3rd December 2014
Romanian Revolution through British Eyes/Nigel Townson: ‘Remember, remember, that distant December’
‘I had already made the flight from Cluj to Bucharest on a number of occasions and it was rarely, if ever, a joyful occasion. The trip on 21st December 1989 was no exception as there was tension amongst the passengers, the airport staff and the flight crew. Even my Securitate-sponsored minder, technically a colleague in the department of English, had been taciturn yet jumpy as he drove me to the airport that morning. He knew something serious was afoot. He kissed me on both cheeks and lamented that he might never see me again. However, on the remote chance that we might meet up once more, he asked if I could bring back some decent whisky for him. And maybe something for his wife. And his son. It was all curiously unreal, as everybody knew something was in the air but nobody was really talking about it. At least not to me, the foreigner.
And yet, a month earlier, I had been looking forward to this trip to Bucharest as a child might anticipate a visit to Santa’s toy factory. Because the Ambassador had invited me down for the Embassy Christmas party. Even now I am more than happy to drink the Ambassador’s wine and spirits at the slightest excuse, but in those days such an invitation really was a treat to be savoured. I had been in Romania for less than four months, but the routine of rationed bread and milk; of supermarkets with bare shelves (or, as I once recall, several hundred jars of peas, but nothing else); of having to bribe the staff at the Hotel Napoca to get some meat to take home; of trying to survive on a diet of Sibiu salami, caşcaval, tinned sardines and Silva beer from the dollar shop; of no fresh fruit and only limited root vegetables; had begun to take its toll on my normally blithe spirit. A trip to the Ambassador’s meant food and drink galore, and probably Christmas crackers! Even more, it meant I could get to the Embassy commissariat – a shop with goods from the UK – and buy Christmas pudding, mince pies, sausages, bacon, and even soft toilet paper! Joy unbridled…
But the news coming out of Timisoara – of demonstrations followed by a swift and bloody response from the authorities – had taken the gloss off the trip. I had spent the evening of 18th December with half a dozen daring Romanian colleagues huddled around my radio listening to the BBC World Service. We did not say much to each other, mindful of the fact that my flat was bugged. I knew it was bugged because on one occasion shortly after my arrival a colleague from the department had inadvertently drunk most of a bottle of plum brandy which he had brought me for my birthday and was unable to get up from my sofa. I had been in the country a week and I was only on chapter three of my Romanian course (Bună ziua. O cafea şi o prăjitură, vă rog – 1989 Romanian slang for A tasteless instant coffee and a slab of floury margarine, if you have any). I reckoned my chances of getting an ambulance to take him home were fairly slim. Even if I had known the emergency number, there are very limited ways to interpret Bună ziua. O cafea şi o prăjitură, vă rog, none of which would be likely to produce the vehicle required.
However, I reckoned that even the least efficient of surveillance services would use an English speaker to listen in on my conversations. So I picked up the phone and spoke into the mouthpiece without dialling. I informed the silence – no ring tone, just a spooky aural vacuum – that, as they were undoubtedly aware, Professor X was semi-conscious on my couch so I would appreciate it if they could pick him up and transport him home. I somehow got him downstairs where, lo and behold, there was a taxi waiting. It was the first time I had ever seen a taxi parked there, yet the driver made a fairly good show of looking surprised when I turned up with my practically comatose burden. But he did the right thing and got the dear professor home in one piece. The driver didn’t need to ask me for the address, intriguingly.
Anyway, I was saying that we were huddled round the radio. It was a grim evening. Reports were coming out of Timisoara which served only to dampen the hope that had infused Romanians on their learning of the fall of the Berlin wall some weeks earlier. It was a depressing evening, and all the Sibiu salami I could offer did little to raise spirits. As the BBC news went off the air, to be replaced by an even more depressing programme on eternal damnation for the wicked, my guests began to drift home, and I was left to mull over where these developments might lead. It was not an optimistic reflection.
In rather despondent mood, I tried the next day to cancel my trip to Bucharest, calling the British Council there to say that I would stay in Cluj over Christmas. However, it was put to me in a tone more meaningful than the words themselves that this was not an option I should be considering at that moment.
So, there I was, having paid an extortionate 50 dollars in hard currency for my seat because I was a foreigner, staring with glazed and bloodshot eyes (I had foolishly drunk two shots of the industrial paraffin that was served as an in-flight drink in those days) at the Bucharest tarmac as the plane rolled to a halt in front of the arrivals gate at Baneasa. I ambled towards the luggage retrieval area to pick up my empty suitcase (it would, I hoped, be full for the return trip) and was taken aback to be greeted by a couple of burly individuals, whom I recognised from previous visits to the Embassy. As they walked over to me, I was aware that the loudspeakers at the airport, which should have been relaying Ceausescu’s speech, I suppose, had been left on, and there were curious and unexpected sounds of shouting and dissent being broadcast around the building. The two Embassy security officials very efficiently bundled me into one of two diplomatic vehicles that had come to meet me (Two! I felt fleetingly important.) and whisked me off to the centre. On the way, they told me what had just happened in Piaţa Republicii. They sounded professional and reassuring, but were clearly excited at the turn of events. It was an early Christmas for them, I suppose. As a security officer at an overseas mission you probably spend your whole working life waiting in vain for something to happen, so, when it does, you undoubtedly make the most of the moment. To be honest, I rather envied them. They were privy to secrets which I could only guess at, and they made it immediately clear that I was to be ‘grounded’ in the flat of the Director of the British Council, cut off from the momentous events that were taking place in the streets of Bucharest.
With hindsight, I acknowledge that it was a silly question. But I did actually ask them if I should walk round to the ambassador’s for the Christmas party that evening or if they would be picking me up in the car(s). A sense of propriety and a regard for the sensitive reader prevent me from giving their reply in detail, but it contained rather a lot of expletives and very little substance, the gist of which was that the party had been cancelled. I think that it was only then that I began to realise that this was, indeed, a momentous moment in Romanian history. Listening to events unfold on the radio was surreal, in a sense, as I was not quite a witness, but not entirely an outsider. Being whisked at breakneck speed to a safe house by two of Her Majesty’s finest and bravest really brought the message home. This is serious, and you are in the middle of it, Nigel…
I then found myself sitting in the relatively secure surroundings of my boss’ flat on Aleea Alexandru whilst he was attending a business event in London. Alec Pattison, my boss, was a delightful man, but I don’t think he ever fully forgave me for the fact that I was there and he wasn’t. His wife Clare was there, and I recall that we were both taken aback at how quickly events unfolded that day.
One minute we were eating in front of the television (sausages from the commissariat with English mustard – strange how some inconsequential details stay with you) watching a rather motley group of men – no women – telling us, if I recall correctly, that the National Salvation Front had been formed to lead the country out of oppression. There was one man in a suit who looked very ill at ease, and a number of determined-looking individuals with Freddie Mercury moustaches. I believe Ion Caramitru also came on, and I recognised him as he had been on the flight with me from Cluj. This brought home to me quite how close I really was to the drama that was unfolding.
And the next minute the garden outside our building was thronging with euphoric Romanians chanting ‘’Armata e cu noi!’’. I was on chapter fifteen or so of my Romanian course by this time, and I had little difficulty working out what that meant. I had more difficulty working out why it was such a good thing, as the army is not generally the friend of the peaceful revolutionary. But as beribboned and uniformed army officers began to take their place in front of the cameras it became clear that yes, the army really was with the people. So I went outside and joined them, chanting and marching with the throng as they headed off towards the TV studios. When I got back to the flat, our security guys were there. They really went berserk, giving me a dressing down in language so ballistically projected that I swear I can almost hear them now. But I didn’t care. I had been caught up in the moment and I felt I was part of a glorious day.
The glory did not last. The next morning we learned of the reprisals, the counter-revolutionary offensive of the Romanian security forces. A day of euphoria had melded into a night of terror that was to set the tone for the weeks to come. I was told I had been classified as ‘’non-essential personnel’’, which was somewhat deflating, albeit accurate. A seat was found for me on the last plane to leave Otopeni before the airport was forced to close down. I was on a Lufthansa flight with a lot of nervous diplomats and their families, and there was palpable relief as we took off, en route for the safety of, first, Germany, and then the UK.
So I spent the next few weeks in the UK whilst Romanians either took to the streets and fought, or sheltered with their families in fear. I watched the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu from the living room of a suburban house in Manchester. It was a chilling moment, totally at odds with the spirit of Christmas peace and warmth which enveloped my home country like a comfort blanket. When I finally returned to Cluj some three weeks later, it was to learn of the tragic fate of the 26 poor souls who had lost their lives in the fighting. I still pause and reflect on those days each time I walk by Liviu Mocan’s Stâlpii împuşcaţi when I visit Cluj. It has been twenty-five years, and I am in Romania once again. I work with people who were not even born in 1989. But let us hope that they are brought up to understand that the freedom they enjoy today was paid for by the bravery and selflessness of hundreds of their compatriots – and only a generation ago.’
BY Nigel Townson
Director, British Council Romania
Disclaimer: This account does not represent the view of the Her Majesty’s British Government, but is a personal recollection of the December 1989 events in Romania.