After getting rather weary looking for suitable London accommodation as I started my degree studies at the LSE, I was on the point of taking up the offer from Manchester when I got a tap on the shoulder. There was a place available at LSE’s hall of residence, Passfield Hall. Some poor devil had failed his A levels and would not be able to take up his place.
I was ready to step in. The hall in Bloomsbury was named after Sidney (Lord) Passfield. He and his wife, Beatrice Webb, had helped found the LSE. They were well-known for their distinguished work on social history but they tripped up with their 1935 last major work, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation?
A Croatian meeting – Jakov Sirotković.
Passfield Hall was a great opportunity for me to mix with post-graduate students from abroad, among whom was Jakov Sirotković. As I learned later, from 1943 to 1945, he was a member of the medical corps of the Zagreb detachment, third brigade of the 33rd division and commander of the medical battalion of the 33rd division of the tenth corps in Zagreb. This was part of Tito’s partisan army. They had to fight against not only the Germans, but also against Mussolini’s troops and the army of Croat fascist, Ante Pavelić.
Sirotković was an economist, studying at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Zagreb, where he obtained a doctorate in economic sciences in 1951. He went on to teach there, and became a full professor in 1961.
When I met him in 1955, he was smartly turned out, jovial and happy to talk to a mere undergraduate.
I was curious about Tito’s Jugoslav socialist economy and how it differed from the Soviet model. Tito broke with Stalin in 1948; he wanted to break with Moscow but remain socialist. He introduced a new form of socialist economy based on the German model of Mitbestimmung – co-determination, where workers participate in company management. Sirotković did not want to talk politics. He was more interested in women, and to my great surprise made a request: would I entertain one as he had overbooked? I did so! She was a Canadian, much older than me and wore a fur coat.
Did I help Sirotković with any others? I do not recall, but he insisted that I should visit him during the summer vacation and he would introduce me to people who would explain Jugoslav socialism. I took up his offer and after hitchhiking through France and Italy with my friend, Denis Dowling, and taking a look at Venice, I entrained for Zagreb. Sitting next to me in the second -class compartment was an Italian who confided he had spent the war years in the Italian embassy in Berlin. He was now on his way to Turkey to sell sewing machines.
Waiting for me at Zagreb station was Jakov’s wife, Ecije also a former partisan. In the modest flat was a letter from Jakov who explained he could not see me as he was on manoeuvres with the air force. However, I need not worry; everything had been arranged for me and his wife would look after me.
I was introduced on several occasions to former partisans. Ecije took me to meet a friend, an old former partisan and party member. At the university an academic attempted to explain the Yugoslav economic system. I was introduced to a stylish young woman who wished the Italian war-time occupiers had remained and a group of mature students laughed at the thought of their economic system being a model.
Visits to Belgrade and Ljubljana
They also thought I was wasting my time going to the federal capital, Belgrade, rather than sunning myself by the sea in Dubrovnik. Although an attractive teacher had attached herself to me, I took the train to Belgrade where I got a glimpse of Tito and his guest, King Paul of Greece, both resplendent in their uniforms.
As I was getting short of time and money, I decided to head for home so I travelled the 250 miles back to Zagreb and then decided on one last detour. This was to Ljubljana. the capital of Slovenia. One tourist advert describes it as “A city for curious and adventurous souls. The city is a treasure trove of exciting secrets and natural joys.” What remains with me are the old buildings, bridges and cobbled streets and I was soon on the train to Austria.
An Austrian setback
There was no talking as we approached the frontier. A smartly-uniformed guard checked and stamped my passport. Shortly afterwards, a plain-clothed official checked again and was not happy with my visa. “It’s out of date!” he shouted at me. “You will have to get off the train!”
Thinking quickly, I asked the young Belgian traveller sitting opposite to take my only money, a few dinar and a ten-pound note, and post it to me in Bolton. If I had not done that, I would have had to exchange it and would have lost it all.
After spending the night on the station, I made an early call to the local police office. A rather fierce-looking unformed woman gave me the necessary paper warning me not to attempt to sell my camera and advising me to pay my debt to the Yugoslav Embassy in London. I was on the next train over the border. Subsequently, the Yugoslav embassy were not interested in the money. My Belgian fellow passenger did not let me down and my £10 arrived within days.
And Jakov Sirotković?
What happened to Sirotković after his time in London? After further studies at the LSE, the University of Manchester and the University of California at Berkeley, he returned to Yugoslavia where he held important positions in the government, both nationally and locally. Outside politics, he was president of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts, rector of the University of Zagreb and was editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Yugoslavia.