It’s all about the patter for a former Eoka fighter who has written books about the struggle in addition to wearing a number of other hats. THEO PANAYIDES meets a man who, throughout it all, has always looked for the fun
Renos Lyssiotis isn’t a magician (or perhaps he is, who can say) but he played one for a while, back in England: he was ‘Reno Lyz’, doing magic shows for money – decked out in bow tie and top hat – while also studying to become a barrister. He’d been doing tricks for friends in a restaurant one night, as he tells it, when an Englishman at the next table asked “Can I watch?”. “Yes, with pleasure.” The Englishman said he liked Renos’ act, and would be his manager – but first he had to become a member of the London Society of Magicians, which meant passing an audition before professional magicians.
“What can I show them?” asked bewildered Renos. “They know everything.”
“Look,” replied the stranger, “everybody knows everything. They’re just going to check your patter. How you present it.”
His patter, it turned out, was good enough to pass the audition – and remains good enough 65 years later as we sit in his summer home in Ayia Napa, with a Shih Tzu named Bico sniffing at my feet and a Filipina maid bringing coffee. This is not some mass-produced villa, it’s a house with a garden in a prime location; Renos – a lifelong lawyer, though not just a lawyer – is a prominent person, the kind who’d have the nous (and cash) to get in on Napa when it was just taking off. I ask about hobbies, and he replies that he likes the theatre – but he doesn’t just ‘like the theatre’, he was also vice-president of Thoc, the Cyprus Theatre Organisation, and president of Theatro Ena for about 10 years. Yet his style, even at the age of 87, is cheeky rather than stuffy, nor does he ever flaunt his status or position. It’s about the patter, for the most part.
To be honest, I get nothing very substantial out of him – but I do get some excellent stories; like the late Glafcos Clerides, a fellow lawyer and close personal friend, Renos likes to lead with his fun-loving side. Then again, he’s put his money where his mouth is. Most high-ranking Eoka fighters – he was deeply involved in ‘the Struggle’, and has written four books about his experiences – cashed in their cachet after 1960, going for government positions; Renos, who was on Eoka’s political committee (known as Peka), could plausibly have become Minister of Education, or at least an MP – but “my God, never!” he replies, horrified, when I put it to him. “I couldn’t, I wanted to be free… Because, if you take a position, you become a slave of that. You have to obey.”
His abiding memory of the first years after independence is of soul-crushing boredom – working as a lawyer, drafting contracts and settling small disputes. “I didn’t know what to do with my life, I was saying: ‘Am I going to spend all my life like this?’.” It’s not entirely accurate to say that he likes adventure – he doesn’t strike me as the type to go white-water rafting, or scale Kilimanjaro – but he likes stories, strange encounters, mischief-making, odd coincidences. (He also likes women; his libido appears as a Special Guest Star in a lot of his stories.) “Mr. Renos, there’s an Englishman wanting to see you,” he recalls his secretary saying a few years ago. “I know you like strange people and he looks very eccentric, this one. I think you’ll like him.”
Enter a very tall Englishman with a big red moustache – the biggest moustache I’d ever seen, says Renos, warming to his story; but first we rewind to 1956, when Eoka fighters Michael Koutsoftas and Andreas Panayides were about to be executed for killing a soldier. Renos and Clerides went to the governor’s palace a few hours before the execution, to plead for clemency (in vain, of course; Field Marshal Harding heard their arguments, withdrew to his rooms for a few minutes, then declared: “The law must take its course”). Renos, who’d defended the two young fighters, deeply admired them for their courage and had been quite distressed when their death sentence was handed down – so, “very naively”, he’d written to General Grivas asking to be given a detonator, so he could plant a bomb in the palace when they went to meet the governor. Grivas replied with a stern reprimand, reminding our hero that he’d surely be searched as soon as he entered the house – yet, in the event, “nobody was searched”.
Now fast-forward to the man with the red moustache, who came looking for a lawyer to transact some business in Cyprus – and explained, in the course of conversation, that he’d been here before “in the bad old days”, indeed he’d been Field Marshal Harding’s security advisor during the Eoka years. “And I almost lost my job,” fulminated the man with the red moustache, because of some lawyers who came to plead for clemency one day: “‘I knew they were London-trained, so I didn’t search them – then, a few months later, the governor found out that one of those bastards was a terrorist!’. And he turns to me and says: ‘Would you know where that young bastard is now?’. And I said: ‘He’s facing you!’.”
Renos laughs, very much the expert raconteur – though you have to wonder if the stories are a wee bit exaggerated, as if to deflect any real introspection. Did it really happen just like that? Did he also, back in his student days, really try to boil a three-minute egg – holding his watch to keep track of time – only to find himself boiling his watch, and holding the egg? (He tells that story to explain why he once turned down an offer to be mayor of Nicosia: “Renos doesn’t even know how to boil an egg!” said his wife, urging those making the offer to reconsider.) Is he really as hapless as some of these stories make him sound, or as idealistic as he seems when discussing Eoka? “We fought for liberation. We fought for liberty.”
Yes, but after that? Is today’s dysfunctional island really the Cyprus they fought for?
“After that, it’s not our fault!” he protests. “When we became free – well, free in a way – the people who took part in government were young people. They had no experience. The one who appointed them was Makarios – and I believe that, without wanting it, Makarios corrupted them. Power corrupted them. When you appoint a boy in a high position, very few can resist and not become corrupted.”
He himself never sought power, of course; he sought drama, excitement, fun. Beautiful girls recur in his stories. So do flustered Englishmen, like the one with the big red moustache – or the gentleman in Famagusta who solicited the services of Argus Information Service, the private detective agency owned and managed by Renos. “‘Look, sir, I am married to a beautiful woman’,” he remembers him saying. “‘I have an impediment’ – he never said what it was – ‘so I let my wife go out. She can go out for dinner with a man, but of course I will not accept any sexual behaviour!’.” It’s a classic story, moving on to a hotel where the Englishman worked out a signal to indicate the woman Renos had been hired to follow without her knowing – “My wife will come down the big staircase, and then I will turn to you and say: ‘Oh, what a hot day, sir!’” – and ending with the chastened husband choosing to forgive his wife’s hanky-panky, incinerating Renos’ report in “a ceremony of love”. Maybe, like a good raconteur, he’s gauging his audience, trotting out the English-themed stories since he’s talking (in English) to an English-language paper – but he did have English friends, despite the Eoka connection, and English was also the language he spoke when he first met Miriam, a Romanian-born Israeli who became his wife of over 50 years.
And of course he owned a private detective agency – and a beauty salon, and a security company, not to mention the law office, not to mention Tiffany in Nicosia and Limassol, the first real high-end boutique in Cyprus (which he founded in the 60s, and continues to run). And of course he writes his Eoka books – the latest, reproducing the letters he wrote and received while incarcerated in Pyla detention camp in 1956-58, comes out this autumn – and of course he’s also a collector. (Of what? “Everything. I collect paintings, I collect coins, I collect stamps, I collect medals… When I was a child, I used to collect marbles.”) Renos Lyssiotis may or may not be a deep thinker – though, as with Clerides, the jocular style is almost certainly a ruse, daring people to underestimate him – but there’s no doubt about his energy or entrepreneurial industry, or his restless penchant for collecting stories like he once collected marbles.
The energy’s still there, at 87; he heads to the office every morning (though not before 10; he was never a morning person) and stays till late. The restlessness may have abated, with age – yet I get a sense that, despite the impish style (or perhaps because of it), he was never especially easy-going, even in his closest relationships. His father Xanthos was a well-known merchant and a well-known poet, but annoyed his son by favouring the merchant over the poet (they did become close at the end, during his dad’s final illness): “In his day, what was prevalent was respectability. ‘What people will say’. Conservatism. I am not conservative at all, I am very liberal and very extreme, in a way. I divorced, for instance!” That was his first wife, a short-lived marriage at a time when most unhappy couples carried on regardless – yet even with Miriam, the love of his life, it was never smooth sailing. “We fought – like hell, sometimes! Until the last day of her life, we were fighting, you know? But we loved each other…”
That’s another story – and a deeply romantic one, kicking off at Nicosia airport where Renos went to pick up a business associate and saw an attractive stranger, yet another of the beautiful girls who populate his stories. “I flirted with her, I said: ‘Can we give you a lift, madam? We are going to Ledra Palace’… She went up to her room because she had a cold, I stayed down – and when she came down in the evening she found me still there, and said in Hebrew to the other guy: ‘This man has no job?’. That’s how we started”.
Randy Renos bragged about his beauty salon: “I have an English beautician, she will give you a massage. But, if you come after six, I can give it to you myself!”. Miriam was affronted, but agreed to go for a drive together; she tried to kiss him, and broke his glasses. He followed her to Tel Aviv, where finally – after a solid day’s courting – he phoned his Israeli friend and announced: “‘David, the castle has fallen!’ And Miriam – my God, she never forgave me for that! ‘The castle has fallen’, eh? Afterwards, during our life, when we were fighting sometimes: ‘The castle has fallen? It’s you who has fallen!’.” He pauses in recollection: “We spent 56 happy years together”.
His wife passed away last October, the 15th to be precise. “At five o’clock in the morning, she sat up in bed, she wanted to go to the loo. She said ‘Ah!’ – that’s it. A very good death for her, very bad death for us”. Bico was there, he adds, indicating the dog; he “cried like a human, I never saw anything like it”. Already you can see the moment being turned into a story – aimed, like all his stories, at turning his experience into something less mundane, more dramatic. (How’s he coping? I ask, and he shrugs noncommittally: “My daughter takes good care of me… It’s life. Life and death. Can’t avoid it”.) Maybe that’s why Eoka means so much to him, not just because he’s patriotic (though he is) but because it gave him such superb raw material at such a young age – so much romance and emotion and heroism. In a way, he’s been trying to match it ever since.
He’s had fun, though. He’s having fun now. “I don’t have the energy of when I was 25. But I still like life, and I like to live it”. Renos walks me to the front door, but we hit a snag: the handle’s stuck, or at least he can’t turn it. He calls for the maid, looking suddenly rather elderly – and she opens the door for him but I’m also struck by her manner, the joking playful way she deals with this mini-crisis, and the way he responds in kind. Renos does good patter, as he might’ve said in his magician days – and inspires those around him to do the same. Maybe that’s his magic.