I have just finished reading that great classic ‘Bitter Lemons of Cyprus’ by Lawrence Durrell. I have managed to go all this time without reading it and suddenly, inexplicably I was gripped with the desire. My sister had a copy with this very same cover on her bookshelves which I looked at for many years and vaguely felt that I should one day pick it up and read but resisted thinking it would be a bit too intellectual for me and dusty; not from lack of attention to the domestic chores but in its writing. I had read Gerald Durrell’s book ‘My family and other Animals’ about the Durrell’s lives on Corfu when Gerald was young which I enjoyed immensely, GD writes in a very light and humorous way, I somehow felt his brother would be a bit more heavy going. About a year ago I was given the talking book version on tape which made a long car journey seem to pass in a flash. It was time to get the real thing in my grasp and read it, I finally retrieved a copy from the library a few weeks ago. To my delight it was full of the most beautifully poetic descriptions of the scenery and people around Bellapais near Kyrenia in a time when the island was still a sleepy backwater. Written in 1952 when Cyprus was a British protectorate after the Turks had relinquished power as part of an agreement in 1878, it gives a picture of an island woefully neglected by its rulers, lacking in many modern amenities and infrastructure as well as a very limited education system. It conjures up a time of innocent and welcoming hospitality. Cyprus was just starting to get regular tourists and Durrell expresses his distaste at seeing these incongruous foreigners trespassing into his idyll. A sentiment I think a lot of us will sympathise with but ironic when we are indeed the tourist as well.
The descriptions of the magical area around the Abbey perched high up on the Pentadaktylos range of mountains with spectacular scenery, brought back memories of my visit there many years ago pre 1974. My family like many visitors fell in love with that region particularly Lapithos. Kyrenia was always a particular favourite of the British who frequented its picturesque horseshoe-shaped harbour, surrounded by ancient buildings and dominated by the castle with its origins dating back to Roman times. Being so close to the capital it was also a very popular haunt of the Cypriots to spend some leisure time. There is no other place like it on the island and this made it even more of a tragedy when it was out of reach after the invasion. Now at least it is possible to visit and I’m eagerly looking forward to the day when I can see it once again after the book has whetted my appetite.
The book also has a darker side as it relates the rumbling times leading up to the organisation of EOKA stemming from the rising tide of public outcry for ENOSIS and the lack of early constructive response from the British which might have saved a whole lot of trouble. Easy to see in hindsight of course. Durrell’s employment within the local British government offices at the time gives a valuable insight into the painfully slow machinations between Westminster and Nicosia and lack of up to date intelligence and thus awareness. The book ends with Durrell’s departure from the island as things get more entrenched and progressively uglier as all conflicts inevitably do.