From İnönü to Islington

Seren Halil

My father left home at 15. Home was a small Turkish Cypriot village in the 1950’s ‘British Empire’ island of Cyprus. Given a stark choice of working on the family farm or seeking a better life, he opted for the latter. He told my grandmother but not my abusive grandfather. Knowing that there was a labour shortage in post-war England, he went to Nicosia and trained as a tailor’s apprentice until he had saved enough money to get on the slow boat to England. This was at the time that EOKA terrorism was taking effect on the island, but Cypriots back then carried British passports and England was a slightly more welcoming country than it is today. So, this fresh-faced 17-year-old arrived with today’s equivalent of £50 in his pocket to start a new life. 

The Turks value their own community and, rather than make new friends, they build their own support structure, consisting of cousins, relatives, or other people from the same village (to whom they are invariably related if you go back far enough!). My father stayed at a distant uncle’s flat just off Caledonian Road. Many Turkish Cypriots settled in this part of North East London, from Haringey down to Islington, and the length of Green Lanes. In fact, Green Lanes was their entire universe, with grocers (bakkal), kebab restaurants – no takeaways in those days -, cafes, which were strictly for backgammon and strong Turkish coffee, and barbers to be found everywhere.

There was a large clothing factory in Dalston run by Simpsons as they were known back then (now called Daks, although the factory is long gone), and my father was taken on making men’s suits. Back in the swinging sixties, most men did wear suits, both socially as well as for going to work. Jeans were something only worn by Americans in cigarette adverts.

Every Turk supported a football team, and from my experience, it was either Galatasaray (on my father’s side) or Fenerbahce (on my mother’s side). This support was full, unwavering, and passionate. In fact, I am named after the famous Galatasaray goalkeeper Turgay Seren. My father married and our family moved to our first house in Stoke Newington where, clearly, The Arsenal were the local team. Perhaps the red shirts reminded my father of Galatasaray, but whatever the reason, my father and his group of mates chose Arsenal over Tottenham and for that I will forever be grateful, otherwise it would have been a lifetime of misery and failure for me. Ironically, Tottenham were the much better team in the sixties, whilst Arsenal had not won anything since 1953. However, Arsenal was a release from the hard graft and work for my father, with each game involving meeting up at The Monarch pub in Green Lanes; a few beers, the game and then a few beers more, either to celebrate or to hold a post-match inquest. In those simple days it was cash on the door to go to the game and terracing. The only deviation from this routine was to get down to the stadium earlier to join a long queue if we were playing a big draw like Manchester United or Tottenham.

Sporting my Arsenal kit, 1971
View of the Clock End from the North Bank
ARS-COV 02/09/67

My first game was Arsenal v Coventry, 2nd September 1967 (1-1). I was an excited six-year-old and I think my father only took me because my mother nagged him to. I vividly remember walking down Aubert Park and turning right into Avenell Road, looking down the hill at this mass of humanity. I am by no means religious, but this was my Mecca, my pilgrimage. My first game was also the first time in the North Bank, which I can only remember because I could see the clock at the opposite end. All I remember is a lot of shouting and swearing from the Arsenal supporters and more specific abuse hurled at Bobby Gould, then of Coventry but soon to be transferred to Arsenal.

That trip proved to be only a rarity as the hassle of taking this little kid on to the terracing was a bit too much for my father for which I do not blame him, as when he took me, after the game, I had to sit on some stairs in a corridor in the pub with a lemonade. I think he felt guilty, but I was happy, especially if we had won. My father’s love affair with Arsenal consisted of many away games, cup semi finals up north and cup finals at Wembley. To qualify for a ticket you had to collect the vouchers in the programmes, cut them out, stick them on a form and send them off to the club. Unfortunately, the mid to late seventies sadly saw the beginning of football violence with disgusting fights breaking out in the stadium whenever either Chelsea or West Ham visited. It was the start of a shocking deterioration in the conditions for a football spectator to endure and, not surprisingly, my father fell out of love with the game. To think he escaped the violence of terrorism in late fifties Cyprus to be put in harm’s way trying to watch a game of football.  

As for me, I was hooked and grabbed the baton with both hands. I am and have always been a proud Gooner who has gone home and away since 1980, including on my wedding day, but that is a story for another time!

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