Back to Istanbul
The summer of ’64 is a long time ago. As long as from the outbreak of the First World War to the Beatles’ first LP ! But now that we are about to go to Istanbul, on a short, three-day visit from Ankara, it seems a good time to recall what I can of my first visit to that captivating city.
For the first half of 1964, after leaving school in December ‘63, I was working at County Hall, the headquarters of the then London County Council. It was a daily commute on the District Line from Southfields, where my parents lived, to Westminster, just across the river Thames. It wasn’t a glamorous job. I worked in EO/GP1, which was mainly concerned with administering the Common Entrance [11 Plus] exam. Outside my County Hall job I was a more-or-less regular member of the Putney Young Socialists, who were campaigning to overthrow the sitting Conservative MP and to elect Hugh Jenkins [not Roy Jenkins] in his place; I listened to my small collection of LPs on my father’s record player; and I went to the cinema a lot with Tina, whom I had met just before Christmas. She was a film enthusiast. And I occasionally looked at my reading list for Oxford, which beckoned the following autumn. But not very seriously, and not for very long !
Some of my CH friends had already set off overseas. John Gregory was working in a bookshop somewhere in the west of France, possibly in Angers. Clive and Howard were first somewhere in Sweden, reportedly lumber-jacking, but then later in Malta. [They were friends; not a gay couple. Both sadly now dead.] Walter was tutoring a distinctly upper-class Italian child in Italy, possibly in Genoa. Ian who had called on Walter in Genoa, most probably in search of a good meal, was now apparently in Rome, finding his way around by asking Catholic priests for directions in Latin. It seemed that the only people left in London were Chang Young and John Mitchell, whom I bumped into at Battersea Fun Fair, where they were working on the ghost train. And me.
Constantinople was the target. It looked a long way, but it was as far as you could travel without needing to take a boat. I had a map in the back of my pocket diary which showed where it was. If there were any student trains or flights, I wasn’t aware of them. So the answer was hitch-hiking. I had hitched a few times before: down the A4 from my grandparents’ house to London; around Sussex on school half-holidays; and, memorably, to the Mediterranean and back with my brother, Paul, a couple of years before. But this was a more challenging, more ambitious trip. I said good-bye to Mary, whom I’d met at the Putney YS, and bought a Michelin map of Europe, a canvas grip bag, and a single ticket from London Victoria to Calais.
Maybe the journey is always more memorable than the destination ? My first night was in the youth hostel at Dunkerque, where I splashed out on a tomato omelette in a cafe. The next afternoon I met a man by the roadside in Belgium who told me he had seen the German army come across “that field there” twice in his life-time. I spent that night, uncomfortably, in Köln railway station. The next day I was offered a lift to Marienbad in a Ford V-8 Pilot by a Czech who was returning home from London. Briefly I had visions of conversations at Oxford, “Last year in Marienbad …” . But when the Pole ran out of petrol and started to refill the tank from a jerry-can with a lighted cigarette in his mouth, I thought better of it. Fortuitously, there on the hard shoulder, I trod on the toes of a rather nervous Indian, who asked the way to Bombay. I showed him carefully on my map. But he couldn’t read. And so I spent a day travelling with him and his wife and son, and a large cooking pot, down German autobahns. It did cross my mind to stay with them for the whole journey. But I got nervous about the eating arrangements and got out in Munich.
After that it is all fragments. I spent an evening in Munich with a Jewish girl from Canada, all of whose family had died in concentration camps. In Vienna I got drunk in a subterranean wine bar along with an American girl. We extricated ourselves with some difficulty. And rode home to the hostel on her scooter. In Klagenfurt I ventured into a restaurant by myself, and ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, which turned out to be egg mayonnaise. I may have been the only customer. And the staff watched as I ate it very slowly.
From there the road turned south over the Loibl Pass. Had I not then acquired my rampant acrophobia ? Which makes all mountain roads a trial. A Yugoslav family took me from the top of the Pass all the way to Belgrade. We arrived very late at night. They let me sleep in the car and brought me sugar on brown bread and plum brandy for breakfast. A German car picked me up going south from Belgrade. I exhausted my very limited German speaking to the driver until we realised that we were both English. It was my first ever two-day lift. We spent the night in a hotel in Sofia. Back in London the wife of the Bulgarian press attaché had told me, as we walked in Kensington Gardens, that Sofia was a magical town, a sort of cross between Heidelburg and Schwerin. My recollection is that it looked more like a cross between Slough and Livingstone, West Lothian.
As we approached Constantinople things became more foreign. Fewer cars on the road. The Dragoman pass between Yugoslavia and Bulgaria was not tarmac but loose stones. The village markets contained nothing but water melons. Between the villages we passed people in ox carts. The frontier guard at the Bulgarian border carefully inspected my visa upside-down. And he wanted to hold onto my passport. From Edirne [Adrianople] mosques and minarets replaced churches.
My driver took me out to dinner when we arrived, in a restaurant that gave onto the Bosphorus. I have a dim memory of eating stuffed vine-leaves and drinking ouzo. It was too late to find the youth hostel. He rang the bell of a cheap hotel, and the owner ushered me in darkness into a room. When I woke upon the morning I was sharing it with half a dozen Turks and a hundred flies, all competing for space on a naked light bulb.
I think I probably did the usual things in Constantinople, as I continued to call it in my head. I certainly made my way to the Hagia [Sancta] Sophia and to the Blue Mosque and to the Topkapi Palace. And I wandered, a bit lost, in the Grand Bazaar. Without buying anything. Did I spent time with other people ? Perhaps I did, as I re-met people later in the trip when I got to Venice. My long distance driver took me out to dinner again, in the same restaurant. But rich food gave me the runs, always difficult when you are travelling. An educated Turk who claimed to know Arnold Toynbee [I still had some pretensions then as a future historian] took me on a boat trip up the Golden Horn. Did he squeeze my arm over-much ? I think perhaps he did. But most of the time I was on my own. Living in a youth hostel somewhere in the old town, and drinking lots of tea in a local cafe. One day I took a metro train to what had been recommended to me as a local beach. Going barefoot during my time there was, with hindsight, not a very good idea.
My recollection is that for everyone else in the hostel Constantinople was just a resting place on the way to somewhere else. A young German with whom I spent some time told me about his adventures hitching to and back from Pakistan. Some Australians suggested that I press on through Turkey and Syria to Jerusalem, and then come back round the Mediterranean via North Africa. But I think that I knew I had gone far enough. Had reached my limit. After maybe a week, and after sending the necessary postcards, I packed my bag and headed back towards Italy. I think I thought that I might catch up with Tina in Perugia, where she had been learning Italian.
It’s not much when I write it down. But it was an epic journey for me at the time. Next week, when we return to Istanbul, as I have now learned to call it, it is only four hours down the high-speed line from Ankara, where I am writing this. It will have changed quite a bit. But then so have I …