Saturday, 17 February 2018

`The Calabash tree

“For four hours I was away and out of my body, made to die then jerked back to the world.” (from a poem by Robin Robertson, who had same operation as me).

I recently had open heart surgery at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. A traumatic experience, but one which has left me deeply grateful for the NHS – massively complex and intricate surgery and after-care – carried out with extraordinary skill, care and attention and FREE.
In my recent article for The London Economic I wrote about the creeping privatisation of the NHS. Here I want to highlight the NHS at it best. A health system based in Aneurin Bevan's words on the principle that “No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.”
I am lucky to be a citizen of a country that can offer me the medical procedures I underwent that have kept me alive. For me, it is second time lucky. Three years ago I had brain surgery that would not have been possible in the past and remains, as does the heart procedure, an impossibility for much of the world's population.
We need to bear this in mind as we fight for our NHS against the privatisers. They are creeping in through the cracks in our defences. As recentlyl as five months ago, Barts were responsible for their own catering. One nurse told me what pride he took in serving food to his patients and how this was a central part of nursing care. Today this has been handed to Serco, who run our prisons and whose annual revenue from healthcare is over £1.4 billion. Breakfast was tepid tea or coffee, cereal or porridge and toast. As I bit into the cold, spongy “toast” I could imagine Serco executives meeting to discuss how to cut back their costs to increase their profits. “Let's start with breakfast”.
I got to know my fellow patients, some with more problems than mine. Barry had already had three heart operations when he arrived at Barts in January for his fourth. His operation lasted 28 hours and they “lost” him three times. He told me of his out of body experiences which had traumatised him and made him scared of going to sleep. He badly needed psychological care, but with the present level of cuts in NHS funding, this is not available.
Just as food is important to getting better, so is after care.There was a time when post-operative patients would spend time in convalescent hospitals. No more. In Germany and even in the countries of Eastern Europe where I used to live, all operations included a minimum of one month's post-op stay in a health spa.
We not only have to fight for our NHS, but have to claw back what has already been scalpelled away and hived off to the Richard Bransons of this world.
What memories do I take away from the time I spent at Barts? Not the operation and its after-effects of pain and worry, but the nursing care I received with such commitment and humour. The nurse pushing my bed down a corridor who I got chatting to. On hearing I was a writer, he brought my bed to a halt and with a wonderful smile quoted verbatim from Gabriel García Márquez's 'Love in the Time of Cholera:' Age has no reality except in the physical world. The essence of a human being is resistant to the passage of time. Our inner lives are eternal, which is to say that our spirits remain as youthful and vigorous as when we were in full bloom. Think of love as a state of grace, not the means to anything, but the alpha and omega. An end in itself.”
Then there was the nurse replacing my chest bandage who wanted me to breath in deeply. “Puff out your chest”, she said, 'like a Robin Redbreast.'
Barry, a Jamaican living in Finsbury Park, would chat to the patient beside him, a Trinidadian from West London, about their youthful memories of their island homes and their love of the calabash tree, its soft brown bark home to multi-coloured orchids. They told me that these trees, pollinated by bats, grow on hillside pastures, along roadsides and wherever there are human beings.
The pulp of the fruit has medicinal properties and acts as a remedy for respiratory problems such as asthma, a cure for dysentry, reduces blood pressure, disinfects wounds and is used to treat haematomas and tumours.

The NHS is our Calabash tree

Left Field  

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Left Field special edition / special price

Left Field is now on sale from Public Reading Rooms for £8 
 (hardback including delivery). These are the last of the special edition, with an embossed cover and illustrated frontispiece by acclaimed Dutch photographer,Thom Hoffman.

'David is an adventurer and a freethinker, who did something truly useful with his life.' - Brian Eno.   'David Wilson has lived a life and a half.The broken world needed people like David; it still does.' - Sir Tom Stoppard.    'Fantastic and salutary … a born raconteur's account of a remarkable life.' - Michael Walling, Artistic Director, Border Crossings.    'This memoir of a very colourful life is both entertaining and illuminating.' - Amir Amirani, Director “We are Many”.    'What a life this man has led.' - Dorothy Byrne, Head of Channel 4 Documentaries.   'David's entire life has been dedicated to trying to make the world a better place.' - Craig Murray, ex-UK Ambassador.    'Sometimes funny, often moving and occasionally tragic ... one of my top recent reads.' - Morning Star.  'David Wilson shows us how political activism on the Left should be: engaged, informed and passionate. With more people like him, the world would be safer and happier. - Ken Livingstone

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

NHS Pirates

Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalised, but a misfortune, the cost of which should be shared by the community” Aneurin Bevan 

Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wicked of men will do the most wicked of things for the greatest good of everyone.” JM Keynes

Virgin Care leads the way in negating the founding principles of the NHS whilst claiming to promote the greatest good. So I will start with them.
Over the past seven years they have been awarded NHS contracts worth over £2 billion. By this year, they were running over 400 NHS services. 
Virgin Care has two arms to its business in the NHS: primary care services, including GP services and community-based NHS services.
In January 2018 Virgin Care Private was launched, opening its first health and wellbeing centre in Birmingham.This centre provides GP services, specialist consultations, diagnostics and tests on a pay-as-you-go service.
The company targets large contracts containing numerous services in the area of community health and social care. Since 2012 they have won these contracts in over seven UK regions.
When Virgin Care has failed to win contacts it has resorted to legal action. The full amount paid to date to Virgin by you and me as taxpayers could be as high as £2.6 million.
Labour MP Paula Sherriff, revealed that when she worked for Virgin Care the company insisted on “extra consultations before surgery, boosting their profits at the expense of the taxpayer and patient safety”.
The parent company, Virgin Group Holdings Ltd, is registered in the British Virgin Islands. Richard Branson and his family hold a £2.7 billion stake in this offshore, tax-free, tax-haven company.
Virgin is just the tip of the scalpel.
NHS Support Federation, reveals that profit-driven companies such as Bupa, Virgin Care and Care UK have in the last four years won more than 130 NHS service contracts worth £2.6bn to provide NHS services. Dr Mark Porter, of the British Medical Association, said: “These figures show the extent of privatisation in the NHS following the pushing through of the Health and Social Care Act. An act that the government denied loud and long would lead to privatisation, has done exactly that. Enforcing competition has not only fragmented services and compromised the delivery of high-quality care, but it is also diverting vital funding away from frontline services to costly, complicated tendering processes, highlighting just how counterproductive the reorganisation has been.”
At the beginning of 2017 private-sector companies had been invited to bid for 14% more NHS contracts than a year previously. According to the Department of Health accounts, the private sector delivered a total of £8.7bn of NHS services for 2015/16, or around 7.6 per cent of the total NHS budget. These figures exclude GP services, dentistry and community pharmacy.
David Hare, chief executive of the Partners Network, which represents private sector providers, has said there was a slow “evolutionary trajectory” of greater private sector involvement in the NHS.

So who, alongside Richard Branson and his family, are a part of this trajectory? These are the 'privateers' I have discovered. There are others. 32 to date and counting.
Alliance / Lodestone - Diagnostics for the NHS and independent sector
BDO - Commissioning services for the NHS
BMI - You can now choose to have your NHS treatment at a BMI Healthcare hospital
BUPA - The biggest private healthcare company which takes your money and then depends on the NHS to carry out expensive treatments.
Capio - Free family practice services if registered with them.
Capita - IT, patient engagement, HR, payroll, commissioning services.
Cap Gemine – NHS programme management and technical expertise.
Care UK - Day care and homes for elderly. GP services, diagnostics, treatment centres, mental health services learning disability services.
Centene - IT, digital technologies for NHS.
Circle UK - Large community care contracts and is the first private company to run an NHS hospital – Hinchingbrooke in Cambridgeshire.
Classic Care - homecare services.
Diaverum UK Ltd - kidney services in partnership with the NHS.
Exel Europe Ltd - consumer procurables acquired for NHS.
Facilities First LLP - pathology services to NHS Foundation Trusts.
Gemini - IT support for NHS
General Healthcare - a private specialist in fertility treatment.
HCA International - Through US companies Tenet Healthcare and Aspen Healthcare provide “opportunities to work with and support the NHS.
IBM - Electronic staff records services to NHS, payroll, pensions and other human resources functions.
InHealth Group - diagnostics for NHS throughout the UK.
McKesson - IT support
Mouchel - Commissioning services.
Nector Primecare - Home care, care homes, mental health services, children’s services, out-of-hours, dentistry and primary care.
Netcare - Clinics set up iby South African company, which works under contract to the NHS.
Optimum - part of of US United Health Group which works with the NHS to provide services such as contract negotiations and medication management.
Partnership in Care – Working with NHS as provider of secure mental health facilities across the UK. Working with the NHS.
Pathology First LLP - pathology services to NHS Foundation Trusts.
The Practice - 75% owned by US company Centene, providing primary care services and specialist clinical services to GPs.
Priory Group - Provider of acute mental health care, complex care and neuro-rehabilitation services, fostering and care homes.
Ramsay UK - 22 hospitals in the UK delivering both private treatment and care under contract to the NHS
Spite Classic - Second largest private healthcare hospital group in the UK with 37 hospitals; NHS admissions accounting for 25% of its business.
Totally PLC - Working with the NHS including physiotherapy, podiatry, dermatology, referral management services and clinical health coaching.
United Health/Optum - Health needs assessment, GP Commissioning, performance & contract management, Medicines management.

An historical note on pirates: Richard Branson has a home on Necker Island, part of the British Virgin Isles. In the 17th century these islands were a centre of piracy. Yes I know peg-legged, one-eyed, walk-the-plank buccaneers. The truth is the 'pirates' were often escaped black slaves who set up a Pirate's Republic in the area. The Jack Sparrow / Jonny Depp characterisation is myth which has become reality in our times with the arrival of the real Jack Sparrow in the form of Richard Branson.

(Over the coming weeks I will be writing more on the NHS)

Monday, 18 December 2017

The Opening

(on the opening of the Pavarotti Music Centre, 21 Dec 1997, from 'Left Field')

Ivan Prskalo’s offce was full of bleeding Christs and weeping Marys. Chequered Croatian fags were on each side of the door. The mayor of ‘Croat’ West Mostar greeted me wearing a shiny blue suit. This divided town had two mayors: Prskalo on the west side and Safet Oručević on the east. I was there to invite Prskalo to the opening of the Pavarotti Centre. This was an important political act, as the centre would only work if it had support from both of Mostar’s communities.

His secretary placed a tray of coffee and biscuits on a side table. Before leaving the room, she turned down the volume on the Spice Girls. Unsurprisingly, the brand of biscuits were Paprenjaci whose wrappers said, ‘These cookies refect Croatia’s history, combining the nation’s suffering – pepper, with its natural beauties – honey.’

Prskalo told me it was offensive to be invited to the east side of his home town by an Englishman. I wanted to answer that people didn’t normally bomb their homes, but I felt that it was better to be diplomatic. I said that I was English, but I was of Scottish and Welsh ancestry with a Jewish frst name and a Christian family name, but that I was neither Jewish nor Christian nor, strictly speaking, English. Instead, I told him that my ex- wife was Croatian, that my children were half-Croatian, that I had made a flm for the BBC and Croatian TV about the war there and that my association with the country stretched back more than a quarter of a century.

It was a short meeting. As I walked down the corridor, I could hear the volume being turned up on the Spice Girls’ ‘Who Do You Think You Are’.

A week later, Safet Oručević’s office rang to say that both mayors would attend the opening and that they’d visit the centre together the next day.

I gave them a tour of the building and invited them to my offce. I had placed a large plate of baklava on my desk and, as we sat down, Hamid, the bar manager, came in carrying a tray with a Bosnian copper coffee jug and three small porcelain cups. All very Ottoman.

Prskalo turned to Oručević . ‘Doesn’t Mr Wilson look young for his ffty-two years? That is because he is married to a Croatian woman.’
‘No,’ I answered. ‘It is because I divorced one.’

Oručević laughed. Prskalo said he had another meeting to go to.

After he left the room, Orucevic smiled. ‘Don’t worry. He’ll be at the opening.’

Ivan Prskalo was never going to be my friend. We had already been criticised for calling the centre ‘Muzički Centar Pavarotti’ because the Croats had recently discovered an ancient Croat word for music, glazba. They were offended that we were not using that in place of a word recognised from Beijing to Buenos Aires.

Soon after the wars in former Yugoslavia, politicians from all sides actively ‘xenophobised’ their languages. Antun Vrdoljak, Croatian TV chief in the 1990s, declared that,‘Language preserves the nation’s history and culture ... language is the womb.’ At its worst, the Croatian Education Minister, Jasna Gotovac, said, ‘The fght for our language and culture is a part of the war.’ Alija Isakovic, a linguist who published a Bosnian language dictionary in besieged Sarajevo warned against a purge of Turkish words. ‘If they do,’ he said, ‘none of them will have a kidney.’ The common word for kidney being bubreg.

This might all seem to be archaic thinking, but this process applied to contemporary words as well. In Croatia, ‘helikopter’ was to be zrakomlat, ‘telefon’ – brzoglas, ‘aeroport’ – zra na luka; making the internationally comprehensible into a jumble of incomprehension. Behind arguments over words, there was something much darker. The radio station on the west side questioned why we’d built the centre on the ‘Muslim’ side of town, an accusation repeated when my old friend Darko Glavan visited me and said, ‘There are too many Muslims here.’ ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘and there were too many Jews in the Warsaw ghetto.’
Oslobodenje, the Sarajevo daily newspaper, asked me to contribute an article on the situation in Mostar. II decided to deliver my piece in person. I was eager to visit them and meet their staff. I had briefy visited their offce after it had been shelled and they were operating from a bomb shelter. I hoped to see they now had better circumstances.
When there, I told them of my experiences in Mostar. One of the journalists told me, ‘Only three things grow there: snakes, stones and fascists.’1

The atmosphere at the Pavarotti Music Centre in the days leading up to the opening was documented by Pay-Uun Hiu, writing in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant:

‘Director David Wilson does not waste time on greetings and formal chit-chat. Six days before the offcial festive opening on December 21 ... time is running out ... “Just follow me,” says Wilson, while running on the shiny-tiled foor through the courtyard to one of the performing areas, “we’re just unpacking a grand piano”. At the same time, he explains about the building: the central courtyard where a fountain still has to be placed, a section for music education, a special section for music therapy, rehearsal areas, concert areas and a professional recording studio in the basement. Finally, there are two apartments in the semi-circled towers on the top-foor. These are meant mainly for guests, but Wilson also wants to use one of them as a healing and meditation area ... “It sounds romantic,” Wilson says, “but Mostar lost its bridge and the Music Centre could well be a new bridge, a bridge to the future, a bridge between music cultures, a bridge to the peace.”’2

Six weeks before the opening, Nicoletta Mantovani visited us. She wanted to check on progress with the building. I took her inside where the floors of the reception area and bar were still being laid.

‘Are you sure it will be ready, David?’ she asked.
‘Of course it will be,’ I said as I stumbled over a pile of bricks.

In fact, I was as worried as she was. We’d had endless delays and problems with the construction company, Hydrogradnja. But I had put my faith in Mike Lawless who seemed to be practically living in Mostar. He and the local team were doing their best to make sure the building would be completed to the contract schedule.

Mostar does not have the snows of Sarajevo and central Bosnia, but it does have rains and vicious winds which sweep down from the east into the Mediterranean plain of the Neretva Valley. The forecast was bad for December 21st, the day of the opening.

Pavarotti, Bono, Eno, Zucchero, Paddy Malone of the Chieftains, Bianca Jagger and half the Italian press were to arrive in Split on a chartered plane that had set off late from Stansted. It was to pick up Pavarotti and his party from Bologna for its fight across the Adriatic to Split in Croatia. There, the British military had arranged for two Chinook helicopters to bring them all to Mostar.

Until the last minute, we were unsure whether Pavarotti would agree to fy. A few years before, he’d been in a helicopter crash in South America. He was understandably nervous, but he’d told Nicoletta that he would not let the children down and nothing would stop him from opening the centre that carried his name.

The weather closed in. Rumours spread through the building that the Chinooks were unable to make the journey. We later found out that the pilots had been so concerned they almost didn’t make the journey. They fnally decided to fy the long way into Mostar. Instead of taking the direct route over the mountains, they followed the coastline south and headed inland up the Neretva Valley.

By mid-afternoon, the streets were packed with children and young people waiting for the Maestro’s arrival. The building was full to bursting. When I stepped out into the street to see if Pavarotti had arrived, I saw Spanish APCs and thought this must be one of the few occasions in history when the opening of a cultural centre was protected by soldiers.

The delayed fights meant that it was going to be a long wait and that Pavarotti and his party would only have time for a quick visit. The chartered plane had a 7pm deadline for its return from Split to London, via Italy. Meanwhile, my job was to keep the guests of honour happy as they sat waiting in a draughty hall. In the front rows were Bosnian politicians, diplomats and military brass and I was horrifed to see that there were not enough chairs. Mohamed Sacirbey, Bosnia’s UN Ambassador, and Safet Oručević made light of it and stood at the back in good humour. Ivan Prskalo decided that he was not to be outdone in this display of civic populism. Unsmiling, he stood up and offered his chair to someone else.

As rain fell diagonally against the windows, young people had formed a conga line in the courtyard, dancing to Eugene Skeef’s drummers. Quite a few of the notables looked as if they wished they weren’t Minister of this or that for a day so they could join in.

The plan was for Pavarotti to visit the Special School on the road into town, but with the delays, the children there were told they would have to walk up a muddy path to the main road since he only had time for a brief stop. As the entourage approached, they started to sing. His car came to a halt and so did the singing as they watched him open his door and embrace them with a laugh and a huge smile.3

Two hours late, Pavarotti entered the building, one arm around Nicoletta, the other over Bono’s shoulder. I greeted him at the door and he kissed me. There were tears in his eyes. His only words were a whispered, ‘Thank you, thank you.’ As he entered the hall, even the politicians’ faces lit up as the cheering started.

The children danced and sang. Adin Omerović , aged nine, remembers this:

‘I, together with my classmates, practised a song to perform for the opening of the Pavarotti Music Centre. I had heard of plans for the Centre, but I could not dream that I would be there or near to Pavarotti. At the end of the song, “Big Bam Boo”, I gave Luciano Pavarotti a fower. I still remember that day when we waited for him so long and I cannot forget how strong my heart was beating after his speech. He said, ‘Grazie, grazie,’ I still remember that. I got a toy from him which I still have. I would like to have more memories like this one. Thank you very much, Pavarotti.’

Weeks earlier, children had decorated the art room with their hand prints. This gave us the idea to have Pavarotti and the other guests place theirs under the tablet we had had made to commemorate the opening. We arranged for trays of paint to be prepared for this. When Pavarotti’s head of security saw two children standing at the side with the paint, he told me that the last time this had happened was at an Italian school and paint had ended up on Pavarotti’s clothes. I was about to order the graffti exercise cancelled when, to my horror, the children stepped through the crowd just as Pavarotti, Bono and Brian Eno were unveiling the memorial. Pavarotti gleefully covered his hands with poster paint, followed by the others. Luckily, no one’s clothes were splashed.

I then had to get Pavarotti upstairs for the press conference. I pushed my way through the crowd to arrange for the lift to take him up. It was full. Its occupants included the Swiss Ambassador and a German army general. Unceremoniously, I ordered them out to let the Maestro enter.

Before the conference, I’d made sure that there were spaces on the dais reserved for Pavarotti, Bono and a child. As I entered the hall, I saw there were not enough chairs. Tom Stoppard saw my face and vacated his. Bono picked up the child and sat him on his knee.
I was now being told that the party had to leave for the Chinooks in five minutes. There was only time for Pavarotti to say, ‘My message is peace. You saw the horror of war – you see today the peace. The future now is in the hands of the children who will soon be grown up. Try to live in peace. That is the reason why we are here today.’

It was then a dash back to the lift and just enough time to give Pavarotti and Bono a quick visit to the studio in the basement. ‘Ciao,’ Luciano called out as he was pushed into the street by an increasingly nervous military escort. He was gone.

Some months later, I asked Pavarotti if he would send his memories of the day to us and he wrote this:

‘It is no exaggeration to say that visiting Mostar that day was truly one of the most beautiful moments of my life. For two years, we had been raising funds through concerts and albums to build the Music Centre and to eventually see its completion, and to witness some of the beautiful and talented children of Mostar performing for us on their inaugural day was simply a joy. The children that day were so very patient. We were delayed on our journey by something beyond our control, the weather! But, when we eventually arrived in the beautiful city that was overwhelming, and the people of Mostar certainly proved that they have something very special that is their future. Those children are an example to us all and a tribute to Mostar. If music is central to a person’s life, it can be something very special and life-affrming. The Music Centre was built for the children – I can only hope that making music helps in the healing process and that it will bring joy to the children of Mostar for many, many years to come.’

The next morning I spent time with Tom Stoppard before taking him to Sarajevo where he was to spend the night before his return fight to London. We walked through the town. He was silent and didn’t seem happy. After he returned home, he wrote to say that he’d felt uncomfortable to be a feeting visitor to a place of such suffering.4

I sat with him in the lobby of the Hotel Bosna in Sarajevo while Anne went to our room to pack. She is a militant non- smoker and I had to hide my bad habit from her. As the lift’s glass doors shut on her, I asked Tom for a cigarette. I said that if I was still smoking when the lift came down with Anne, I’d pass it to him. He happily agreed and spent the time staring at the 1960s light fittings, commenting that this lobby would make an excellent stage set for a play.

As he was talking, I saw the light from the descending lift. It was Anne. I passed my half- smoked cigarette to Tom, but he’d just lit up himself. The doors opened, Tom sitting there smiling broadly, a cigarette in each hand. He stubbed one out as Anne approached. She told me later that she’d watched it all.

Murray McCullough, Chief Administrator at the Office of the High Representative in Mostar, had been responsible for the logistics of bringing Pavarotti into town. He wrote about the opening and started with a quote from Shakespeare.

‘“There is a tide in the affairs of man which, if taken at the food, leads on to victory.” On the most surreal of days, out of the mists of an extraordinary wet and cold December afternoon descended a war helicopter into the war zone that is Mostar, with cargo, to open a music centre for a charity called War Child. It was not surprising then that its famous passenger, the Maestro, should be a little nervous. Surrounded by diplomats, photographers and soldiers, he left, tense and confused, in a convoy for a tour of the city, all the time fghting with his mobile phone to reassure his mother of his safety but, like the weather, communications were bad. Still he tried, nervous, his eyes staring, his face contorted with anguish. After a while, the convoy stopped before a crowd of noisy, freezing and impatient children at the school for children with special needs. They had been there for hours, but they knew this was a special day and they had come to embrace the heart of a great man, but still the mobile took centre stage. From the steaming happy mess stepped the smallest child, blessed but free of the deferential fears that surround normal children. He climbed, as if by right, into the vehicle. Slowly, but with consummate gentleness, he ran his little toy down the cheek of the anguished face to say hello in the only way he knew. ‘Mr Pavarotti,’ said Bono, ‘these are the children of Mostar with special needs. They have been waiting for you for a long time.’ As if by a miracle, a ray of light descended, the staring and frozen eyes melted as though touched by a sunbeam. The lips parted to an immense smile, the contorted face opened the windows of the real world that is Mostar and its children. Pavarotti had at last arrived and was in full food.’ 

1 Article in Oslobodjenje: ‘I understand that there have been criticisms from some politicians concerning the Pavarotti Music Centre – that it is too full of “Muslims”. Let us start with the use of the word “Muslim”. I am a Celt of Scottish and Welsh ancestry, with an English cultural background. I have a Jewish first name and a Christian family name, but am neither Jewish nor Christian, nor even, strictly speaking, English. I am still amazed that, at the far end of the twentieth century, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where all people seem to be very much alike and where many are of mixed parentage, two groups are defined in terms of nationality (Croats and Serbs) while a third group is defined in terms of religion. This leaves aside the number of families of mixed parentage.
It would be amusing, if not so tragic, that ethnic definitions are based on the father’s name and not the mother’s. Why is a person defined as Muslim, Croat or Serb based on the male lineage when the mother might well be from one or the other of the newly selected ethnic groups? There is a missing logic here. That missing logic continues with criticisms of this Centre which has been set up for everyone, regardless of cultural, ethnic or religious background. As Director, I wish to involve all children and young people in our work since my own family is partly Croatian and I have a long and strong connection with Croatia. It is, of course, true to say that there are a lot of people with Muslim names in the Centre; hardly surprising considering what has happened in Mostar. This criticism is like saying that the Warsaw Ghetto was full of Jews. Yes, it was, and why were they there? Despite the continuing and shameful existence of the Mostar Ghetto, we at the Pavarotti Music Centre are determined to open the doors of this place to everyone. Those who criticise us will be disappointed to hear that many Croatian young people come here every day. Two weeks ago, we organised a percussion and performance evening led by our Director of Music Development (Eugene Skeef – mixed Zulu/Xhosa). Over 200 people were present, one third of them from the west side of town. From the west, we also have groups who regularly attend our rock school and we have been actively recruiting young Croats to join our team of guardians who look after the building during the day. In addition, the Centre carries out a considerable amount of work on the west side, with percussion workshops in two youth centres and we act as a meeting place for youth organisations from across the city and from as far away as apljina and Grude. This is a role we have recently taken on from the OSCE. We would do more. We would like to extend our music school work into western Herzegovina, working alongside the music schools in the west. It is politicians who make this impossible at the moment. I would also remind the public that the PMC is a War Child initiative, that our very first programme was a mobile bakery which started its work feeding refugees in Medjugorje. We have also been a major supplier of diabetic medicines in West Mostar and western Herzegovina. We have, in collaboration with the Croatian Government, recently constructed an extension to the kindergarten in Pakrac (Croatia). Has all this been forgotten? We work in other parts of Bosnia Herzegovina: in Sarajevo, Gorazde, in hospitals in Fojnica and Pazari where, happily, we do not have to watch our backs quite so much as here in Mostar with criticisms of those we are working with. We have recently started work with young people in Republika Srpska. We do all possible to encourage attendance from all sides at the Centre and offer transportation to those who feel uncertain about coming here. Their uncertainty has nothing to do with fear of this place, but has more to do with what might and, on occasions, has happened to them when they return home. I would suggest that those who care to criticise us, take a good look at their actions and the behaviour of those in responsible positions, the police force for example, before telling anyone that the Pavarotti Music Centre is full of “Muslims”. Those politicians and others who claim to be so proud of their ethnicity have history against them. Take a good look around the world – that is if you are prepared to raise your eyes from the puddle of your and other people’s tears – and you will see that the greatest cultures of the world, the greatest literature, the greatest philosophies, art and music have been the result of a meeting of times, places, minds and peoples. To our critics I say, come to the Pavarotti Music Centre and you will be welcome guests. To those already coming here, I say that you have no reason to stop coming and, to those who have not yet come to the Centre, you are missing something that has been absent in all your lives for far too long – music and joy.’
2 de Volkskrant, Pay-Uun Hiu, (December 1997): ‘Music Centre? Yes, yes. Of course, the taxi driver knows where to find it. Everybody in East Mostar knows it. Pavarotti, says the taxi driver and laughs. He points out at the bombed-out buildings. Boom, boom, he says. While driving over the newly-erected bridge, his hands move in a big circle around the steering wheel and form a big V; he seems to want to explain how the bridge was destroyed. Boom, boom. Then he stops the car in
front of a brand-new yellow facade with terracotta ornaments, an unlikely fairy tale palace amidst the ruins; the Muzicki Centar Pavarotti which came to life at the initiative of the international aid organisation, War Child. The funds for the building, seven million Deutschmarks, were mainly raised by Luciano Pavarotti. Together with Brian Eno, and U2’s Bono, he organised big charity concerts. Their song “Miss Sarajevo” alone raised £300,000. Director David Wilson does not waste time on greetings and formal chit-chat. Six days before the official festive opening on December 21, which will include Pavarotti, many other famous musicians and three hundred children, time is running out. The building was designed by British architects and arose from the ruins of an old primary school. The interior decoration, however, is far from finished. “Just follow me,” says Wilson, while running on the shiny tiled floor through the courtyard to one of the performing areas, “we’re just unpacking a grand piano”. At the same time he explains about the building: the central courtyard where a fountain still has to be placed, a section for music education, a special section for music therapy, rehearsal areas, concert areas and a professional recording studio in the basement. Finally, there are two apartments in the semi-circled towers on the top-floor. These are meant mainly for guests, but Wilson also wants to use one of them as a healing and meditation area. This is Oha, says Wilson. Oha, very tall, crew cut, nineteen-years-old. He has impressively big hands with the nails painfully bitten off. He is the best djembe player in the whole of Bosnia, says Wilson. But Oha has more to offer. When he was 14, he was one of the youngest soldiers in the Bosnian army yet now he is one of the local helpers at the Centre. Oha and a group of other teenagers formed a club during the war for cultural activities, called Apeiron (from Greek philosophy: the Unending). Oha and his friends are both target groups and future cornerstones of the Music Centre. Of course the PMC also works with much younger children, but youngsters like Oha cannot be missed as interpreters, future workshop leaders and with the fieldwork in schools in and around Mostar. For these youths, the workshops and their other work for the Centre are an escape from the depressing void the war has left. War Child’s philosophy is to finance and run the centre for another two years, and at the same time educate enough local helpers to take over and continue the work afterwards. This Sunday, Oha is very stressed, notes Eugene Skeef during the drum workshop. Skeef, born in South Africa and former co-worker of Steve Biko in the seventies, is a phenomenal drummer and has an equally phenomenal gift for music communication. In the small room, with a view of the strip of land where an aromatic herb garden is planned to bloom, it is impossible not to hear the forceful call of Skeef’s djembe. With Skeef there is no place for quasi- serious or quasi-creative playing. “Focus,” he demands, while rolling his dreadlocks into a ponytail. “Do not play before I ask you to! Concentrate! Watch each other. We want to get into the spirit of the music.” Gradually the workshop takes on the air of an almost magical ritual. Every single player gets into the rhythm of his own rhythmic pattern which corresponds with the rhythmical pattern of the djembe trio formed by Skeef, Oha and Peter Vilk, a young English drummer and music psychologist. Through repetition of the pattern not a single part of the body is left unaffected by the sound. The lower djembe tones go right through your diaphragm and with their long waves provide a feeling of stability and calmness. The higher tones in the faster patterns work directly on the muscles and absorb all the concentration until everybody’s attention is solely focused on the music. When this level of concentration has been reached, Skeef increases the intensity and complexity. He not only increases the tempo, but also the difficult rhythmic combinations and the tempo in which the patterns change. With extreme precision he moves every participant just a tiny bit over their limits, while stimulating them with his djembe. His voice has become like a hurricane: power, power, man! Keep going! Keep watching! Hands no longer feel pain, legs and feet are moving by themselves. Then Skeef lets his drummers go. The rhythms slow down and the drummers become Bosnian kids again. “Relax, relax. That was real power energy, man,” he says. Oha’s day has been made. He feels great after the workshop. Although Skeef wasn’t easy on him. “I know you’re under great pressure,” he had said, “and that everybody demands a great deal from
you. Oha, please help us with the piano, Oha, could you take those things there and there. But you are a musician and we still have to practise a lot before the opening. Practise, practise, practise,” Skeef had stressed. “You know,” Oha later tells us while sitting on the battered old couch in Wilson’s house, “it is like there is more and more growing noise inside my head which can be exorcised by the drumming.” Afterwards it is quiet again and he has a moment of peace. Meanwhile the small living room is getting crowded and becoming more like a youth hostel. Everybody helps themselves to beer, coffee and tea. “I more or less adopted them,” Wilson acknowledges. It is a bit unpractical to keep up the beer stock all the time, but guys like Oha, Teo or Crnji just don’t have any other place where they feel at home. Wilson sees himself a “teacher, failed entrepreneur, manager and incidental playwright”. At the end of 1992 he and film-maker Bill Leeson went to Zagreb to make a film about the war in Croatia, where his wife was born. Back in London he and Leeson founded War Child, named after a play Wilson once wrote. They organised a three-day benefit festival at the Royal Festival Hall, with artists like Julian Lloyd Webber. Their ideas about giving aid shaped the War Child philosophy, which contrasts sharply with the old colonial “we-relief- workers-know-what-is-good-for-you” mentality. Wilson, “if you are serious about doing something, for starters you have to become part of the community and then really listen to what is being requested instead of telling them what they need.” Already during the war a bakery was set up in Mostar providing 15,000 people a day with bread. An insulin transport was set up for diabetic children and what became evident with all the visits was the repeated demand for music. As soon as the electricity was working again after a failure, children would immediately turn on their radios and play their CDs. War Child always left with a huge list of requests and came back with dozens of CDs and cassettes for the local radio. “Music forms an essential part in giving aid,” Wilson determined. “Of course you need food and medicine, but you have to strive and keep people ‘human’ in an inhumane situation.” The idea to deal with this request for music more systematically and to use music as a “healing force” came after War Child met up with Nigel Osborne in Sarajevo in 1994. Nigel, as intimates know is “larger than life”. It is true that the composer and professor in music science at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Hanover is a very tall figure with glasses, a beard and an impressive amount of untameable hair in the nostrils. Yet his reputation is mostly derived from the music workshops he organised in the basements of Sarajevo during the war. With his backpack filled with maracas, triangles, woodblocks, crotales and other instruments, he “sneaked” his way through the only good route to the city under siege; across Mount Igman, slipping by the snipers in the dark, through the tunnel at the airport. In the city Osborne set up different instrument depots, like soldiers do for their weapons. Through the “bush-telegraph” the time and place where workshops were taught was announced. At the workshops, for instance, he used a poem by Goran Simi¬, with whom he made a rock-opera which premiered in Sarajevo in 1995. “The end of the war is half an hour too late,” the children sang, after three hours of democratic composing and orchestrating, for a public of 40 or 50. At present, Osborne (Head of the Music Department) and Skeef (Head of Music Development) are mainly responsible for the artistic content of the Music Centre. Osborne provides the typical Western European, academic approach and he wants to set up a clinical music therapy department with the help of medical specialists, focusing mainly on the treatment of trauma. At this moment his postgraduate students are already working at schools in the Mostar region with a programme combining music education and healing, where Skeef’s African background is indispensable. Tuesday morning, one day later than planned, the first class of school children arrives at the new building to practise for the grand opening. Oha is there. “You know,” Oha had stated before, “I was an impossible child.” His parents’ marriage was not great and he had “fire in his body”. The war seemed exciting. “You are only a child, what do you know about it.” His father was forced to flee to Germany and Oha became a soldier and fought on the Mostar front line. “It’s because of all the films on TV,” he thinks, looking back. “There you have heroes like the
Terminator and children want to be like their heroes.” He says he was lucky. That doesn’t apply to all his friends. Some of them are gone for good, others he lost sight of because they were Croat. Just recently he ran into an old friend at the west side of the city. They talked and laughed as they had done in the old days, but it was not the same any more. “Everything seems the same, but it is not the same. Everything has changed,” he notices daily. But music also changed his life. Eugene Skeef changed his life. After the war Oha went to Italy with other members of Apeiron. He just observed, observed a lot. The sea, the forests, the land. Kilometres of wide, safe areas. It brought calmness and in this calmness he decided he wanted to be a musician and work with children. And that he wanted children of his own and a close family life. Yet mostly, he wanted to live. For the first time, children’s voices are heard in the high, light atmosphere of the Centre. The cleaning crew, the carpenters, the bricklayers and staff of the music centre are standing around the balustrades and glass doors looking around and enjoying the site. The children sing and Crnji, with his long black hair and known for his silent cigarette smoking, depicts, while flapping his arms, a bird spreading his wings across the ocean. Teo, who was interrogated about the whereabouts of his father during a surprise attack, and who then witnessed his father’s murder and now has a hard time falling asleep, plays the snare drum while Oha plays his djembe. Just for a while they are no longer tough guys. They are no longer soldiers. They are back in what is left of their childhood. “It sounds romantic,” Wilson knows, “but Mostar lost its bridge and the Music Centre could well be a new bridge, figuratively speaking: a bridge to the future, a bridge between music cultures, a bridge to the peace.”’
3 Tiffany Hughes, PMC music therapist: ‘It was cold, wet and almost dark, but we had to bear it. Pavarotti and his entourage would stop here first to hear the children of the Special School. The children were excited, clutching the toys they had been given by the Maestro and Nicoletta Mantovani. We waited, receiving conflicting information about the time of arrival, not knowing whether to take the children up the road or keep them by the school. They were growing restless and the atmosphere lay at the fine line between elation and frustration. Adrenaline ran high, mine and theirs, for different reasons. Through the rain in the distance, with a powerful serenity, descended two helicopters. This was a sign for me of how long we had to make our decision. None of the children noticed. By now they were singing their way through every song that we had ever taught them. The decision was made to take them to the road so that they would be nearer Pavarotti. We ran in the rain and discovered there was only a muddy strip of wasteland for us to occupy, but it was better than being fenced in. More waiting. I thought the moment would never come, but at long last a slow procession of vehicles approached us. The children sang for all they could, only until the cars stopped. A door opened and in the damp, cold night, a great beaming warmth drew in the children with his smile. The voices drifted off into an amazed gasp and shrieks of excitement. The song was lost, but it no longer seemed appropriate anyway. Whatever the Maestro actually felt at this point, all he showed these children was his heart. They hadn’t noticed the helicopters, but no one could miss how the smile dispelled the cold and the waiting. Pavarotti had arrived in Mostar and these children, if any, deserved his attention first.’
4 Letter from Tom Stoppard: ‘The thing I will remember longest is the long straight road which was the walk from the Music Centre back to the hotel; walking the gauntlet between ruins shelled and shot to pieces, trying to imagine what it must have been like. Knowing it was impossible to imagine. Someone pointed out a place where a dance class continued to practise underground during the fighting. I didn’t feel comfortable in Mostar: to have suffered nothing and to be made a fuss of by people who suffered much, and lost so much, and now had regained so much between the ruins, is not comfortable. I only felt normal with children too young to remember anything; and how young those had to be. But – somehow – the experience was uplifting too.’

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Melanie Friesen wanted to eat my book

When Melanie Friesen, Martin Scorsese's former head of development, was in London last year we met at Housmans Bookshop where her old friend, the late Heathcote Williams, was talking about his book about Boris Johnson. On her flight home to Vancouver she started reading 'Left Field' and this is what she later wrote to me.
"A note to say how much I enjoyed LEFT FIELD. My comments below are a bit trivial, but they connected me with your writing, so I could be on board throughout the book. I enjoyed the read and suffered the total despair of your myriad attempts to get the show on the road with War Child in spite of so many battles, including egos. What a triumph all the same.
The childhood in an autobiography/biography interests me the most because it’s watching how the seedling grew and seeing what might have influenced it. I also like to connect to childhood events that the writer mentions, as it brings me closer to the book.
Also how many books have notes at the back that are just as interesting as the text?
Some examples with your book:
Your description and recipe of your mom’s roast potatoes: My mom wasn’t interested in cooking, nor in any household activity, so she got several jobs which interested her very much in order to pay for a housekeeper. I adore food and the description of these potatoes had me gnawing on the spine of the book. Luckily I was on the Air Canada flight back to Vancouver while reading it and the meal on board was so disgusting that no one found it unusual that I was trying to eat my reading material (JUST KIDDING!)
The horror and fascination of you staring at your dad’s concentration camp photos: Cripes I remember that so well. I think I mentioned that mom’s whole family except her parents and brother – i.e., her grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts – were all gassed at Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. Just the words ARBEIT MACHT FREI give me the worst chills. So I was with you on that page.
Thomas Dormandy: My mom was born in Slovakia of Hungarian parents and immigrated to Chile in 1939. Her mother tongue was Hungarian. In 1956, she worked in Vancouver at the docks and the airports translating for Hungarian immigrants and got many of them homes and jobs. As a result, I love Thomas as much as your dad did. If he is still alive, send him this song, the only Hungarian song I can sing. Nothing brings my childhood back like this tune (well, that’s not completely true; a million things bring it back):
I also got a good grade in history. I couldn’t stand the present so I concentrated on the past.” Utterly, David, utterly, hence me enlisting in Whitechapel guided tours at night about Jack the Ripper. Fuck the shard, bring on St. Paul’s through the mist.
Your Argentinean experiences are exactly that, but I found many of them very Chilean, since I have been there to see family 4 or 5 times. Love that you arrived in Rosario where Che was born. Ever since my Nov. 2015 trip to Cuba, I hold him in even higher esteem than ever.
The para. about the Muslim and Jewish prohibition on pork – so spot on. The only focus of all religions is to love one another and do what we can for one another. What to eat and what not to eat, the coffers of The Vatican totalling trillions of euros and whipping oneself during Lent are hardly part of doing unto others and we would like done unto us.
Re: Yoruba having the highest rate of twin in the world – Wilmette, Illinois has the highest rate of multiple births in the US – that's where my identical twin nephews were born. Love it – Yoruba and Wilmette.
The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb – Never having heard of it, but thinking it a great idea, I read about it on the internet. I think it must be very comforting for those who are sad about a break-up to go there and be comforted by many others who have done same.
Best line in the book (re: Ivo): “When he played his accordion, he looked as though he was telling himself a joke.”
You mention Bob Hoskins – I was an extra in PENNIES FROM HEAVEN since I knew the producer, Ken Trodd, and I was broke at the time.
You mention Rebecca West: In 1976 I did some secretarial work for her in her Kensington flat. She showed me a tea set that Queen Mary had admired and said, “When royalty said they liked something, one was supposed to gift them with it. But I didn’t.” She left me my pay on the mantelpiece but I didn’t take it because I felt sorry for her, thinking she was old and lonely. What a drip I was, I’m sure she could afford to pay me and I was so broke.
I love the quotations that open some of the chapters, my favourite being the one by Milan Kundera: “… for there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs as heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.” (Although I think it should read, “weighs as heavy as the pain,” but maybe that was the way it was translated.)
The quotation from ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is also as powerful as it gets. That was the book/film that turned my mom into a pacifist.
After the enormous ups and downs of War Child, the simplicity of your, “an injury to one is an injury to all,” harkens right back to my comment above re: being religious or spiritual is not about passing on the bacon. It is this and only this.
Enid was a wrestling fan and had a friend with whom she went to matches at Wembley …” It’s quite a leap and not at all relevant to your book, but when I worked for Scorsese, he was going to produce a film directed by Dennis Hopper and starring Sean Penn based on the book by Joyce Carol Oates called YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS. It’s about a girl, Enid, who falls into immature love with her Uncle Felix, a boxer: To see you refer to an Enid and wrestling brought the book straight to my mind and the meeting I had with the 3 men mentioned above. The film never happened, too bad – it was the right teams for the story.
Well, the next Margarita is on me, thank you so very much for giving me your book and for giving Anne the last say in it!
Love to you both, Melanie XO

You can read my review of Heathcote Williams' book here
           You can now buy Left Field for £13 (includes p&p) here