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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tweeto, Tito, and tricky words


I was watching Australian ABC TV's Q & A programme last night, which has invited guests each week to answer questions that come from the audience, or via recorded Skype, and through Twitter. I mention these details because overseas friends with Oz connections may wonder about a huge flurry of Twitter activity at 9.30 PM AEST directed at Australia's national broadcaster (not commercial - taxpayer funded) with the hashtag #QandA.

  It's an interesting phenomenon. People are watching the programme and many (about 30,000 by the end of the session) have made a comment on something the panelists have said. If you have Twitter friends, their comments may come up on the screen, or if you have a laptop open you can see the many other comments come onstream like a chat session - so it's very communal. Some people known for their fast wit and nimble typing fingers write very perceptive, entertaining, amusing and often obscene things, so it's like all being at the same party sharing the experience. It's banter - or, to be more accurate, an exchange of prejudices in most cases.

  Anyway, this isn't really about Twitter and Q&A, but the experience last night did bring one thing into focus for me. A number of the panelists mentioned their personal meetings with Gaddafi, the dictator still battling to hold on to power in Libya. A bright young woman from Melbourne, Anne Dunlevie, quipped, "Far out! Who hasn't met Gaddafi?"

  I was amused by this and wanted to tweet back to her, "I haven't met Gaddafi, but as we're name dropping, I did meet President Tito in a jewellery shop in New Delhi in 1973."

  Which had nothing to do with anything in the programme, I should add, but was absolutely true. I did. Sort of.

  But the tweet never got written. 

  The reason? My beleaguered, chemically altered memory failed me utterly at this point. I couldn't remember Tito's name or the country he ruled with a vice-like grip for all those years after WW2. The all-too-familiar mental block descended, yet these were two things I knew as well as my own name. All I could see were the steely eyes of Marshal Tito staring unblinkingly into mine on that morning in New Delhi. 

  So, I thought, as the Use-By date on a tweet in these circumstances fast runs out - quickly! - a map of Europe - Google - I'll see the country and then I'll remember the name of the dictator, or google its history.

  BUT where was the country? Then I remembered that the Balkan states have been balkanising again ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some no longer exist! Rumania next door did come to mind. That was no help. Czechoslovakia... OK. I knew that was wrong. Dammit! Serbia. Bosnia....

  I gave up. The moment had passed. Who remembered Tito anyway? He wasn't exactly Napoleon, but he was somebody in his day if you're too young to remember.

  Then out of the blue, as these things do, Yugoslavia came to mind. Of course! And even before I went again to Google, Tito's name flashed into my beaten-down drug-ridden memory.

  This is my problem, you see, increasingly. Even in writing, I find myself having to substitute other words or phrases for the ones that won't come to mind. If Tracey's around, I can say, "What's that word that means 'feeling super-well, very happy...?'" "Euphoria," she says. 

  "I knew that," I say, taking the famous line from Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda. "And what's the word when you do something selflessly, for the good of others? I've been trying to think of it for three days now."

  "Altruism?"

  "I knew that too...."

  I don't know if you can understand how maddeningly frustrating it is for a person who is used to words flowing freely to mind to be stuck in a logjam of inexpressible...thingies. Whatsits. They might or might not come to me but if they do, it's with considerable and brain-numbing effort. Or out of nowhere long after the moment has flit. 

  I'll remember 'altruism' from now on, just as long as I remember it starts with 'a'. That's all I need to do, and this method usually works for me. Ask me in a day or two and see if I don't get it.

  So do you want to know about my brush with the great dictator Tito or not? If not, that's fine. Off you go, but please come back another time.

Connaught Place, New Delhi. Courtesy Google Maps

  We walked into this palatial jewellery shop at the very centre of New Delhi. Connaught Place was very different then to now, not surprisingly. Forty years tend to do that. 

  Oddly, the shop was empty of customers, except for us. All assistants were standing by their counters more like guards than salespeople.  Normally they'd swarm over you in seconds, but not this time. I could even detect a hint of annoyance in the faces of one or two of them.

  OK, so we looked like tourists, admittedly, but that never stopped them before. No-one was moving. We were rather pleased about that. We wandered around a little, from counter to counter. 

  All eyes were now on the doorway. I'm not tall, but a thickset man about my height and a woman who was surely his wife came through the entrance. A group of rather taller men walked in behind them. The man and his wife started looking at jewellery. The good stuff.

President Tito
  I was young and na├»ve, but I knew who it was. Everyone knew Tito in those days - at least, if you were a student of contemporary international relations, and I was. Feigning interest in another case of trinkets, I walked over for a closer look at him. You don't get chances to see memorable dictators from three metres away every day.

  Tito turned his head and looked at me directly, neither with good humour nor aggressively. I do remember his eyes though. He wasn't a man you would want to cross. A phalanx of bodyguards intercepted me, watching my every move minutely, barring my way. I'm rather glad I didn't put my hand in my pocket for a handkerchief or anything.

  "Let's get out of here," I said. "This is probably the only place in India where you can't get served!"

  Not that I was buying anything like they were selling Tito's wife. The elegantly sari-clad memsahibs at their counters looked relieved at our departure. How we were allowed in at that time I'll never know.

  But one thing's for sure. Security, even for dictators thousands would gleefully have run a knife through, and even on an unscheduled visit to buy some jewellery for his lady, was an awful lot different forty years ago from what it is today.


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