Antonagis Andreou: Borstal, gang life, love

Estimated reading time:6 minutes, 44 seconds

Everyone has a story. Many of what might now be called Cyprus’ forgotten refugees of the 1960s settled in north Islington. This interview with Antonagis Andreou reveals many of the hardships the community faced arriving in London. GUEST POST and interview by Engage London’s Meagan Walker, which was originally published on her blog (3 April 2018).

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Antonagis Andreou: “I fell in love and that was that.” (c) Meagan Walker 2018

Cyprus’ political situation is seldom mentioned in Western media and very few people, unless directly affected, understand the hardships suffered by the Cypriots as a result of a still ongoing conflict between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots. According to the UNHCR, today’s world has 68.5 million displaced people, 25.4 million of whom are refugees, but with images of north African refugees dominating TV screens and the paper’s front pages, it’s easy to forgot about the lives of one-time refugees who settled in England many years ago. This interview with Antonagis Andreou charts a life story of early struggle, happily followed by the redemptive power of love.

The dawn appeared, but not fresh and rosy-fingered. After a perilous journey, an odyssey, from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, nine-year-old Antonagis Andreou stepped off the platform at King’s Cross station in the 1960s – devastated and scared. The dark, cold, frosty November morning was a far cry from the golden sands and topaz seas of his homeland. As his eyes glittered with the memories of the past, “I cried and wanted to go home,” he said – and maybe that would have been for the best. Amid the racism and prejudice of 1950s and 1960s London, Antonagis struggled to find his place in society.

Antonagis now looks very different to the young boy at King’s Cross. With soft, kind eyes, his empathy stretches far beyond the words he says. Drawings are scattered around his homely office, and his white hair evokes a loving, caring grandfather. Living in the Worcestershire countryside, surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. It’s a world away from his life in the London where an unfortunate fall into crime led Antonagis to running in the same circles as the notorious Kray twins in London’s West End gang scene.

“We didn’t speak a word of English apart from yes or no,” he recalls, “a man on the platform was asking if we were okay and all I said was ‘No!’” he chuckles with fondness. As the memories come flooding back, his love for his family clearly prevails over everything else. His mother arrived on British soil with three young children under the age of ten, after two years alone in poverty-stricken Cyprus. Antonagis’ father worked alone in London for two years to raise the money to bring his family to join him. Political and cultural tensions rose between the Greek and Turkish nationalities in Cyprus, but England was not the idyllic paradise many Greek Cypriots believed it to be.

Growing up in Holloway, Antonagis recalled his parents paid four shillings for a room with a shared bathroom at 47 Arthur Road, N7. “We were so poor we were restricted on how much toilet paper we could use!” he says.

When recounting his school days at Acland Burlegh in Tufnell Park, Antonagis claims: “I was a bit of a naughty schoolboy.” There’s a hint of a glint in his eye when he says this, making it fully believable that he hasn’t changed all that much.

“There were not many treats as a child. We used to go strawberry picking near Essex with the whole family, went to the Forum Cinema in Kentish Town where I got in for free as a teenager as my girlfriend at the time worked there. I can remember watching the Pathe News newsreels and documentaries. I played football in the streets and played with a football team at Finsbury Park. I never wanted to chance going to an Arsenal game as I’m a Tottenham supporter!” he says recalling his childhood in Islington.

However, after leaving school, the struggle to escape the societal barriers in place became much harder. “We were called the ‘bubble and squeak Greeks,” he remembers.

Antonagis’ fatal crime was stealing a car radio. At sixteen, he spent two weeks at Wormwood Scrubs before being sent to Borstal, in Kent. His sentence was two years long. Losing most of his later teenage years to prison, Antonagis had to grow up very quickly. And because Antonagis’ parents were still living in poverty, they were unable to visit their son regularly throughout his time in prison. “You had to fight your way through everything,” he remembers. “There was blood all over the place, and we had to learn another way of surviving through the night.”

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Places Antonagis Andreou remembers during his Islington days

  • I went on the boats and watched the horse racing (closed 1970) at Alexandra Palace
  • Watched the dog racing at Haringey and White City racetracks.
  • I used to train at Stowe Boxing Club
  • We went to the Greek Orthodox church called St Andrews on Kentish Town Road

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Gang life
After leaving prison, Antonagis fell into gang life in London’s West End. He spent his time in the Greek cafes near Archway accompanied by his friend, the son of the Kray brothers’ chauffeur. “I had to do it,” he recalls, “It was the only way to survive.” It was a dangerous career and Antonagis found himself wanting to leave. “I learnt my trade of mechanics in Borstal,” he said, “so I wanted to find a job.”

After much trying, Antonagis was eventually given a job at St Georges’ Service Station in Mornington Crescent.

All change
It was here he met his wife, Diana, daughter of the owner of the garage. “I loved my job,” Antonagis says, and takes a breath and continues, “but I loved my wife more.”

After falling in love, both sets of parents were against the mixed-race marriage. “My parents wanted me to marry a Greek girl but I was in love,” Antonagis explained. “Her father took me aside and offered me my job or his daughter – but the choice wasn’t hard,” he said.

With no photographs of the wedding, Antonagis only has the images in his mind to remind him of the day he married the love of his life.

“Her parents said they would throw us a reception party, but we arrived at their house, alone, to 12 bottles of champagne,” he said, “we drank a lot that night.” Still living close to the breadline, his wife had left the home comforts of her comfortable upbringing. They lived in a small bedsit with an outside bathroom  in Fortis Road on the Tufnell Park/Kentish Town border, whilst Antonagis continued his work as a mechanic, trying to make ends meet.

More than 40 years later, Antonagis now sits surrounded by portraits of his loving family. The couple had four children, numerous grandchildren, and even have great-grandchildren.

His life is quiet, simple, and easy in comparison to his past in London. The birds outside tweet as the sun rises high in the sky, illuminating the beauty of the countryside surroundings. However, as the golden rays infiltrate his office, they light up his face, and behind his dark, aged eyes, it is impossible to miss the youthfulness of the young boy stood at King’s Cross Station ready to start a new life. For Antonagis, it seemed his life took a turn on to the right side of the tracks when he met his wife. As I leave he reminds me one last time of his adoration for his wife and children, he whispers: “I fell in love, and that was that.”

  • Read more of Meagan Walker’s interviews and writing on her blog meaganhonour.wordpress.com 
  • Or follow her on twitter @meagan_honour
  • More about Engage London – young people from City university and the Pilion Trust collaborating on media projects with partners in Belgium, Germany, Spain and Romania – on http://engagelondon.blog