On Reading with an a Open Heart by Alpay Ulku

On Reading with an a Open Heart by Alpay Ulku
December 23, 2023 Ulku Alpay
Alpay Ulku’s essay for this month’s Plume essay, “On Reading With An Open Heart,” paints a vivid picture of the ethos of post-Cold War London in the early eighties when memories of WWII were still fresh in the memories of the older generation and the punk scene was taking off in the back streets of SoHo and Craven Gardens. With a sharp eye for both physical and cultural detail, Ulku takes his reader on a generously selfless tour of London’s infernal purlieus—when punk was already dead and Niko was the rage. Although personal in his recollections, he writes with an “open heart” about a future that has already passed and a social milieu that’s ironic in its nostalgia for a dystopian age.
                                                                              –Chard DeNiord



On Reading with an a Open Heart


Alpay Ulku


London in the Eighties was something.

We lived in a rowhome in a neighborhood located between the Black and the Green lines on a street called Craven Gardens towards the outskirts of the City. The Black line was faster while the Green line was closer, and I could take both to get to my high school in Southbank, and the Green’s the one that I usually rode.

The Cold War was very much of a presence, and so was the Second World War. The Second World War was a sooty film that clung to the surfaces of things that never saw sun and to the underside of metal railings and to the back streets of Soho and to the stale beer smell of neighborhood pubs where you weren’t necessarily welcome and was infused in the brick and mortar of nondescript row homes pressed together in neighborhoods around the Tube.

It was in the cigarette butts in the lobbies of the Tube and in the stains under our feet at the ticket window where we arrayed ourselves in a straight line and waited our turn politely. When I stepped up with cash in hand I would repeat the magic phrase for a round trip: “Return to Leicester Square, please.” I had learned to pronounce it “Lester” not “Lie-chester” and would thus be granted a ticket and moved on.

That generation was graying but still in power and that war was within living memory and I suspect it was not far from the daily thoughts of a fair portion of the population, and so I could look down the tunnel and see the shadows of families who’d huddled there during the bombings, who’d left their impressions against the walls or who were projected there by the older denizens of the platform waiting with me for the train.

I’d think of Auden and the Shield of Achilles, Matthew Arnold’s “darkling plain” become a wasteland entire. “A plain without a feature, bare and brown, /No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood/ Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down .” Hitler’s mechanized Panzer divisions rolling through Russia, and a glimpse of the apocalypse to come.

When the headlight swept through the tunnel, those shades stayed behind, and when the doors opened it was the Eighties again and this was the Cold War now and our generation’s war and it was our time and most of us assumed that we wouldn’t live to grow old, until it ended abruptly a few years later, and the Simulation rebooted.

We hadn’t yet been named “Gen X” but our music was different and the Cold War was everywhere in the songs, and had you called us “Gen X” we would’ve spat it back as a label invented by hippies. It was in the proverbial purple hair by which we mocked the concept of fashion, until it became the fashion, and in the safety pin earrings for jewelry and in the studded leather that we bought in the sex shops and wore for fun. Punk as a movement was already dead but its vibrant, colored ghosts still walked the Earth in defiance of the grayness of London and in winter its constant drizzle. You could not be a Punk in the Eighties in London unless you were working class and from there, and the violent clashes with the Skinheads were real, but Punk was dead, watered down to something else, post-Punk, a new wave of music that changed into something like it, and then nothing like it at all.

The Cold War was mostly about waiting, ennui, punctuated by rage, and the currency was subversion. From Guard Duty, by Transtromer, 1972 (trans. Ulku): “I am ordered out to a pile of rocks/like an aristocratic corpse from the Iron Age/ . . . I am the turnstile.”  Or to put it more bluntly, “When there’s no future how can there be sin?/ We’re the flowers in the dustbin./ We’re the poison in your human machine./ We’re the future, your future. (Sex Pistols, God Save the Queen).”

The Cold War was a future in which “the language marches in step with the executioners (Night Duty, Transtromer).” This is even more true now, when the Legacy Media is joined at the hip with the Surveillance State, a pretty little union, and you, all of you, know who you are; in which the enemies within are hysterically denounced, not merely condemned but denounced, and anything less is suspicious, is not quite pure. (Think of the pod scream in the final scene of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The clip’s worth playing). If the Second World War was about settling scores, the Cold War was about erasures. “The past had been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.”

It was a presence when you got off the Black line at Leicester Square, where the marches against the Cold War often started, and emerged from the Tube into a light fog. Or you could take the Green line and skip the transfer and get off at Embankment, and put your back to the Thames and walk. It was the mist that swirled around the yellow streetlights and slunk after the streetwalkers of Charring Cross like a married minor politician and around the lions of Trafalgar Square that looked to have been awakened just now and that you were the one who’d disturbed their sleep. You’d have to go out of your way a little to visit the lions, and it would fall in step beside you there as a warning perhaps or perhaps a reward, and in any case you’d walk to Piccadilly Circus and sit down on one of the steps that circled Eros like a gyre, with the giant billboards blazing around you, and the presence would continue on its way.

“Circus” meant traffic circle and it was one of the major intersections of the City and Piccadilly Circus was aptly named, an intersection not only of London, but all of Europe. It was an open air drug market of course and we played cat-and-mouse with the Bobbies and the narcs, but we were somewhat safe in the magic circle of the Circus because the numbers were on our side and so people rarely got arrested. You could sit next to a girl who was from Brussels or something and flirt a little and maybe go further, or go out there with a couple of friends and wind up talking to some guys from Germany and go out to a pub with them passing a joint along the way and learn about what life was like in Berlin and what they’d heard about the other side of the wall. There were flickers of hope that things might get better, but it was subdued. “Read between the lines. We’ll meet in two hundred years, / when the microphones in the hotel room walls/ are forgotten, and can sleep at last, become trilobites. (To Friends Behind a Frontier, Transtromer, trans. Fulton).”

It might be that reading with an open heart requires either naivety or courage. Naivety that the Surveillance State isn’t listening, doesn’t care about your silly posts, doesn’t care what books you buy. It does: you’re hard to control when you’re hard to predict. Like a whale filtering plankton in its open mouth, those tidbits of information about you add up to a tasty snack. As the CIA agent Jack Lovette in Didion’s Democracy knew well: “All information is seen as useful. Inaccurate information is itself accurate information about the informant.” You never know what’s cancel-able, what’s not, especially in the years to come. It’s possible to read without an open heart, but it won’t change you in surprising ways. That blood-dimed tide is loosed. The Joke. Milan Kundura.

The Cold War too has morphed into something else, something like it.

So I’d brought The Great Shark Hunt with me which I’d planned to read under the light of the billboards, and thus dangled a Marlboro from my lips in preparation and flicked open my Zippo and lit it, because, you know, I was in high school. This was the one with the yellow cover and was the first British publication. Hunter Thompson had come to London for a signing, so I’d skipped class with a couple of friends and we went out to see the Doctor in person in a bookstore perhaps in Notting Hill, or in Harrods perhaps. I bought the book but I didn’t get it signed as none of us wanted to wait in the long line, so the other two left without buying a copy and we walked past the hustlers on Brompton Road with their portable stands of knockoffs and stolen goods and kept going to Speakers’ Corner. The usual Communists were around, taking turns standing on the soapboxs or the milk crates they’d brought along and some had printed flyers and a few of the richer ones had a bullhorn, but there were no conspiracy theories that day so we hung in Hyde Park a while and dispersed, “pedals on a wet, black bough (Pound).”

There’s a photo of me someplace poised in front of the typewriter while holding a Bloody Mary and smoking, self-portrait as HST. If I find it I’m going to get rid of it. “Say, I wonder if that guy’s a writer,” I imagined people saying as I went around with The Great Shark Hunt tucked under my arm. While I was convinced that the world would end, I was certain of my personal future: I would shine brilliantly, but avoid the trappings of fame and fortune, that had undone so many. It was perhaps with this same bravado that I declared that you couldn’t be a writer unless you were open to the street, which I later thought was pedantic and pompous, but thinking about it now, I wonder if perhaps I was right, that reading the street is as important as reading books. You have this fire to read, that may or may not morph into a fire to write: both are a peek into how things are, and maybe why. You have T.S. Eliot, unhappy at home, writing his sad lines, with his sad banker’s heart all open: “ …Lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows.”  Those men are both observer and observed.

Though I wanted to write New Journalism, there wasn’t a lot of that to read, so I read the British poets, which is what was available in the bookstores. Keats. Shelly. Dylan Thomas. William Blake. I didn’t understand a lot of it, so I read it again. Coleridge and Wordsworth. I’d get off the Tube a few stops early some weekdays so I could walk across Westminster Bridge before classes began. I’d look down at the Thames and think of Wordsworth’s poem and think of how things had changed. Yeats blew me away. His visions of grim decline and eventual apocalypse, seemed prophetic; not the quietude of Wordsworth’s city “all bright and glittering in the smokeless air,” but after the second twilight, at the other end of the day, this other quietude: “The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;/ Night resonance recedes, night-walkers’ song/ After great cathedral gong./ A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains/All that man is (Yeats, Byzantium).”

But a more immediate future was pressing: this was my last year of high school, and it occurred to me that I didn’t have much time, that I had to figure out someplace to go next. David Bowie’s “turn and face the strange. Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes” became an earworm that started to haunt, then mock me. Though I was not a good kid in high school an English teacher used his connections with an editor for me, and I wrote a few pieces for a newspaper for expats, and this got me into university, along with a mea culpa for my college essay, and a senior year push to get my grades up. I was accepted by one place only, on academic and social probation, and if I hadn’t gotten in I might have stayed in London and been an apprentice journalist, but an apprenticeship was not a done deal.

Two roads diverged, or maybe more. I took the one most travelled.

By the time I rose from the feet of Eros I was a little bit altered after something I’d taken. I’d heard that Nico was playing — I think but I’m not sure that this was at the Apollo. Lou Reed was sort of a hero of mine along with Hunter Thompson, and this was mainly why I went to see Nico.

I flashed the bouncer my fake ID, which was an international drivers’ license, and the bouncer looked me over instead. He waved me in and I paid my cover. There was an unwritten rule in the pubs and bars that so long as you didn’t act out they would serve you, though would often limit how much you could have.

I found a standup table for one and the waitress came by but I didn’t feel like drinking and she left. It was crowded by the time the lights came down and Nico started her set, and the waitress checked on me and left. A bouncer told me that there was a two-drink minimum, so when she came again I bought her two vodka-and-limes as this was my drink and asked for a Coke for myself as well and she brought me the Coke for free and this satisfied everyone.

Nico seemed to favor purple and the stage was drenched in purple for her rendition of Heroin, which was open and vulnerable during the quiet part and she was completely unguarded through it, and raucous and full of emotion in the rush, also unguarded, and her version was much better than Lou’s. When she did White Light/White Heat the stage exploded with color and there was no difference between me and those lights.

Afterwards, Yoko Ono played a surprise set. There was this giant gong on the stage and Yoko was kneeling and was dressed in what must’ve been a traditional robe and she suddenly screamed and bashed the gong with a stick that had a ball at the tip. It was horrifying. They played some music while she rested and I think she might’ve sung a little but it was atonal perhaps on purpose and she screamed like a banshee and bashed it again.

I didn’t do anything but the bouncer was hovering and I left or was invited to leave and was out in the cool night air and was grateful for the quiet. I walked an hour as the Tube had closed and eventually found a late night express bus, and snuck home without making a sound, a free range kid, and that was me reading the street for an evening.


Being an autodidact in poetry when I arrived in university meant that I started reading Bukowski and Ashbury at the same time. I never got the memo that I was not supposed to like them both. I never got the memo that only the cool kids would make it as writers, and how cool you are was mostly determined by how much financial aid you got, until grad school. My undergraduate professors had encouraged us to take risks and be supportive of each other, and speak up and try new things, so when I arrived at Iowa I didn’t understand that the culture at least among the students was that we were supposed to be staking out turf for our “voices” and developing our “careers.”

James Wright and Basho with their hearts on their sleeves, Po Chu-i’s humility. T.S.Eliot’s trapped-bird fear of the imminent dissolution of all things. Each of them blazing with their own voice because they got out of their own way and none of them were cool and they all read widely. Writing with an open heart is reading with an open heart. Ask any of them.

Then I was out in the night air again, grad school behind me, all that weirdness and then the gong, and the hooked cane swept out from under the curtain and I was out.

When the weird get gonged, the gonged get going.

I should call this something like that.

Alpay Ulku’s work has appeared in APR, AGNI, Prairie Schooner, Field, and the Gettysburg Review, and was selected by Slate for their “Best Valentine’s Day Poems” feature. His first collection, Meteorology, was published by BOA Editions. He splits his time between Chicago and the city of Samsun, on the Turkish coast of the Black Sea.