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 (3Â April 2018).
Cyprusâ 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 paperâs front pages, itâs easy to forgot about the lives of one-time refugeesÂ 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.
Antonagis now looks very different to the young boy at Kingâs 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. Itâs 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 twinsÂ in Londonâs West End gang scene.
âWe didnât speak a word of English apart from yes or no,â he recalls, âa man on the platform was asking if we were okay and all I said was âNo!ââ 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. Antonagisâ father worked alone in London for two years to raise the money to bring his family to join him.Â 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. âWe were so poor we were restricted on how much toilet paper we could use!â he says.
When recounting his school days at Acland Burlegh in Tufnell Park, Antonagis claims: âI was a bit of a naughty schoolboy.â There’s a hint of a glint in his eye when he says this, making it fully believable that he hasnât 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. âWe were called the âbubble and squeak Greeks,â he remembers.
Antonagisâ 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 Antonagisâ parents were still living in poverty, they were unable to visit their son regularly throughout his time in prison. âYou had to fight your way through everything,â he remembers. âThere was blood all over the place, and we had to learn another way of surviving through the night.â
Places Antonagis Andreou remembers during his Islington days
- I went on the boats and watched the horse racing (closed 1970) at Alexandra Palace
- Watched theÂ dog racing atÂ 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
After leaving prison, Antonagis fell into gang life in Londonâs West End. He spent his time in the Greek cafes near Archway accompanied by his friend, the son of the Kray brothersâ chauffeur. âI had to do it,â he recalls, âIt was the only way to survive.â It was a dangerous career and Antonagis found himself wanting to leave. âI learnt my trade of mechanics in Borstal,â he said, âso I wanted to find a job.â
After much trying, Antonagis was eventually given a job at St Georgesâ Service Station in Mornington Crescent.
It was here he met his wife, Diana, daughter of the owner of the garage. âI loved my job,â Antonagis says, and takes a breath and continues, âbut I loved my wife more.â
After falling in love, both sets of parents were against the mixed-race marriage. âMy parents wanted me to marry a Greek girl but I was in love,â Antonagis explained. âHer father took me aside and offered me my job or his daughter â but the choice wasnât hard,â 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.
âHer parents said they would throw us a reception party, but we arrived at their house, alone, to 12 bottles of champagne,â he said, âwe drank a lot that night.â 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 Â 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 Kingâs 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: âI fell in love, and that was that.â
- Read more of Meagan Walker’s interviews and writing on her blogÂ meaganhonour.wordpress.comÂ
- Or follow her on twitterÂ @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