Thursday 11 July 2019

Left Field: CHAPTER 21 - Darkness & Light

After the first ‘Pavarotti and Friends’ concert, we started to plan the Mostar Music Centre. The bulk of income from the Modena concerts and the Eno fundraisers would be spent on construction, but we had to make sure our finances covered equipping, staffing and operating programmes. We’d have to find architects willing to charge us a charity rate. 
The Enos introduced us to Nicholas Lacey, who had a reputation for a radical approach to design. Bill and I went to meet him at his office close to London Bridge. He was keen to take the job and, working with his engineer, Bryn Bird, was responsible for the first designs of the centre.

Even with Nicholas’s very reasonable costings, the maths wasn’t working. With no hard feelings, he passed the project over to Mike Lawless of LA Architects.

The initials ‘LA’ are not a reference to ‘Los Angeles’, but to ‘Lawless & Adams’. Based in Lewes, Sussex, Mike and his team had experience designing hospitals, community and sports buildings. He agreed to work without fee in the early stages of the project. At their own expense, his firm supported an associate office in Mostar run by Nedjad Cupino and sponsored the fitting out of the social areas at the centre: the apartments, bar and kitchen. Mike told me that it was one of the toughest projects in his career, but that it was ‘one of the best and most rewarding times of my life’. 

Construction started in early 1996 and Bill and I took it in turns to oversee the early stages. Mike and his local team were working against the clock as the building had to be completed in a year. The Bosnian construction company Hydrogradnja were sub-contracting much of the work and progress was slow. Mike was spending more and more of his time in Mostar and I think his UK work must have suffered. In retrospect, he and his partner, Elizabeth Adams, and Nedjad Cupino deserved a plaque alongside the one you can find today at the centre celebrating the name of ‘Luciano Pavarotti’.

With the centre far from completed, I moved to Mostar in July 1997 to take up my post as Director. Working from a small shop that had once been a butcher’s, we started some of our projects. The schools’ music team were able to begin their programme of school visits and workshops were held at the local orphanage and at the school for the disadvantaged.

In the months leading up to the December opening of what had now been named the Pavarotti Music Centre, we had numerous visits from local, and not so local, politicians. I remember stumbling across ex-Tory minister Michael – ‘something of the night’ – Howard in the reception area. He was being shown the nearly completed building by an official from the EU Administration offices. I asked him what he was doing in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

I’m on a fact-finding mission,’ he said.

Who are you meeting to do that?’ I asked.


I answered, ‘Mr Howard, you should know better than anyone. You don’t go to them for facts.’ To his credit, he did laugh. 

In July I had watched Steve Biko’s ex-driver, the percussionist Eugene Skeef, run workshops in the town. He had been invited to Mostar by Nigel Osborne and had recently worked with Edmund Mhlongo in KwaMashu. I had heard about the success of his djembe classes with children in the UK. Remembering Mandela’s words that our music centre was a project needed in Africa, I realised that Eugene was a key to internationalising the Pavarotti Music Centre.

His first workshops were so successful I offered him the job of Director of Music Development. He agreed to start work when the building opened.

A few days before Eugene returned to London, we went to Dubrovnik. There we met two German doctors who were interested to hear about our work in Mostar. Eugene had their eyes popping with his words about the importance of music and rhythm in our lives. One of the doctors said he spoke like a poet. Eugene laughed and rewarded them with, ‘Listen for the cadence of the sun in its journey that never ends. When night falls and the song fades, follow the rhythm of the moon when your voice disappears like a bird.’

Those words got us a bed for the night. When we told them we were going to sleep on the beach, they invited us to stay at their hotel, Villa Dubrovnik. Much to our surprise, there, at the bar, was a politician I was delighted to meet: Michael Foot and his wife, Jill Craigie. They told us they stayed there every summer.

Sitting on the hotel balcony overlooking the old city walls, we discussed the war and the film he and Jill had made about it, Two Hours from London. I told them what a good documentary it was, but that it was a bit light on the Bosnian–Croatian war and that they should visit Mostar. Michael agreed to come with us the next day. Jill opted out because she didn’t want to travel on the serpentine coastal and mountain roads.

Eugene and I showed Michael round Mostar’s Old Town. He was already 84 and walked very slowly. It was impossible to use a car in Mostar’s narrow streets, but he was determined to see as much as he could. We ended our walk at the Centre where he sat down in the uncompleted courtyard. ‘This is very impressive, David. I am sure you will be doing wonderful work in this building.’

That afternoon I drove him back to Dubrovnik and we spent the three-hour drive discussing politics and poetry. I told him I’d enjoyed Paul Foot’s Red Shelley, his nephew’s book about the poet. Michael laughed and broke into:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew Which in sleep had fallen on you – Ye are many – they are few

After a pause he added, ‘But you know, Paul is wrong. Byron was the greater poet and greater revolutionary. Have you read “Darkness”?’
I shook my head.

Stuck on Shelley, are you?’ Another pause and then he recited:

They slept on the abyss without a surge –
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave, The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before;
The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need Of aid from them – She was the Universe.

Michael smiled at me. ‘Byron goes further than Shelley. You must read him.’

When I got back to Mostar later that evening, Eugene and I went to a café close to the suspension bridge which had replaced the destroyed stone bridge. We watched in horror as a young man climbed over the rope handrail and threw himself backwards, like a scuba diver, into the Neretva, 20 metres below.

We rushed down to the river and Eugene and I managed to grab hold of his arms. We thought he should go to hospital, but he said he was okay and got up to walk away. I persuaded him to come to my flat which was close to the bridge in Marshal Tito street.

He was soaking wet and Eugene gave him one of his T-shirts and a pair of his trousers. Over coffee, he told us his name was Hamid and that he’d come from Kiseljak in central Bosnia. He had never recovered from the loss of his mother, father and two sisters in the war. He had an aunt who had been living in Mostar and had come to look for her.

She, too, had been killed. In despair, he had spent the last of his money on drink and had then decided to end his life. He had been disappointed to find the suspension bridge was four metres lower than the old bridge which had been 24 metres high at its apex. But he still thought he would die if he fell backwards into the water. While he was talking, Eugene played soothing rhythms on his djembe.

When he left us, we felt guilty we hadn’t been more persistent in insisting he go to the hospital.

Two months later, a package arrived at my London address. It was a collection of Byron’s poems with a dedication on the inside cover: 

‘Byronic greetings from Michael Foot, with many thanks for a most instructive visit to Mostar, Sept 1997. Read especially “Don Juan”, right through non-stop, as I did again. See also “Darkness”. It has reflections of Mostar.’ 

I don’t remember giving him my address so I assume he must have contacted the War Child office. All these years later, Michael’s ‘Byron’ is on my shelf. I dip into the book frequently and always start by reading the dedication. 
Eugene is still working his magic with his djembe.

Mike Lawless is still designing buildings.

I don’t know what happened to Hamid and what he did with his darkness. 

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