Encounters and Coincidence

“A certain man once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish – but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.”
― Vladimir Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark

Jazz-musician-John-SurmanJ and I wandered off to İstanbul last Friday. We were going to meet up with saxophonist John Surman who was doing a solo gig at the İstanbul Jazz Festival – JS is family and we don’t get to meet up as often as we’d like. This time around his schedule was more relaxed than is usual with these things and we were able to go for some essential shopping around the musical instrument makers’ places of business at the top of Tünel for odds and sods and, perhaps, a new ‘toy’ or bit of serious gear.

First stop was for a zurna, that quintessential Middle Eastern horn, with its most distinctive sound. We’d stopped by a particular shop three or four years earlier with Jack Dejohnette‘s ‘Ripple Effect’ group and Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Marlui Miranda who had been delighted to get her hands on her very own zurna.

JackDeJohnette_TheRippleEffect_Roma_01‘Ripple Effect’ Jack on drums, JS in reflection (2nd/3rd from r) Marlui extreme right (JazzItalia photo)

Moving on, we were looking for a particular type of reed for some obscure horn JS had acquired some years earlier – we found some in the atelier/atelye/workshop of a saz and kemençe maker Oktay Üst. Turns out that Oktay is not just a master craftsman in wood, he is also a maestro of the kemençe with an international reputation.

Kemence, zurna, meyJS acquired a mey, Oktay launched into a mini-concert and there was hardly a dry eye in the house. Why? because people like Oktay are a dying breed – makers and players of musical instruments are being fast superseded by cheap, mass produced plastic and that should be worth a tear from any lover of artistry.

As an aside, it is amazing what happens when the craftsmen/sellers/shopkeepers realise that they are dealing with someone who can really play these things – rather than someone who wants a wall or table decoration. 30-40% discounts are given and extra reeds thrown in without being asked for. Before you get any ideas, you’ll need to know which end to blow into and demonstrate a bit more than the equivalent of ‘chopsticks’! Above left you can see a zurna, two meys, a kemençe and a cd all by Oktay.

JS and Oktay Üst – two Maestros

So, moving on. We had just left Oktay’s place when we were accosted by three young people who appeared to be trying to flog us a cd of some sort.

We could not have been more wrong – JS suddenly spotted that the cd they were ‘offering’ was one of his and an encounter and a coincidence came together. It turned out that these folks had come from Tehran, Iran for a visit to friends and specifically because their jazz idol John Surman was performing at the festival. They had bought their cd locally as they are not available back home and they just happened to be walking down this particular street as JS came out of Oktay’s place – a Close Encounter of the Coincidental Kind and a perfect chance to get an autograph!

We were able to enjoy a little time with them and then meet up later at the concert which, I have to say, was yet another virtuoso performance that ended with JS playing an encore of jazzed-up folk tunes whilst wandering around the auditorium. To those who don’t know John’s stuff I’d say ‘You really don’t know what you are missing’. His output over the years has been prolific and varied – from jazz to choral to brass to . . well, you name it. (his website is here) J and I are lucky enough to have several class musicians in the family, it means we get to be at some of the best gigs around, not only that, I can’t remember the last time we had to pay! How cool is that?

To finish off here are a few photos:



sound check with the mighty baritone sax


JS, J, sound engineer Paul (in red) and the Tehran Fan Club

Finally, here’s maestro-usta Oktay Üst performing:

Alan Fenn, Okçular Köyü

ps thank you, to the two nice people who enquired about the lack of posting this past week – there is also the challenge of lack of bandwidth – it has taken three and a half hours so far to add the photos!

‘Coincidentally . . ‘

Coincidences are funny old things; a few are amazing, some are funny or not so funny and most are really insignificant and barely flutter a synapse in passing. There are some, however, that open up dusty, cobwebby passageways to memories long locked away for one reason or another or simply lost in the mists of time.

The Cameronians badge
The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)

Anyway, back to the present and my little string of coincidences. A few weeks back I was reading the psychedelic ramblings of a certain blogger whose story weaving skills I thoroughly enjoy. She was writing about soldiers tales and mentioned the title of a book about her grandfather who had emigrated to New England but returned to Scotland and enlisted at the outbreak of WW1. The book was titled ‘A Tale of Two Captains’ and had been co-written by her uncle. Curious, I searched out the book on my favorite independent second-hand booksellers site, learned a little about the leading characters and their connection with The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). I can’t tell you exactly what it was but something ‘Cameronians’ clicked in the archive department way down in the basement of what passes for my brain these days. I saw that one copy was signed by the author and, although a tad more expensive, on impulse bought it. Meanwhile, I emailed my blogger friend and was made privy to some family history and political matters that have no place here – they did, however, help to pad out the picture.

Today my book arrived.

John Frost
John Frost in uniform of his parent regiment - The Cameronians

On the cover are old photos of the two captains in question – one of them clearly displays a belt and cross-belt with the distinctive badge of the The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). That name again! I couldn’t pin it down. Then I opened the book and inside, signed by the author was written ‘For General John and Jean Frost, with every good wish’, and the penny dropped.

I’d joined the Paras less than 20 years after the end of WW2; John Frost was a living legend to everyone associated with the regiment. The Commanding Officer of 2 Para (2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment), Frost and his 747 men were the only unit to succeed in reaching the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem during Montgomery’s ill-conceived Operation Market Garden. Their task was to hold the bridge for 48 hours until relieved by the British armoured column led by XXX Corps. That relief never arrived!

Frost and his men were surrounded by the German 2nd SS Panzer Corps, all veterans of the Eastern Front, and what followed was described to me by a survivor (still serving when I joined) as an ‘abattoir’. Eventually the survivors ran out of ammunition – there were less than 100, including a wounded John Frost. The 9000 strong British 1st Airborne Division, of which 2 Para had been a part, existed in name only, some units were wiped out. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded for actions during what became known as the Battle of Arnhem. In 1978 the Dutch re-named the bridge ‘John Frost Bridge’ (he was not amused but eventually was persuaded to go along with it) to commemorate the stand by 2 Para.

As a young parachute soldier I was required to learn the history and personalities of this time inside-out and backwards, and here’s the murky memory, the coincidental link – John Frost’s parent regiment was The Cameronians!

So, there you have it – The Cameronians – two captains – a book – John Frost – the Paras – Arnhem – New England – blogging – a blogger (with more going on in her head than most of us can imagine). A little row of little coincidences that led to the bubbling up of loads of dusty memories – ‘old soldiers never die, we just get boring!

Lt Col John Frost
Lt Col Joh Frost CO 2 Para
1Para at Arnhem
1 Para at Arnhem (my old mob - a bit before my time!)


John Frost Bridge Arnhem
John Frost Bridge, Arnhem










Alan Fenn, Okcular Koyu