Briton rebuilds Georgia - and a new life for himself

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IN THE back garden of a home in the pleasantly dishevelled capital of Georgia lie the bodies of five British soldiers, their graves marked only by a plinth from a tombstone. They have been there, some 2,000 miles from home, for 80 years, testimony to a British decision to send troops to the Caucasus during the First World War to keep the Turks from getting their hands on Caspian oil.

A small group of Britons have taken to gathering at the site on Remembrance Sunday to honour the role of these men from the 27th Division, who came here in the name of king and country and never left. After their death (from typhoid and malaria), their country had little further part to play in the republic, which fell under Soviet control from 1921. Now, however, the British are back. Back, for instance, in the form of John Etchells, a burly, ginger-haired builder from Fulham, south London.

Until the age of 40, Mr Etchells had never worked outside Britain, venturing across the Channel only for the occasional holiday in Spain. For years he ran a building company in London successfully enough to afford a five- bedroom house and send his two children to private schools. But then the slump came. Worse, he got bored.

He got bored with whingeing bank managers, pernickety clients and the general drudgery of doing business in pen-pushing, predictable Britain; his marriage was withering on the vine. Unlike most males having a mid- life crisis, he actually did something about it.

After a chance meeting with a Turkish businessman in the King's Road, Mr Etchells accepted an offer to spruce up a hotel in Kiev, capital of the Ukraine. In scenes reminiscent of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, he flew 20 British builders there to work on the project by day and socialise with the locals by night. "Fifteen of them hardly left the hotel. They were having too much fun."

He realised this was a personal crossroads, a fact he acknowledged on his 40th birthday by shaving off the beard he'd worn for 22 years. He has been in the former Soviet Union ever since.

Mr Etchells, son of a London docker, is one of those people who do not suffer from doubt. He confides, in genuine sarf Lahndin tones, that Georgian food, despite its legendary reputation, is in fact very dull, consisting "basically of only five dishes".

Nor does he suffer much from fear. Sure, a few people in Georgia have threatened to kill him, but that happens in the building trade in London, dunnit? None of them were at all serious; he has had no problems from the serious mafia types who haunt other parts of the former Soviet Union. Even when he was project manager for Tbilisi's new international airport - the job that took him away from Kiev - there were few problems.

He is a sincere fan of this small country, and he bewails news reports which depict it as unstable and unsafe. True, gunmen tried to kill President Eduard Shevardnadze last month (he says he watched the bullets bouncing off Shevy's limo from a window), but they didn't succeed. Life carried on as normal.

His days are mapped out - consultant engineer by day, rabbit hunter by night (a local sport), and avid skier in the nearby mountains at the weekends. He has an English-speaking Georgian wife, and enough work to support his fleet of four cars and a 1,000cc BMW motorbike. He misses fish and chips, theatre and cinema and his kids. But not football (not interested) and not cricket (watches it on cable TV).

There are some 120 Britons in Georgia, drawn by Mr Shevardnadze's pro- Western policies, spin-offs from the oil industry in neighbouring Azerbaijan, and the beginnings of growth. Most arrive, enjoy the climate, drink the wine, do the job, and leave. But Mr Etchells looks like one of those destined - like the squaddies before him - to stay.