It is nine years since I published ‘Savva’ – the biography of the greatest British breeder ever. Over the years, it has become apparent that many new people to the industry have never read it or even heard of it. Having kept saying, ‘I must do something with it at some stage’, when better time than to give it an airing? Here is the first chapter. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.
The unlikely first scene is set in 1934 in Rizokarpaso in northern Cyrus.
Study a map of the country and Nick’s birthplace is very near the end of the ‘pointy bit’ closest to Turkey.
Nick’s birthday is recorded as April 27, though there are some doubts about his true whelping date.
He said: “My mother would write down the date on the back of the door when she remembered and register you when they got around to it. Birthdays weren’t considered as being particularly important. I never realised how significant they are considered to be until I first came to England.
“Originally, my mother was going to register my birthday as April 1, because they weren’t sure. Three of us were born in April and my brother Peter ended up with that date.”
Rizokarpaso was a typical poor farming village, of between 5000-6000 inhabitants, situated midway along a peninsula of one of the most beautiful and fertile parts of the island.
The majority Greek Cypriots lived alongside their Turkish neighbours in comparative calm.
Nick recalls: “My father had quite a few dealings with the people in the Turkish village, which was seven miles away, and we would often use them to transport crops on their camels.
“We lived apart but there was no bad feeling between the two villages. They were very hospitable to us.
“Sometimes us kids would go to their festivals which seemed very colourful and exciting. There was never animosity between the two communities despite the fact that they were predominantly Moslem and we were Christians.”
Living conditions were at best ‘basic’ but bordering on primitive. Nick’s home was a big clay building which was just a single room inside for the entire family. There was a sectioned-off area at one end, for when the cattle came inside in the winter.
For much of the year there would also be the stench of tobacco leaves being stored and only the most basic furniture including a table to eat, beds, and a spinning wheel to make yarn for clothing. Water came from two wells.
The family, like most in the area, were comparatively poor but kept themselves fed through hard work on the land.
Nick said: “We had around two to three acres of land at home, and a second house with some land about four miles away which we used in the summer.
“We grew all our own vegetables and for meat we had chickens, pigs, rabbits and goats. We would also eat wild fruit and berries when they were in season, and catch fish.
“If we were hungry we would just go into the garden and pick something to eat from the growing vegetables. As kids we would drink milk straight out of the cows.
“There wasn’t a lot to spare but looking back, I’d have to say it was a very healthy diet and remember in Europe at the time, they had wartime and rationing. Crime was virtually non-existent.”
Interestingly, Nick’s early days had a major influence in his outlook on life. By no means, ‘political’, Nick has always tried to live his life according to socialist principles.
He said: “Nobody ever starved. If they were hungry, you would give them something to keep them going.
“I remember a man once tried to buy a marrow from my mother. He only had a penny, but it had to be a big marrow to feed his family of seven.
“My mother told him to go and pick the biggest marrow he could find and he could keep his money. That was the way people were.”
From his earliest days, Nick was always surrounded by animals.
He says: “We had donkeys and oxen for working in the fields plus four or five mongrels.
“We also grew tobacco, at the summer house, though that was just a cash crop to pay for my sister’s dowries. It was by far the worst of the crops to grow and pick. It stunk and made you feel ill.
“To dry the leaves, we had to thread them one by one onto onto a pieces of string which were then attached to six feet long poles. For completing a whole pole, my father would give us a penny.”
There was no electricity or even a radio. After school, the youngsters would do their chores including looking after the animals but still found time for some of the same activities that kids in Britain during the late war and following years would have recognised.
Nick’s youngest brother Peter said: “We used to have races with each other, lots of fighting and wrestling.
“We played football with a pigs bladder, we made our own spinning tops and we played a game a bit like rounders with a small piece of stick which was pointed at both ends.
“You hit the end of the stick with a bigger stick and as it flips up into the air you hit it as far as you can and start running. Home made kites were also very popular.
“Most evenings were spent telling jokes and stories. Very occasionally, if our parents could afford it, we would go to the cinema and watch cowboy films. Four times a year there week long festivals with singing and dancing.”
Nick remembers his father ‘Savvas’ fondly as a tall good looking man with, unusual for Mediterranean stock- bright blue eyes!
(Nick’s cousin, Panos, believes he has traced the source of the height and non-Mediterranean eye colour to the Lusignans, a people from Western France, who inhabited the area around Nick’s village in the middle ages).
Nick recall his father with admiration.
He says: “He was a very hard worker and amazing with his hands. He could make anything that was needed for the home or the land. He was also a very determined man, a very strong character and completely honest.
“He wasn’t educated but was a great observer of life, very wise. I remember he advised me: ‘never keep money in the bank. Always invest it’.
“Whenever he had a pound to spare, he would buy a piece of land. Although he was never rich, when he died, he owned quite a bit of land scattered around.”
Nick’s father did his utmost to transmit his strict life values to his offspring.
Nick says: “I remember a time when a friend and I each had a baby goat. We gave them some leaves off some corn plants that belonged to someone else.
“In his mind it was theft, and to punish me, he made me walk through a patch of thistles in my bare feet.”
But when he caught his 12 year old son smoking, the punishment is one that many readers may recall from their childhood – Savvas made the young Nicholas smoke a cigarette in front of him – and insisted that he inhale a good lungful.
Nick breaks out in laughter (and coughing) as he recalls the day he spluttered and choked. (Sadly, the cure didn’t work!).
He says: “Although I didn’t look anything like my father, in temperament I think I was the most like him of all his sons.
“We were both determined and obstinate and very slow to forgive anyone who did you any wrong.
“Our father was notorious. If someone ripped him off, he would never even speak to them again. I am very similar.”
Brother Theo says: “Our father was strict, sometimes I think too strict, but his own father died when he was 43 and our father, being the eldest, had the responsibility for his own family as well as looking after the families of his brothers and sisters.
“I think he was the most strict with Nick, being the oldest, though I don’t really remember Nick doing very much wrong.”
The four boys also inherited their father’s wicked sense of humour, and he would be the victim of it on numerous occasions as they grew up.
Most famously, on his first visit to England, and accompanied by Theo’s father in law, the lads took them along to a London strip club.
It was such a successful trip that Nick arranged for another night out in Manchester.
The artistes were some considerable way through their routine before poor old Savvas discovered he was in a transvestite club!
The poor old farmer “went ballistic” when he found out according to unrepentant first born son. Forty years old, the brothers still giggle like schoolboys at the memory.
Nick readily admits that he was probably closer to his mother, Xenou, than his father.
He says: “When I look back, all I can really see is the hard work and sacrifice she had to make to bring seven of us up.
“I felt sorry for her and I usually sided with her over my father. She was a workoholic who suffered with a bad back for many years, it might be from her that I inherited my problems. But she just got on with it.”
Nick was the oldest of four sons, followed in age order by Theo, Andrew and Peter with three older sisters, Sophia, Anastasia and Maria.
Nick’s three brothers spent time in England at one stage or another though all have since returned to Cyprus. The three sisters have either stayed or returned to Britain to spend their latter years.
Peter and Andrew have followed Nick’s success with interest though it was Theo who came to achieve his own fame in greyhound racing.
At this stage it might be worth clearing one query for the record, why was Theo’s surname Mentzis and not Savva?
Nick replies: “In Cyprus it is not unusual to have four surnames including nicknames which can be used to distinguish you from other people with similar names.
“Theo didn’t want to confuse people when he got into the greyhound game and originally called himself under the full surname of Hajisavva but then soon changed it to one of the nicknames, Mentzis.”
In fact, if Nick had chosen to use the most accurate family name, the name of Savva or Mentzis would not feature on the Derby winner’s role of fame. But there would be five ‘Hajisavvas’.
In fact, even that might be slightly misleading as Nick’s father’s identification papers spell the name as ‘Hadjisava’.
Nick said: “It was the best approximation in English of the way the words are spoken in Greek.”
The ‘Haji’ prefix is quite interesting in its own right. It is given to the people, some lost distant grandfather, who had made the pilgrimage to Jordan and been baptised in the Nile.
Nick remembers his childhood fondly. All four brothers got on well, with the two older boys tending to spend more time together and the two youngest likewise.
Theo, generally reckoned by his three male littermates to be the wiliest of the quartet, has the longest ‘rap sheet’ for getting himself into scrapes and difficulties. Putting it simply – he was notorious.
“I remember he almost killed the whole family” recalls Peter with his trademark chuckle.
“He had been collecting mushrooms and had collected some that looked very similar to the ones that were seasonal, unfortunately they were very poisonous. I was taken seriously ill passing blood and nearly died. Typically – Theo was okay, he hadn’t eaten any!”
Indeed Mr and Mrs Hajisavva did well to rear the whole litter to adulthood.
On another occasion, Andrew nearly drowned trying to impress a young lady.
“The bloody fool” chuckles Peter, “she got herself into difficulties and he dived in to save her – forgetting that he couldn’t swim.”
Andrew’s sleepwalking antics were another source of consternation among the Hajisavva clan.
“He was a menace” recalls Peter. “One night he just went missing, they searched everywhere for him, including in the well. My mother was convinced he was dead; she was inconsolable.
“I was lying in my bed, and I looked up and saw him fast asleep six feet in the air on top of a stack of tobacco leaves which were being stored there. From that night on, I had to sleep attached to him by a piece of string.”
It seems that sleep-walking was in the genes. Nick recalls waking up in big sister Maria’s arms as she strolled zombie-like around the house. He woke her before he had the chance to find out her bleary eyed plans.
Rough and tumble was always high on the list of how young Cypriot lads amused themselves in the post war years.
Nick recalls: “I remember we had two wrestlers come to the village to give an exhibition. One was Greek, the other was a Turk and we boys were so excited by it.
“They eventually said that there wasn’t enough money for a proper bout but they would put on an exhibition to show us how it was done.
“A few days later, I challenged Theo to a wrestling match. I got him face down on the ground.
“I had seen this move from the two wrestlers called ‘the backbreaker’ when you sit on someone’s back and pull their legs towards you.
“Suddenly I heard a loud crack and Theo cried out in pain. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve killed him – or at least crippled him!’ But Theo bounced back, like he always did.”
Nick went to the local village school but left at the age of 15.
He said: “I found school work very hard to absorb and didn’t enjoy it at all.”
School also brought Nick his introduction to the English language, though its fair to say he was far from fluent.
He said: “We had lesson of an hour a week and the teacher only knew the words to read them. I learnt virtually nothing.”
Nick’s first cousin Pannos is of a similar age to Nick and lived within a 100 yards of the Savva family.
Pannos also emigrated to England in later years, became a highly successful businessman. He also retains an astonishing memory for the events of the village back in the 1940s.
He said: “The Savva family were very close and very very hard working. Nick’s parents worked like slaves to feed their seven children.
“I remember Nick as being very serious and very hard working. As the oldest son, he shouldered a lot of responsibility.
“Nick’s father was also incredibly strict and a traditionalist but he had Theo to contend with! Theo was always in trouble and was urged on by his uncle Lazaris.
“Lazaris.was the black sheep of the family. He was a thief and had many girlfriends. He also had 14 children and far from frowning on his extra marital activities, his wife encouraged him to go with other women to leave her alone. She even helped arrange some of them.
“It was possibly because he had so many children and struggled to feed his family that Lazaris used to steal goats or chickens.
“One day he persuaded Theo to steal a goat which they then ate in the countryside. Nick’s father would have gone mad if he had known”
Nick can recall the day when Lazaris arrived on the doorstep with a pile of stolen meat. He and the meat were thrown out, and he took a clip around the ear from Nick’s outraged father.
Pannos recalls: “Once a year we had a carnival and a group of prostitutes would come to the village (for dancing and entertainment purposes!)
“Lazaris decided it was time to initiate his teenage nephew Theo into the ways of the world.
“Unfortunately for Theo, his father found out and dragged him out of the building where the women were staying. It was about a mile away, but he beat Theo every step of the way back to the house.
“He then tied him up outside and beat him some more. You have to feel a bit sorry for Theo though, it should have been Lazaris who took the beating.”
Nick’s brother Peter still chuckles over the event. He said: “Theo thought he could hide in the pleats of one of the prostitutes’ skirts but father found him anyway.
“He tied him to a tree with no food or water and in no time the flies were crawling all over him. I was only little and sneaked out to help him but made sure my father never found out.”
The villain of the piece remembers the incident only too clearly.
He said: “It’s all a bit embarrassing. I was 14 and had stolen a pound from my father’s pocket which is why he was so angry. To make sure there were enough flies he actually smeared me with honey.”
However there was one occasion when Nick and cousin Pannos decided to explore the dark side.
Nick said: “We had a school mate who we didn’t get on with. We decided we would steal one of his chickens and eat it.
“We eventually plucked up the nerve and stole the chicken. We felt very bad about doing it, and because we didn’t know what we were doing, we ended up stealing an old hen, which was just about inedible. We gave up a life of crime after that.”
They were never discovered – which make this the first official confession some 60 years after the event!
Nick’s greatest crime was to buy a bicycle.
He said: “It was something I had always wanted and it took me many years to save for.
“I was given some money by relatives in England but most of the money came from a billy goat given to me by my godfather.
“I reared the goat, put his to stud at a shilling a time and eventually sold him back to my godfather for meat.
“The bike, a bottom of the range Raleigh, cost £17 and ten shillings from Famagusta. When I arrived home with it my father went ballistic that I had wasted so much money on a bicycle.”
For his recklessness, Nick was banished to sleep two nights in the clay ovens. And there would be no happy end to the tale .
“Within a couple of weeks of having it, a friend rode his bike too close to it and his pedal buckled the wheel. We spent hours and hours trying to straighten it but was never the same again.” sighs Nick in reflective gloom.
However, by the time Nick was 15, he had decided that he didn’t want to follow the life of a peasant farmer.
He said: “I had looked around and saw no future. I had no education or trade and would be expected to marry a village girl and live like my father. I decided I wanted something better. . .”