Thursday, August 24, 2006

Allan Cavinder 1926 - 2006

Written in 2006 for Cyprus Today

Allan Cavinder, a burly Yorkshireman transplanted to North Cyprus, a writer and publican of great wit, inimitable style, and astonishing memory, has died of cancer in Southampton, England on August 19, aged eighty.

On an island legendary for its outsized characters, across four decades Allan was one of the best beloved, as popular with Turkish Cypriots as with expatriates. Known as a superb bridge player, a maven of all knowledge historical, trivial, and linguistical, and as a creator of verbal puzzles, he was delighted to stir up controversy in his writings and at his bars. In a country infamous for its mail delivery, letters addressed to “Cavinder / Mersin 10 / Turkey” still found him. Even at eighty he kept an elegant mustache and beard and a full head of thick brown hair.

Though there was generally someone annoyed at him about some stray remark, Allan was considered the fount of Cyprus wisdom. It was Cavinder you went to for denial of a rumor that the Greeks had attacked this morning, or if you needed political events explained, or wondered whom to hire for reliable plastering, or wanted the truth behind some arcane personal saga. Other Ancient Brits might’ve visited the island earlier, but Allan had lived here since 1973 and was known for a trustworthy memory and a calm, assessing mind, despite a Yorkshire habit of short-lived grudges that might occasionally ban a pub patron.

Allan was born into a strict Methodist family in Kingston upon Hull, East Yorkshire, on January 10, 1926—the son of Leonard, who had served in WWI, and Edith Cavinder. His sister Jean (b. 1920) is still alive. He attended Hull Grammar School and, age nine, won a literary prize for an article. Allan remained proud of this achievement, for he and his mother were given rail tickets all the way to London for him to receive the award.

During WWII Allan was in the RAF Volunteers but had to content himself with being a police messenger. This meant riding his bicycle around Hull at night providing communications between defence agencies such as the fire service. As soon as he was old enough he applied to join the RAF, but by then he was an engineer and that was designated a “reserved occupation” vital to the war effort.

Though his career took him afield, his romantic life sprang from Hull. His first wife, Jean Woodmansey (1928-1999) was born there; they met at the Newland Avenue Methodist Girls and Boys Youth Club (where he also met Joan, his second wife). Jean and Allan married in Hull in 1951 and settled in South London. Their daughter Jane was born in 1953, their son Adrian in 1954. They divorced on Cyprus in 1990 but continued to work together at times and to play bridge as a particularly fearsome team.

Throughout the 1950s Allan worked for several heating and ventilating companies. His last job, as export director, involved much international travel. As daughter Jane recalls, “He and Mum also travelled recreationally and developed a fondness for Cyprus. In 1972 Dad’s company merged with a much larger business and this decided them to try a new life in Cyprus in 1973. Dad started work as a freelance engineer but his plans were disrupted by the troubles of 1974. Mum and Dad were briefly evacuated to the British base at Dhekelia but returned to Girne within a few weeks. They decided to stay on and managed the Harbour Club with the family. He also started to develop his writing; at one point he was Turkish correspondent for a U.K. football magazine, thus combining his passions for journalism and football.”

As Allan himself recalled the decision to leave, “I had spent a lot of time in Beirut and knew I could do good business there. In those days you could fly to Beirut from Nicosia for £20 return.” Contrary to popular belief, only about 200 Brits lived in Kyrenia (Varosha had around 3600). “Jean and I,” Allan recalled, “decided to spend our time with locals, not with expats.”

His English was sumptuous in vocabulary and grammatically exact; his German was good; his Turkish far better than he pretended.

Unable to easily obtain visas to travel to the other side of the island for engineering work, in 1979 he leased Kyrenia’s Harbour Club restaurant from Ramiz Manyera (who’d bought it from Judy Finlay). Allan’s entire family worked with him: artist daughter Jane and her Turkish husband Funda Kutlay (1949-1991), son Adrian and his then-wife Ditza, an Israeli singer; Jean did the cooking. The Harbour Club era lasted until 1983, and is still fondly recalled, musical Saturday nights especially. These might involve virtuoso pianist Arman Ratip, fresh from his two lps for EMI. Allan often thumped a one-string bass made from a tea chest.

1975 saw him helping start GODS (the Girne Operatic and Dramatic Society)—forerunner of KADS. GODS held play- and poetry-readings at the Grapevine; as Allan pointed out, there were 38 chairs and 76 Brits back then. For Christmas 1977 and 1978 he wrote two revues: “Ali in Wonderland” and “Ali Through the Looking-Glass.”

In the early 1980s Allan became the first English-language broadcaster for Radio Bayrak. At his busiest he maintained three weekly programmes: a pop music show entitled “It Must Be A Record”; an hour’s classical music show; and an hour Wednesday magazine that featured interviews with, say, Bill Dreghorn. (A prelude to Bertil Wedin’s “Magazine North”, on which Cavinder and Dreghorn were the most frequent guests.)

After the Harbour Club lease ended, Allan briefly managed Pesabahce and the Moonlight. For the next twenty years his succession of luncheon pubs became the six-days-a-week hub of Girne expatriate life.

Allan presided longest at the Dragon, the Chinese restaurant which was once Sabri’s Orient. Across from the mosque in Upper Kyrenia, its courtyard fountain was full of drowsy fish and obsolete Turkish coins—“from clients who made a wish for better service,” as Allan put it. Besides his canny talents as barman-raconteur, his pubs offered a free library of diverse paperbacks.

For many years Allan’s major-domo was that admirable gentleman from Pakistan, Mohammed, now flourishing at the Courtyard but back then only just coming into his own.

Following the Dragon’s initial stage (1985-1990), Allan moved his loyal customers (“The Melting Pot”) for about eighteen months to the Halk Evi—the former British country club whose terrace, thanks to Allan, hosted several jazz concerts. He then returned to the Dragon (1991-97) and moved for a couple of final years to the Pegasos at Karaoğlanoğlu.

Allan’s definition of an Ancient Brit was precise: an expatriate who’d lived in North Cyprus continuously from pre-1974. After Dreghorn’s death, Allan was the last man standing—he referred to himself as “the last of the Mohicans”—but possibly a few Ancient Brittesses outlive him.

During the late 1970s he wrote a novel set partly on Cyprus, and sometimes spoke of rewriting it. A request to Graham Greene for permission to use a quote earned Allan an encouraging letter of consent and praise from Greene, who had asked to see a couple of chapters.

Likewise, as a columnist and stylist Allan was much admired by the American radio and newspaper essayist Geo Beach and by my father, George Weller (winner of a Pulitzer Prize). It is ardently to be hoped that someone will put out a fat volume of collected Cavinderiana going back to his contributions to the nearly-forgotten Cyprus News (1976?-78?), the Cyprus Weekly Mail (1977-80 perhaps), essays of many types for Arman Ratip’s Pan magazine from 1980-97, and recent work for Cyprus Today, written from here and the U.K. Such a collection should include writings under Cavinder’s mischievous pseudonyms, such as Al Terego or the puzzlesmith Dr. Pangloss.

Stylistically his approach reflected the man: his wide reading (he liked to pepper his columns with amusing and pungent quotations); his sense of economy (years of listening to his pub clientele made him a no-nonsense editor); and his love of music. He had the sensitive ear, in his writing, of a dedicated concert-goer, and a strong grasp of the power in a repeated, jazzy riff. “And so it goes” was the last of these, and ended many a column, but its tone could range from wry acceptance to bitter damnation.

My favorite Allanism expressed dismay for the electronic world: “I’ve got a microchip on my shoulder.” To a customer who said he’d seen a pair of faked snake skin shoes in a local shop, the Yorkshireman remarked: “There are no faked snakes in Cyprus.” Whenever a lovely turn of phrase came, he would allow himself the faint self-praise of “Not a bad one for a Monday.”

No obituary can do justice to the flow of good cheer in his columns. His masterpieces were his roundups of a past year’s events.“There’s so much doom and gloom in the newspapers,” he remarked. “I think there’s room for a little humor.” His workhorse was “a good old steam typewriter I bought in 1951.” He always praised it as “a good speller.”

In recent years Allan had a book in mind on England, a combination of memories and current impressions; a return, as he put it, to Mucky Pig Lane.

As a friend he was unswervingly loyal, attentive, and generous. When the sponsors of the first (1989) Bellapais Music Festival pulled out, Allan paid for jazz guitarist John Etheridge to fly down from the U.K. He acted as best man for Valérie Moniez Iverson in Girne at both her weddings.

His second wife, Joan Tomlin (née Harris), who survives him at their home in Southampton, met him at thirteen; she and Allan corresponded over the decades. They married in Cyprus in May 2000, and thanks to her he was able to get to know England again. Allan left Girne for the U.K. in early August, 2005.

His death marks the end of an era. He loved North Cyprus as it had been, and held out hope for a North Cyprus which is yet to be. In later years it was surprising to see that hale figure walking with a cane, though no less enthusiastically.

Just before he left the island for good, he spoke eloquently of not saying goodbye but merely shifting his headquarters, for he intended to return periodically. As much as Girne had changed over the decades, for him it was still special, still home. He smiled fondly at how locals, greybeards themselves, would approach him and say, “Mister Allan? Remember me? You showed me how to install air-conditioning systems in 1975—” and firmly shake his hand.

For us, what will remain is that steady clear-eyed gaze, the merging memories of mornings and afternoons in the eternal sunlight of his company and, most of all, the expressive baritone of his inexhaustible voice, marvelously talking.

1 comment:

  1. hey this is my grandad and his son is my dad Adrian Cavinder