Bernard’s travels (2)

In November 2018 I was at Bellapais Abbey, near Kyrenia, Northern Cyprus. It was my third visit. My first had been 61 years ago. My year in Cyprus (1957-8) in the British Army had been unlike any other of my life. I kept a diary and filled a photographic album. I was tanned and had learned to swim. I had my own Sten-gun and was licensed to use it to kill people in certain circumstances. All the time I was myself in danger of being killed.Cyprus at the time was a dangerous place for everyone. EOKA, a terrorist organisation dedicated to union with Greece, had started killing, and the army had retaliated. The Turks, who made up 20 percent of the population, were understandably not impressed. The two populations had never mingled on any scale. Very few Cypriots spoke both Greek and Turkish. Opinions and actions quickly polarised. Like most Mediterranean islands, Cyprus had a history of occupation by outside forces: Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, everyone had come and conquered. The British were the latest, given Cyprus as part of a deal at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. So my role was in the army of occupation, at a time when the British Empire was well into its dissolution. At the other end of the Med, the French were hanging on (at an even greater cost) to Algeria. The violent deaths in Cyprus raised its profile from a sleepy backwater to world news.At this time the British Army was incredibly naive in its standing on the global stage. It had yet to learn the lessons of the 30-year-long “struggle” in Northern Ireland. It not only failed to understand what was going on, but had no appropriate language to describe the events. Its response was a largely brutal one of facing violence with violence, with a far greater force of men, but out of its depth facing guerrilla operations. Back in the UK, politicians had to deal with a largely unsophisticated and uninformed electorate which resented the loss of colony after colony. In the words of US Secretary of State Foster Dulles, Britain had “lost an empire and failed to find a role”.My tiny place in these events was largely as a helpless, ignorant spectator. When I was sent to Cyprus, I received no political briefing on the reason for my presence there. Those in charge of us knew little better. In the words of the officer commanding a road block I manned “Use your common sense”.Let me return now to Kyrenia and introduce Lawrence Durrell. His brilliant book, _Bitter Lemons_ for the first time revealed to the English-speaking world the subtlety of the emotions behind the conflict, as well as the political pressures that had brought it about. He was recruited in a master stroke by the British government as their Information Officer; effectively head of their PR. _Bitter Lemons_ is his account of how he set about this job. Durrell was Irish and didn’t like the Brits very much. He did like the Greeks and one of a handful of Greek speakers in the service of the British government during its 80-year occupation of the island.He bought a house in Kyrenia and made local friends in including Kollis, the Custodian of Bellapais Abbey, whose photo is included in the early editions of the book. I met Kollis and the man who took over Durrell’s job, whose marvellous conversation I have sadly forgotten – but it was a wonderful contrast to the unremitting coarseness and obscenities of everyday army language.Bellapais Abbey is enjoying good times. The main room has been restored and at the time of my last visit was hosting a month-long music festival. Heaven only knows how they cope with the parking!Bellapais’ happiness and prosperity is reflected across Cyprus as a whole, both in my last visit, taking in Larnaca and Paphos, and in the previous one to the north. One new dimension is the development alongside tourism of archaeology, which has expanded rapidly in recent decades. The Cyprus Museum in Nicosia is clearly worth a visit.A more recent development still is the growing influence of Russia: one of the newest hotels is named ‘Odessa’, presumably as it is marketed largely in Russia. Russians and the Russian language pop up everywhere. How many poorly paid Cypriot employees are there working in the British bases? The security issues must be a nightmare.The division of the island following the Turkish invasion in 1974 is held on all sides to be a disaster, and many personal accounts concern genuine loss of homes and property. But the two groups of Greeks and Turks have never enjoyed much real integration, and now both appear at peace within their borders. A further happy dimension is the apparent peaceful relations they enjoy in Britain.—

This text is by Bernard Ineichen

Cruising to Russia

This text is written by Bernard Ineichen as my guest blogger. Enjoy!
I’ve just returned from my third visit to Russia; this time cruising to the remote (not so remote if you are in Sweden) north coast ports of Archangel and Murmansk. For a tourist it has been a rather sad experience.
For a start, the Russians seem unaware of the increasing age, frailty and girth of those who visit them. Not nearly enough public toilets, and those that exist not well signposted. Are pensioners a political force? Recent attempts to raise the age for female pensioners was defeated. This is a hopeful sign.
I did tourist excursions in both cities: mostly a litany of museums and monuments, though the guides (all untrained as there is no professional association of guides) did provide some information on social matters, particularly housing. I fancy the situation in Russia is even worse than in the UK. Not too bad if you can get a flat, but grim for those who can’t. Does anyone keep (and quantify) a waiting list? Decades ago, Shostakovich wrote a hilarious musical, Chereomushiki, where the hapless newly married couple were reduced to meeting in the zoo. The area around the port of Archangel was particularly depressing, with more dwellings falling down than standing up.
What I particularly missed was any idea of what we were NOT shown. No military bases, obviously, but it would have been nice to have seen some industrial areas close up to get an impression of Russia’s industrial health. Some attitudes have not changed since Soviet days. At Archangel our departure was delayed by almost half an hour as no one turned up to cast off the ropes.
What would I have given for a local map! Another leftover from the Soviet period is the fear of spying. There were only rudimentary ideas of, in capitalist terms exploiting the tourist market; or in consumerist terms, providing the material for an enjoyable and informative visit to a foreign country. Not a single postcard in sight, or the brilliant (and cheap – generally produced in China) glossy books about places that tourists want to visit. In one museum you had to ask for the shop to be opened.
The only beautiful buildings were churches and the only thing worth buying was a calendar illustrating places associated with the Russian Orthodox Church. Priests were on hand to help and add solemnity to the visit.