David Barchard obituary: Writer with an expert knowledge of Turkish politics and history

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Both journalist and scholar, David Barchard first wrote for the Guardian after the 1980 coup in Turkey, fiercely indignant about the human rights abuses he saw thereDavid ShanklandSun 24 Jan 2021 10.38 GMT


David Barchard, who has died aged 73 following an accident, was the leading British specialist on Turkey. Incisive, eloquent and with a masterly command of detail, he honed his ideas in English and in Turkish through hours of telephone calls to friends and contacts. Worked up, these would then appear in outstanding articles, political commentaries and research papers, a steady stream of work maintained over four decades.

His deep knowledge was evident in his obituary writing for the Guardian, for which he constructed accomplished accounts of leading Turkish political figures.

He first wrote for the paper in the aftermath of the 1980 coup in Turkey, while resident in the country. Fiercely indignant about the human rights abuses he saw at the time, he gave full vent to his feelings in his articles.Advertisement

In 1983 he moved to the Financial Times as its Turkey correspondent, just when the country’s economy was opening up to the west. During this time he made many friends, including Turgut Özal, the then prime minister, later president, and Sir Bernard Burrows, the British ambassador at the time of the earlier coup in 1960.

David eventually moved back to London to take up a staff post at the FT, and was given the banking desk, a task that he fulfilled well, but perhaps without much enthusiasm. Wishing to be posted abroad again, he was offered Germany, but instead he resigned and joined a PR company in London. Very soon, however, Turkey drew him back. He wrote a well-received account of Asil Nadir and the Rise and Fall of Polly Peck (1992), and an influential pamphlet, one of several on this topic, on Turkey and the west.

In the mid-1990s he became a senior adviser at the Turkish foreign ministry, a position he held for almost a decade. He found this an extraordinarily interesting time, not least because he was able to learn a level of bureaucratic Turkish that was markedly more complex than everyday speech.

Simultaneously, he was able to rekindle his academic work, whether in Byzantine history or 19th-century Ottoman-British relations, discovering the location of the Byzantine city of Sykeon during his travels in Anatolia (detailed in the journal Anatolian Studies). In demand, too, as a speaker, he gave papers equally on contemporary Turkey, or on many of the famous figures he was researching, such as Sir Alfred Biliotti, the 19th-century British consul-general in Crete, always with original insights.

After his appointment at the foreign ministry came to an end in 2003, he taught in several Turkish universities, then moved to Cappadocia, and lived there in a cave house lent to him by a friend, revisiting at that time the early rock-cut churches on which he had in the 80s written an unpublished monograph.

Born in Nun Monkton, in North Yorkshire, David was the eldest son of John Barchard, an army major, and his wife, Dorothy (nee Bowell), a WRNS officer and decoder. He was induced to take an interest in Turkey initially by his school music master, Keith Anderson, at Stonyhurst college, in Clitheroe, Lancashire. At St John’s College, Oxford, he gained a history degree; the Byzantine historian Peter Brown was among his tutors. While still a student he spent a summer travelling on the Black Sea coast, and taught English in Zonguldak.

He then moved to Nuffield College with a PhD studentship to study the development of Turkey’s leftwing political thought in the 1920s. Always restless, he left Oxford for the BBC’s Turkish service under Andrew Mango, then moved to be assistant to Douglas Hurd in the House of Commons. There he discovered a talent for writing position papers, and he was proud that one of his speeches was used verbatim by Margaret Thatcher, whose thank-you note he kept among his papers.

After his final long stay in Turkey, in the mid-2000s he moved back to Nun Monkton. By that time he had gained a vast knowledge of Turkish life, whether from the point of view of politics, economics, urban or rural spheres, the left or the right of the political spectrum. So comfortable did he feel working across both cultures that he eventually became a dual Turkish/British citizen. Not the least part of his great talent was that he was able to empathise with both Turkey and Britain, and could be deeply critical about both if he felt that they were making elementary errors, often to the discomfort of his interlocutors. A wonderful conversationalist, he quickly smoothed over quarrels, though it was sometimes difficult to keep up with his shifting patterns of friendship and alliance.

He remained in demand from both the UK and Turkey as a writer, consultant or translator, and, as well as regularly publishing in the magazine Cornucopia, placed many of his academic articles online.

David quietly maintained his Catholic faith throughout his life, and helped many colleagues and friends generously, both in Britain and in Turkey. Formerly a bon vivant, he was latterly a convert to curing type 2 diabetes by diet, which he had done with conspicuous success.

Intellectually, he remained close to history, but on Turkey he felt that the founding of the republic had given rise to the possibility of a permanent rapprochement between Turkey and Europe, a cause to which he gave his whole working life.

He is survived by his two sisters, Sue and Tish. A brother predeceased him.

• David Maxwell Barchard, journalist and historian, born 9 June 1947; died 25 December 2020

Source: the Guardian

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