CYPRUS—THE ONLY PLACE WHERE, SO FAR, I HAVE SAT ON A SNAKE
IT DID NOT APPEAR TO ENJOY THE ENCOUNTER—AND, FRANKLY, NEITHER DID I
Cyprus—a beautiful island with an extraordinary history, by the way—rarely hits the news, so it is strange indeed to see it as the focus of a financial scandal which may well threaten the stability of the European Union. Apart from anything else, the Greek Cypriot population is not much larger than 1.1 million—scarcely significant in an EU population of about 500 million. But the Greek Cypriots have long had a reputation as hustlers, and they certainly seem to have lived up to it when it comes to banking.
Before getting into the details of my very brief personal story, let me quote Wikipedia on the island in general.
Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, after the Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia (both in terms of area and population). It is also the world's 81st largest by area and world's 49th largest by population. It measures 240 kilometres (149 mi) long from end to end and 100 kilometres (62 mi) wide at its widest point, with Turkey 75 kilometres (47 mi) to the north. It lies between latitudes 34° and 36° N, and longitudes 32° and 35° E.
Other neighbouring territories include Syria and Lebanon to the east (105 kilometres (65 mi) and 108 kilometres (67 mi), respectively), Israel 200 kilometres (124 mi) to the southeast, Egypt 380 kilometres (236 mi) to the south, and Greece to the northwest: 280 kilometres (174 mi) to the small Dodecanesian island of Kastelorizo (Megisti), 400 kilometres (249 mi) toRhodes, and 800 kilometres (497 mi) to the Greek mainland.
I went to Cyprus because it was degenerating into a civil war—and I wanted to get a sense of such a dangerous environment without actually getting shot. For some strange reason, I felt that if I was going to write thrillers, I should experience danger at first hand. If that sounds pretty damn foolish, you will get no disagreement from me. I am now older and wiser and have learned that violence is both unpredictable and unpleasant.
At the time—1974—the Greek Cypriots were gunning for the Turkish Cypriots and there was a definite sense that the island was about to explode. My main recollection is of Greek irregular forces, bristling with weapons, rushing around in long wheelbase Landrovers, and of Turkish villagers not quite knowing what to do. The Turks, who comprise less than a fifth of the population, were totally outgunned. What was absolutely clear is that something bad was going to happen.
In fact, after numerous incidents—normally resulting from Greek Cypriot aggression against the Turks—it did. Turkey invaded to save the local Turkish population—in what was something of a textbook military operation spearheaded by paratroops—and Cyprus remains divided to this day, though no country recognizes Turkish Cyprus except Turkey—which is rather sad.
My sympathies, at the time, were with the Turks—probably because they were the underdogs—and I spent some time with a Turkish Army battalion stationed in Famagusta under some arcane U.N. agreement. Though they were hopelessly outnumbered by the Greek Cypriots—and knew they were going to be attacked—they were remarkably sanguine about the situation, and impressed me greatly. That said, I liked the Greek Cypriots—apart from the armed thugs—too.
All in all, it was a complicated situation with U.N. troops—who were trying to keep the peace—caught in the middle. In fact, one of my favorite memories is of an Irish U.N. soldier, leaning back on a spindly kitchen chair—at some risk to his welfare if the chair had collapsed—reading a book as if oblivious to the fact that he was stationed between decidedly edgy armed Greeks and Turks who were, quite clearly, spoiling for a fight.
This was insouciance elevated to high art. Later I was to learn that the Irish troops were highly regarded as peace-keepers. They could, and would, talk their way out of any confrontation.
The snake incident happened because I was rather fond of cross-country walking in those days, and, and after seeing a comfortable looking rock out of the corner of my eye, just didn’t look whether it was occupied or not. Careless of me. Of course it was—by a snake dozing away in the sun.
Hard to know which of us was more scared by the encounter. Fortunately, we both headed in opposite directions. I am left with two vivid memories: The feel of the snake’s surprisingly robust body as I sat on it; and the sight of its considerable length as it skedaddled away.
The British still have two sovereign bases on Cyprus. I only visited one—and was stopped at the perimeter—but vividly recall the largest array of aerials and other radio interception equipment I have ever seen. The display seemed to be endless. The reason is simple. Cyprus is conveniently located near most of the hot spots of the Middle East, so the British vacuum up anything and everything from the airwaves that they can.