Karl Lavrencic

Adventurous World Service broadcaster
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The Independent Online

Drago Lavrencic (Karl Lavrencic), journalist and writer: born Ljubljana, Yugoslavia 1 June 1921; married 1950 Dora Zebot (one daughter); died Oxshott, Surrey 14 July 2003.

The British-based Slovene journalist and writer Karl Lavrencic lived several lives within one lifespan. He was a celebrated broadcaster who spent 54 years with the BBC World Service - the last 20 in supposed retirement as a part-time contributor. Meanwhile, he became a prominent member of Britain's small Slovene community.

Lavrencic had trained as a lawyer but one of his special fields in journalism was economics. He was also the author of three books on Africa. It was an interest that he initially developed during his annual leave from the BBC. Instead of going on a conventional holiday, he would travel to far-flung corners of the world on freelance reporting assignments. For him, the best form of rest was hard work of a different kind.

But alongside his extensive professional activities, Lavrencic also found time to relax - preferably over his favourite red wine. I remember joining him for a lunchtime drink at the BBC Club before I was due to go on a reporting trip to Slovenia at the time of the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. He was already seated, sharing a bottle of wine with a colleague. My arrival prompted an order for another bottle; more was to follow as other friends were invited to the table. It was a memorably convivial occasion; but I learnt more about Slovenia from Karl Lavrencic in one hour than from days of research and interviewing.

Wide-ranging interests in the world were linked in Lavrencic's case to an encyclopaedic knowledge of his native Slovenia and the rest of the old Yugoslavia. Long before independence became a reality in 1991, he never gave up the hope of seeing democracy established in Slovenia. Yet regardless of his views about Tito's Communist-ruled Yugoslavia, he was always fair and balanced in his reporting. He was prepared to acknowledge the regime's achievements as much as to expose its many failings.

The young Lavrencic encountered the rival political ideologies of the 20th century in the brutal circumstances of war. Born Drago Lavrencic in 1921, he was only 20 when, following the German-led invasion of Yugoslavia, Slovenia was partitioned between Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. Soon afterwards he was put on a train to be transported to an Italian detention camp along with other intellectuals and students. Tito's Communist partisans ambushed the train, freed the detainees - and then promptly forced them to join their "liberators". Lavrencic had no time either for the partisans' political orientation or their incessant squabbling. He escaped from their clutches at the earliest opportunity.

It was not to be his last escape. At the end of the war, when Tito came to power in Yugoslavia, Lavrencic, by then a practising lawyer, was briefly arrested as part of a round-up of non-Communist professionals. Soon after his release, in 1946, he fled to Austria where he found refuge in the British occupation zone. There a combination of sheer determination, self-confidence and luck set him on a path that would lead to a new life in Britain.

One day Lavrencic came across some British officers who were looking for a Russian interpreter to help them gain access to a saw-mill just inside the Soviet zone. Lavrencic spoke no Russian but quickly found out the Russian word for saw-mill: "lesopilka". By dint of repeating that magic word, together with a barrage of Slovene phrases, some of which resembled Russian, as well as using sign language, he managed to make himself understood. That performance earned him a steady job as a British army interpreter - and subsequently a passage to Britain. In the process he learnt Russian to such a high standard that later he was to broadcast in that language.

Lavrencic's remarkable aptitude for languages was helped by being brought up in a bilingual family where Slovene and German were equally well spoken. At school he acquired French, a language that later in life he had plenty of opportunities to practise at his holiday home in central France. During the wartime occupation he learnt Italian. And he taught himself Spanish to while away the time on board an East German cargo ship that was transporting a consignment of old British buses to Cuba during the blockade of the early 1960s. Portuguese was to become another language in which he would conduct interviews.

In post-war Britain, Lavrencic had an astonishing variety of jobs - farm labourer, lecturer to foreign workers and Encyclopaedia Britannica salesman. Annoyed by the frequency with which people mispronounced his first name, he changed it to its more internationally recognised equivalent, Karl.

Lavrencic got his first experience in journalism with Reuters and then joined the BBC's Slovene Section in 1949. The following year he married one of his colleagues, Dora Zebot, daughter of the prominent pre-war figure Franjo Zebot who, as acting Mayor of Maribor, Slovenia's second city, had refused to raise the Nazi flag on the town hall at the time of the 1941 invasion - an act of patriotic defiance that contributed to his becoming the first Slovene to be transported to Dachau concentration camp, where he was later to die.

The marriage, which was to last 53 years, was a partnership that included many shared interests: a commitment to restoring democracy in Slovenia, welcoming and playing host to Slovenes from all walks of life who visited Britain and an involvement in journalism of the highest standard. Their daughter, Alenka, became a senior editor at the BBC World Service.

Lavrencic's first book, Living with Communism (1966), was based on his travels across the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Cuba. Like his later work, it was published under the pseudonym Anthony Sylvester. He was always adventurous, and the early-morning ritual of getting away from his official minders - one trick was to climb out of hotel windows - became one of his trade-marks. It earned him several brief spells in prison.

By then Lavrencic's enquiring mind was beginning to take him well beyond the Communist-ruled world. He travelled to the Far East, but it was for Africa that he developed a passion. An association with the United Nations Development Programme facilitated frequent visits to that continent, and helped produce three further books, Tunisia (1969), Sudan under Nimeiri (1977) and Arabs and Africans (1981).

Lavrencic's writing was lucid, accessible and combined his own eye-witness accounts with detailed knowledge of his subject. He wrote for a huge variety of publications across different countries, languages and political persuasions - a list that only expanded after his formal retirement from the BBC. These ranged from broadsheet newspapers to specialist publications, such as the Economist Intelligence Unit and Foreign Report; from newspapers in Slovenia to magazines in Africa.

He was always open-minded: curious about people and events but sceptical about any judgements or conclusions. He took great pride in Slovenia's achievements and did much to publicise them, particularly after it gained its independence from Yugoslavia. His Slovene patriotism was nurtured side-by-side with a nostalgia for the Austro- Hungarian empire of his parents' generation, which he viewed somewhat through rose-tinted spectacles, as a state that could accommodate the interests of different nations - something of an earlier incarnation of the European Union.

But the hallmark of Lavrencic's general approach was tolerance for a broad range of views; and he did not allow his own politics to interfere with his journalistic output. His mixture of detached analysis and lively reporting set an example to generations of young journalists in Slovenia and beyond.

Gabriel Partos

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