By Margaret Sheard …
In the past I had some email contact with Martin Bell following my review of his book “The End of Empire” which recalled his time as a British national serviceman in Cyprus with the Suffolk Regiment.
Many people of the older generation will remember Martin who was fondly nicknamed “The Man in the White Suit”. Having spent his British national service in Cyprus, he went on to join the BBC and in the following 30 years he covered 11 conflicts and reported from 80 countries, being remembered for reports from countries such as Vietnam, the Middle East, Nigeria, Angola and Northern Ireland during the troubles there. He was the BBC’s Washington correspondent from 1978 to 1989. Martin received the OBE in 1992 and that same year he reported on the war in Bosnia. In the 1990’s Martin decided to change direction and moved into politics which continued for the next few years. In 2001 he was appointed UNICEF UK Ambassador for Humanitarian Emergencies, for children caught up in conflicts or natural disasters. He has also found time to write several books along the way.
Martin, together with his friend Julia Berg of Prestige Holidays, had organised a tour of Cyprus with a group of people, some of whom had previous associations with Cyprus, and as I had never met him personally I was delighted when he invited Chris and myself to join him and the group on 18th April at the Arkin Colony Hotel in Kyrenia where they were staying during their tour of the north of the island.
We met at the Colony and had a chat before other members of the group started to enter the dining room for dinner and we then enjoyed a nice meal from the very substantial buffet before going to the 4th floor where Martin was to give a talk about Cyprus and his time here. He had arranged for me to sit beside him to answer any present time questions from the group. I am glad to say that there weren’t too many!
It was a very interesting talk, ranging from the history of the island to the Emergency and the present day situation. Martin told us he was a Corporal in the Suffolk Regiment during the Cyprus emergency between 1957 and 1959. Many years later he found more than 100 letters in a chocolate box in the attic that he had sent home to his family, which gave a vivid impression of what it was like to be a conscript on active service during the EOKA rebellion against British rule. He described road blocks and cordons and searches, murders and explosions and riots and a strategy of armed repression. It was these letters and the memories contained in them that prompted Martin to write his book The End of Empire. Many of the group had Martin’s book which he had signed for them.
Martin spoke of the violent process of decolonization, of the character of the British Army at the time and the impact of National Service on young men who were not much more than ‘kids in uniform’, and the use of force in the insurgency and the campaign to defeat it and of how Britain tried to crush a violent rebellion sixty years ago and ultimately failed.
Julia was present to ensure everything was going smoothly during the talk, as well as coordinating each day’s tour for the group. She seemed to have everything very well organised, although she was having very long days.
The tour group arrived on Sunday 15th April and had visited Nicosia and Famagusta as well as having time in Kyrenia. There were 23 people who had joined Martin and Julia on the tour and they seemed to be enjoying what they had seen so far. They may have felt as Martin did when he said, having not visited the island for 60 years, he had just spent his saddest days in the sun where he did not recognise anything and even place names had changed. The general feeling of the group was that the towns were being spoiled by over development and they were also amazed at the amount of traffic, especially in and around the Kyrenia area. As many of the group were in their late 70’s or into their 80’s, their recollections of Cyprus were so different from today.
Following the meeting I had a long conversation with Jessie Nagel who was based at Nicosia Airport and was PA to the RAF Commanding Officer who was in charge of 7,000 men. Jessie said she formed the first Nicosia Girl Guide Company which was very successful. I have tried to persuade Jessie to write down some of her memories so that we can record them on our website, so I will have to wait and see if this very interesting lady will share her memories with us.
The group were heading south early the following day, so they were gradually leaving to have an early night. They will be visiting Troodos and staying overnight at Casale Panayiotis, then to Larnaca, Limassol and Paphos during the remainder of their one week tour.
We would like to thank Martin and Julia for inviting us to spend some time with them and their group, which we very much appreciated and enjoyed.
Martin Bell’s book The End of Empire is available on Amazon click here