Don's Diary

June 2, 1995

THURSDAY. Early morning flight to Zurich delayed on the tarmac at Heathrow by "air traffic problems". Contemplate receding prospect of breakfast. Start reading book proofs which arrived yesterday. Reach contents page and am pulled up by the word "Index". Remember that I am supposed to be providing the index. I have no notebook with me, so divide cover of A4 envelope into 26 squares and settle down with pen and glass of orange juice.

Reach Zurich transfer desk to learn that there is no flight to Zagreb. Since the rocket attacks on the city and airport two weeks ago Swissair has apparently diverted to Ljubljana. Arrive Ljubljana, where the airline offers two buses, one for Zagreb airport and one for the bus terminal. In the car park wonder which bus is more likely to be met by British Council driver. I choose the wrong bus.

It's 4pm. Slovenia-Croatia border. Buses delayed for an hour while the Croatians decide whether to let in a party of Malaysian UN soldiers without visas. All English-speaking fellow passengers appear to be with the UN. Later I learn that all UN personnel have chosen the wrong buses.

6pm. Zagreb bus station. No sign of British Council driver. People in Information Office don't understand English. Take taxi to the very grand hotel that I recall hearing my British Council contact in London mention on the phone. Luckily, they are expecting me.

FRIDAY. Woken in the small hours by heavy rain. The hotel is right in the city centre where the cluster bombs fell. Reflect on last night's dinner with two Zagreb professors of English. British, French and UN policy seem to be universally despised and distrusted here. Twice my charming hosts repeated Chamberlain's words about "a faraway country of which we know little". Decide to write Don's Diary.

9am. Meet former student who returned from the US to Western Slavonia in 1991 and now teaches at Osijek University. His sister was killed and his niece was crippled in the shelling. When the Serbs first attacked his home town, the people had only kitchen knives to defend themselves with.

Thanks to the Michael Foot-Jill Craigie TV documentary, everyone knows that Croatia and Bosnia are "two hours from London". It has taken me 12 hours. I discover that, with one exception, the other foreign guests invited to celebrate 60 years of English academic studies in Croatia have cancelled.

My arrival at the anniversary conference is greeted with a round of applause. Listen to and join in discussion of papers by academics from all parts of this starfish-shaped new nation. Feel humbled by my hosts' warmth, generosity, intellectual liveliness and courage. Regret enforced absence of invited colleagues from Bosnia. There is renewed shelling in Sarajevo.

SATURDAY. Woken early by the sound of an airliner. Watch CNN news. With no warning, their reporter in Sarajevo takes us inside a morgue where the bodies of dead Bosnian soldiers are being unloaded. I am appalled. Such misuse of television seems to sum up the West's insensitive, voyeuristic attitude to the Balkans.

Walk to university with colleague specialising in maritime English. Visit the departmental library, once an excellent collection. The supply of new books has dried up, and most periodicals are discontinued. Croatia is under embargo and does not receive the lavish, indiscriminate gifts of failed Booker Prize entries (stamped "presented by Britain") that one sees in ex-Soviet bloc countries.

12 noon. A speaker, not from Zagreb, is stopped in mid-sentence by the sound of a distant explosion. "It's noon," somebody says, and we erupt into relieved laughter. Later I am shown the ceremonial cannon from which, I am told, they take a daily pot-shot at the city.

The old town inside the city walls is beautiful, unspoilt but sadly dilapidated. The profits of former Yugoslavia's industry and tourism were spent in Belgrade. There are no tourists or weekend sightseers, only the chatter and shouts of excited wedding parties. The essentials seem to be a bride, a groom, and a large Croatian flag.

Over a Chinese meal, more war stories and information about Croatian history and culture, together with the usual literary-theoretical argument and gossip. Does my statement that the BBC version of The Tempest might be open to anti-colonial readings make me a covert or overt imperialist? Why are the Brits the main obstacle to further integration of European English Studies?

SUNDAY. Explore the large open-air market, then settle down to proofing and indexing. A4 envelope now covered with indecipherable hieroglyphs. I am stopped in mid-sentence by not-so-distant explosion. Look at my watch. It is noon.

To the airport with Ian Stewart, British Council representative for Croatia, who is apologetic about Thursday's mix-up. The council still functions in Bosnia, he says, though many English teachers have left. He has been to Sarajevo twice. In the lounge I see soldiers taking a UN flight for Sarajevo. Most of my fellow passengers are Danish soldiers in battledress. Swissair arrives and departs for Zurich only 30 minutes late.


Professor of English at Reading University.

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