As the world keeps getting harder, THEO PANAYIDES meets a British academic firmly rooted in Cyprus
Should it be ‘James’ or ‘Mr. Ker-Lindsay’? The question – like himself – is academic as James Ker-Lindsay, Senior Research Fellow on the Politics of South East Europe at the LSE and longtime friend of Cyprus, bounds into the lobby of the Nicosia Hilton and offers me his hand with a cry of “Theo!”. He’s 44, tall and voluble, with grey-green eyes and a full head of hair, side-parted. “I like to think I maintain my enthusiasm,” he says later, and his vital energy is apparently his trademark – the flipside being that he tends to be argumentative. “Leave it, James,” he mimes his friends pleading as he refuses to let go of some lost cause or hair-splitting nicety. “I have final-word tendency,” he sighs, “which doesn’t really do me any favours.”
He can talk, certainly. It takes an hour and a half before we even pause to think about ordering a drink: carrot juice for me, orange juice for him, which he requests in accented but confident Greek. “You’re always aware, as an ‘area studies’ person, of being an outsider,” he admits more than once – it’s clearly something he thinks about – but in fact he speaks the lingo, has lived in Cyprus (on and off) for about eight years and first arrived 26 years ago as a teenager, the oldest of five in a family which had just relocated from Britain. Indeed, he says, pointing to the pool area outside, “my first summer was spent here, by this pool”; he and his siblings lived close by, off Kennedy Avenue, and there wasn’t much to do in Nicosia circa 1990. “It did feel much more Middle Eastern,” he muses: hardly any traffic, no coffee shops or fashionable franchises – and of course it was pre-internet, “you were really cut off”. He recalls going back to the UK after a couple of years and feeling very jarred and out of place; even the slang had changed in his absence.
By then, he was besotted with Cyprus – and, by extension, the Cyprus problem – so much so that he’d changed to an “external degree” so he could live here (instead of SOAS in London) and study long-distance. The college snail-mailed him lecture notes and a reading list – and he assures me he took it quite seriously but it does sound a bit easy-going, especially for someone who later did a Master’s and Ph.D. and became an academic. Then again, he’s not the stuffy sort of academic; he likes to live “on the ground”, meeting people and trying his hand at journalism as well as research. At some point the talk turns to novels, and he mentions Terry Pratchett and Robert Harris. “I’d like to say I do really highbrow stuff,” he adds with a hint of apology, “but I’ve never really been that type of person”.
When it comes to area studies, a scholarly approach is essential but passion is the true defining factor; there has to be a magnetic attraction, something you feel in your bones. “I love this part of the world,” says James with feeling. “I really do. It’s fascinating – there’s a lot of humour to what goes on, a lot of craziness, but there are also very, very serious issues at play”. That said, his definition of ‘this part of the world’ – the ‘area’ in his area studies – has expanded in recent years; he still writes on Cyprus, but his CV also includes articles on Balkan politics and a book called Kosovo: The Path to Contested Statehood in the Balkans. Partly, he married into it: his wife Biljana, head of the Civil Society Engagement Unit at EBRD, the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, is from the former Yugoslavia (they have two boys: John, who’s almost six, and William, almost three). But there’s also another factor, viz. the 2004 referendum on the Annan Plan, and the disillusionment he felt in the wake of the ‘No’ vote.
Indeed, our interview could be summed up as ‘A Tale of Two Referendums’. Greek Cypriots’ rejection of the Plan left him feeling “very despondent”, edging him away from the Cyprus problem – he moved back to Britain in 2005, though still visits regularly – and Brexit left him similarly devastated; he has strong words for the leaders of the Leave campaign, “an awful ragtag bunch of narcissists, liars [and] professional contrarians”. The arguments made were emotional and nationalistic, in both referendums, while both (he claims) also created a climate of fear and belligerence, especially towards foreigners. “By that point, Cyprus had been home to the family for 14 years,” notes James – three of his siblings still live here – “and I remember, [during] that last week before the referendum, never feeling more foreign than at that time”.
He can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times when he’s faced any hostility due to being British in Cyprus – but he did feel uncomfortable in 2004 (when the EU and America vocally supported the Annan Plan, leading many Cypriots to “a siege mentality”), “and a lot of the other EU nationals living here at the time felt the same way”. The same is now happening post-Brexit, he says – though what he cites doesn’t sound like hatred, more like an awkward “awareness that something’s gone on in society”. James in 2004 found (or felt) that his local grocer wouldn’t look him in the eye, just as foreign friends in London now complain of being reluctant to speak to their children in their own language on a bus or a train. It’s something in the air – a whiff of division or defiance, an instinctive sense of a shift in the climate that could lead to extremism.
Here’s a salient fact about James Ker-Lindsay. He gets very passionate when he argues, as already mentioned – he always wants the last word; he engaged in a late-night Twitter spat with a Cypriot politician who shall remain nameless (oh all right, it was @yiorgoslillikas); he was out in the streets campaigning for Remain in the weeks before Brexit – but his politics, what he actually argues for, are entirely mild. “I see myself very much as a political centrist,” he tells me, “and I wear it as a badge of honour”. He’s done a lot of work on the Cyprus problem, yet his preferred solution is simplicity itself: a loose federation where the two communities would control their own affairs as much as possible, and “ordinary people wouldn’t feel their lives to be massively disrupted by a solution”. What’s more, he’s sympathetic to concerns about not trusting the other side, or not wanting to relinquish the status quo. “I understand where they’re coming from. I just happen to believe that the benefits of a solution would outweigh the cost”.
He strikes me as a reasonable man in a frequently unreasonable world – a cheerful dynamic person, a middlebrow, a non-ideologue, forever battling stasis and fear and extreme positions. He talks at length of the EU, which he reveres (“I feel myself to be very European”), and his defence is based on reasonable things like striking a balance between Left and Right: here’s a marketplace of 500 million people, Europe tells employers, but in return you have to treat your workers fairly, and grant them sick pay and maternity leave. That “fine balance” is the beauty of the EU, gushes James – but a fine balance doesn’t win you arguments these days, not when 52 per cent want immigrants gone and an end to faceless Brussels telling them what to do. “You couldn’t argue with these people!” he recalls, meaning the Brexiteers – and shakes his head, as if to say: What kind of world rejects logical argument? When did the world become so crazy and unreasonable?
His answer to that question is intriguing. Go to any bank in the UK, he tells me. “There was a time when you’d have people behind desks – none of that now, you just have machines. It’s horrific. You go in, and you might have two or three staff members whose sole job is to point you to a machine, or come over to the machine if you’re having any problems. It’s horrific. It’s really unpleasant to go into a bank now. And this is the future”. Technology – and specifically automation – is the elephant in the room, un-addressed by governments which hope that new jobs will somehow appear as they did in the past; but driverless cars are coming soon, robots are increasingly viable, and almost every profession is due to be decimated by intelligent algorithms. Companies are even testing automated phone systems, to replace call centres.
What do we do when jobs disappear? His own solution involves “basic income”, i.e. everyone being paid a state salary irrespective of whether they’re in work (businesses could be taxed at a higher rate, since they don’t create jobs anymore). This is actually an idea that’s gaining currency – but the real point is that ordinary people sense that change is coming, without quite being able to articulate how, and it makes them nervous, prompting them to lash out at bogeymen from dastardly foreigners to EU bureaucrats. “We are really at a fundamental point of change in what’s going on in the world”. Only once we start to confront these issues, if we ever do, will the world start to settle. In the meantime, the craziness is likely to continue – and people like James will continue to struggle, trying to make sense of the senseless and arbitrary.
There’s something else as well, “an added complication in my life” as he puts it, something that’s informed every moment of his life for the past two years. His son John is severely disabled with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a “horrific condition” that affects about 1 in 3500 boys worldwide. The diagnosis came almost two years ago, after months of worrying that something was wrong, and of course it was shattering: “I can tell you that, after that diagnosis, the next two or three months were quite the worst of my life”. Many parents never get beyond that initial despair, refusing even to talk about the illness; James and Biljana try to be open about John’s condition, but that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking. Duchenne is a progressive muscle-wasting disorder, meaning that John will gradually lose more and more of his muscle strength. “You’re suddenly confronted with the fact that” – James’ voice shakes discernibly – “by the time he’s 12 he’s going to be in a wheelchair. Life expectancy is, at the moment, around 25.”
There’s not much one can say after that, except to marvel at James’ continued enthusiasm and applaud his courage in going forward. Soon after they received the diagnosis, he met with a friend and colleague at LSE who also has a disabled son, and asked him how he managed to cope. “Never ask yourself ‘why?’,” counselled this friend, and James agrees. “‘That’s a road to disaster. It’s not karma. It’s not God’s punishment. It’s just one of those things that happens. Don’t get into that’ – and he was so right. He said he’d lost two years to depression because of asking that question. And we resolved, right from the start, that we weren’t going to do that.
“And the other thing is that you’ve got to keep the joy. You know, these are still children. You need to have as normal a childhood as possible.” Fortunately, despite all his challenges – and despite some learning difficulties manifesting as mild autism – John is “a lovely happy boy,” having apparently inherited his dad’s buoyant temperament. Last night was their first night back in Cyprus, a Ker-Lindsay family reunion with siblings and children, “and you know, watching the two boys with their three cousins, and having them all together, running around and playing, and seeing John trying to keep up – you know, doing his best – and laughing and talking with his cousins, it was amazing. It really was. And I like that thought, I want them to feel that Cyprus is a home to them. Not in the same way as it was going to be a home to me – but I want them to have those memories, and to come out here for as long as we can.”
Cyprus, I suspect, holds a privileged position in James Ker-Lindsay’s psyche – a memory of something very carefree and pure, a time when he was young (or younger) and beguiled by a new part of the world, sitting by the pool at the Hilton and having a “brilliant” summer. Cyprus has defined his career, indeed his whole life (he also met his wife here), but left him disenchanted when the chance of the Annan Plan was so comprehensively missed; and now there’s Brexit too, another snub for his brand of fair-minded centrism. The world keeps getting harder, it seems, and more distressing. Sometimes, with the climate of fear in public life and the problems in his own personal world, he must wonder how it all got so complicated.
Yet he tries to maintain his enthusiasm – because, after all, Life goes on, not just in the abstract but also all its day-to-day anxieties and triumphs. He sighs at the steady encroachment of middle-aged flab, lets off steam when he can (videogames, mostly), feels the fragile joy of watching his sons play with their cousins, tries to remain on an even keel – and comes back to Cyprus with its old familiar pleasures now and then, dinner at the Syrian, a mixed kebab from Kalypso or Christakis. “This morning I took my two boys over to see their cousin,” he reports, “and we stopped at Zorbas and I picked up a tachinopita. I found one which had nice crispy edges and everything!” He gives a happy chuckle and glances at the Hilton’s Proustian pool, with its traces of a more straightforward summer.