Sunday, 14 July 2019

Left Field: CHAPTER EIGHTEEN - Del Boy




Jimmy Kennedy looked like someone out of Guys and Dolls with his Brylcreemed quiff, dark suits and black ties. His collarless jackets and shirts were made especially for his almost non-existent neck. He was the victim of a rare disease; his spinal column threatening to grow into his brain. He had spent much of his life at the bookies and as a guest of Her Majesty in Wormwood Scrubs. He’d been convicted of GBH after putting a man who’d insulted his looks into a wheelchair.

I came to know Jim well. He was an old friend of Bill’s, had been employed by him as a gaffer on his art films and was godfather to Bill’s son.

After I left Renata, I moved from friend to friend until Bill and Jim offered me a room in a large flat they had rented off the Archway Road in north London. With all of us approaching, or leaving, middle age, they had nicknamed it Menopause Towers. I was happy to move in with them as it was close to my sons.

Whenever I hear Van Morrison’s Poetic Champions, I am reminded of Jim. He played it all the time. He was a chain- smoker – Marlborough Lights – but he hardly touched alcohol. His addiction was tea. Lots of it.

My parents were living in a retirement apartment in north London and most Sundays Jim would come with me and supply my mother with cigarettes. When he wasn’t accompanying me, my mother would notice and she noticed little. ‘Where’s that nice man?’ she would ask. 
‘That small man with the cigarettes.’

Jim,’ I would say.

I don’t know his name, but I like him. I like him, don’t I, Ian?’

Yes, Betty, you do.’
 

‘When is he coming again?’
 

‘I’m sure he’ll come next Sunday, Mum.’
 

‘Oh good. Ask him to bring his cigarettes.’
 

Jim often told me, ‘I wish I’d had a mum like yours, Dave.’

He’d learned to bake bread in prison and, as the mobile bakery was being prepared for Bosnia, Jim volunteered to join the team. The convoy of five six-metre ovens, two mixers, two water-bowsers and eight Bedford vans left its Bermondsey depot in July 1993, painted UN white and with a police escort, Jim drove the War Child Land Rover at the front. Pockets was beside him, waving at us with his swagger stick.


 They were an incongruous pair. ‘If I found myself in a sticky situation behind enemy lines,’ Pockets would say, ‘Jim is the sort of chap I’d need.’

Jim would smile and wink at us as if to say, he doesn’t know much about me.

I’d had the bright idea that the lorries should be stencilled with a sheaf of wheat and the words BREAD FOR THE CHILDREN on each side of the vehicles, in both Croatian and Serbian. Practically the same language, the word for bread is one of the few that are different. The Croats say kruh and the Serbs and Bosnians hleb. A week after leaving Bermondsey, I received a call from Jim in Zagreb.

Dave,’ he said, ‘we’ve had to paint over the word hleb. We were threatened last night with a gun.’

It was not going to be easy getting the bakery into East Mostar and would take time and negotiations with the Croatian forces who controlled the outlying roads.

Medugorje, the Lourdes of south-east Europe, is a small town in Herzegovina. In 1981, six children claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary on a hillside above the town. They described her as a beautiful woman in her early thirties, wearing a blue dress and white veil. She had a pale face, blue eyes, dark hair and was crowned with stars. She spoke to them in Croatian. Despite bearing an uncanny resemblance to the wax statuette in Svetog Jakova church, the town’s Franciscans, hoteliers and other local wide boys saw it as a business opportunity. Catholic pilgrims poured in, hoping to see the Holy Mother.

Unfortunately, the visitors from Italy, Ireland, the US, Mexico and the Philippines were not given a local history lesson during their stay. In August 1941 the then-Bishop of Mostar described how the Ustashe had brought ‘six wagons full of mothers, girls and children under eight to Sturmanci, where they were taken out of the wagons, brought into the hills and thrown alive, mothers and children, into deep ravines’. They joined the 650 bodies from Prebilovci, a neighbouring village. 

All of them were Serbs. It is on these hills that Mary appeared.
Alongside the busloads of visiting believers, there were refugees in Medugorje from central Bosnia who, although expelled from their homes, were not desperate for food. But for us, this was the perfect ‘staging post’.

After two months operating there, Pockets and Jim managed to get the bakery into Mostar, negotiating through the UNHCR. It was set up at HEPOK, an industrial estate bombed to pieces and mostly deserted. It had contained storehouses for the food industry and distilleries for rakia and Žilavka (white) and Blatina (red) wines. The one remaining roofed warehouse had been chosen for the War Child bakery. 
 

The UN Spanish Battalion was based close by, and there were soldiers from the Bosnian Republican Army to protect the operation. A few attacks took place close to the bakery, probably to do with the thousands of gallons of alcohol which were still stored on the estate. Although close to the frontline and despite occasional gunfire, it felt relatively safe because of its proximity to SPANBAT. And perhaps the UN had an agreement with the Croats to leave the bakery alone.
SPANBAT were a part of the farce that was the UN ‘intervention’ in this war. They intervened very little, supposedly patrolling the streets of shattered houses, flats and shops as some sort of protection for the people.

A sure sign of an impending bombardment was when the Spanish were nowhere to be seen. They had advance warnings of attacks and always left the streets and returned to base. The attitude of the local people towards this international ‘peacekeeping’ force is illustrated by a local joke at the time: ‘First we had UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force), then came IFOR (International Protection Force) and today we’ve got SFOR (Security Force). Tomorrow, we’ll have WHATFOR.’

The bakery’s drivers and volunteers were mostly young Australians, some of them from the Serious Road Trip. They found it hard to put up with Pockets’ regimental ways, and Bill and I were already starting to have our doubts about his military abilities.

On the way into Mostar, he’d led the bakery convoy of eight Bedford trucks, ovens and water bowsers, up a cul-de- sac in a Croat-controlled town. With no room for the vehicles to reverse, they had to stop in front of a church. Bosnian Croat soldiers came out from Mass with their guns. Jim told me afterwards that Pockets looked at his map, then at the threatening crowd, wound down his window and, with no concession to the local language, said, ‘Minor blip, chaps. Minor blip.’
He wouldn’t go anywhere without his bicycle, which was odd because he kept falling off it. 

The cause of most of these accidents was alcohol. He fell off his bike in Split. He fell off his bike in Mostar. He fell off his bike in London. One day he arrived at our office in Camden Town, smiling broadly and bleeding profusely from his head.

By any chance, did you come here by bike?’ I asked.

Of course, I did.’ Pulling bandages from one of his pockets, he added, ‘Now go and get some water and help me clean up.’

When I was in Sarajevo, I met someone working at the UN who knew Pockets from their army days. He told me that Pockets had once visited his regiment and arrived in the mess for breakfast. He asked a fellow officer to pass the salt. There was no response so he asked again. The officer turned to Pockets and said, ‘In this regiment, if a chap sits down to breakfast with his cap on, he is not to be spoken to.’

Pockets pushed his chair back, lifted his foot above the table and slammed it into the officer’s cornflakes. ‘In my regiment, chaps who don’t pass the salt get boot in cereal.’1

Soon after the bakery’s arrival in Mostar we parted with him and Jim took over as manager. Other aid workers in Mostar called Jim ‘Del Boy’, because he reminded them of David Jason’s wheeler-dealer character in the BBC comedy Only Fools and Horses. Jim took this as a compliment because he was able to keep the bakery running through his inspired ducking and diving when others would have failed.
I arrived at the London office one morning to find a fax from him. ‘Sorry, David. Delivered bread to Blagaj today. They needed it. Shrapnel came in roof of bakery van. Don’t worry. Will repair myself. I’m OK.’

Jim was part-manager, part-teacher, part-cook, part-odds- and-sods man. One moment he was instructing a worker on how to operate the mixer, the next running over to the ovens to help get the loaves out, then checking the deliveries. In quieter moments, he would be working out on scraps of paper what supplies he’d need and where he might get them from. 

After the team had completed its bake at midday, Jim would drive out of Mostar to do his shopping: everything from diesel to coffee. East Mostar had been gutted with the shelling and there were no shops. Nothing could be purchased in town, and only Jim could get through the Croat lines that held East Mostar in a vice-like grip.

Jim told me proudly how he’d once fooled the Croat border guards who were forever trying to hold up his supplies. One day he went to apljina in the bakery’s battered Toyota truck to refuel and buy food and drink. The Croats wouldn’t let him take his supplies back up the road to East Mostar, so he turned around and circled the checkpoint by taking a mountain track into town. He unloaded the vehicle at the bakery, then drove down the main road to Capljina from the opposite direction in the empty truck. The border guards were astonished when he told them he was going back to the store because he’d forgotten the toilet paper.

One of the things I loved about Jim was his disdain for the wastage and high living found in some of the bigger NGOs. Attending a meeting at the UNHCR office about medical aid, someone complained about their inability to provide sufficient help because of the lack of funds. Taking his Marlborough from the side of his mouth, Jim pointed through the window at the fleet of pristine Land Cruisers. ‘There’s money over there,’ he said. ‘You could flog them off for a start.’

War Child’s always unpredictable finances meant that no one at that time was drawing a regular salary. We often had no operational money to send him for the bakery, but Jim’s reputation in Mostar was such that UN agencies stepped in to help. He was good friends with the head of the UNHCR in Mostar, Brigadier Jerrie Hulme, who ensured that War Child was supplied with flour when the charity had no money to buy it. 


One day Jerrie brought Baroness Chalker, the Minister for Overseas Development, to visit HEPOK. Jim used to call her ‘Mumsie’ to her face. He sent us a photo of the two of them, Mumsie standing with Jim and holding a tray full of bread. He didn’t tell her that the Kingsmill tray she had in her hands had been nicked off the streets of Camden Town.

I made my first visit to the bakery in June 1994. My memories of Mostar were from that summer afternoon 19 years before on my way to the chicken campers. I dreaded what I was going to see.
With 90 per cent of its buildings mortared, East Mostar still managed to retain its beauty. I took my first walk through the streets with Jim. An old man shouted out. 
 

Jim looked worried because he was no linguist and had never bothered with more than the rudiments of what he called the ‘dobar dan’ language. ‘What’s he on about, Dave?’

He’s saying that this is Jim’s town.’

He smiled and shrugged his shoulders, or as far as I could tell since he had hardly any neck.

We were on our way to a meeting to check up on a delay in some essential paperwork. In Bosnia, there is always essential paperwork and essential stamps without which neither bakeries, nor anything else, can function.

The Bosnian official told Jim that it would be done sutra (tomorrow). Jim replied, ‘Are we talking Bosnian sutra or English sutra?’

There was nothing sutra about the bakery. In the 18 months of its operation there, Jim and his team fed 14,000 people a day under difficult conditions.

The ‘bakers’ – men and women – earned almost nothing but had daily bread for their families. They worked from 5am to 3pm, mixing the dough which was then cut into loaves and placed on shelves for the bread to rise. After baking, using large wooden ladles to place the dough in the ovens, and then stacking the finished loaves in the Kingsmill trays, the ovens and mixers were cleaned.

Bread was distributed to the war hospital, emergency food centres and outlying villages. The team didn’t lose one day’s bake and much of this was due to Jim’s commitment and leadership. He took me out on deliveries and at each drop-off crowds were gathered in queues waiting for the only food in town. I felt proud that War Child was feeding so many, that we were quite literally lifesavers.

We ate a lot of bread and whatever tinned food Jim managed to bring in from his daily visits to Capljina. It was hot and sweaty and a splash-down at one of the bowsers became a daily treat.

I stayed with Jim in the attic of a house which had just been rebuilt. The owners were jumping the gun in their optimism that the war was winding down. One night a shell whizzed over the roof and exploded behind the house. There was no point in getting out of bed; it was unlikely to be followed by a second. Then I heard Jim putting the kettle on in the kitchen and went downstairs to join him.

Don’t worry, Dave. They missed. Fancy a fag and a cuppa?’

Unnerved by almost being blown up and with a week’s gap before a meeting I had to attend, I decided to go to the Adriatic coast. I headed to Hvar Town on the beautiful island of the same name.
I found a room at the top of an old stone house. It was very hot, but a breeze blew through the open window. I watched the squealing swallows, listened to the quarter-hour chimes of the church clock, heard children laughing and smelt fish barbequing somewhere below.
I spent five days there and celebrated my last night before returning to Mostar by sitting under the sail-white awning of a harbourside café. I drank my way through a bottle of green- tinged Malvazia wine, looking at the terracotta-roofed houses. Beyond them hazy islands were slowly disappearing into the dark.

Mostar was only half a day’s drive from Hvar and yet a place as far removed as the Moon is from Mars. On the first morning back, I walked across town to my meeting. I didn’t hear any laughing children here.

I noticed a young woman behind me. She was singing. A dog growled as I passed his den in a bombed-out building. I turned a corner. Behind me, there was a loud explosion.

There was only one death that day in Mostar. It could only have been that woman.

The people of this town were under constant threat of sharing her fate. I realise that I was the lucky one in many ways. I had not been killed and I could come and go.

I wanted to leave, but I still had three days before returning to London. Jim told me that they were going to start using some of the bakery vehicles to take aid to Sarajevo. I agreed to join him on the first run the following day.

A few kilometres out of Mostar, a SPANBAT armoured personnel carrier travelling in front of us was hit by a shell fired from the hills. As we passed it at speed, it was ablaze. We were the last vehicle that day allowed up the Sarajevo road.

It was scary to look back and see no one following in our path. We didn’t speak. It was as if we needed to remain alert. As if, by so doing, we’d have a better chance against a shell or bullet.

We dropped off our supplies at Tarcin, 30 kilometres south-west of Sarajevo, from where the boxes would be backpacked across Mount Igman and then into Sarajevo through the tunnel which had been constructed under the airport.

By the time we drove home, it was night time and slow going on the war-racked roads. As we approached Konjic, Jim asked if I’d like a curry.
A curry?’ I said. ‘In the middle of the Bosnian mountains? You’re joking.’

Wanna bet?’

Not with you, Jim.’

A few minutes later we drove into the UN Nepalese battalion base. Though it was now 10pm, food was still being served in the mess.
Our stomachs full of diced lamb and chatamari rice, we set off on the final stretch to Mostar. As we drove out of the Neretva canyon into the Mostar plain, we were nervous. The last ten kilometres was across open ground and along the most shelled road in the area. We sped past the still-burning Spanish APC. The UN later reported that no one had been killed or injured. I doubted the truth of that.2 
 

NOTES
1 Some years later, when I was at the Pavarotti Music Centre, I bumped into Pockets on the street. ‘What are you doing here?’ I asked. He tapped the side of his nose. ‘That’s for me to know and for you to find out.’ That made me think back to apljina. Why had he wanted to go there and not return immediately to Split? What was he doing now in Mostar? 

2 In 1996 Jim was awarded an MBE. He rang me from Mostar after he had received the news. ‘Is it any use, Dave?’ he asked. ‘It will get you to the front of the queue in the betting shop,’ I said. ‘Mumsie must have had a hand in this,’ he replied. I have no idea what happened to Jim. He is lost to me. There are no Google entries for him and he isn’t the sort of person to be found on Facebook or Friends Reunited.

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