Pamela Thomas

Hardly anybody went to Yugoslavia in 1954. The roads were bad, there wasn’t much food and it was almost impossible to get more than a transit visa. A few intrepid sorts went to Dubrovnik and stayed in designated hotels, but that was all. So my father, William Woods, decided we should go. He was struggling to finish his novel Manuela (later made into a film, with Trevor Howard in the lead), and we were very short of cash. I suspect that he was also being pressed by several creditors. What better way to deal with all these problems than to sublet the wing of the large house we were renting, and move to Yugoslavia for three months?

We managed somehow to get visas, bought a 1937 Chevrolet, piled the roof-rack high with pots and pans and borrowed tents, and put my father’s typewriter on top under the tarpaulin. Then my parents, my two sisters and I set off at dawn one summer morning, each with one change of shorts and aertex shirt, and one outfit ‘for best’. As we creaked slowly down the drive under our uneven load, my father recited with cheerful energy Archibald MacLeish’s poem ‘Not Marble nor the Gilded Monuments’, which has a line about ‘the face in the Istrian sun’.

I remember only vignettes of the journey: filling our canvas water bucket at the stream the first night in Ostend, and discovering that it leaked; the smell of fresh hay when we camped in fields, and of wet concrete when we were put up in barns; the smell of leaking paraffin as the primus stove was lit each evening, and the nasty little pricker with which we had to unclog the holes before it would work; being held hostage (we thought for ever) in a subterranean lavatory in Heidelberg when our mother got lost going back to the car for small enough change to pay the dragon in charge. One night in Germany the mayor of a small town took us under his wing and found us a barn to stay in. He turned out to be a great admirer of Hitler, and he and my father shouted and argued into the night, drinking bottle after bottle of wine. Every now and then when we thought they were about to come to blows, the mayor would laugh and say: ‘Ja, aber der Wein ist gut.’ ‘Ja,’ my father would agree, ‘der Wein ist gut,’ and there would be a pause while they thoughtfully drank a bit more.

We drove for days through forests, down motorways, beside vast rivers we could hardly see the other side of, through villages with chickens and pigs blocking the road. Every now and then the car would protest and die, and we would spend a few hours at a garage while mechanics looked under the bonnet and shook their heads doubtfully.

We crossed from Austria into Yugoslavia one evening during a thunderstorm. Nearly everybody spoke German but we learned quickly to start speaking in English before changing to German, so people would realise we weren’t German ourselves.

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