Memories came flooding back of a cold November morning back in 1958. I was standing in St. Mark’s Square holding my grandmother’s hand. We were waiting for a boat taxi to take us to a harbour on the big Venetian lagoon, where we were to board an Italian ship, making our way back to Cyprus. I still remember how upset I was, having to leave my parents and my baby sister behind in England. Unfortunately, six months prior to this journey, my mother had a fall, ending up in hospital for a long time and since my sister was only three years old at the time, enough reason was warranted for my maternal grandmother to come over to England and help out by looking after us. At the time we were living in the Haringey area of north London and I was attending Haringey junior school. My father was with the British Royal Engineers working at Mill Hill, after having been transferred from Cyprus over to England. Due to the Cyprus problems that were happening in the middle fifties back home, life there became intolerable, and my father decided that a transfer over to England was a good move for a better life and with good prospects to go with it.
Having been in England for just over a year, I picked up the English language very quickly and I was doing quite well at school and was well liked by my teachers. I really loved living in England, and especially having my beloved grandmother staying with us. Life for me as a young child of eight was like an adventure, but at the time I didn’t have clue what was to follow next.
It was decided that I should return back to Cyprus and live with my maternal grandparents for a while until my mother got better. At hearing the news, my whole world had suddenly turned upside down. I was very upset at my mother not being well and still being kept in the hospital all this time, but at the prospect of having to go away and leave my parents behind not knowing when I would ever see them again, was to a young child of my age, a living nightmare.
I have unforgettable memories of my grandmother doing the packing, and on the final day after having said farewell to all my school friends, my parents and my baby sister, and with tears in my eyes and a broken heart, my grandmother and I boarded a train at Victoria station. We crossed the channel and then boarded another train and travelled all the way to Venice.
So, there we were in St. Mark’s Square on a cold morning with a few hours to spare. I was still very upset, and my grandmother wanting somehow to cheer me up, took me by the hand and we walked and entered the Cathedral of St. Mark. I have memories of how I was truly amazed at the beauty that was all around me. Somehow the pain started to ease up, and I vaguely remember my grandmother telling me stories about how the cathedral came to be and about St. Mark and the Venetians.
I still remember her pointing to the beautiful mosaics and also to a big cross that was hanging from the main copula, explaining that they were Byzantine. I was too young at the time though, to understand the true significance of what she was trying to convey to me. I also remember her showing me a palatial building in the square and pointing at a big balcony saying it was the Doge’s Palace and the balcony was where the Doge’s addressed the people of Venice.
The few hours that were spent in Venice on that cold morning back in 1958 were fascinating; for never till that day did I encounter such beautiful architectural buildings on a lagoon that had stood there over the centuries.
It wasn’t until I returned back to Cyprus with my grandmother that my love for history; especially Byzantine history, and religious art began. Little did I know at the time that my maternal grandmother was born in Constantinople - the city of the great Byzantium - and that she was well read in history and religious arts.
Besides all the love, kindness and affection that she and my grandfather showed me while I was with them for a few years, my grandmother also became my teacher in history and religious art. She was amazing, and it was thanks to her determination that I have been inspired ever since to study, read history and travel to different parts of the world, all the while seeing, writing about and photographing some astonishing and historic places.
Life in Cyprus was very hard. The EOKA was formed (Ethnic Organisation of Cypriot Fighters) fighting for Cypriot independence, causing havoc to the British, with the result of everyday bombings and killings within the community. At the end, curfews were imposed and life in Cyprus was terrible. I still have the memories of those horrible years, living with anxiety, not knowing what the future held for us. I remember dark nights without any electricity, due to someone bombing the power station. I still have terrible memories of bombs exploding daily in my neighbourhood, and people being blown up to bits. I still wonder to this day as to why my father had allowed me to return back to Cyprus when the situation was so critical. I attended Greek school until I finished my primary school education. The the years went by, and although the situation was bad, I really loved my daily life that I shared with my grandparents. My mother made a full recovery and she used to come over to Cyprus in the summer to see me.
It wasn’t till four years later when I was twelve years old, that my father came over to Cyprus and brought me back to England to live with them for good. Again I had the chance to start a new life: again from the beginning.
The year was 1962 when my father took me on my first day to Eden Grove and enrolled me at Barnsbury Boy’s school. Vivid memories come to mind of my first day getting there. I walked with my father to Caledonian Road tube station and he bought us two tickets to Holloway Road for the price of 2d each. The lift was not working that morning and we had to make the long descent all the way down to the bottom to get to the platform to board the train. That was my very first experience of underground travel. It felt scary, but at the same time very exciting. I just couldn’t understand the concept, or the logic of having to go all the way down to the bowels of the earth to the pick up a train, only to reappear again at the end of the journey, back at the earth’s surface.
I felt like an alien; for I could not understand a word of English. I remember arriving at Eden Grove with my father and afterwards having to follow Mr Sharr, indicated by way of hand signs, down a long corridor and then entering a class of noisy boys. Apparently we had arrived late and I had missed the morning assembly. I was shown where to sit and made myself comfortable. Straight away I noticed that some of the boys were giving me angry looks. Sitting at the back of my class that first day in 2R I felt that my world had ended; for I was put in a class with the lowest of the low: the class of idiots - as my father explained to me later on that evening when I went home and showed him my school exercise books that only had my class name on, which I had copied from the blackboard that morning.
At lunch time in the playground I was fortunate enough to meet couple of Greek chaps that I got to know well and we became good friends all through my schooling years at Barnsbury. After lunch we had a maths lesson. One of the Greek boys by the name of George did approach Mr Hill, our Maths teacher, and asked him if it was okay for him to sit next to me to give me guidance and explanations by translating to me in Greek. Then in my mind’s eye I saw a tiny flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. The lesson was algebra, and algebra is a universal language. All I needed to know is what Mr Hill wanted us to do with the sums on the blackboard. George was my saviour. I was good at algebra and at the end George was astonished when I even helped him with some of the answers. Mr Hill came over and stood by my side and watched me work doing algebra and gave me the thumbs up; which I didn’t know what it meant till George explained it to me later.
Next morning after assembly, I was called back to Mr Sharr’s room with George following behind, only to be told that I had been promoted to a new class: Form 2m and with the promise that George would also be promoted with me to be my helper.
One evening my father went through my school work, and when he came across one of my exercise books with my hand writing in French, he hit the roof. The very next morning he was confronting Mr Sharr in his office. "It's in our school curriculum for young Chris to learn French, which is a foreign language,” was Mr. Sharr's answer. "How on earth can you expect my son to learn French when he can't even understand the teachers speaking English?" my father answered back. "and in any case," my father went on to say, "he does speak a foreign language; why don't you speak to him in Greek?" My dad did have a point at the end and won the argument. It was then agreed that for me to carry on attending French lessons, I was offered to go half a day each morning over to Laycock Senior school in Highbury Station Road, to learn English, which lasted for six months.
In my new class I met another Greek boy by the name of Paul, who eventually became my best friend. He was a real genius at maths, and was also a fearless fighter. He wouldn’t take any crap from anyone and we had some big fights at school, including one with an Italian boy who was a trouble maker that went by the name of Bouglioni. But the most feared boy that we all kept our distance from at Eden Grove, was a Turkish boy called Basuri; who was a head taller than everyone else, and was built like a tank. One day between lessons I was walking up the stairs heading for the first floor, when Basuri appeared at the top of the stairs and he said something to me which I didn’t understand. All over sudden he punch me straight between the eyes and the next thing I remember I was seeing stars and lying at the bottom of the stairs. Mr Neath - the RE teacher - saw the whole thing. Basuri and I were called to Mr Sharr’s office and Basuri was caned and he was made to apologise to me. From that day on, Basuri had second thoughts about us Greeks and he became friendly with us, and to our surprise, treated us with respect. He and Bouglioni had it out in playground on three occasions with Basuri always coming out in a better shape that the Italian.
So, school life went on, and I took it on with pride, day after day, and within a year I learned to read and write English and was also able to verify everything that I had learned from my schooling back home in Cyprus. I also did join briefly the school photographic class, but it was a complete shambles. There was no enlarger available in the classroom and after three lessons I gave it up. To be honest; perhaps the sexy female I was dating at the time played a big part in making my decision. It was either photography or her. It was a big sacrifice, but she was worth it. I also had a fantastic public library round the corner from my house at 318 Caledonian Road, where I sat and read, borrowed books and did my early learning about life.
Years passed by quickly, and I moved over to our new Barnsbury school, which was situated at Camden Road. I had some new classmates; one of them being John Kirkwood - Robert Kirkwood's younger brother. He was telling us stories about a Karate master called Mr Souzouki and that he was going to start learning martial arts. John; just like his brother, was quite clever. By the beginning of the fourth year I was doing so well that I was promoted again to class 4A. I took art classes with Mr Walton, who became my favourite teacher: unlike Mr Cropley who was our science teacher. Mr Cropley was a very nervous person, and when he spoke, he kept drowning everyone with his saliva; which was sprayed everywhere. We gave the poor man hell. On the other hand, Mr Walton was truly a good teacher and a gentleman. I have vivid memories doing art classes within the little Penny Gardens off Caledonian road. I remember doing life drawings of flowers, and on one particular day he came over and tried to show me, and explain, the concept of composition. He took his time demonstrating it to me, and to my surprise he produced a 35mm camera from his small rucksack and advised me to look through it. He was so good; very methodical with everything he did. I owe a lot to Mr Walton for taking the time and effort to show me the correct way of observing my surroundings in a new way of art form by way of composition. I still use the skill’s that I was taught by him when using my cameras to this day.
Then there was the Bonk. To be honest, I always kept out of his way and because I was good in the class he hardly ever gave me any problems. But I did get caned on one occasion, and that was due to breaking someone’s hand, which was in self defence against someone who jumped on me just outside the main school gates. I tackled him, and I eventually threw him on the railings causing him the hand injury. He was a black lad, but I cannot recall his name. The Bonk called us in his office, and we were both caned. Next day my father was called in and a written report was presented to him. I was nearly expelled, and in the evening I got a good thrashing from my father too. Eventually by the end of my fifth year I was ready to face the world.
I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed my school years at Barnsbury.