A lifetime of drama and impulsiveness are reflected in the poems of a man who used to rub shoulders with Ted Hughes. THEO PANAYIDES meets an English Cypriot proud of his roots
The punchline comes after an hour, when I ask the poet George Tardios what’s the biggest crisis, or difficult situation, he’s faced in his life, and he recounts how he almost died in the Asian tsunami that killed over 200,000 people on Boxing Day 2004. It’s a punchline not because it’s amusing – the event was obviously horrific, and still haunts him now – but because it manages to cap a solid hour of recounting other crises and difficult situations (I don’t even know why I asked the question; he’d have been within his rights to reply: ‘Jesus, man, don’t you have enough?’), from bloody gang warfare on the streets of London to a week in a Kenyan prison in the mid-1980s. And poetry, of course.
Actually, I take it back. The punchline is probably the poetry – the quality of the poetry, much appreciated by the late Ted Hughes among others, and indeed the existence of the poetry, the fact that a working-class, not to say slum-born London Cypriot spent a lifetime (73 years and counting) getting into scrapes, dodging or skirting disaster, getting beaten up and sometimes beating up others – he always had good cause, or thought he did – and plunging into adventures like his two-year Tanzanian trek in the footsteps of Stanley and Livingstone, yet still wrote lines like the following:
Pocked with licked pins, bristling notes
Spilt red wine on her dress
A spreading blot.
Only cicadas heard the stumbled passage to their bed.
We talk for an hour and a half, yet the poetry barely gets mentioned – partly because there’s so much else to talk about, but also because it seems to exist outside himself, a higher plane to which he’s allowed access only intermittently (he has “gaps” between poems, he admits) and then only as a conduit. “This Cypriot book of poems – I feel as if it’s come to me,” he explains in his slow drawl. “It’s come from somewhere else. It’s not me. It’s not me at all, making it happen. It’s something that’s passed through me.”
So, like some Higher Force?
“Higher Force, definitely. And so I wait, for the next round to come up. ’Cause it’s always happened like this, I’ve always waited and it always comes up. This – this writing takes place.”
The ‘Cypriot book of poems’ is called Buttoned-Up Shapes, and its appearance in a bilingual edition – translated by Despina Pirketti, published by Armida Publications and Write CY – is a major event. “It’s almost a kind of revenge writing, these poems,” chuckles George, noting that the title refers to the British, or Cypriots’ idea of the British. “I want [the poems] to be accepted by Cyprus, they are about Cyprus and they’re for Cyprus”. It’s an odd, delicious irony that George handles the English language beautifully – and still pines for London after a few months in his summer home of Kritou Terra – yet doesn’t feel English, indeed he bristles at the very idea. “England is a racist country,” he claims, citing Brexit as the latest iteration of the ordinary Brits who snarled “Get back to your own country” at him as a child in the 50s. “I feel an outsider, I’ve always felt an outsider. At the moment, Islam is getting a very bad press in England,” he goes on, unafraid of sounding controversial; “I’m on the side of Islam. Just like I was on the side of the IRA. Because it was like Eoka, and they were called terrorists just like Eoka.”
We sit in a courtyard in Kaimakli, at the home of a mutual friend; Christine, George’s wife of 48 years, sits in the background, listening discreetly and prompting him when he loses his train of thought, as he does occasionally. The two are a team (they have no children), George with his thick suntanned arms and curly, if thinning, black hair – he looks like he could happily grout your kitchen, or build a garden wall in your backyard – Christine a slim, bubbly blonde. He’s an Aries, she’s a Sagittarius: a good match, apparently. She was also part of the three-person expedition that trekked through Tanzania for two years, then saved both their lives in 2004 by physically pulling him away from the tsunami (he was frozen, staring at the wave as it rose up “like a cobra”). What first attracted her to George? “He talked me into it,” she replies, and laughs. “He wanted to do things, action things – and I’m an outdoor person, so I like to do things as well”. Christine pauses, thinking back to their five decades together: “I didn’t intend to have a peaceful life. And I didn’t get one!”.
They met in a North London nightclub, where George was a doorman-slash-bouncer and Christine a part-time waitress (she worked as a teacher the rest of the week). This was not a high-end place, but it didn’t lack for celebrity guests: the notorious Kray brothers came by, initially hoping to sell protection – “but we were already paying West Hampstead police station,” explains George with a straight face, so the Krays merely bought a few drinks and behaved themselves. Later, there was also “a Scottish gang that wanted to shoot my legs off,” forcing the now-married couple to go into hiding. One of the gang had threatened the chef in the kitchen, and George had intervened rather forcefully; that’s how he was, “I used to go and support all the underdogs,” he recalls with a rueful chuckle, “it’s ridiculous… I’ve changed now,” he adds, “I’m not like this. I’m very peaceful. Obviously I’m so old now, I couldn’t do it anyway.”
He had form, going back to his childhood years in Somers Town, just behind King’s Cross. There were only four Cypriots at his school and all four were prey for the racists of the Somers Town gang on the journey between school and home: “They used to beat us up and smash bottles on our heads, and call us ‘bubbles’” (from ‘bubble and squeak’, rhymes with ‘Greek’). George still has thin white scars on the backs of his hands, from trying to shield his face while being attacked with a cutthroat razor. One of his friends was stabbed on the top deck of a London bus, where he’d tried to flee from the gang. The Cypriots were too few to retaliate in kind – but they did take revenge by ambushing gang members individually, rubbing their faces with hot chili pepper. (And through poetry, of course; but that came later.)
Those were also the days of Eoka, when the British tabloid press referred to Ledra Street in Nicosia as ‘Murder Mile’ and demonised Makarios as ‘Black Mak’. The son of the deputy headmaster at George’s school was a soldier who fell victim to Eoka – so the deputy head took it out on George. “He used to pick on me every day, whether I was at fault or not. He would say ‘Your tie’s on crooked’ and he’d whip me with his cane. ‘Bend over, boy,’ he’d say, and start walloping me. ‘You’re late’ – whether I was or not – ‘bend over’. So I used to get it all the time. And I said to the deputy headmaster, I said ‘Listen, I had nothing to do with your son. Leave me alone, please. I’ve already got it outside [from the gang].’ He started whipping me with his cane – and I just lost it, and I jumped on him”. The man ended up in hospital and George was promptly expelled, ending up as a window cleaner, the first of many manual jobs.
Poetry is now a commodity; Britain has a ‘National Poetry Day’ (this year’s edition took place two weeks ago; the theme was ‘Freedom’), touting poetry as a kind of simplified prose where anyone can express themselves. George has no truck with any of that, his own favourite poets being intricate craftsmen like Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas who speak through images and sounds, the music of words; poetry today is “about people’s own experience, and it’s very prosaic”. Poets today are rappers – but George himself was a wrapper, actually a sausage wrapper (sorry, I’ll stop now), wrapping meat in cellophane 12 hours a night, seven to seven, his hands working like spindles.
“The first night we were there, I remember this horrible screaming started up, and people started thumping the tables and banging their feet – a horrible cacophony of sound – and we wondered what this was,” he recalls of his time in the sausage factory. “Then, in the following days, we would join in.” Every night, around three or four a.m., someone would suddenly erupt and everyone else would follow suit, screaming and banging on tables for about a minute; it was “a way of letting off frustration, letting off steam and saying ‘We too are human beings’.” The poetry of the primal scream.
What about the poetry, though? When does it arrive? In the end, it was the angry Scottish gang who precipitated the start of the second chapter in George’s life, forcing him and Christine to flee to Devon where he went to college as a mature student and came under the sway of a poet called John Moat, who’d recently co-founded the Arvon Foundation. This was a charity devoted to creative writing, its motto – “The fire in the flint shows not till it be struck” – all too applicable to the working-class lad who’d always written on the side (he’d been encouraged by a teacher in school) but never felt like it had any value. It’s another irony that this lifelong socialist found his benefactor in a public-schoolboy engaged in a kind of benevolent paternalism – though Ted Hughes (also involved in Arvon) was working-class, which was how George and the future Poet Laureate bonded in the first place. “We used to get drunk together,” says our hero (who still loves his wine). “Then he started to like my poetry.”
The rest came naturally, if not always smoothly. So much to talk about, such a full life – but seldom a lucrative one, mostly sustained by some teaching and a parallel career as a film and TV actor. His father was also a film actor, one Harry Tardios who played minor-role swarthy ethnics in the 60s and 70s – and previously left George’s mum for a singer, when the boy was small. She never remarried, raising him by herself in a two-room flat (not two-bedroom, two-room) with a leaky roof, working in “the rag trade” all day then bringing work home and placing a cloth over the light, so George could sleep in one side of the room while she worked in the other.
“Tin Kypro mou, tin Kypro mou…” (‘My Cyprus, my Cyprus…’) his mother used to say, eternally nostalgic despite having left the island in the 1930s. She returned on a kind of pilgrimage after her divorce, as described in his poem ‘So I’m Told’ – she’d asked his grandma “to create waxen effigies of my legs” and hang them in Apostolos Andreas after George had been confined to a wheelchair by a childhood accident, and was properly grateful when her son was ‘miraculously’ cured – then came back again in the early 90s, hoping to die here. George asked the government to “give me a Turkish house [and] I’ll do it up for my mother to live in,” promising to give it back when asked. They refused. He persisted, making such a nuisance of himself that he ended up being arrested (!) as a Turkish spy. Christine got him out, and they left the island in a hurry. His mum died in England, soon after.
It’s a sad story, yet it may be the best George Tardios story. The one about his week in a Kenyan prison is obviously grittier – awaiting trial for assault, in a dark cell with 40 other prisoners, regularly lined up by the guards who “smashed us all” with their rifle-butts – and of course his experience of the Thailand tsunami is unforgettable (the cut-off screams, the roar of the water, the bloated bodies lying on the beach when the wave subsided), yet his efforts to secure a house for his mother says so much about him. His almost childlike faith in magical solutions, and his stubbornness in pursuing them. His fierce sentimentality, and the way he tends to end up in trouble. His contrarian nature, like the way he’ll stand up for Islamic jihadists now. His propensity to leap in unthinking, like embarking on a two-year African trek without any funding. (What’s his biggest character flaw? “Impulsive!” says Christine with a laugh.) The way he’s always up for a scrap, when it’s for the sake of “the underdog”.
And the poetry? Where does that come from? Would he be the same poet – or a poet at all – had he grown up in the leafy suburbs, or a village in Cyprus? He’s had unusually extensive experience of human cruelty, I point out, and he agrees, having long since concluded that cruelty is part of human nature. But is that why he writes?
I see the sky reflected in my teacup.
I move the cup,
And tilt the sky.
That’s from ‘Islands’, also in Buttoned-Up Shapes – and the title of the poem has an echo of Cyprus, yet the theme is universal. It’s about the way grand cosmic concepts are encapsulated in the tiniest of details – and the way, more specifically, that poetry consists of looking at the world more closely, seeing what others miss and expressing it, painstakingly, through language. His intensity was always potentially a poet’s intensity, it just had to be channelled – or bestowed from above, whatever. “I don’t know where it comes from. Maybe it comes from – angels, who knows?” says George Tardios of his gift, sitting in the warm sunny courtyard, and shrugs expansively.