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A Shout From The Attic: The Jewel Of The Med

...Cyprus has been called The Jewel of the Mediterranean, and is richly deserving of that honour. After the endless sand and rock of Egypt, its greenness seemed unreal. To drive in an open-topped vehicle along the roads that dissected the citrus groves was to smell the scent of Elysium...

Ronnie Bray continues his account of military service on an idyllic island.

Arithmetic has never been my strong point. I usually managed to keep off the bottom of annual examinations at Spring Grove School only because Mary Appleyard usually got none and I managed two more than her. It wasn’t until I was almost eighteen and in the Army that I learned how to do long division. That was thanks to the Army Education Corps.

A year and a half later, serving in Cyprus, I was still making use of the Army’s Education programmes to advance my limping edification to a standard that would let me compete in life on a more or less even playing field. The woolly-haired young sergeant-teacher became so gently frustrated when attempting to indoctrinate me in the lesser points of trigonometry that during a moment of histrionic over-emphasis, he aimed at a bag on his desk, missed, and was next seen climbing back into a standing position with an air of complete and utter resignation not usually seen on the face of one so young.

Even though I could not grasp or remember any of the simple formulae that some very young children are so adept at internalising and using as common language, there were some things I knew about arithmetic, and the ”three-halves-rule” was one of them.

Of course, it might never have come up had I not been a high profile Mormon when about all that was known of them was that they caused a bit of trouble with their Religious, social, and matrimonial customs in frontier America in the Nineteenth-Century, and that some of these had spilled over into the British Isles at the hands of some exceptional missionaries.

It was August 1954, and the British Army was leaving the Canal Zone. As one of the trains pulled out, loaded with military equipment, an Arab asked a soldier riding on top of one of the wagons where they British Army was going. “We’re going home,” replied the Tommy. “About [expletive deleted] time!” rejoined the grinning Arab, pleased with the news.

After four and a half months in Egypt, Cyprus seemed like paradise. For one thing, we were not in conflict with the Cypriots. This changed after a few months because of the intransigence of the British Government in helping the island’s economic development, and the willingness to take on the British establishment in pursuit of redress of their wrongs. I knew little about the issues. I knew that the Greek Cypriots with whom I came into contact were good and honourable, and believed that they had had a bad deal. Throughout the conflict, they continued to treat me very well.

On one occasion, I wandered into a village somewhere to the east of Dhekelia. The local tailor who had made suits for soldiers had been firebombed. These were times of deep hostilities against the British government, and some found it hard to differentiate between the government and its armed forces. Although were in no way an Army of occupation in Cyprus as we had been in Egypt, we were the visible reminder of their invisible enemy.

Entering the local cafe to drink cagao, an unbelievable chocolate sludge, with some of my Greek friends I caused a little stir. There was some heated discussion among the Greeks at my table. Their voices were low and my Greek was not sufficient to follow their debate. Eventually they appeared to reach some agreement. Then it became obvious that I had been the subject of their deliberation. Their spokesman leant across the table and, exercising great control, said to me in low, measured tones, “Don’t ever come into our village wearing that uniform again!” I immediately saw his point.

There were roughly four Greek Cypriots to each Turkish Cypriot living on the island. The remainder of the population was composed of an Armenian minority, and some ex-patriot Britishers who created their own Little England enclave in the north of the island. There were also some flotsam and jetsam from various nationalities that added some spice to the variety of Cypriot life.

With the arrival of the British Army in August 1954, it was as if the serpent had entered paradise. Some of the soldiers were fair-minded and treated the islanders well, respecting their traditions and customs, and respecting the trust with which they greeted us. Others of a more cynical and less honest disposition took terrible advantage.

Cyprus has been called The Jewel of the Mediterranean, and is richly deserving of that honour. After the endless sand and rock of Egypt, its greenness seemed unreal. To drive in an open-topped vehicle along the roads that dissected the citrus groves was to smell the scent of Elysium: incredible, heady, intoxicating, and refreshing, the overwhelming fragrance was at once disturbing and enticing. When I contemplate it in pleasant moments, I am transported back to the sunlit groves by the benison of memory. For all I have forgotten, I praise God for all that I remember.

The early mornings in camp were disturbed long before the frantic bugle call inviting us to share the general resurrection. Calls of the orange and grape vendors pierced the camp lines soon after the sun burst into the purple darkness of morning. Oranges sold for a dozen for a shilling. A penny each in old money! Grapes sold for a similar sum per bunch. These fruits could not have been excelled by those collected from the Promised Land by Caleb and Joshua. Some still drink-groggy soldiers having celebrated too well on Keo brandy the previous night became hopelessly entangled in their mosquito nets as they raced to buy their daily fruit. This left the sober souls with the choicest selection, although to be honest, it was all choice.

Mosquito nets served other purposes. Cyprus was full of flying things, many of which came at you noiselessly and invisibly, their presence only made known when your skin had been punctured. Some large beetles flew noisily and dive-bombed those sleeping squaddies foolish enough to leave a gap in their muslin protection. Our nets gave us a sense of security that was probably not warranted in the full measure that we afforded them. However, most of us sustained little permanent damage. It’s attention to detail, however piffling, that keeps us safe.


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To read earlier episodes of Ronnie's engaging autobiography please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/a_shout_from_the_attic/

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