5 MAY 1967, Page 28



Miriam Pill-Willoughby writes from Istanbul: It is, alas, but rarely nowadays that my husband and I forsake the windswept fastness of 'Le Cabinet,' our disused lighthouse on the island of Sark, to venture forth into foreign fields and pastures new. My husband's partial recovery, however, from the distressing attack of chronic whooping cough that laid him so low during our visit to the pepper-threshing festival on St Helena—the local witch-doctor diagnosed an allergy at the time, but the cough continued to hang about all through the winter and made my husband's reading of the lessons at St Asaph's both lengthy and laborious—combined with the advent of balmy vernal breezes, persuaded me that the time had come to plunge ourselves, wanton and reckless, into that marble oeso- phagus of soul-cleansing antiquity that is Constantinople, set as it is like a perfect dream of womb-like domes and alarming minarets in the bottle-green Sea of Marmaluke, athwart the Phosphorus and the Golden Hind.

We travelled direct by air, via Paris, Rome, Athens, and, I think, Lagos. Hardly had we 'touched down' in Istanbul and we were sur- rounded by a veritable garland of genial, bronzed Turkish faces, all offering to assist us with our impedimenta—I never travel without my rather antiquated treadle-operated hair-drier since my husband received an unpleasant shock in a hotel in Marseilles—and conducting us to a nearby 'hurss' or 'boddiweggin,' the Turkish equivalent, I was told, of an English taxi. I was assisted, with much bowing and beaming courtesy, into the high front seat next to the driver, and my husband, having been sur- rounded by porters, all humorously demanding 'one dollar each,' and having, so it seemed, felt suddenly faint, was hoisted shoulder-high and lifted onto the ornate silver-posted bed arrange- ment in the back. With this there was a general cheer, our driver let in the hand-brake fixed to the outside of the vehicle, and we were on our way.

Never have I experienced such exhilaration. Sometimes on four wheels, sometimes on two, our driver hurled the rattling conveyance round narrow, picturesque-corners between the ancient wooden houses, down precipitous cobbled lanes as steep as a flight of stairs, across busy road junctions jammed with horse-drawn vehicles and colourful pedestrians—I did not catch the Turkish word he used to describe them—and up the other side again. Sometimes the mosques and minarets of the old city were above us, sometimes they were below us: sometimes they appeared for a brief instant in front of us, sometimes they seemed to be dwindling swiftly behind us.

Smiling expansively, and holding the steering wheel loosely with only one hand, the driver— his name was Charlie—explained the absence of a meter on the vehicle: the local taxi-drivers, he said, had tried them, but they always seemed to register too little money. He also very generously offered to exchange our travellers' cheques at a rate infinitely preferable to that we could obtain at the bank, and pausing only to spin the wheel briefly if we appeared to be on collision course with some obstacle he counted out the well-thumbed notes, each with its beautifully executed portrait of the Sultan, and gratefully pocketed our dreary cheques.

A moment later we came to an abrupt stop in front of our hotel. My husband, now for some reason hanging precariously from the back of the vehicle, alighted. I supervised the carrying in of our heavy luggage, and was just inspecting our accommodation—the last guests, two elderly wrestlers, were just moving out—when I heard a sharp cry of pain from below, followed by a crisis of convulsive coughing. My husband, I was told, had unfortunately been standing too near the taxi when it had backed sharply and run over his foot. Only a superficial injury, but it required a large and ungainly bandage, and this, as it transpired, was to be something of an embarrassment to us later. I insisted, however, that it should not spoil my husband's holiday, and set off imme- diately for the Hagia Sophia, a huge mosque originally named after the elderly Hagia Sophia who was married to the Emperor Hadrian, with my husband limping manfully along in the rear.

What a city of enchantment! Everywhere we went, in the Topcati Palace with its wondrous display of encrusted jewels, in the archaeological museum among the dusty debris of history, down by the perfect Roman mosaics with their witty representations of life in the ancient world, we were accompanied by a little army of volun- tary guides, always ready, in exchange for a trifling tip, to point out some object of interest —a tree, a mosque, a curious cloud formation, even my husband's bandaged foot. In the Bazaar, too, we were surrounded by smiling friends, offering us a rich variety of exotic wares, and always at much reduced prices, be- cause, as they so touchingly admitted, they liked us.

It was in the Blue Mosque, beneath the ex- quisite azure domes of intricate oriental design, that our only disagreeable experience occurred. Mistaking my husband's bandage for an article of footwear, an usher unceremoniously attacked him, hurled him down on the thick carpet and wrestled with him for some moments, finally throwing him through the heavy leather curtains and out into the sunlight. Fortunately I was able to pacify the initially hostile crowd with a few words in Greek in praise of their hero, Kebab Attaturk, and within moments their mood had changed to one of riotous enthusiasm, the earth shaking to the explosion of fire- crackers, and only a pressing engagement at the British Embassy preventing me from being seized and carried away in a rough and bois- terous dance. Even now, five hours later, the festivities continue: bonfires have been lit, bells are ringing, heavy fireworks explode as I write, and my husband has still not returned. The flames of the bonfires leap higher, and beyond the railings they are burning a comic effigy. And my! how they are dancing!