Lawrence Durrell — Spirit of Place: Part 1

Cyprus and Bitter Lemons

Paris Revue

Lawrence Durrell was a modernist writer of elegance, wit, with Proustian depth of thought that is so excruciatingly good that you need to savour every word and sentence, and then go back and read it again just to make sure you’ve understood it, and then a third time. Then you’ll hit a long paragraph that can only be read at speed, with no going back because you might spoil a reading experience of a lifetime. Durrell, who died in 1990, is still one of the most important English writers of the 20th century, even though he was born in India and lived most of life in France, and was greatly influenced by the American novelist Henry Miller, which is no bad thing.

He was also, like many writers of his generation, a British intelligence officer who served in the Middle East during World War Two, an experience that was the source material for the novels that make up The Alexandria Quartet.

I’m not sure if Lawrence Durrell’s popularity as a writer will decrease or increase as a result of the recent TV series The Durrells, where actor Josh O’Connor (who was born the year Durrell died) plays him as a rather naive and slightly pompous character hugely attracted by women yet, at the same time, petrified by them. Maybe there’s an element of a truth there?

In 1957 Lawrence Durrell wrote and published Bitter Lemons, about the time he spent in Cyprus from 1953 to ’56, and is a tour de force of a book that looks unflinchingly at its people and the political and military troubles it went through in the fifties when the island was still part of Britain’s colonial network, as was Lawrence Durrell, with a growing nationalist attitude among its students who wanted self determination for the island, and eventual union with Greece. It was to become a dangerous and bloody time. And although Durrell, on the surface, was simply preparing to live on the island, it was not really the case: once a spy always a spy.

As Durrell writes in Bitter Lemons:

“ It was now too that I met the Colonial Secretary [Sir Andrew Barkworth Wright] of the island at Austen Harrison’s [a well connected British architect and friend of Durrell’s] lunch-table, where he proposed that I should apply for the post of Press Adviser, then about to fall vacant. There was much that needed doing in the field of public relations and it was felt that someone knowing Greek and having a stake in the island’s affairs might do better than a routine official. The idea was exciting, and indeed would solve all my problems, giving me the scope to finish the house as it deserved to be finished and the leisure to explore all that remained as yet unknown in the island.”

Of course, Durrell was the ideal man, with his background during WWII, and his ability, as a writer who very much loved the Greeks, having lived amongst them before World War Two, and after. He was trusted. Making him Press Adviser shouldn’t turn too many heads.

“ …at this time I felt that perhaps such errors as there were might lie in assessing the situation on the spot, in lack of adequate reporting on it. I had no means of knowing what sort of liaison the Government maintained with London, but I knew that in the field their information was largely based on reports from their own departmental officers which, while factually accurate, lacked political pith and the sort of interpretations which are essential if high-level dispatches are to be what they should be — namely guides to action.”

That’s intelligence officer speak.

Unrest in the island gradually built with a particular archbishop preaching dissent:

“ Public disorder was gradually mounting, octave by octave, and it was obvious that the need to contain it would soon be forcing active decisions upon us. The Archbishop had just held an island-wide ceremony at which he had formally and deliberately committed sedition from the pulpit.”

In 1955 the dissent tuned to violence when EOKA (Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Aqoniston), the campaign for the end of British rule in Cyprus — led by General George Grivas — started throwing bombs and shooting at ill defended police stations and army depots, creating fear in older Cypriots, and excitement and determination in younger ones, with, as Durrell observed, a kindly and courteous face and voice.

Durrell’s Bitter Lemons, is an extraordinary account of a very sad period in the life of Cyprus, and in the life of a writer who just wanted to get on with writing the novels, Justine, Balthazar, Mount Olive and Clea, that make up The Alexandria Quartet, and as Durrell writes the island was at war with itself, with terrorism, government reaction to terrorism, the deployment of British troops, increased tension between Greek and Turk, and the tension leading up to the hanging of EOKA terrorists.

Durrell left the island in 1956 and wrote Bitter Lemons, which is a passionate love letter to the island, and its people.

When I first visited the island in 1967 Bitter Lemons was my companion, and although Cyprus had become independent in 1959, there was an ever growing tension between the Greek and Turkish populations, with the occasional explosion and burst of gunfire.

I was given firm instructions not to enter the Turkish quarter, which I ignored to find my way to the ruins of Salamis, discovering, as I did so, that the Turks lived in abject poverty.

The land beyond Famagusta was littered with broken EOKA bunkers, and I saw what I was told were wounded Israeli soldiers recuperating in a British Army base.

As Durrell observed most people spoke English, and everyone smiled, and the island still used the pound, and I soon learned that Turkish coffee was Coffee Greco when in the Greek half of Famagusta.

It came as no surprise when the Turks invaded and occupied the North Eastern part of the Island in 1974, with Famagusta becoming a ghost town.