Romeo and Tito

Penelope Gilliatt

When I was ten, in 1942, I won five shillings for the Madame Chiang Kai Shek short-story prize, and went straight to the bank to put the money into my Tito fund, muttering left-wing slogans against the bullying gracious lady of the Orient. I saw her as shrouded in jewels, but not in my five shillings. By the time I was fifteen, when I had considerably added to the fund by writing a radio play on a typewriter swiped every night from my school’s secretarial department, the savings amounted to more than enough to buy the £25 train fare to Belgrade by the Simplon-Orient Express. I wanted sorely to talk to Tito.

The Simplon-Orient began from France in grand style. There were wagon-lits, wagon-restaurants, for the first twenty-four hours. I was taken along the corridor for dinner by a German businessman, who had found me when I was standing up by a window outside my compartment. A fourth-class compartment. The seats made of wood. It was the class called ‘travelling hard’. ‘Ah,’ said the irontongued German, speaking French for no particular reason except perhaps for its relation to Feydeau, ‘vous aurez le destin de marter en bois.’ Better rape and a meal than neither. But after dinner I achieved his quittance, making him leave me outside the compartment to ponder the matter of marrying in wood, and also to be alone, leaning my head against the glass and sleeping on my feel, like a horse.

Next day the train began to change character. The wagon-lits and the wagon-restaurants had been unhitched in the night. The students with knapsacks started to be exchanged for farmers and their families and goats and sheep and hens. Napkins were tucked into collars, garlicky salami and hunks of loaves were sliced against the chest for ritual meals every two hours, red wine was drunk from the bottle. The animals were fed with pieces of potato. Because of the political situation, we had to take a long detour round Albania. A long day and night, this one. The international train had turned into a conversational, slow-chugging village, and it was a village I had no right to belong to, though, to welcome the stranger, there was much beaming offerance of pieces of sausage and much sprinkling of cheap eau-de-cologne on bosoms like frigates’ sterns.

Endless waits at frontiers, while suitcases were searched over and over again. A tiny ivory paper knife that I had brought with me for Tito was left untouched when I explained. At the Yugoslav border stop, Ljubljana, I thought myself already there and got out with my luggage to walk up and down the platform.

A pilot picked me up. His name was Romeo Adum. We had a slivovic together, talked politics; he offered to fly me wherever I wanted in Yugoslavia, I thanked him, he picked up things, we set off. Half an hour’s walk to his plane. Many halts, most not perforce, on the way. He was tall and lean and a good pilot. Often we landed in fields full of cows. Romeo got me to Belgrade, after giving me a pair of the long earrings that girls wore in those days. One of them got lost in the Adriatic while we were swimming. He dived time after time and found it.

In Belgrade it was amazingly easy to see Tito. I simply asked. I had no introductions to him, which possibly advanced my longing. The guards didn’t even frisk me. I think Tito may have been amused by the spectacle of a fifteen-year-old English girl who spoke bad Serbo-Croat and who had come all this way to see him. The great Croat who held together his own remnant of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Croatia with Bosnia, Hercegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia, Dalmatia, Serbia, and more – was a dapper, stocky man with a blithe sense of the rueful. Born on 25 May 1892, the seventh of fifteen children – seven lived to grow up – he seemed to me to have been endowed with the sweetness of his countrymen, who often appear stern, and have a stern history, but behave always with manners to people of other ages or to committers of minor errancies. In the other, journeying, sense, I suppose I must have been quite a major errant, but Tito himself had traipsed a hundred times as far in his life.

We sat down together and had a particular blend of strong coffee that has, for ever after, summoned him up. The room was somehow both unpretentious and grand, stacked with papers and books neatly arranged. Tito asked me about England, Churchill, Fitzroy Maclean, the English view of Dedijer, told me that it had taken him quite a long time to learn the Cyrillic alphabet (Croatians write the Roman alphabet); I asked him about the crisis in the Cominform, and about the time when the Soviet Union’s economic and political intimidations had failed. ‘The liquidation of Yugoslavia will take three or four years,’ a businesslike Russian had been quoted as saying. Tito laughed when I told him that, and said: ‘I have been looking into our history and found a precedent. At the end of the 18th century Archbishop Prince Peter I, who was Regent of Montenegro, was summoned to appear in Moscow on charges of being a spy for the British. He called together the heads of the clans and they gave their reply. They said that if Prince Peter was a bad prince, then he was bad for them and not for the Russians.’

Tito said: ‘Well, it didn’t take me long to see that our priests and our landowners were hand in glove, so I never really believed that the wrath of God would strike me down. I bought sweets on my way to every confession and nothing happened. Very early on I had an instinct for gangsterism. I formed my own gang to mind the neighbours’ orchards. It was a matter of making it seem perfectly obvious to our employers that there was something to be guarded against. Later on, of course, that was not a game, but a truth.’ He made a gesture with his hands, first to the one side, then to the other, and I asked him whether his political pseudonym, Ti-To, had anything to do with this habit: in demotic Russian, which is the closest of the Slav languages to Serbo-Croat, it can mean ‘On the one hand, on the other’, or ‘This cause, this effect’. Tito liked ambiguities, though not swerve-heartedness. It is a stronghold of the character that he has bequeathed to his country. There is another, apocryphal, but linguistically more exact derivation for ‘Tito’, meaning ‘You ... that’ in the allotting of jobs. He seemed pleased that a foreigner should have thought of the first interpretation first.

We played chess, which he was very good at. Silence for an hour or two. Then he taught me points of Slav history that hadn’t occurred to me. ‘The Partisans, after all our centuries of struggles against the Turks, had acquired a class distinction in fighting’ even such overlords as the Nazis. We got too proud and too poor to negotiate with the Turks. Don’t forget that the Balkans are the homeland of the heretics. As we are, perhaps, the heretics of Communism. The Bogomils dwelt in the Balkans, and all Christianity here is deeply influenced by the Manichaeism of Persia, where it was held that Satan is as powerful as God. And of course this is possible’ – again the gesture with the right hand – ‘if this is possible’ – the gesture with the left.

Tito groaned at the thought of his early life. The future always enlivened him; I hope it did that even during these months of 1980 when he had been struggling to hold his country together against a renewed threat from Russia. His working career began as an apprentice engineer. With his earnings he bought his first new suit to appear for Christmas in his native Kumrovets, but when he came back to find something to cat the suit had been stolen. No matter, but he remembered it. He spoke of how much he liked work to a ten-thousandth of an inch, demonstrating the work with his small and shapely hands. He advised me solemnly to have very small hands when passing through any difficult Customs, because no inspector would be suspicious of so obvious a sign of moral delicacy. Tito wore a beautiful signet ring which children liked playing with. At one difficult moment at a Customs point on a train, he said, he was lucky enough to have on his knees a small child; the child was sick on his baby bib, and in the disturbance about such distressed elegance all other matters were forgotten.

Diez, Secretary of the Spanish Communist Party, once told Tito that he had made a mistake in sending the cream of his movement to the Civil War. ‘You’ll need these men later in your own country.’ Tito replied in these words: ‘You in Western Europe have very strange ideas about us in the Balkans. Admittedly we – in Yugoslavia, for example – are simple people, peasants and workers. Admittedly such culture and education as we have compare very poorly with yours. But, my dear Diez, the future struggle... will be fought and won by just such people. And there are millions of them. You are afraid that too many of them are dying in Spain. “The cream of our movement”, you said. But I assure you that the others – those who have remained behind – are no different from these... One dies, and there are a hundred to take his place. No, oh no, I have no doubts or fears about our future, however heavy our casualties here in Spain may be. When the moment comes, our people will find its leaders within itself. And so, you see, our reserves are inexhaustible.’

After the Bulgarian effort of 1937 to get Tito purged had failed, he went to an old friend and talked long into the night, and then to his birthplace at Kumrovets. He was angered by the way nothing had changed, angered by the dirty streets, angered by his own sorrow that an un-oiled gate should sound exactly the same as it had when his father had died ten years ago. To call on a word that has fallen out of vigorous usage, Tito was a fastidious man. He had a strong laugh, much courage, an apparently antithetical stoicism and ardour, but his overriding quality was his belief in change of a delicate sort. He detested chaos; he liked distinctions; and he hated the idea of a monolithic Communism.