Our Man in Belgrade – Part 1

In the autumn of 1978, I won a two month scholarship to University of Belgrade to study Workers’ Control. There were 150 academics from all over the world, all interested in ‘the middle way’. Tito was alive and Yugoslavia was still one country. Being a poor student I took the train from London. It was the route of the Orient Express and took 48 hours to get there. Through Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, the Alps, changing in trains in Venice, amazingly beautiful route. The people in my compartment kept changing, a few hours of conversation, sharing some food, toasting the trip with some communal booze and then they would get off and someone would take their place. Conversation was mostly in a patchwork of languages, English (not so many spoke it in those days), French, from me a smattering of words in German (I had learned from war comics), Italian (Latin spoken with arms waving around) and a generic Slavic (my then few words of Polish and various others Serbo-Croat phrases I had tried to learn in advance)….all typically in one sentence. The will to communicate overcoming all barriers, lubricated mostly by god-awful Slivovitz.

Trieste was a border town, the likes of which has disappeared in Europe (Moldova may still carry the style on, I must find out). Not a pretty city but a gateway between West and East, full of seedy bars, smugglers, dissidents, poverty, traders and more. Think ‘Harry Lime’ without the architecture of Vienna. It certainly felt it should have been in black and white. It was a town of uncertain nationality, having traded hands many times through history. The bulk of my compartment had been replaced by fat, little old Yugoslavian ladies dressed in black by the time the train pulled away. They smiled at me and shared some food, but communication was much more limited. It was daytime and dramatic scenery for me to stare at helped pass the time, until the train was pulled over into a siding in the middle of nowhere just over the border.

Panic all round. The Yugoslavian police and army were going through the train with a fine tooth comb. There had been a little terrorism in provincial Yugoslavia with arms smuggled in from Italy. The fat women in black suddenly slimmed down dramatically as they removed the several pairs of jeans they had been smuggling from around their waists and indicated they wanted me to hide them in my bags for them. I had neither the room nor the inclination being only 22, travelling alone and not having any room in my one rucksack anyway. Quickly they found other places to hide them. In any event, bribes were paid to armed soldiers and the women were allowed to continue, minus one or two pairs. More Slivovitz repaired the damage until it inflicted its own several hours later.

After a 4 hours delay, the train resumed its journey to Belgrade. The scenery was dramatic, steep cliffs littered with auto-carrion as we passed next to mountain roads with truck wrecks and other debris by the side. The country was killing itself even then but mostly by its driving, autocide rather than genocide.

The train trundled on slowly. The delay meant the train pulled into Belgrade at 2am instead of 9pm. Exhausted I stepped out of the station to find my hotel. The city was full of armed soldiers or police (Eastern Europe used the word Militia for its police int hose days. They were ‘the people’s army’ so it was hard to tell who was who, though I later found out that if they had machine guns they were probably soldiers, but all were to be avoided.

However, there was not chance to avoid them, not least because it was 2am, I was the only person on the street, the road signs were in Cyrillic which I could not read and I had no bloody idea where the hotel was. Luckily, I had the Letter of Scholarship in Serbo-Croat and and old style British Passport, probably equally unintelligible to them. However, that big black passport was pretty bloody impressive compared with puny ID cards. It didn’t fit in any pockets for sure. Just one look at it, and it was clear that if anyone messed with me Queen Liz and her gunboats would be on their way. So with my magic passport and my letter of invitation I was dully pointed in the right direction by even the sternest looking uniformed thug.

I arrived at my hotel, let myself into my room to be greeted by the words, spoken in a Stafford accent ‘I wondered when you would bloody get here.’ It was my new room mate for a couple of months Geoffrey Potts a politics lecturer from Stafford Poly. The madness of the next 2 months had begun.

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