Friday 5 July 2019
Left Field: CHAPTER 26 - Missing Elton
Friedrich Nietzsche said, ‘There are no facts, only interpretations.’ Here are my interpretations.
When the contract for the building of the Pavarotti Music Centre was agreed, the construction company offered a gift. It was accepted by two of my colleagues, Bill Leeson and Mike Terry, and they told me about it in the pub. I was shocked and informed them that, if the money was accepted, I would report this to the War Child trustees. I had to carry out my threat.
February 5th, 1997 – At the trustee meeting I argued that Bill had been under immense pressure and that this should be taken into account when making any decision about his future. I had a loyalty to him because he’d gone through a lot with me when starting War Child and had been more willing than me to risk his life in Sarajevo. As far as Mike was concerned, I argued that dismissing him at this point would delay the project that the charity’s reputation was resting on.
As a condition of them staying in War Child, Bill and Mike had to write apologies for taking the money and Mike was required to produce a letter from Hydrogradnja, acknowledging return of the ‘gift’, a sum of £15,000.1 Mike was also informed that his involvement in future projects would be ‘restricted’ and that he must cut his links with War Child after completion of the Centre.2
In the office, those who knew about the kickback didn’t seem to have any problems with it. Bill had a charisma which I was immune to. Others weren’t. And alliances are not just made over financial transactions, but over more personal and intimate relations. I was the outsider and felt more and more uncomfortable working with Bill and my colleagues. I decided that I would be better off in Mostar, looking after the future of the new Centre.
June 1997 – I arrived in Mostar to become the PMC’s first Director. I was left alone. Bill never came near the place, and we didn’t communicate in any way. I was told that he was claiming I was manipulative and ill. I had the support of the Centre’s staff and, in the UK, the Enos remained solidly behind me.3
March 7th, 1999 – I received an anonymous fax informing me that Mike Terry was in breach of the trustees’ instructions and was working for War Child again. When I asked the London office if this was true, I received a fax telling me that Mike ‘has a part-time consultancy contract with War Child to provide project management services on the Pavarotti & Friends Children’s Village programme now underway in Liberia’. I was further assured that his appointment had been ‘welcomed by the Pavarotti team in Italy’. This ‘team’ was Luciano and Nicoletta. Four days later, I had a call from Nicoletta Mantovani which told another story.
March 11th, 1999 (Thursday) – ‘David, you must come to New York. Luciano and I are very angry about the situation with War Child. We have received a letter from Bill which is offensive to us. Can you be here on Saturday?’
I booked a flight for the next day on Swissair from Sarajevo to New York, via Zurich.
March 12th, 1999 – An hour and a half before setting out on the mountain road to the airport, 130 kilometres away, I realised that the documents I would need to show to Pavarotti and Nicoletta were in London. I rang my partner, Anne, and asked her to fax them to me. She said she’d have to find the file and go to the internet café, a 15-minute walk away. I knew, from past experience, that the fax lines to Bosnia were often jammed.
‘Mr Vilson, I am Necko. I am not Formula One. Time for airplane is running out.’
Necko, my driver, was one of my closest friends in Mostar, but he always reverted from David to ‘Mr Vilson’ when matters were critical.
‘Necko, we have to wait for the fax to come through.’
‘I am sure United States of the Americas has fax machines.’
‘We have to wait. No one but you must know where I’m going, otherwise it will get back to London. The documents can’t arrive after I’m gone.’
Necko pointed to the clock above my desk. ‘You can hear that. It ticks. I am simple Bosnian, but I can tell the time. We do not have the time.’
The fax machine bleeped. ‘It’s coming, Necko.’
Too slowly, it disgorged seven pages. I stapled them together and we ran to the car.
With minutes to spare, I made the Zurich flight. The transatlantic plane took off for New York at 5pm. It climbed to 7,000 metres and suddenly dropped. There were no screams. Complete silence.
The silence of fear is terrifying. After a long few minutes, the pilot told us that we’d made a rapid descent to 2,000 metres. This was, he said, because we’d lost cabin pressure. We would have to circle south Germany while he got advice from the engineers in Zurich.
I watched the TV screen as we passed over Konstanz, Ulm, Munich, Ulm, Konstanz, Ulm, Munich. Three hours later, the pilot said we were returning to Zurich and mustn’t worry when we saw ambulances and fire engines on each side of the plane as we landed.
March 13th, 1999 – Transferred to another plane, we arrived at Newark Airport at 7am Eastern Standard Time – 12 hours late. I had just enough time to book into a hotel in midtown Manhattan before my appointment with the Pavarottis at their apartment overlooking Central Park.
When I got there, they told me about Bill’s letter and said that they were unsure how to answer it. I explained the whole sorry history. For the next three days, we worked out a plan for the future of the PMC. Both Nicoletta and Pavarotti encouraged me to go to London as soon as I could to sort matters out at War Child. I was assured of their support.
They were both lovely and Pavarotti was fun to be with. He sang to me while I helped Nicoletta with an article she was writing in English. I was their guest for lunch and dinner. On the second day, Pavarotti told me that Elton John lived in the apartment above. ‘Would you like to meet him?’
I said I would love to. Pavarotti picked up the phone. ‘Elton, come and have tea with us.’ He put down the receiver. ‘Sorry, David, he is busy. Next time.’
As I said my goodbyes, I left the documents with them.
March 16th, 1999 – At Zurich airport I called Terri Robson, Pavarotti’s manager, to tell her how well things had gone in New York.
‘What have you done, David? Luciano and Nicoletta are furious with you.’
The phone went dead. I had no more Swiss Francs to continue the call.
Everything had gone so well. Why were they angry? I was in shock, but there was nothing I could do until I got back to Mostar.
It was midnight when I arrived in Sarajevo. Necko was waiting to collect me. ‘Welcome back to the beautiful Bosnia.’
‘Drop me at the office,’ I said.
‘It will be at three o’clock. Even we Bosnians sleep at three o’clock.’
‘The office, please, Necko.’
Even though I was exhausted, I knew I would have the answer there to Terri’s What have you done, David?
March 17th, 1999 – On my desk was a fax. It was hard to read as this was its third journey through the ethers. It was a covering note Anne had scribbled to me and which I had stapled to the documents I’d left with Pavarotti. Because of my dramatic outward flight, I’d never read it. She sent me her love for my visit to ‘the fat man and his canary’.
Everyone at War Child London had a nickname: Bill’s was ‘God’, I was ‘Spreadsheet Man’ and Anne was ‘Madame Tongue’.4
The disrespectful name that Bill and Mike called the Maestro was the ‘Fat Man’. Anne explained to me later that she couldn’t mention Pavarotti by name because I had told her no one must know where I was going.
The fat man and his canary. It was this phrase that had been underlined. Nicoletta had written at the bottom of the fax. ‘Luciano and I thought we could trust you.’
1 ‘Further to our telephone conversation earlier this week, I confirm that Hydrogradnja would be pleased to accept the return of the 40,000 DEM gift provided to you, and we fully understand your reasons for not being able to accept this. Please arrange the transfer of funds back to our account in Sarajevo. We will forward confirmation that the funds have been received back into our account. Yours sincerely, Mehmed Drino, General Manager.’
2 Excerpt from Minutes of the Trustee Meeting of February 5th, 1997: ‘The Trustees decided that all monies should be returned as soon as possible to the contractor ... the Trustees expressed their unease with Mike Terry’s role in this matter and questioned whether he could bring War Child into disrepute in future. The Trustees noted that he, as Project Director of the Music Centre, is vital to the successful completion of this major project. The decision of the Trustees was to keep MT in his position as Project Director of the Music Centre but to restrict his involvement in future projects.’
3 Letter from Anthea Eno to the War Child Trustees, September 23rd, 1998: ‘As a member of the Board of Governors of the PMC and as one of War Child’s earliest supporters, I am writing to you and to the key personnel in War Child to express my total support for David Wilson and my absolute dismay at his being asked to resign. The recommendations made are mostly to do with improving efficiency. Other comments I recognised as very much David’s ideas for making the place less ‘designer-style’ and more child-friendly. If a Director is asked to resign then surely there must be some very serious things that he has done wrong. No top-level executive can be asked to resign for such spurious reasons as ‘being irrational and manipulative’. When that director is also a key person in the whole organisation and co-founder of it, then these reasons become even more outrageous. David’s courage, and the creativity he has employed in dealing with a very difficult situation in Mostar, seem to have been totally ignored, let alone praised. I am more than happy to take this opportunity to do so. What on earth is going on here that I don’t know about? I cannot understand what he is being accused of. To me he does a fantastic job that no one has actually criticised. If there were reports of misappropriation of funds at the PMC or if David was just sitting around drawing a fat pay cheque while the building stood empty and neglected, then of course resignation would be in order. Whereas the only complaints I have heard are of a personal nature or concern his creative use of the space. This reflects pretty poorly on War Child, who I always supported because it did not make strict, clinical rules for a given situation, but seemed able to move and change with it. Anthea Eno.’
4 Bill named me ‘Spreadsheet Man’ because I was responsible for the charity’s finances. Bill was also responsible for Anne’s nickname. At the time she was studying to be an acupuncturist and was required by her college to turn in a minimum of 20 tongue diagrams each week. She was often in the War Child office taking pulses and notating tongues. Both can indicate disharmony, or disease, in specific parts of the body.