A RAGS TO ROUBLES FAIRY TALE
WRITER AND AMBASSADOR’S WIFE NOUNEH SARKISSIAN ON HER JOURNEY FROM SOVIET ARMENIA TO CHELSEA
Nouneh at her home in London’s Chelsea
By Charlotte Pearson Methven for Daily Mail YOU Magazine, Sunday, 16 October 2016
Writer and ambassador’s wife NOUNEH SARKISSIAN’s life in privileged Chelsea is a far cry from her upbringing in Soviet Armenia. She tells Charlotte Pearson Methven about the unexpected benefit of communism: creativity
I am sitting in a sumptuous drawing room overlooking the Thames, enjoying watermelon slices and cherries from a silver salver. My hostess, Nouneh Sarkissian, 62, is the wife of Armenia’s ambassador to Britain.
She also has one of the world’s largest collections of David Linley furniture and numbers the designer himself – the Queen’s nephew – among her closest friends. A journalist by background, she is now a successful children’s author (Linley hosted the launch party for her latest book, The Magic Buttons, at his flagship store last December). But there is nothing showy about Nouneh.
Her exquisite furniture collection – bespoke Linley tables, chairs and bookshelves, alongside art deco treasures, antiques, rare pieces of Japanese art and old masters – is referred to with quiet appreciation.
Nouneh with her friend David Linley
Nouneh meeting Pope John Paul II in 1995
Nouneh aged 16 in communist Armenia
Nouneh as a toddler with her mother
It is not surprising that after a background steeped in arts, culture, study and children that her own creativity found a platform in writing. Her earlier books have been printed in several languages and are hugely popular in Armenia and Russia. They have enchanting tales and wonderful drawings in all of them. There is the Dragon Nessie, who loved her Red Shoes, but her feet were too big for them. So she cried so much that her tears flooded the village where she lived, and therefore she lived under water. One day a cobbler made red shoes just for her and her tears subsided, as did the water and people came from far and wide to see her. There is the story of the Baby Bald Hedgehog, who, yes, was born with no spikes.
“I don’t regret sacrificing my own ambitions for the wellbeing of my family,” says Nouneh
But Nouneh is too erudite and polite to talk about money. She and Armen met at school in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia (then communist, and a part of the Soviet Union), when she was 14 and he was 15.
In contrast to their current gilded existence, they grew up in the austerity of the Soviet regime – a life Nouneh remembers as repressive, but also secure and nurturing of creative talent.
“My father was a journalist and my mother a teacher, so we were part of the intelligentsia. There were no classes in our society back then, just layers, and we were the second layer, after the nomenklatura – politicians and dignitaries who were allowed to travel and had access to foreign goods.
“We weren’t rich but we were educated, with enough money to feed and clothe ourselves. I never felt deprived. It wasn’t a bad childhood and I knew no different.”
Nouneh does, however, recall some sinister moments. “There was always a sense that we were being watched,” she recalls. “My mother would say to us, “Be careful. Don’t tell jokes. The walls have ears.”
“And you felt it from a young age. It is something I will never forget. The fear was everywhere – that’s how the regime lasted so long.
“My father, as a journalist, had to be very careful to use the right words and phrases. When he became the editor-in- chief of the monthly newspaper World of Books, he had to make sure not to allow the “wrong” titles to be reviewed.” “You could lose your life for using the wrong word or picture. I remember a story of someone spilling tea on Stalin’s photo in a newspaper and having to go for an interrogation.”
The fear was even worse during his regime; I was born a year after his death – nine years after the Second War ended – and can still remember seeing people who had lost limbs fighting in the war. It was very gruesome.”
Nouneh with her English Bulldog Kolo
But there was an upside to growing up in a communist regime: the huge emphasis that was placed on culture. “Our schools were amazing,” says Nouneh, “and we were given tickets to theatre, opera, classical music and the best ballet in the world – all for free!”
Nouneh was a bright talent in her own right; her early promise evident when she got herself a job at a local radio station aged ten, which meant travelling half an hour on her own by bus every Sunday morning.
“I was given children’s books to read on air. They would pay me some roubles, which I then gave to my mother, who needed them. I also wrote children’s stories and tried to get them published.”
It was at secondary school that she met – and fell in love with – her husband. “He is my first and my only,” she smiles. “Armen was the best student at our school and I was the best actress.
We did Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw plays – in English, because learning English was a big part of a communist education back then – and I always landed the main parts.
“Because of this, I had boys running after me. But I was an independent soul and always said no. Armen became curious and thought, “Who is this girl rejecting all the boys?” The two wound up at a Young Communists conference together,”which was very boring”, so she invited the other students back to her house.
Armen was wowed by her father’s book collection and asked to borrow a volume of poetry, “which was against the rules, as my father hated loaning his books.” Fearing her father’s wrath if the tome was not returned, Nouneh tracked down Armen at school to retrieve it, “and this was how our friendship started,” she explains.
They went together to Yerevan State University – Armen to study physics and Nouneh languages. Upon graduating, Armen was offered a position at Cambridge University. “He was invited 13 times by different universities before the communists allowed it.”
By the time he arrived in the UK in 1984, he and Nouneh were married with two sons, Vartan, now 36, and Hayk, 32. “Wives were not allowed to go abroad with Soviet scientists. We were kept behind as hostages. It was right after Hayk’s birth, so that was difficult. Moscow only allowed me to visit him for one month in April 1985.
“I was 30 and when I arrived in London [en route to Cambridge] it was the first time I had ever been abroad. Before that, I had only travelled around the Soviet Union to places like Siberia, which are beautiful but, of course, all any of us wanted was to see London and Paris.”
Reading John le Carré’s A Delicate Truth. I love intellectual crime fiction.
Favourite children’s books Anything by Dr Seuss or Roald Dahl – and the Armenian national fairy tales
Watching Versailles was amazing – the script and acting were brilliant. Armen and I also watch Game of Thrones, but sometimes it gets too tense.
Go-to designer Jun Ashida, who has stores in Tokyo and Paris. Every time I go in, I buy a piece.
Holiday hotspot Other than my beautiful Armenia, I love Sardinia, which has the clearest water, and Japan, where the minimalist art and culture appeals to me.
Last meal on earth Something traditional and Armenian – red kidney bean soup with crushed walnuts, followed by lamb stew with slices of quince and tomatoes.
Most prized possession My English bulldog Kolo. He is a full member of the family. Bulldogs are easy as they
sleep so much and are cuddly and friendly.
“I fell in love with London. Armen and I said, “If only we could live here for the rest of our lives…” At the time it didn’t seem possible, but Gorbachev had just come to power and declared his glasnost and perestroika – loosening censorship and allowing greater communication. We had friends from the West who told us about chewing gum, bell-bottom jeans and Jesus Christ Superstar – and, slowly, people began to rebel.”
Once the communist regime collapsed in 1991 and Armenia became independent, the country’s first elected president asked Armen – by then a prominent academic – to open an embassy in London, and by 1992 Nouneh and the boys had joined him there. After several years as ambassador, Armen was appointed prime minister of Armenia in 1996.
Nouneh spent two years commuting between London (where the boys were at top public schools) and Yerevan to visit her husband, with her mother coming to London to stay with their sons while she was away.
After stepping down as prime minister because of illness (from which he has now recovered), Armen became ambassador for a second time.
He then gave up the role for a few years to focus on other projects, before taking it up again in 2013, this time on an honorary basis.
Nouneh points proudly to a framed photo of Armen bowing to the Queen when she gave her blessing to his most recent appointment in 1998. “She said, “Armen, you are the champion of all ambassadors. This is the third time you have come back to us.” I admire Her Majesty so much. She is such a gracious soul and so intelligent.”
Armen meeting the Queen in 1998, and with Nouneh in 1996
Nouneh and Armen are also friends with Prince Charles: they gave him a private tour when he visited Armenia in 2013. “The prince and my husband share a passion for preserving heritage,” explains Nouneh. “Armenia has some of the earliest Christian churches and our basilicas and sacred monuments have been beautifully preserved. Charles loved it.”
The Sarkissians have their own charity, Yerevan My Love, which restores “dilapidated and destroyed late 19th- and early 20th-century buildings” and repurposes them as music, community and sports centres where disadvantaged children can develop their talents.
The charity has held events at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, as well as in Yerevan. “The Prince has supported all of these and our charity has partnered his Prince’s Trust project at Dumfries House [a Palladian mansion in Ayrshire, which was restored for the community].”
“My book – the fairy tale – developed on its own,” says Nouneh, “which is the magic of writing”
Art and culture have retained a major influence on Nouneh. The holiday she and Armen most look forward to each year is their annual pilgrimage to the Mozart Festival in Salzburg.
And she found a channel for her own creativity through writing – for many years as a freelance arts journalist for Armenian publications and now through her children’s books, which are beautifully illustrated, full of imagination “and each with a strong moral.”
The Magic Buttons is her 14th book and the first to be published in English. (She has written ten in Armenian and three in Russian.)
It tells the story of a little girl called Pearl, who is sent to live with her grandparents in Spic-and-Span Town after a plague takes hold in their village; she spins off on an adventure to save everyone, picking up friends with names such as Tumbletash along the way.
It is inspired by Nouneh’s childhood and the close relationship she had with her grandmother growing up. “I sat down to write something that would reflect my own experience but when the words started to flow it became something completely different – a fantasy fairy tale. The story developed on its own, which is the magic of writing.” Nouneh is now working on a sequel.
When she isn’t writing or playing the dutiful ambassador’s wife, Nouneh’s energy goes on her English bulldog Kolo – “my first dog, and I am totally in love with him” – and her grandchildren, Savannah, four, and Armen, two, Vartan’s children with his American wife. “Savannah has such an imagination.
She loves books and loves us to sit down and write stories together. Many of my best ideas come from her. We write about little domestic problems that can seem very large to children, such as worrying about needing the loo on the way to school and whether this will make you late.”
Her sons feel British, she says, though they are still proud of their roots. “I miss the less formal relationship between people in Armenia – the way you can just ring someone’s doorbell, have a coffee, empty your concerns and come home feeling better.
“We have a home in Yerevan and my sister [her only sibling, a graphic designer] is there, so we visit often. But I love London as much now as I did the day I arrived. There is no other place like it.”
Nouneh admits that she has forfeited some of her potential to support Armen’s career, but she clearly relishes family life and feels any sacrifices she’s made have been worth it. “I adore being a grandmother. My younger son Hayk is still single. I keep saying to him, “Hurry up! I want more grandchildren while I am still young.”
“When I push too much, he says, “You find me a woman then. I have just three conditions: she must be beautiful, clever and kind,”’ she smiles wryly.
“At least they live close to me. What I did to my mother by moving away!” Her idea of a perfect Sunday is the family coming together at their house in Surrey.
Nouneh with husband Armen, sons Hayk (left) and Vartan, Vartan¿s wife Michael Rae and grandchildren Savannah and Armen
“I think I did sacrifice my own ambitions for the wellbeing of my family,” she says. “But I never regret it. I have two beautiful children who are mentally strong and ambitious [Vartan runs his own cyber-security company and Hayk works with his father].
“If my life was ever frustrating, I tried not to show it. I was like “happy face”’ – she assumes an exaggerated smile that brings to mind the grinning emoji – “because this was what everyone needed from me…Happy Mum. Sad face never works.
“It’s difficult to find the right balance in a relationship. Armen is strong and I’m strong. That could have been a clash, but I let him be our leader and he appreciates me for it. He always says he couldn’t have done any of it without me.”