Think of this as a two-for-one Christmas special, a City Life column gift-wrapped inside Any Other Business. The city is Istanbul, where I am on a mission — in the steps of Pope Benedict, as it were — to salute loyal expatriate Spectator readers. And what a life this city offers. ‘Very cosmopolitic!’ exclaimed Mustafa the driver, forcing his way through impossible jams. Force your own way through the evening throng in Istiklâl Caddesi, Istanbul’s Oxford Street, and you might be in Milan or Barcelona; watch Bosphorus ferries at night from a penthouse restaurant, and you might be in Hong Kong; talk to businessmen about the booming real-estate market, and you could be in any new-rich city on the planet. But contemplate the soaring dome of the Blue Mosque, as His Holiness and I have just done, and you gain a sense of where you really are: Istanbul is neither West nor East but both — and that, of course, is the problem about Turkey’s aspiration to join the EU.
‘Welcome in Europe!’ Mustafa shouted as we crossed the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge from the Asian side of the Bosphorus. But the Germans, Austrians and French have made it pretty clear that he and his countrymen are not welcome — offending Turkish honour so deeply that poll support for joining has fallen from 75 per cent to half that level, with many public figures now unwilling to declare themselves in favour. But one politician I met, a member of the liberal Anavatan party, was more frank: ‘Of course we should join. It’s not just about jobs for migrants. The rules and disciplines would be good for us too. And it would help keep Turkey a secular state. That’s the most important thing.’ And that’s why Britain should continue to support Turkish entry, even taking account of Charles Moore’s point last week that EU membership is an odd thing to wish on your friends.
One former Spectator subscriber not represented at my get-together with readers was the British consul-general. The weekly copy which used to adorn the consular coffee table has allegedly been cancelled by consul-general Barbara Hay to cut costs. Miss Hay operates from Pera House, an imposing palazzo commissioned by Stratford Canning, the great Victorian ambassador to the Sublime Porte; it is one of Britain’s finest pieces of diplomatic real estate — and a perfect venue for a Spectator party. But rules governing hospitality there nowadays require completion of a long questionnaire on the commercial benefits to Britain of the proposed event; my hosts reckoned our assembly would score so few points on this test that they booked a room in a hotel instead.
Half-hidden behind high granite walls, Pera House is impenetrable to most visitors these days — for grim reasons. In 2003 al-Qa’eda bomb attacks on the consulate and the offices of HSBC killed 32 people, including Miss Hay’s predecessor Roger Short and two British colleagues. The damage has been repaired, but one consequence of the blast still causes tension in the British community. The tale of St Helena’s Chapel is a curious parable of penny-pinching official insensitivity.
There has been an Anglican church on the site of Pera House since permission was first given by a 17th-century sultan — indeed, since before there was an embassy there. But the present chapel has been the subject of argument as to who should be responsible for it since a spat in 1928 between the ambassador and the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, in whose see it belongs. The chapel was in disrepair until the chaplain, Ian Sherwood, raised money to restore it in 2003 — but a week after the reopening came the bomb, which almost destroyed it. To the distress of Sherwood’s congregation, the Foreign Office and the bishop then came up with a wheeze to defray rebuilding costs: the chapel was to be leased to a new hotel next door which would use it for entertainment, allowing worshippers access once a month. FO experts were not put off by warnings that in Turkey’s arcane legal system, change of use can cause property to be forfeited. But Sherwood — victor of an earlier campaign to save the nearby Crimea Memorial church — was not to be put off. A petition was raised, and questions asked in both Houses of Parliament, co-ordinated by the unlikely duo of Lord Strathclyde and Glenda Jackson MP. Eventually the FO and the bishop agreed to keep and restore the chapel, but the arguments rumble on: construction of the hotel continues alongside and beneath, and a garden that was to be replanted as a memorial to the bomb victims by Roger Short’s widow Victoria (who bravely chose to make Istanbul her permanent home) has suddenly been covered by a thick concrete slab.
Mrs Short was full of praise for Jack Straw, who as foreign secretary flew straight to Istanbul after the bombs, spent time with her and her daughter, and kept in touch afterwards. Perhaps it’s unfair to be surprised that a political animal is also a warm human being. Equally, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so startled to be accosted by two American women who are ardent fans of Tony Blair. ‘We love him,’ said one, a consultant in stock exchange development. ‘His speech to Congress [in 2003] is just the best I ever heard. I make my staff listen to it every morning.’ She even emailed me the text. Take comfort, Prime Minister; your ratings may be rock-bottom at home but somewhere in Istanbul office workers are chant-ing in unison, ‘Free not to bend your knee to any man in fear. That’s what we’re fighting for. And that’s a battle worth fighting….’
I was unsure what to offer by way of seasonal greetings, our ambassador in Ankara having just set an example of the new correctness by issuing invitations to a ‘Winter’ reception. Around Istanbul there were plenty of images of Father Christmas — and I’m told some Turkish Muslims enjoy attending Christmas Eve church services — but still it seemed diplomatic not to mention the birth of Christ. At last, however, outside a suburban subway station I found a billboard which gave me what I needed: a message that was universal, yet uniquely British: ‘Marks & Spencer — Happy New Year!’