Some are intensely personal and private; some are shared experiences with many other people. Some are routine and humdrum; some are of interest to many others because they have a distinctive quality.
Perhaps we have been to places that others only dream of. Perhaps we have lived through life-changing experiences. Perhaps we witnessed key world events first-hand. Perhaps we have a special insight into society and the world around us. All of these make for good memoirs. The diary of a young teenager, describing her fears and struggles and her first love, moves from the routine to the extraordinary when written by a young Jewish girl in hiding for her life in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. “The Diary of Anne Frank” is one of the best selling memoirs of all time.
A university professor’s book would not be expected to make it on to the best-selling list. But an Iranian woman who refuses to accept the confines of the Islamic Republic and uses literature to explore her own and her students’ freedom makes “Reading Lolita in Tehran” a sure-fire winner. “Tuesdays with Morrie” recounts, simply, a series of weekly meetings. But the insights and advice of a dying man are pure genius, inspiring all who read it. “Motorcycle Diaries” takes us to places we long to see, linking politics and poignant social commentary. Memoirs of statesmen and politicians who have literally had the power to change the world and had the world in their hands also feature in the top-selling memoirs list, books by men such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.
Then there are the heart-breaking stories, such as “A Boy Called It” and “Not Without My Daughter,” that remind us of the resilience in human nature and challenge us to rise above the relatively smaller problems or sadness we are facing. Some write their memoirs from a desire to redress the balance, to tell their side of the story, to let the world know what really happened. Others are compelled to write so that readers can gain a greater understanding about the world around them. For some, the writing process is in itself healing and redemptive. Others, such as Anne Frank, write just for themselves, never dreaming that their words will be read by strangers.
But all memoir writers, to a greater of lesser extent, display the wistfulness of Grizabella in “Cats,” expressed in the most famous song from Lloyd Webber’s musical:
Memory, All alone in the moonlight
I can smile at the old days
I was beautiful then
The time I knew what happiness was
Let the memory live again!
As regular readers of this page will know, there is a range of quality in memoirs on Turkey. Some authors have a keen perceptive eye; they can interpret both major events and minor episodes in a way that sheds new insight on this land and its people. Some have a compelling style, able to tell a tale with pace and with interest. If these two talents come together, the book is pretty much sure to become popular. If both are lacking then it will sadly get the thumbs down, consigned to being given away by the author as presents at a dinner party.
Sidney Nowill’s memoir of his time in Turkey does not look very promising from the cover. Its mundane title is “Constantinople and Istanbul.” The subtitle is equally functional: “72 years of life in Turkey.” The cover picture is the author himself looking reflective and thoughtful; not a single image of Turkey or design linked to the land in sight.
But for the historian in search of some pure gems about Istanbul life over pretty much the whole of the last century it is worth turning the page. Have you ever gone through an old, dusty museum? Perhaps it is the life-long collection of a scientist, sociologist or anthropologist. Some cases have dull items, with poor labeling. You quickly pass them by with just a superficial glance. Then you stumble upon an exhibit that catches not just your eye but your imagination. Fascinated, you pause in front of it, taking mental notes, viewing it from all angles. You might take a picture of it, or decide to see if there is a postcard in the gift shop.
A few highlights and special artifacts make it worth visiting again. On a repeat visit you once more pass rapidly through the mundane galleries, wanting to arrive at the key items of the collection and experience the thrill of looking at them once more. Nowill was born into a Levantine family who had lived in Turkey for many years. During World War II he was a spook in Britain’s MI6; after the war he returned to the family business. His deep experience in Turkish business meant he was appointed an external economic advisor to Shell in Turkey, which led him to interaction with President Süleyman Demirel.
Skipping over some of the more pedestrian parts of this book (surprisingly, including his activities with MI6 -- I had expected a section entitled “Kim Philby” to be racier than a simple description of a boat journey to Bandırma and then a train to İzmir, although perhaps the Official Secrets Act came into play there) we find a few gems. Memories of a childhood in Moda (near Kadıköy, İstanbul) in the 1920s and 1930s are not just touching; they shed light on a time when this area was a cosmopolitan corner of the city, with Armenians, Greeks, Turks and Brits all living side by side. The entertaining black-and-white photo of the Moda Rowing Club in the 1880s demonstrates this. In actual fact, the founding of Fenerbahçe Football Club in Kadıköy was inspired by the sporting clubs that had been in the area for many years. The British had been able to have football clubs in Moda, despite the Sultan’s ban on any clubs and organizations for fear they were fronts for political movements. When the ban was relaxed, the scene was set for eminent Turkish neighbors to establish clubs of their own.
The characters Newill paints in this section of his memoirs are amongst the liveliest in the book. His father even had to deliver a missive to a renegade living in a primitive fisherman’s hut by the pier in Moda. This man was none other than Leon Trotsky. Newill remembers the anti-Greek riots of Sept. 5-6, 1955, and describes their impact with frightening realism. But his most sympathetic and interesting portraits are of his Turkish friends from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Deep, true and good friends that make the experience of a foreigner in their country one that will be treasured for life.
In his prologue, Nowill promises us two more books, one on the financial and political reports he wrote for Shell during his career and the other on mountaineering and travel (a climbing route on Uludağ is named after him). I hope he finds a good curator to assist him in the presentation of his museum of memories. Some exhibits really are not worth the shelf space; some need better lighting and sharper signage. Some need to be presented in a different fashion to make them more exciting and understandable. And the real gems need to be better hung so they become features of an exhibition hall rather than items you stumble across almost by chance.
“Constantinople and Istanbul: 72 Years of Life in Turkey” by Sidney Nowill
Published by Matador
21 GBP in hardback