My Cyprus paradise!

When teenage soldier Richard Chamberlain was posted to Cyprus, he thought he’d arrived in Heaven – and set about photographing the beautiful island. Half a century on, he’s doing the equivalent of taking coals to Newcastle. He explains all to Steven Russell

IT’S 1954 and national serviceman Richard Chamberlain is off to Cyprus with twin brother Michael. The teenager has never before been outside England. “In fact,” he reflects today, “we had probably never been more than 20 miles from home.” Their first overseas excursion proves a cracker. “Many young men who served as national servicemen at 18 years of age looked on it as a wasted two years. I consider it was the best years of my life! Beautiful weather, lovely beaches, clear blue skies and clear warm seas. We thought we had arrived in paradise.” Another brother, Trevor, had taught him about photography, and Richard took an old 127 camera to the Mediterranean. It was clicking away from the word go.

“As soon as we arrived I started photographing the Cypriot people and way of life,” explains the former Royal Signalman. The Queen’s Birthday Parade was about a week later but, having arrived on the island only on May 28, Richard was not considered practised enough for the marching, so was given time off. “I spent my day photographing the occasion.”

When he came out of the army, his negatives and prints were put away in a cupboard and forgotten about, because there didn’t seem too much interest in them or Cyprus at the time. Half a century on, Trevor rediscovered them. “About two years ago I got them all out and had them digitised, and decided to put them together in a book and DVD,” says Richard, who has tapped into quite a vein of curiosity about the island and its history.

“At present there is quite an interest in North and South Cyprus, where about 200 books have been sold, mainly to older Cypriots who remember how things used to be, and soldiers who served in Cyprus and go back for holidays.” He’s even having a book-signing there. “I have already been on the radio in a programme like Desert Island Discs, where you discuss the book and choose music to be played!”

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The popularity of his self-published Cyprus Scenes and Way of Life in 1954 is easy to understand. The former soldier’s pictures, taken more than 50 years ago on black and white film, exert a strong nostalgic pull. Yes, there’s the beauty of the coastline, mountain castles and ornate places of worship, such as St Nicholas Cathedral. There’s the majesty of the Salamis ruins – Salamis, by the 8th Century, being the greatest of the Cypriot city-kingdoms. But most potent of all is the evocation of a lost era. The photographs tell of a way of life less frenetic than today, when people had time to stop and chat and the pretty beaches hadn’t fully been exploited by developers.

Significant changes in society hadn’t yet fully manifested themselves, either – though they were on the way and would all too quickly have an impact.

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In 1954, the beautiful island was still a single entity, “the Cypriots of Greek and Turkish origin living happily side by side at peace with one another. This was before ENOSIS” – it means union and refers to the campaign to incorporate the island into Greece – “and 20 years before the conflict with Turkey which led to the sad division between the North and South of the island”.

In fact, Richard believes that 1954 Queen’s Birthday Parade was probably the last, because of terrorist activity the following year.

His fascination with the colour of Cypriot life in the mid-50s led to the capture of scenes such as men sitting outside the cafes – smoking their pipes, drinking strong black coffee and playing backgammon. There are camel trains making their way through the main street of Famagusta, bustling markets, an old shoe mender at work by the side of the road, a lady spinning cloth, an elderly violinist earning a few coins by playing in the street, and shoe-shine boys making footwear gleam. Sellers of meat, fruit and nuts – their stalls built on bicycle wheels, by the looks of it – have time to smile and pose.

For a lad from Ilford, Essex, Cyprus was a rich experience for the senses and intellect. Other pictures show a water tanker spraying the road to lay the dust, the Kodak camera and film shop in Famagusta where soldiers used to buy their photographic equipment, and The Ambassador nightclub in the centre of town that was a regular haunt for troops.

Pictures of Nicosia Airport remind us the nature of air travel was much different to today. More exotic and glamorous, perhaps – as well as rather less technologically developed. “As soldiers, we were made to take our boots off on the aeroplane to save damaging the carpet!” Famagusta’s busy harbour was the island’s deepest, the destination for vessels from around the world, but there was still time for fishermen to sit and repair their nets – or even snatch a snooze in the sunshine.

Richard’s collection is a treasure trove of memories. That El Dorado-like stretch of sand and sea was dear to his heart, and features often. “The army had their own place along the Famagusta beach where the troops could get changed and have a beer after their swim.” The water was clear and warm. “The British soldiers spent most of their time off here. My brother Mike and I applied and were chosen as ‘life guards’ for a week on the beach. The only problem was, I couldn’t swim!”

At one time Richard was among several soldiers who spent their leave touring the island in a Ford Consul, enjoying natural attractions such as the Troodos mountains – the biggest range in Cyprus. “We slept under the stars without a tent.”

It wasn’t just geography that made the place so fascinating. There were the people. Richard’s got pictures of a characterful old tramp called Nikolas Menikou, for instance, who was a regular face around town. There’s a photograph of him outside the Spitfire Cabaret – and another where the tramp has clearly grown tired of being a local attraction for pesky visiting photographers and has thrown his stick at the man behind the lens!

The local children were usually fun and interested in all that was going on. Richard took a picture of one of them reading a copy of the Daily Mirror, sent out from England, and posted a copy to the newspaper as a novelty photo. His endeavours earned him a cheque for �3 – a lot of money in those days.

Richard had been an apprentice in the printing industry before his spell in the army, so after his national service he went back to working as a compositor and finished his apprenticeship at 20 years old.

He and his wife lived in Billericay for about 25 years. “We used to come to a friend’s caravan at Dunwich for holidays,” he says. “We liked the area so much we decided to move and retire here. That was about six years ago and we love Suffolk and this area.” Home is near Saxmundham. “We think this is one of the nicest counties going. It has everything: lovely countryside and typical English seaside towns.”

That teenage enthusiasm for looking at life through a lens has stayed with him.

“Photography is my main hobby. I have a dog and when I go out with him, three times a day, I always take my camera and photograph wildlife. There is so much to see in the Suffolk countryside: deer, geese flying over in flocks, colourful fungi in the woods and so on.”

The couple have three children – one boy and two girls – who are all grown up now, with children of their own. Their son lives in London, one daughter is in Essex and the other calls Suffolk home.

Richard and his wife have been back to Cyprus about 15 times. “We love the island and it is a pity it is divided, but talks are going on at the moment to see if an acceptable solution can be arrived at.”

n The book is available from the author on “Anyone who was there at that time, I would be pleased to hear from,” he adds.

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