Carrying on in a war zone
I have always been taken with the scene in Carry On up the Khyber where Sid James, as Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond, hosts a dinner party in the governor’s residence amidst heavy cannon fire and tumbling masonry. Everyone, with the exception of one hysterical male guest, behaves as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening at all – a delicious satire of the British stiff upper lip. Or is it satire? My only experience of visiting a war zone had a strange echo of that drama, which has haunted me down the years.
I was 23 at the time and, as my late dad would have put it, had “no bloody direction at all”. An evening out with a lecherous hack had led me to a Notting Hill basement joint called The Globe. When we walked in, I saw a man who resembled Beethoven at the bar and recognised him as an architect I’d once had a drunken dinner with. He was smarter and funnier than the hack, so I sidled off for a chat. Dispensing with small talk, he said, “I’m going to Croatia on Friday with a friend to deliver a short-wave radio station to the island of Korcula. Why don’t you come too?” This was at the height of the Balkan conflicts, when Dubrovnik was still being shelled and the region was in turmoil. Naturally, I said “yes”, because “no” seemed curt and uncurious. Also, it was 3am and I never imagined he meant it.
The next morning the architect phoned me at work and said, “I’ve booked your ticket.” By that evening I’d met his friend, an art dealer whose family had close historical ties with Croatia, and girlfriend. Within the week we four had boarded a plane to Zagreb, then another to Split, queuing alongside grizzled war reporters with flak jackets and tin hats. The art dealer was wearing a cream linen suit and panama hat, like a character from an EM Forster novel, while the architect carried his snorkel as carry-on luggage. And yet our mission was a serious one. The radio equipment would prove vital if all normal communications went down under siege. At Split airport our cargo was loaded onto a repurposed ambulance with blacked-out windows, which sped us through the night to the coast. Every so often we heard a volley of gunfire, but eventually arrived at a deserted harbour where a fishing boat was waiting to take us the short stretch across the Adriatric Sea to sleeping Korcula.
I didn’t know that this walled Venetian town is arguably the loveliest destination on the Adriatric coast – especially when the empty, dreaming streets are viewed by starlight. It was impossible to imagine that, just a couple of hours by boat up the coast, Dubrovnik was under siege. Nor could you tell, when we walked out next morning, that the island was now home to thousands of refugees. The temporary residents weren’t as great in number as the usual summer onslaught of tourists and were interchangeable from their hosts. Everything was both weirdly normal and yet subtly off-kilter, as I’m told is often the case in areas close to conflict zones.
What everyone wants after a period of horrific turbulence is a dose of normality that medicates like Valium
I was worried locals would resent us turning up in our shorts and sundresses. Instead, the mayor gladly received the radio equipment, pumped our hands and gave us tumblers of paint-stripping Slivovitz with midday coffee. What residents wanted above all – and what I realise now, aged 54, everyone wants after a period of horrific turbulence, was a dose of normality that medicates like Valium. We four Brits, with our suntan lotion, holiday novels, flip-flops, snorkel and panama hat were a reminder of summers past. I felt guilty for being there but could also see the genuine delight with which locals greeted the art dealer.
It turned out I was billeted in an apartment with the architect, containing just a king-sized bed. I think he’d presumed the distant bullets would act as the traditional memento mori that spurs young women into speedy acquiescence (“the grave’s a fine and private place/ But none, I think, do there embrace”). I should have complained, but it seemed churlish when the journey was so enthralling. And I’ve always found it easy to share a bed in chummy, non-erotic fashion, although this was clearly not so true for my companion.
The day before we left, we had lunch in one of the few restaurants still open for service. It was idyllic if you didn’t know the circumstances and there were around eight tables of guests that day. We were halfway through the main course when an air-raid siren went off – a sound I’d only ever heard in movies before, familiar and yet utterly discombobulating. I looked about: the Croats downed cutlery, scanned the skies and rose to their feet. Meanwhile, the art dealer and the architect took no notice whatsoever, refilling their glasses and saying, “It’s a false alarm, don’t worry.” I felt riven with guilt at this stark reminder that we Brits have the luxury to make glib assumptions – a guilt that’s stayed with me all these years. Although, as it turned out, they were right.
Afterwards, I wasn’t sure how to frame my traveller’s tales: was I Olivia Manning, or Carry On’s Joan Sims? As the years roll by, I see there’s no huge dishonour in being the latter. A few weeks after our return I finally succumbed to the architect’s romantic overtures. We went out for two years. He was 27 years older than me, drank too much and picked fights with people he found fatuous (almost everyone). But he was never, ever boring.
Rowan Pelling is a British journalist and former editor of The Erotic Review
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