The occasion was the 19th All-Turkey English Literature Conference, held at Boğaziçi University - a beautiful campus in Bebek, one of the pleasantest parts of Istanbul, and well suited to such a conference. The whole thing was jointly organised by Boğaziçi University and the British Council in Ankara and London.
The topic for this year's conference was "Sense of Place and Displacement in English Literature". There were plenary sessions and also concurrent ones: twenty sessions altogether. Just over ninety people attended, the great bulk of them Turkish academics from twenty-five different universities (including the Eastern Mediterranean University in Cyprus). There was a small British Council contingent (Ankara and Istanbul), Hilary Jenkins from Literature Department in London, Professor Sara Mills from Sheffield Hallam University, and myself, accompanied by Ann Thwaite, my wife, who joined in with discussion at some of the sessions and also played her full part in the social events (a buffet supper at Professor Oya Başak's the first evening, a reception at the British Consulate on the second, and finally a reception given by the Rector of Boğaziçi University in the beautiful garden of Kennedy Lodge on the campus).
I was in fact a substitute speaker, because Penelope Lively had to cancel her visit through her husband's serious illness. This meant that I put a good deal of work into preparing a lecture on Penelope Lively's work relevant to the theme of the conference. I also gave a presentation and reading of my own poems, again following the theme of 'place and displacement'.
The other individual sessions ranged, I thought, from the severely academic (full of the current jaw-breaking jargon) to the pleasantly old-fashioned appreciative, with a preponderance of carefully prepared, thoughtful and sometimes elegant presentations. I was struck by the high quality of discussion following these sessions: Turkish academics are keen to speak, and are articulate, with the bonus that most of them have a well-developed sense of humour. There were moments of tedium, as at all conferences, but remarkably few.
The preparation of the whole programme, and the organisation of all the necessary ancillary bits (eating, drinking, moving from one place to another, etc.), had been so well done that there was nothing to complain of. Professor Başak and her followers, based in Istanbul, were lively presences. Most of all, there was Pınar Uşşaklı, based in Ankara, whose planning and presence in Istanbul paid off in smooth and harmonious timetable and atmosphere.
If the question was asked, "What use is such a conference?", I have to say that the informal bringing-together of Turkish academics from all over Turkey with visitors from outside is probably as important as the formal sessions. It is essential that the British Council should be seen as at the centre of the whole thing: this is important cultural diplomacy. It is significant that many of the Bilkent University lecturers [from Ankara, who constituted a significant presence at the conference] are Americans, and it is obvious that if the Council ever withdrew its initiative and its support then the Americans would move in and take over. The benefits of this annual conference are not measurable in a financial way; but it is an important event, seen as such by the Turks, and the Council will I trust go on giving it the most active support.
Dated 5 May 1998