Level-headed and even-tempered, a former special branch officer who has seen it all from the Brixton riots to IRA bombings is now charmed by the somewhat disorganised life of Cyprus, finds THEO PANAYIDES
Graham Burns breaks off our conversation to glance out the window of his home in Mandria. Something quite unusual is happening: an aeroplane is coming in to land at Paphos airport, presumably one of the few, empty flights still arriving to repatriate people in the midst of contagion. “This coronavirus has been the biggest thing that’s ever happened in my lifetime,” he sighs. “And in your lifetime.”
Does it scare him?
“I don’t think many things scare me. I’m very much one of those ‘If something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen’ people. But I wouldn’t put myself in a position to make it happen.” Graham pauses, with the air of a man not often given to deep philosophical reflection. “Life is like that, you have to take it as it comes and see what happens. We’ve got no real control over our own destiny. It’s written down somewhere, I don’t know where.” A dog starts barking madly in the background, as if in agreement – probably his rescue dog Beauty, or her pup Scruff.
It’s not the kind of attitude one expects from a former cop and Special Branch officer; isn’t control the whole purpose of police work? Then again, his relaxed acceptance isn’t passive, just sensible. If a situation can be fixed, by all means fix it; if there’s nothing you can do, however, what on earth’s the point of stressing out about it? “I like to think I’m very calm, cool and collected on most things,” he tells me. “I don’t really get upset. In the police service it was very important that you stayed cool and calm.” He was quite a high-flyer in his 30 years in the service, rising from ordinary copper to protecting three prime ministers (Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair) – and it’s easy to imagine that he did it by being dashing and dynamic but perhaps it was precisely the opposite quality that induced his superiors to entrust him with big jobs, his level-headedness and even-temperedness.
Coronavirus has another unfortunate consequence: for the first time in the history of this page, our interview is conducted through Skype instead of face to face (it’s not the same!), meaning I don’t really get to see the house – but Graham assures me it’s a nice house, part of a complex of 72 villas but nestled on the outskirts of the complex, with fields all around where he can walk the dogs. He and his wife bought the place back in 2001, then moved to Cyprus in 2004 when he was 49 (he’s now 65). Early retirement was part of the deal when you joined the police force, at least in those days. “The term is 30 years, at 30 years you’re entitled to a full pension” – though he wasn’t really thinking about pensions when he joined at 18. “I was very keen on sports,” he recalls. “I was a good athlete – I represented Barnet. So the police seemed quite good fun.”
He drifted into it; he admits as much. There was no real Plan B, nothing else that really inspired him. Graham’s dad owned a building company (this was in Hornsey, north London) and would’ve liked him to go into that, but it didn’t appeal. He was a straightforward young man; he liked (and still likes) sports, cars, motorbikes. His first posting as a cop was in Highbury, down the road from where he grew up – “which was quite fortunate for me,” he recalls with a chuckle, “because it covered the Arsenal football club, and that was my football team!”. Yet the police was also an education. As a cadet, he spent nine months attached to Paddington police station: Praed Street in 1973, with its drunks and prostitutes, was an eye-opener for a teenage lad who’d grown up in “quite a quiet family”. Later, as an officer, he experienced momentous events that still strike a chord of recognition, 40 years later: the Brixton riots and Broadwater Farm riots, the King’s Cross fire, the IRA bombings, the death of Blair Peach.
Events in Cyprus also had an effect, especially in north London; the mid-70s saw an influx of Cypriots, both Greek and Turkish. They all seemed to call the police even for quite trivial matters, he recalls – and they all seemed to have the same nostalgic ornament in their homes, “a wall-hanging of the map of Cyprus, which was a black felt thing with the outline of Cyprus in yellow”. (Graham would gaze at the funny-looking, frying-pan-shaped island, little guessing that he’d end up living there 30 years later.) He also recalls one particular Turkish Cypriot, a local madman who used to go into churches and steal all the Bibles. “What is your name?” asked the cops. “My name is Muhammad Abdul Kadir, son of the Father forever and ever and even longer than ever, and that is a long time!” he intoned in reply. Graham chuckles, his ruddy face crinkling on my computer screen. “I can remember this as though it was yesterday.”
He’s got stories, of course he does – and we haven’t even got to the 90s, when he joined Special Branch and began hanging out with the famous and powerful. He recalls the diabetic who collapsed in Newington Green, guarded by two fierce Alsatians who didn’t know or care that their master had to go into hospital; Graham managed to distract the snarling dogs with a piece of meat, long enough for paramedics to load the man into an ambulance. He recalls author Salman Rushdie, long before his fatwa-related troubles, when he lived in Highbury and was quite a notoriously terrible driver. “One of my jobs was as an enquiry officer, going round to interview people who’d been involved in road-traffic accidents,” Graham tells me – and every month he’d have to visit Rushdie and report him for traffic offences, prompting another broadside from the spiky, “very anti-police” writer.
He recalls the middle years of his service, when he joined the 1TSG (Territorial Support Group) – a “controversial” unit, to quote Wikipedia, dealing in public-disorder offences and undercover work – and often worked on covert operations, following suspects as a plainclothes officer. “We followed one guy, picked up in London, who was a known paedophile. I followed him down to Bristol, on the train,” he recounts, with the air of a story told many times before. “He went down this stairway into this club, which was a gay club. Now, another member of our surveillance team was a guy called Pinky, who was about 16 stone, ginger-haired and a rugby player”. Graham felt uneasy in the bar, and asked for backup; “They said ‘OK, we’re sending Pinky down to come and join you’. So I’m standing there, and eventually Pinky comes down the stairs – there’s about 30 people in this club – and Pinky comes up to me, kisses me on both cheeks and says [effeminate voice] ‘Oh hello luv, haven’t seen you for ages!’… It defused the situation, and we got away with it.”
We laugh, though in truth it’s quite an old-fashioned joke; the image of a hefty, rugby-playing bloke acting like the stereotypical fairy wouldn’t seem especially hilarious in today’s cautious, politically-correct Britain. The UK has changed, confirms Graham, he feels it when he goes back to visit; despite his law-and-order background, he likes that Cyprus is a bit disorganised and “doesn’t take itself too seriously, at least in some matters”. He’s not thrilled about the surveillance cameras on London’s streets, though of course they’re a boon for today’s cops, and – though I don’t ask about Brexit – he doesn’t sound too happy when EU legislation gets mentioned in passing, either. I get a sense of someone who never really thrived on the controlling, regulatory aspects of police work, a basically mild, good-tempered person (he remembers himself as “quite a meek child”) who enjoyed solving problems and helping the community – and, at the end of the day, had no strong political opinions either way. As he says of the riots he witnessed: “All we had to do was go down and deal with these things”.
Politics was irrelevant in his job, strictly speaking – especially in the Special Branch, when protecting politicians; strong opinions would’ve got in the way. Still, a certain bias shows through. He spent three years with Tony Blair, getting to know him quite well – yet the story he tells me is a bit irreverent, of their first meeting in a car when Blair was on his way to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen: “We introduced ourselves, and he says, ‘Please call me Tony’. I said, ‘With respect, Prime Minister, you’re the prime minister, I think it’s best that we call you Prime Minister!’.” Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand (with whom he also spent three years, in her later days as Lady Thatcher), “was special,” he recalls with real feeling. “She had an air about her. She just had a presence… There was no ‘side’ to her, she was not influenced by money in any shape or form. Her sole determination was for the benefit of the United Kingdom”.
Politicians were protected 24/7, turning their Special Branch detail into more than just cops; not quite friends, to be sure (that would be unprofessional), but companions, tennis partners, sounding boards, sometimes even confidants. “Sometimes they’ll ask your advice,” recalls Graham. “Because you’re the nearest thing to the common people that they deal with on a daily basis.” Enoch Powell shared Sunday breakfast with his detail, dazzling them with his encyclopaedic knowledge of Norman churches. Thatcher had a “very caring” side – which may come as a surprise to the haters – and always saw to it that ‘her boys’ were looked after. On one occasion, she was so concerned about Graham having to drive back from Switzerland alone (Maggie herself was going back by plane) that she paid for his wife to come down and keep him company on the drive. “So, y’know, she had compassion,” he concludes. “But she’s not the sort of person I would’ve engaged in conversation on any subject!” he adds, laughing wryly. She was too formidable.
Despite Mrs Thatcher’s best efforts, Graham’s private life suffered badly in the 90s. Special Branch was understaffed; he was routinely working 100-hour weeks (!), guarding his famous charges from seven in the morning till late at night. He and his first wife – his childhood sweetheart – had been married for 18 years, but their relationship buckled under the strain. He was never home; the marriage struggled, then fell apart – a failure that preys on his mind, even all these years later. He and his ex are friendly enough, “but it’s just a sad situation,” he sighs. He wouldn’t wish divorce on his worst enemy, “it’s a horrible thing”.
No surprise that Graham Burns isn’t the kind of man to take divorce lightly. He appears to be a very correct man, a by-the-book type who did allow himself a glass of champagne on his final day as a policeman, flying back from LA (he was guarding Geoff Hoon, who’d taken an earlier flight) – but only after first making sure he’d given his firearm to a colleague to take back to the UK! Above all, he appears to be a clubbable, convivial man, the type you’d ask to be a master of ceremonies or after-dinner speaker, the type who values harmony and the joys of a regular life – the type, I suspect, who’d be badly shaken by the turmoil of a failed marriage.
Still, he’s moved on. Retirement has been good to him, maybe because he started so early. Perhaps he should’ve kept working, he shrugs – “but, on the other hand, no-one can take away these 16 years of retirement I’ve had. Thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it here.” The straightforward youth has grown older but still quite straightforward, adding bridge (twice a week), golf (about once a month) and general socialising to his roster of pleasant pursuits. He and his wife also go on cruises, though not as passengers – Graham gives lectures, telling the kinds of stories he’s been telling me about his exploits – and he also gets involved in charity work, having made the cover of this very paper (fame at last!) in 2014 when he raised over €4,000 by travelling to six European cities in six days.
Alas, such merry globe-trotting is impossible in the current situation. Still, coronavirus can’t last forever – and meanwhile Graham can look back on a (mostly) charmed life: not only did he have adventures and meet famous people up close, but he also got free housing and medical care and retired with a full pension at 48. It’s not like that now, he notes ruefully; the job has changed, just like everything else. “We were very fortunate, it was the golden times for us. Right place at the right time…” I turn off Skype and imagine him in Mandria, contentedly walking his dogs and watching the occasional plane make its approach to Paphos airport.