy in Karate Kid learning from the master. Julio knew everything. He’s a member of the NUJ and talked about Alan Johnston (‘the press used to be untouchable’, he said, ‘it’s so dangerous now’), he’s got a back injury (‘I got it while being tortured in Uruguay – and a lifetime of carrying camerabags doesn’t help…’), he’s even been to both Midhurst (where I grow up) and Corrymeela in Northern Ireland (a peace and reconciliation centre in Northern Ireland where my wife worked for six months; ‘I covered the Gibraltar Three funeral and took a lot of pictures of Martin McGuinness and Jerry Adams…’).
He’s literally done everything.
I was in danger of not saying anything at all for about half an hour and was desperately trying to think of something insightful to ask him when I remembered Owen’s latest ploy: the Special Sunday Question. Owen’s pretty pleased with this. He’s started asking the people he meets how they’d spend a perfect Sunday in London. Well, when the cat’s away, it’s ok to nick his questions...
‘Ah’, rumbled Julio, ‘my perfect Sunday. Well, I’d play tennis with my son. I love that. I learnt as a kid but there’s not much tradition of tennis in Uruguay so coming here was paradise – free courts everywhere. And I’d cook. I like to cook for the kids. Maybe a little barbecue. I live very simply. I think I’ve always been a Buddhist at heart. I’m happy, I can’t complain. Just a simple day like that. I don’t feel like traveling as much any more. It’s not as much fun as it was – there’s so much hassle. I’m happy in London. I’m a good tourist guide for the city! I take people to the cheap and cheerful places’.
Indeed he is and indeed he did. Bodrun was certainly both cheap and cheerful and Julio definitely appeared content. And the fact that he now likes to play tennis and have a barbecue at the weekend restored just a little bit of faith in myself as a man. That’s exactly how I’d spend my perfect Sunday. Now I just have to travel the world, get mixed up in a couple of coups and buy a bike - one day I'll be a proper man like Julio.