Magazine article The Spectator

A Shortage of Turkish Delight

Magazine article The Spectator

A Shortage of Turkish Delight

Article excerpt

Among the worst aspects of modern warfare is the difficulty for non-combatants of escaping it. As we have witnessed in Kosovo, East Timor or Chechnya, the innocent civilian is either an immobilised victim, to be shot, imprisoned or at least kept under surveillance, or else a dispossessed wanderer, fleeing without even the dignity of a change of clothes and carrying nothing but the metaphorical baggage of a smouldering resentment which generations will never extinguish.

It wasn't always so, and history is full of conflicts which people simply walked away from, only to hurry back again when the smoke cleared and the ink on the treaty was dry. In our own mid-17th-century civil wars, for example, however much incidental harm was done to property and individual security, it was possible to dodge the tramp of armies and, without very much in the way of money or luggage, to place a comfortable distance between yourself and 'the bloudy, intestine broyles between His Majestic and the Parliament'. And if you were very lucky, like the young Kentish merchant Robert Bargrave, who slipped out of England in the spring of 1647, that distance might measure three empires, four kingdoms and several thousand miles.

Travelling in the company of Sir Thomas Bendish, ambassador to the Sublime Porte, Bargrave was not a good sailor, 'now on my head, then on my heeles, all wett & dabbled, sick, hungry, without sleep, & in a confusion of Torments', but the voyage was unforgettable for other reasons than mal de mer. When he came home again after five years in Turkey and jaunting across eastern Europe, he wrote it all down, and as we turn the pages of his manuscript in the Bodleian library we catch the sense, despite the poised elegance of his baroque handwriting, of Bargrave still a trifle dazed and reeling from all he had seen on a journey 'commixt of Crosses and delights'.

No sooner had the ambassador arrived in Constantinople than his daughter Abigail, engaged to be married to a merchant named Modyford, was jilted and the elaborate wedding masque for which Bargrave had provided both poetry and music was hurriedly called off. There was an embarrassing scene with the outgoing envoy, Sir Sackville Crowe, who kept his hat on and refused to accept dismissal. In Smyrna French traders intrigued with a rogue English diplomat, Henry Hyde, who succeeded in getting Bargrave and his friends flung in jail. The experience was a Midnight Express scenario avant la lettre. With their feet shackled and bitten by 'whole regiments of Chinches' (bedbugs) they were further plagued by the stench from corpses of newly executed criminals and 'the musique of monstrous ratts'. Added to which, as a personable 19-yearold Bargrave had to fend off the jailer's advances, 'unfitt to Discourse & horrid to remember'. When at last they were set free, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to compose an ode, .'the which my more Joviall Camerades sometimes favord me to Sing'.

Finally heading for home, the merchants travelled overland through Bulgaria and Moldavia, where they stumbled on a community of enterprising Scots making potash out of birch trees amid fields blanketed with locusts. Dodging the Tartars on the banks of the Dniester, they got drunk on the beer of rural Poland, 'comely bespotted with woods & bespangled with Springs', and were virtuously shocked to discover the Dominican prior of Lvov moonlighting as a pimp for local whores. …

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