Coming in from the Cold

IssueJuly - August 2007
Feature by John Rety

I arrived in this country from Hungary in 1947 to three feet of snow in London and very little electricity.

The scars of war everywhere, bombed buildings, unheated rooms, horses and carts, very few cars, but a very efficient transport service, on buses and underground. The sounds around me were chirpy cockney, now rarely heard in London.

Alien registration

I had to register my movements and was issued with an identity card and a ration book for essential items. Books were cheap and of a utility standard. I found a job with a book publisher, a very charming man but hopeless in his business dealings and in 1951, the Festival of Britain, he became bankrupt and I was out of a job and started living quasi communally and mixed with the new writers and artists, and the entourage that surrounded them.

We were all young and detested the previous generation that could not or would not stop war and militarism. By 1951 I was entrusted with the editorship of Intimate Review, a bohemian newspaper without offices or staff. Its headquarters was a table in the newly opened coffee house in Northumberland Avenue. Among the writers was Colin Wilson whom I printed for the first time. By then I had become a philosophical anarchist, and ventured abroad on a stateless passport, without a visa, to France, Spain and Sweden.

I enjoyed being stateless in a world full of awful governments. In the Sixties I became one of the editors of Freedom.

This is hardly the place to fill in the various joys and vicissitudes of my life in Britain but I must fly across many decades to the end of the 20th century which brought great difficulties my way.

Bastille Europe

The French, without any public declaration, withdrew permission for refugees to enter without a visa. I was to go to Dresden to play for Britain in the Senior European Chess championship, and I was forced to fly direct to Germany because the French would not give me a transit visa by railway through their well-advertised land of liberty, fraternity and equality.

Prove you were born

The next disaster for me came when the Hungarians inveigled themselves into the European Union, which meant that my refugee status was no longer valid and I found myself without a travelling document whatsoever. I went to the dismal Hungarian Embassy in Belgravia, forked out #75 for them to issue me a passport, but after a delay of six months they informed me (without returning the money) that no passport was forthcoming as they could not trace my birth-certificate.

Friends urged me not to be silly but to apply for British nationality and for a passport. I visited the Kentish Town Law Centre where a splendid duty solicitor told me about the formalities. I also telephoned my local MP, Frank Dobson and I talked to a very encouraging person called Brenda who said it was an “open and shut” case, as I had had a permit to stay here for over 50 years. However, there was still the difficulty that before one could attain citizenship one had to pass a test of 24 questions one's knowledge of English.

How to be British

I looked at the book Life in the United Kingdom and was convinced that I would fail to answer such random bits of knowledge as (a) what is the proportion of young people who go on to higher education, and (b) what is the governmental target, and (c) what is the proportion of Christians in England.

Fortunately, at the Cambridge House Law Centre, a brilliant solicitor helped me to fill in the form within an hour, and requested I be exempted from taking the test on account of my great age.

Lo and behold, I was granted citizenship very speedily, and took part in a civil ceremony at the beautiful Eastbourne Town Hall, in the presence of my daughter and two other charming women, the registrar and the official witness, where I was given a thorough lecture on old British values and on the thriving culture of Sussex, whose authors included Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I then swore allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II and stood up for a rendering of the National Anthem. A good thing that I have no problems with the Queen, who is about the same age as myself and has been through the Blitz and no doubt had her early childhood ruined by the war just as mine was.

Free as a bird

Now I hold a very well designed, beautifully-engraved and greatly-coveted British passport, sewn with red, white and blue stitching, its pages decorated exquisitely by birds, the kingfisher, the avocet and falcon and over my photograph with my chin cut off are the wings of the Scots bird capercallie (a Gaelic word meaning “horse of the wood”).

All is perfect, although I would dearly like to know from readers what the tiny, inserted microchip contains on the page “which is reserved for official observations, if any”.

Topics: Refugees