Obituary: Nebojsa Dimovic
Friday 25 June 1993
WHEN I FIRST met Nebojsa Dimovic, in 1985, he had recently been done out of the last of his fortunes and was standing in front of my house in London, a paper carrier-bag in one hand, a guitar in the other, with which essentials he was making his way from Cadogan Place, where he had lived until then and where he had once owned a good deal of property, to a one-room council flat on the wild side of the Westway. He immediately fell in love with the Portobello area and its inhabitants and never once regretted leaving Belgravia where he had spent so many years.
Dimovic's life encompassed the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the creation of Yugolsavia and finally its fragmentation. A Serb brought up in Croatia, Dimovic believed passionately in the idea of Yugoslavia. He was born in the family country house in Jasenovac in 1903. His family stayed on there until the Second World War when Jasenovac was turned into a concentration camp for Jews and Serbs, hundreds of thousands of whom were murdered by the Ustashi.
The Dimovices had come to Croatia from Herzegovina, refugees from Turkish oppression, in the first half of the 18th century. The family owned forests, shipyards and river-crossing concessions and were also tax farmers entitled to print money. Nebojsa's father, George Djura Dimovic, was a well-known Serb playwright who found his inspiration in romantic Serb folk motifs. In the 1920s Nebojsa left the cultured but stifling bourgeois milieu of Zagreb to see the world. Working for a while in the Citroen car plant in Parja, he arrived in the mid-Twenties in England which was to be his home (except for a number of years in Italy) for the rest of his life.
Dimovic was a handsome and elegant man of wit and intelligence and was welcomed into some of the most brilliant circles. He got a well-paid job in the London office of the Yugoslav branch of the Lloyd's shipping company and studied economics. Following the German invasion of Yugoslavia Dimovic played an important role in the government-in-exile of King Peter II, initially as assistant minister of economic affairs. In 1944 Ivan Subasic, who had been appointed Yugoslav premier by King Peter, left London to negotiate with Tito. The outcome was the abrogation of the 1931 constitution and their joint recognition of the provincial legislative powers of the National Liberation Council. During Subasic's absence Dimovic was left totally in charge of the 11 ministries which made up the government-in-exile.
During the war Dimovic refused to use a car (to help the war effort) and went everywhere on a bicycle, even to the grandest white-tie dinners. The extreme austerity that he displayed in his personal life (in his last years he slept on the floor to keep himself tough and subsisted mainly on packet soups), he demanded from those who worked for him during the war and, less reasonably, from his friends and particularly girl-friends long after. Having hardly touched his ministerial salary during the war he was in a position to go into business on his own account at its conclusion.
During his life he made and lost several fortunes - which carelessness may in part be attributed to his essential lack of interest in money. Perhaps his greatest coup was the aquisition of the ground lease on a good deal of land around Cadogan Place on a part of which he planned to build a great new post-war hotel. He lost control of the project but the hotel, now called the Carlton Tower, was built. Having made sufficient money from this and other deals to live very comfortably for the rest of his life (although he never wanted to live comfortably), he decided to devote himself exclusively to intellectual matters. His plan did not quite work out. After a number of years, he lost his money in complex circumstances and spent many years unsuccessfully trying to recover it. He lived for the last eight years on a state pension of about pounds 30 a week (from which he normally managed to save a few pounds), but none the less managed to carry on his intellectual work.
A voracious reader (he often spoke of the great debt he owed the British public library system) and polymath, Dimovic became increasingly alarmed by the artificiality of the divisions between different aspects of knowledge and by the pernicious effects of such division. His efforts to reduce the known to more useful and connected categories showed great lucidity and originality. The foundation which he formed while he still had some money - the Institute of Connected Education - has attracted a number of lively younger people devoted to Dimovic and his work.
The most charming and entertaining man (he was a good jazz pianist and taught himself classical guitar when he was about 80), he attracted men and women from all walks of life. He was a close friend years ago of the photographer Baron, the painters Chatin Sarachi and Kokoshka, of various British and Yugoslav aristocrats, of the actress Joyce Grenfell, the diplomat/spy Billy Maclean, the American philanthropist Bob Straus and was equally at home with his council estate neighbours who brought him great comfort during his last days. The last two words in his diary which he kept throughout his life, written with great difficulty after the stroke from which he died, and no doubt meant for his intellectual heirs as he saw his friends, were: 'Try. Try.'
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