Left Field

By David Wilson

A memoir from the co-founder of the charity War Child

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Publication date: May 2016

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Since I fled public school on a meat ship to Argentina I have been many things - gaucho, sailor, teacher, art agent, filmmaker, war crime witness, aid worker and playwright. I am perhaps best known as the co-founder of War Child, a charity set up to protect children living in the world's war zones, and whose patrons included Luciano Pavarotti, Davie Bowie, Brian Eno and Tom Stoppard.

War Child's first project was to establish a bakery in Bosnia, organising deliveries of food and medicine to those in need. My lifelong love affair with the Balkans included a tempestuous marriage to a Croatian, and becoming the first director of the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar, where I was charged with helping the war traumatised through music. However in 2000, with the help of War Child’s patrons, The Guardian and Channel 4 TV, I was forced to become a whistleblower to expose corruption in the same charity that I helped to establish.

My father was one of the first Allied doctors to enter Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and he inspired me to become a political activist, where my activities in CND attracted the attention of M15 when I was only sixteen. I was active in May 1968 and, more recently, have been Press Officer at the Stop the War Coalition in London.

Left Field will find its readers amongst the 60s generation who grew up with me, agitated with me and remain true to the struggles of their youth. It will also be important to today's new generation of angry, frustrated, hopeful young people who are organising for a better and fairer world.

"David Wilson has lived a life and a half. I was proud to play a minor role in War Child, an organisation in which David was inspirational. The broken world needed people like David then; it still does and it always will." Sir Tom Stoppard

“David Wilson is an adventurer and a free-thinker, who, despite the best efforts of an education designed to equip him for obedient anonymity, somehow did something truly useful with his life. His stubborn and yet self-effacing commitment to his ideals carried him through many daunting situations, and his sense of humour kept him able to see the funny side.” Brian Eno


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  • David Wilson avatar

    David Wilson

    After returning from Argentina in 1963, I was a teacher before becoming an agent for a Yugoslav artist. When war broke out there, I produced a BBC Arena film, Croatia: The Artists’ War. As witnesses to war, I co-founded the charity War Child. Our first project was a mobile bakery and we organised medical deliveries throughout Bosnia. I helped facilitate music workshops with children in Sarajevo and Mostar, and with Pavarotti’s support, we constructed a music centre in Mostar. I was its first director. War Child gained a reputation as the music business charity of choice - most notably with the release of the 'Help' album in 1995. I helped set up the first clinical music therapy department in Bosnia, a schools’ music programme and organised theatre performances, dance and concerts. After leaving the Pavarotti Music Centre, I lectured across Europe on conflict resolution through music at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, the University of Zurich and the British Council, London. In 2000 I worked with The Guardian to expose corruption in War Child. More recently as Press Officer at Stop the War Coalition, I dealt with the media and organised concerts for the anti-war movement, including a gig featuring Rachid Taha Band, Brian Eno and Mick Jones. I have written three plays which have been publicly performed. Throughout my life I have been a political activist.

  • Chapter 6 - Café Slavia

    We are surrounded by fakes. There are fake pearls, fake fur, fake blood, fake signatures. Some fakes are not just meant to deceive, but to impress as well, like fake books that fill the shelves of people who wish to appear more learned than they are, or fake aristocrats who purchase their fake titles. Fakes can be used negatively, such as documents created to justify the attack on Iraq. Or positively, inflatable tanks placed on the cliffs above Dover before D-Day.

    The art world is rife with fakes where they are called forgeries. They are as old as the Old Masters and often the Old Masters were the greatest forgers of all. Michelangelo produced replicas of Domenico Ghirlandaio's drawings that were so good, Ghirlandaio thought they were his own.

    I spent a lot of time in Ključ, helping catalogue Rabuzin's prodigious output. After one visit in October 1990, I returned to Zagreb a few days before my flight to London. I arrived on a Friday and my plane had been booked for the following Tuesday. I had planned to spend three free days with my friend, Darko Glavan, a rock critic. Unfortunately, when I got there, Darko said he had to go to Paris that weekend to visit Jim Morrison's grave and write an article on The Doors.

    I went to a bar on Tkalćićeva Street that was frequented by artists. There I bumped into Goran Tomić, a wheeler-dealer who was always introducing me to ex-communist party bizinessmen, all of whom knew someone who knew someone who had a Picasso they wanted to get out of the country. It was less than a year since the fall of the Berlin Wall and eastern Europe was full of art works migrating westward, lured by the promise of insanely-high prices.

    Over a beer Goran said, 'There is interesting painting in Prague. I'm going there to authenticate it. Come with me, David. It will be, as you English say, jolly good fun.’

    I shook my head. 'I have to go back to London.’

    ‘When do you leave?’


    ‘We have time.’

    ‘But it's Friday afternoon.’

    ‘We go now.’

    Goran had many crazy qualities, one of which I shared: impetuousness. Two hours later, we set off in pouring rain in his beat-up, unheated Citroën deux chevaux. There was a leak above my head. Cold and wet, I climbed into the back seat for the rest of the journey.

    The tin snail's windscreen wipers were worn and their scritch-scratch was torturous to listen to. The car's signal lights were broken and when Goran overtook lorries, I shut my eyes and prayed. I didn't think we'd make it but, 380 kilometres later, at three in the morning, we arrived in Prague.

    Goran drew up outside a large house in the leafy suburb of Karlin. An old man answered the door and led us into a cellar. At its centre was a 6-foot circular wooden castle, complete with battlements and flag.

    I stared at it.

    The old man smiled at me. 'Prague Castle. I make.' He walked to the side of the room and turned on a tap. There was a large wheel with yoghurt cartons attached to its outside rim. As each carton filled with water, the wheel started to turn. Like a large clock, the wheel had cogs connected to the rim of the castle which began to revolve.

    'I see you like,' the old man said. 'Turn off after you enjoy.’

    He pointed to a camp bed in the cellar's far corner. 'There you sleep.’

    The old man and Goran disappeared and I was left alone in the basement. When I tried to turn off the tap, it came away in my hand. The castle cranked and groaned. What could I do? I had no idea where Goran or the old man were. The noisy castle kept me awake.

    In the morning, Goran brought me a coffee. 'So you like this,' he said, nodding towards the turning contraption.

    ‘Like it? It kept me awake and I couldn't turn the water off. Find a way to stop the damn thing.’

    He shrugged. 'That not matter. We go now to Café Slavia and await Maja. You will like her. She very beautiful.’

    Located on the banks of the Vltava River, the Slavia was typical of the cafés you find throughout the former Austro-Hungarian Empire: varnished wood panels, sturdy chairs and tables and newspapers slung over wooden dowels. Old men sip their coffees while playing chess and fur-coated women gossip in low voices and eat éclairs and chocolate gateaux.

    Goran and I sat drinking foul kavas. In those days of glasnost, but before the arrival of Starbucks, Czech coffee was dark, strong and served in mugs. Oily, gritty coffee grains floated on the top of your cup and stuck to your lips.

    Goran kept getting up to make phone calls, returning each time to say, 'Maja is on her way.’

    I trusted his word as much as I did his driving, but we were a long way from Zagreb and there was nowhere else for me to go.

  • 2nd May 2016 Ivo's Boat

    The orgin of 'Left Field began 18 years ago when my wife, Anne Aylor, and I were on holiday on the Croatian island of Mljet. We were taking a much-needed break from our all-consuming work at the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar. Anne was working on her second novel, The Double Happiness Company and I was staring from our balcony at the harbour jetty below where a fisherman was smoking a cigarette…

    15th April 2016 Left Field - the film of the book

    4th March 2016 Make Music not War


    The Other day I met with Rob Williams the CEO of War Child. He invited me to their office where I met some of their 30 + staff. With aid projects in six countries (seven soon with Yemen) and an annual budget in excess of £10 million reaching out to over 100,000 children, they are a very different organisation to the one I co-founded. But I am happy to see that music is still central to the charity…

    17th January 2016 drumming - the horse that takes you to the Gods

    Here is a clip from one of Eugene Skeef's drumming workshops at the Pavarotti Music Centre. When I left there in 2000 I wrote this, "On Sunday afternoons, you could find children and young people taking part with djembes, maracas, handbells, marimbas and wood blocks. These workshops were developed, both at the Centre and as part of the outreach work at orphanages and hospitals. After thirty minutes…

    13th January 2016 David Bowie and War Child

    How David Bowie helped War Child. Between September 1994 and February 1997 Brian Eno and his wife Anthea organised three exhibitions and auctions for the charity. The first was 'Little Pieces from Big Stars'. It included Paul McCartney's driftwood carving and Linda’s photographs, Bono's music box containing sunglasses, Charlie Watts' drawing of a hotel telephone, Billy Bragg's brass rubbing and…

    21st December 2015 Uncle Karl

    A Christmas story from 'Left Field'. "A regular guest at our house was Karl Henrik Køster, a Danish neurosurgeon who’d met my father in Bergen-Belsen when they were both serving in the RAMC. They became close friends and my sisters and I called him Uncle Karl. Because he always came to stay in December, this large man with his deep voice and Nordic accent was Father Christmas, though now I realise…

    9th December 2015 Rock the Casbah

    Here are the timelines for the publication of Left Field. You should receive your copy by April 2016 and possibly a bit earlier. Left Field will be in bookshops a month later, on 5 May. It's not too late to pledge for a special edition and have your name printed at the back of the book. Please inform your friends. If you want to keep up to date with Left Field news go here  The book is full of…

    4th November 2015 The Pied Piper of Mostar

    I met yesterday with Prof Nigel Osborne as he passed through London on his way from running children's workshops in Syria and Lebanon to Buxton. He was due to give a talk at the Buxton Opera House and attend the premier of a new work of his, 'Bosnian Voices', to be performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. The Chief Executive at Buxton is Simon Glinn, who played a significant role at the…

    28th October 2015 Dylan Thomas at school

    Further to my earlier blog about Dylan Thomas, here is Mervyn Levy's drawing of Dylan and his account of their schoolboy days together in Swansea. More about Mervyn's contribution to my play about Dylan in 'Left Field'.

    NB: Unbound are offering £10 off all their titles until midnight of 4th November. Just enter 'AUTUMN15' at checkout.Tell your friends.

    “We had, as always, tossed a farthing…

    7th October 2015 Left Field has a cover

    Russell Mills has created a great cover for Left Field. I am honoured that he has produced such an outstanding design, as effective as those he did for Don DeLillo and Milan Kundera. 





    28th September 2015 Half the world is missing

    Left Field' is a memoir with many meadows, one of them containing the flowers and fields of the Croatian naïve painter Ivan Rabuzin. Some years ago, as his London agent, I produced a BBC Arena film made during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. With Rabuzin's paintings came a homespun philosophy: ‘When a man looks at something, he just sees half of it. At every moment, half the world is missing…

    17th September 2015 God Save the Hypocrites

    My father died two years ago aged 101. On his 100th birthday he received a card from the Queen. Hardly able to move he kicked it off his bed. He was one of the first Allied doctors to enter Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Would the Daily Mail care to denounce him as 'disrespectful' of his country? You can read about my dad in 'Left Field'.

    20th August 2015 Where is Chilcot?

    Reg Keys is leading demands for the publication of the much-delayed Chilcot Enquiry. Reg's son Tom Keys, was one of six military policemen killed in Majar al-Kabir, Iraq in June 2003. Working with Felicity Arbuthnot and Brian Eno I helped organise the early days of his election campaign when he stood against Tony Blair in Sedgefield at the 2005 general election. You can read read more about Reg…

    8th July 2015 Write & Draw

    Marjane Satrapi, graphic novelist, illustrator and film director has said that:

    “Images are a way of writing. When you have the talent to be able to write and draw, it seems a shame to choose one. I think it's better to do both.”

    I agree and that is why Left Field will include photos. It is also why I am delighted that Russell Mills will be designing the book's cover. His images are his way…

    25th June 2015 'David Wilson has lived a life & a half' - Sir Tom Stoppard

    Left Field is now 100% funded and will be published by Unbound in 2016. Thank you to all those who have bought the book and helped get it to publication. If you haven't yet ordered a copy now is a good moment to do so. First print will be hardback with your name published in the book and is a good read, according to those quoted below! If you have bought a copy please don't stop there - but forward…

    9th June 2015 Dogs are our link to paradise

    I am excited that, if the book reaches its funding target, Russell Mills will design the book cover for Left Field. He is well known for his record covers - Michael Nyman, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, Nine Inch Nails amongst others. His book covers include Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Samuel Beckett and Don DeLillo. 

    I like this from DeLillo: “I think it's only in a crisis…

    6th June 2015 Drumming in the book cover

    Doing final edits on Left Field, I came across Pay-Uun Hiu's amazing article in de Volkskrant from December 1997. Writing about the opening of the Pavarotti Music centre, she had this to say about Eugene Skeef:

    "Born in South Africa and former co-worker of Steve Biko in the Seventies, Skeef is a phenomenal drummer and has an equally phenomenal gift for music communication. In the small room…

    29th May 2015 Missing Kidneys

    Soon after the wars in former Yugoslavia, politicians from all sides actively nationalised their languages. Antun Vrdoljak, Croatian TV chief in the 1990s, declared that,"Language preserves the nation's history and culture ... language is the womb." At its most zenophobic, the Croatian Education Minister, Jasna Gotovac, said, "The fight for our language and culture is a part of the war." Alija Isakovic…

    14th April 2015 Mostar Sevdah Reunion

    " I never got the chance to thank you for all your support and kindness in the process of the creation of Mostar Sevdah Reunion. Our lives have changed thanks to you, Eugene Skeef and Music Center Pavarotti … without you – no Mostar Sevdah Reunion, no me as a producer, no sevdah on the World Music map … I hope that one day, city of Mostar will officially recognize your priceless contribution to the…

    9th April 2015 Uncle Karl & The Wooden Soldier

    A regular guest at our house was Karl Henrik Køster, a Danish neurosurgeon who wrote for The Lancet and who’d met my father in Bergen-Belsen.They became friends and my sisters and I called him Uncle Karl. He always arrived with a large bottle of Cherry Heering, and gifts for us children. I remember the brightly-painted wooden soldier with its red tunic and blue trousers. It had moveable arms and…

    10th March 2015 Brian Eno & Me (Huffington Post)
    10th March 2015 Brian Eno & Me


    6th March 2015 Whistleblowers at the Abbey by Anthea Norman-Taylor

    The other weekend I attended a retreat at Ampleforth Abbey, the Benedictine monastery near York, on the subject of ‘whistleblowers’. The idea came from Ian Foxley and Paul Moore.

    Ian Foxley is a retired lieutenant colonel who was appointed by the MoD in 2010 to oversee a £2bn military communications project in Saudi Arabia. He had to flee after uncovering and exposing bribes paid to Saudi officials…

    2nd March 2015 What Brian Eno, Tom Stoppard & others are saying about Left Field

    Brian Eno- "This is an excellent and inspiring book. David's stubborn and yet self-effacing commitment to his ideals carried him through many daunting situations, and his sense of humour kept him able to see the funny side."

    Sir Tom Stoppard- "David Wilson has lived a life and a half ... the broken world needed people like David then; it still does and always will."

    Dorothy Byrne, Head of Channel…

    27th February 2015 Brian Eno interviews David Wilson

    What do U2, Pavarotti, Argentine cowboys, the ex-Yugoslav wars, back room art deals and Brian Eno have in common? Answer: 'Left Field'. Brian Eno interviews David ( http://ow.ly/JI8jx )about his forthcoming memoir. Brian and David have a long history together and David appears liberally in Eno's diary "A Year with Swollen Appendices". He's the David that very obviously isn't Bowie


    23rd February 2015 The Gaucho

    The gauchos of the 19th century, the sort found in José Hernández poem, “El Gaucho Martín Fierro”, made their boots from the skin of a horse's leg, their stirrups from knuckle bones. Their elaborately-decorated facóns were tucked into the back of their belts. These knives survived into the 1960s when I was in Argentina – we'd slice barbequed beef for breakfast with them before herding the cattle.…

    21st February 2015 Why Left Field

    Originally a baseball term, the Oxford Dictionaries have other definitions and it is these I am referring to: "A surprising or unconventional position or style' and '(of artistic work) radical or experimental'. I hope my life is a YES to both of those.

    Left Field went 'live' yesterday as I was returning by train from Barcelona where I was visiting my 5-month old grandson, Rhys. His photo appears…

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