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British diplomacy at its best


Caught up in a military coup in Turkey
John Julius Norwich Writer
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And then the last year of my life there was absolutely lovely again, you know: quiet, peaceful, sunny, not too much work, delightful all round. And I was very, very sorry when in May 1960 I had to leave. I'd had three years, you know; I mean, it was the normal thing. So my wife and I drove all the way back. She flew back with Artemis first and dropped Artemis with my mother, and then she came, flew out back to Beirut, and then she and I drove back to London together in the Land Rover. And that was great fun.

And we were driving through Turkey which in 1960 was still fairly primitive. I mean, no tourists at all. You know, the roads weren't up to much, but it was wonderful and unspoilt and ravishingly beautiful. And as we drove back, we got to a town called Kütahya, which is famous for its pottery. And we stopped there for the night, merely because it was getting dark and we were tired and it seemed a sensible place to stop. And then we knew that we were going to have to set up a house in London when we got back, and so we thought we'll buy some nice Turkish china. So we went round after dinner that night, and all the shops were still open, and we bought quite a lot, and said to the man, 'Okay, now, you pack them up tonight and we'll come back in the morning. I've got to change a traveller's cheque when the banks open, and we'll come back in the morning and pay for them and take them away', so that was all arranged. And then the next morning at about 6, we heard shouting, screaming, military music, God knows what. I mean, something obviously very exciting was going on – we had no idea what. We got up, had our breakfast and walked down to the bank, and saw, to our horror, that the bank was being guarded by two men with Kalashnikovs, and barring our way in. So I was baffled. I don't speak a word of Turkish, so I had absolutely no idea. But then the most extraordinary thing happened. Two girls walked up the street who obviously worked in the bank, and they were being allowed in, and I heard them and they were talking Serbian, which I could speak, having spent three years in Belgrade, I mean. And so I stopped and said, 'Please tell me what's happened, what's all this about.' And they said, 'Oh, the Prime Minister, Mr Menderes, was arrested last night; there was a coup.' And one never then quite knows whether to say, hooray, or how terrible, or what, you know. But we... I asked them a few more questions, and she said, 'Yes, he's... it happened here in Kütahya last night and he's now imprisoned in that castle up on the hill.' So we were actually there where it all happened. I mean, if I'd been a journalist, it would have been the scoop of my life. As I was a diplomat, I had to pretend it was nothing to do with me. Anyway, we got our china. We got in and cashed the traveller's cheques, largely thanks to these two girls, and got out and drove on. But then the continuation of the drive was pretty tricky, because, again, there was a police post, a sort of checkpoint, every hour or so along the road. And we had been given a wonderful laissez-passer by the Turkish ambassador in Beirut, but he was a Menderes man, so would it... was it a good idea to show it, or wasn't it, you know? And it was all very delicate, and we... it took us quite a long time. We weren't actually ever imprisoned, but we were sort of detained for an hour or two from time to time, you know, before they said, okay, drive on. And we eventually arrived in Istanbul really pretty exhausted and very, very relieved to be out of it.

John Julius Norwich (1929-2018) was an English popular historian, travel writer and television personality. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer. He is the author of histories of Norman Sicily, the Republic of Venice, the Byzantine Empire and, most recently, 'The Popes: A History'. He also wrote on architecture, music and the history plays of Shakespeare, and presented some thirty historical documentaries on BBC Television.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Turkey, Kütahya, Adnan Menderes

Duration: 4 minutes, 43 seconds

Date story recorded: 2017

Date story went live: 03 October 2018