Jilliana Ranicar-Breese

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The Balkan Calendar

I am often asked which of the 'Retrograph' jobs were the most interesting and satisfying. This is one of them that I was proud of. 

The phone rang one day in the mid 80s and a foreign lady's voice asked to speak to Jilliana. She was calling from Belgrade and wanted trannies of 12 commodities for the Yugoslavian Board of Trade calendar for the coming year. She phoned in the summer and frankly I took no notice of her 'urgent' call. I rarely dealt abroad, my only foreign clients included Flammarion in Paris and I had been 'conned by the owner of a known American publishing company. Belgrade was far away behind The Iron Curtain to take another chance on being paid. 

My own thought of Yugoslavia was the wonderful limited edition crate of wine we had bought at a car boot fair that no doubt had "fallen off the back of a lorry!''  So when I received a second phone call from the same lady who seemed very stressed and insisted that I should speak to the director of the Yugoslavian Board of Trade in Regent Street, London who would pay me upfront for the presentation, I knew it was a serious request. They had my brochure and listing on the reverse. The President of the Board with an unpronounceable name would be coming to London in September to choose the 12 images himself. I was very cheeky and asked the friendly director when we spoke if Mr Big could bring me a bottle of their first rate wine. I had even kept the label for reference. We had, of course, drunk the 12 bottles in the crate and were thirsty for more. 

Finally the presentation day dawned. I prepared the room, table and three chairs. I had researched the 12 commodities:  coffee, chocolate, leather, tobacco, shipping, aviation, trains, transport, tourism, communication, perfume and food. 

On the dot of 11.00 am, the doorbell rang. I opened it to find a sinister man straight out of a Cold War movie standing there. He was not smiling. He wore a belted grey trench coat with two epaulettes on his broad shoulders. The man behind him was grinning and very friendly. He was the London Office director and 'the voice' for Mr Big who appeared not to speak English. 

In they came. Mr Big did not shake hands but slowly and dolefully handed me the precious bag of wine that he had been 'ordered' to bring. He must have been cursing me. I remember saying, "Oh thank you, you shouldn't have bothered!" Chuckling to myself that I had had the chutzpah to ask! 

Two of my house rules were not to smoke and not to handle the precious valuable prints and ephemera.  Mr Big sat chain smoking so I had to open the window. Eventually he dropped one of the papers, holding it with one hand in the corner of the page. I shouted at him. I didn't care who he was. He was in my territory and most disagreeable. Worse, it was obvious he knew exactly what he wanted and understood English very well but for some reason pretended he didn't. He was no doubt the KGB in disguise! 

After discussions in Serbian, they selected their 12 visuals for photography. The calendar would be designed in Belgrade. They did not haggle over the price for European calendar rights nor my request for 10 copies plus of course our credit lines. Photography for Martin Breese and picture research for Jillliana Ranicar-Breese. All I had to do was phone when the trannies were ready and someone would come to collect bringing the money.  Done and dusted you might say. 

We were getting ready to do the LIBF - The London Book Fair at Olympia, when I received a phone call from the freight department of the Yugoslavian airlines asking if I would be home for a large delivery. Puzzled I waited. Why large I wondered? The delivery arrived. Mon Dieu! Inside the box, as promised, were 10 gigantic absolutely beautiful Art Nouveau style calendars. 12 pages of spectacular graphics I was proud of. They certainly had a first rate graphic designer. However they had added a couple of Russian visuals and still paid me for 12. An English company would not have been so generous. We put one up for a charity draw at LIBF and I recall it was won by a picture researcher. I took one to hang in my Paris office, the rest languished in the box too big to give friends. I had forgotten to enquire the size it would be published. 

More than 25 years passed until the day I spent with a Serbian friend in Skadarlija, a 420 year old street in old town, Belgrade. We had a satisfying  traditional lunch listening to gypsy violins and accordion music. Later while ambling around, we espied a restaurant that was closed but its garden was open for tea. On my way to the ladies room, which unbelievably was decorated with vintage pornography, I saw languishing on a table propped up against the wall, a large framed shipping print from the Retrograph calendar. My heart skipped a beat. My past had caught up with me yet again. I photographed the evidence with a smile on my face. 

A good job, well done but, I wondered, what happened to all those other calendars before the Wall came down on 9 November, 1989? 

Written in the Infanta Mercedes hotel, Madrid, September 2016.