Foreign exchange

CAKOR 75 Summit


A chance encounter in the former Yugoslavia has stuck in my memory

Sometime in 1975, I travelled from Peć (now in Kosovo) to Titograd (now in Montenegro) by bus. I chose to take the route that went via the wild and difficult Ĉakor Pass that traverses the mountain range shared by northern Albania and Montenegro, where I was heading. We reached the highest point on the pass after driving around a seemingly endless series of tight hairpin bends, and stopped there to give the driver a break.

While I was wandering around the treeless, grassy summit, admiring the views into the valley into which we would be descending, a grubby little boy approached me. He said something to me in a language, which I did not recognise as being Serbo-Croat. It was probably Albanian. Somehow, he made it clear to me that he wanted foreign coins. I thought that he was either a beggar, or more likely, just a curious youngster pleased to have chanced upon a foreigner. I gave him a few British coins, and then he rummaged around in his pocket. After a moment, he handed me a few Yugoslav Dinar coins, and left. He was no beggar, after all, but simply a young fellow with a well-developed sense of fairness.

After leaving the Ĉakor, we wound through the mountains to Andrijevica, a small Montenegrin town, which was enshrouded in rain and mist. Then, we descended gradually via a series of deep wooded canyons towards Titograd. All I saw of the town on that occasion was its bus station.


Picture shows view from the summit of  the Ĉakor Pass

Meeting the Colonel

My parents were against supporting dictatorial regimes. For example, during the 1960s and ‘70s, they would only buy pickled gherkins that had been made in Western Europe, in places like West Germany or Holland. They would not have bought Hungarian or Polish, or even Bulgarian gherkins because by doing so they believed that some of the money they spent might well end up being used build weapons that could be used against the ‘free’ West. They were against visiting countries behind the “Iron Curtain” or General Franco’s Spain.


My father had several Greek colleagues. At a dinner held by one of them, they met a Greek millionaire, one of Greece’s wealthiest men. My mother noticed that he was fiddling with worry beads and did not know what they were. She asked him, and he threw the beads across the table to her. They were coral beads on a gold chain. She looked at them, and then began to hand them back, when he said:

“Keep them.”

“Don’t be silly, I can’t keep these,” my mother replied, realising their worth.

“No, please let me give them to you.”

My mother and the millionaire struck up an amicable relationship, and near the end of the evening, he said:

“You must bring your family to Greece as my guests.”

My mother thought he was joking, but after that occasion my parents kept getting invitations from him.


The symbol of the Junta is circled in this picture taken in rural Greece during the late 1960s

This dinner party happened soon after the 21st of April 1967, when a group of colonels, the Junta, took control of the Government of Greece replacing a democracy with a dictatorship. How could they possibly accept their new friend’s kind invitation to a country with a dictatorship? Much as they would have liked to accept, going to Greece was even worse than buying gherkins from a Communist country.

The invitation kept being repeated. After about two years, I came up with a suggestion. I said to my parents that if we were to become guests of the millionaire, we would contribute little or nothing to the economy of the Greek Junta. Miraculously, my parents saw my point and decided to accept the invitation.


On arrival in Greece, we found it very difficult to spend any of our own money. We were looked after by one of the millionaire’s former employees. If he saw us so much as looking at something, he would try to buy it for us. We learned to look at things discretely!

We saw little of our host, a busy man. One evening, we were invited to a party at his large estate on the edge of Athens. It was a lovely place with numerous outhouses including an open-air eating area with its own large kitchen building. Our host met and introduced us to various guests. After a while he introduced us to a gentleman, saying:

“Please meet Colonel Pattakos.”


Colonel Stylianos Pattakos. [Source; Wikipedia]

My parents were polite, but doubtless horrified after shaking hands with Pattakos. Stylianos Pattakos (1912-2016), a Greek military officer, was one of the principal leaders of the Greek military dictatorship. Pattakos is best known outside Greece for his decision to strip the singer Melina Mercouri of her Greek citizenship. She is reported to have said of Pattakos, who was the Minister of the Interior:

“I was born a Greek and I will die a Greek. Mr Pattakos was born a fascist and he will die a fascist.”

Unloved by most Greeks, Pattakos is said to have told a reporter that when, he returned to his native Crete, a few months after seizing power, his mother had demanded to know who had put him up to “this evil” (see:

I feel sure that if they had been able to do so, they would have washed their hands thoroughly after contact with Pattakos.

Thank you, Queen Victoria

From worlds far apart,

Two folk come together:

Cupid’s bow does its job


When our daughter was a little girl in junior school, the members of her class were asked to name the greatest Briton in history. She nominated Queen Victoria. Her choice was based on the following facts: her mother’s parents were born in India and my parents were born in South Africa. When Queen Victoria reigned, she argued, both countries were part of the British Empire. This, she felt, made it more likely that both her parents would study in England and meet. Without Victoria, she concluded, my wife Lopa and I might never have met, and she would not have existed. Well, maybe she was right. I believe that the reason we met was due to two men who gave us career’s advice: Professor Lewis Wolpert in London and Major General SL Bhatia in Bangalore.

As I approached the time when I had to choose a university undergraduate course, I had no idea which subject to select. I was interested in biology, physics, and chemistry, but had no interest in studying medicine, or even dentistry, which I studied many years later. Careers advice at my secondary school was not helpful.

My South African-born parents knew many South Africans living in London. One of these was my father’s close friend, the late Cyril Sofer, a sociologist. It was through the Sofer family that we met Lewis Wolpert, who was born in South Africa. First, he trained to become a civil engineer. By the time I first met him, he had become an eminent biologist, specialising in cell and developmental biology.

Wolpert, on learning that I was having difficulties choosing a course of study, kindly invited me to his office in Middlesex Hospital in central London. He spent about an hour with me, listening to what I had found interesting in the science subjects I had studied at school. Having heard me out, he suggested that I study physiology at university. This subject would, he thought, encompass all that interested me so far. He told me that the best places to study physiology were Cambridge and University College London (‘UCL’). Of these, he considered the physiology department at UCL to be the best. I was pleased to hear this.

About five years before meeting Wolpert, my father and I had visited UCL because a friend of the family, the art-historian Leopold Ettlinger, worked there. All that I can remember of this visit was walking across the lawns in UCL’s elegant Front Quadrangle and thinking how beautiful it seemed. So, when Lewis Wolpert suggested that I apply for admission to UCL, I was happy about that.

At about the time I was discussing my academic future with Wolpert in London, a young lady, my future wife Lopa, was discussing the same thing with another eminent scientist 5000 miles away in Bangalore. The scientist, Major General SL Bhatia (1891-1982), had known Lopa’s mother’s father from when he studied medicine in Bombay. The two medics became close friends. When Lopa’s mother Chandra was born, Bhatia became the equivalent of Chandra’s god-father.

Chandra’s father died young having succumbed to blood poisoning while treating one of his patients. His friend Bhatia had a glittering career in science, medicine and the Indian Army. It was during his retirement that Lopa met him at his beautiful old-fashioned bungalow in Bangalore. Bhatia had studied medicine not only in India but also at St Thomas’s Hospital in London during the second decade of the 20th century. While in London, he had conducted research with leading physiologists. Like Wolpert had done for me in London, Bhatia recommended that Lopa, who was not keen on studying medicine at that time, pursue a course of physiology at UCL, because he knew it to have a fine reputation in that subject.

One morning in October 1970, I arrived at the Physiology Department at UCL, having travelled from my home in north-west London. I was one of nine students who had been accepted for the course. Lopa was one of the others. She had travelled over 5000 miles to join the department. We were greeted by the department in the Starling Room, named after a famous physiologist who had worked at UCL. This common room is where I met the young lady who was eventually to marry me.


In the bar at the Bangalore Club

Our wedding reception in Bangalore was held in 1994 at the Bangalore Club, a prestigious ex-colonial institution in the heart of Bangalore. Although he could not attend, Major SL Bhatia was the first Indian President of that elite club. Before that, all the Presidents had been British. Bhatia’s widow was at the wedding. She claimed, not without some reason, that it was she and her late husband, who were responsible for getting Lopa and me together.

The late queen_800

Just as our daughter is eternally grateful to Queen Victoria for bringing Lopa and me together, I am equally thankful to Professor Wolpert and Major General Bhatia for getting our paths to cross. I cannot acknowledge them for what was to follow; Cupid and his arrows are to be thanked for that.

Picture sources: (Bhatia) & (Wolpert)