John Freely (1926—2017): vagabond and exile

He never stopped writing

April 28, 2017
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It is a bitter pleasure to read John Freely’s Stamboul Sketches today. The tussling café minstrels, the street markets selling a bric-à-brac of broken dolls and 19th-century instruments of dubious purpose, the ramshackle wooden houses, the 1950s Chevrolets rollicking over the cobbled streets, the gas lamps, the dusty antiquarian bookshops, the ducks’ eggs offered when chickens’ were not available, the street of the dwarf’s fountain—he saw them all, wandering the corners of the crumbling city with his wife, three press-ganged children and colleague Hilary Sumner-Boyd.

John had total recall of places and people, and an innate empathy for others which made his stories so compelling. His ancestors came from the Dingle Peninsula, the western-most rocks of Ireland and a hidden bastion of a Homeric tradition of bards and their stories, never written but learnt by ear through the generations. Hilary knew about historical research, but John could write, first rolling out their jointly authored Strolling through Istanbul, then distilling the offcuts into his Stamboul Sketches. But the more he brings that stanbul to life, the more he underlines that it is as lost as the various empires that have risen and fallen in this city. This last half-century has destroyed a whole way of life. And now John too has gone.

Born in Brooklyn in 1926, John arrived in Istanbul in 1960 at the age of 34. He had fought 96 days in combat in the Second World War in Asia, studied physics at college on the GI Bill, and started working at Princeton University on the US nuclear programme. He left that behind to sail to stanbul and to start teaching at the private school Robert College, which has a campus above the graveyard and castle in the neighbourhood of Bebek. It was and is a magical corner—and one of the few in stanbul that has little changed. The parties were good. At one, when the firemen came to save a house in flames, John greeted them singing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”  Others took place wherever he and his friends were, maybe a tavern, maybe the elegant multi-windowed library that James Baldwin had rented with his brother, David. But most evenings would start at Nazmi’s, the café—long built over—in Bebek where John met many of Istanbul’s great characters.

He had signed a pact in blood with his wife Dolores that they would travel, and so they continued to. In the late 1960s they left Istanbul for Athens, and John of course was soon on drinking terms with Gust Avrakotos, the CIA agent depicted in Charlie Wilson’s War. An attempt to settle in Boston lasted for only a few years before he returned to Istanbul in 1987, left for Venice in 1991, and then settled back at the physics department at Bosphorus University (as Robert College had become) in 1993. By the turn of the century, he had published 39 books on travel, historical figures, and the history of science, and he never stopped writing.

July 2015 saw the launch in London of The Art of Exile: A Vagabond Life, which fittingly capture the gist of his expatriate soul. This year, only a month before his death on 20th April, his daughter Maureen had taken him to New York for the launch of a new book on his youth and war. He was working with her on a murder mystery involving an elderly gentleman hero and a hooker from the brothel which used to be down the hill from the university. And he was working on two other books in his care home near Bath in Britain when he developed a fever, fell from his bed, fracturing spine and shoulder, and went into sudden decline. His last words were “I am going to find where the words come from.”

Writing in the magazine Cornucopia in early 2015, Maureen describes how the Istanbul of today has changed from that in which she grew up. The house in which John and his wife lived before and after her ultimately fatal stroke was on a shaded, wooded slope next to the university, which has just named a hall after him. It did not matter that he could hardly speak Turkish. He met and befriended most of the painters and writers here. “You are the memory of the city,” the painter Ömer Uluc once told him. And for those of us who came to stanbul in the same period as he did, his descriptions bring back the style and life of those far-gone days, cladding them in the sunlight which we so often give to our memories.

His house was a haven of rare peace in a city of spreading concrete, which now has less green spaces than almost any major city in Europe. He continued to travel in his mind, wandering the byways of the past, rather than the throughways of today. Whenever one telephoned, he would recall the last conversation that you had had with him, and pick up from there. His interest in others was integral to his charm, and, when his hearing became less good, that never seemed an impediment. That and reduced mobility may have curbed his trips. They never caused him to narrow his focus.

His links with people and their lives were strong. His interest in culture was unrivalled, but his concern for society, like that of many expatriates, was less marked. The Bosphorus was bridged once, twice and then a third time during his half century in the city. Istanbul quintupled in population from three to 15 million people. Dual-carriageway roads came between the waterside mansions and the Bosphorus. The fishing boats which crisscrossed between Bebek and the Anatolian shore disappeared. So did most of the Greek fishermen, Bulgarian milk shops and Armenian mechanics. The generals came and went, and since 2003 there has been Recep Tayyip Erdoan.

The Turkey that greeted John had a vibrant press, checks and balances, and aspirations to the professed values of the European enlightenment. It was, as Prime Minister and later President, Süleyman Demirel, said “a talking Turkey.” It is no longer. As William Pitt the Younger said after the Battle of Austerlitz: "Roll up that map; it will not be wanted these ten years."

We have to live with that now, with the loss of the world of Stamboul Sketches and the ever more pervasive authoritarian ideology of today’s Turkey. But for me at least, John is a symbol of hope and of what the individual can do. He was as productive at 90 as he had ever been. What stops us from following his example?