Fearless fellows in freedom

<i>Once Upon Another Time</i> by Jessica Douglas-Home (Michael Russell Publishing, &pound;16.95, 235pp)
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The Independent Culture

In 1979, the philosophy faculty of Oxford University received a letter from Julius Tomin, a Czech dissident philosopher, inviting speakers for his clandestine seminars in Prague. He had set up a series of courses for students excluded from Charles University on political grounds, and had written to several universities in the West for support. Only Oxford responded. Anthony Kenny, the Master of Balliol College, made the college the hub of activities, helped by Roger Scruton from London University, and dons began to go.

In 1979, the philosophy faculty of Oxford University received a letter from Julius Tomin, a Czech dissident philosopher, inviting speakers for his clandestine seminars in Prague. He had set up a series of courses for students excluded from Charles University on political grounds, and had written to several universities in the West for support. Only Oxford responded. Anthony Kenny, the Master of Balliol College, made the college the hub of activities, helped by Roger Scruton from London University, and dons began to go.

Kenny himself went to Prague in 1980. During his lecture on Aristotle in Tomin's flat, 20 policemen broke in and took him away. The account of his arrest and expulsion in the British press unleashed an avalanche of letters, enclosing cash and cheques. The money was used to set up the Jan Hus Foundation, named after the 13th-century Czech reformer and martyr, to support a programme of visits and take money, books and journals.

Jessica Douglas-Home, a painter and theatre designer, had become aware of the plight of Eastern Europe when her husband, the late Charles Douglas-Home (then defence editor of The Times), had been jailed while reporting the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. She joined the trust and went to Prague in 1983 to lecture on art.

At first she was passed "carefully by hand, like a parcel of Samizdat from one dissident to another" - signatories of Charter 77, professors, jazz musicians, now working as cleaners and boiler-stokers. Faced with the monolithic apparatus of repression, they were determined to reclaim their European heritage and "live a life of truth".

The lectures took place in boiler-rooms (the only warm place) and small apartments and were raided by police, yet the Western visitors returned exhilarated: "Our lecturers went out to teach. But it was they, rather than their listeners, who were the more enriched."

Jessica Douglas-Home's Once Upon Another Time is the fascinating account of her six-year odyssey as lecturer, organiser, courier and fund-raiser, until the collapse of the Soviet empire. Brave, shrewd and passionately committed, she travelled first in Czechoslovakia and later in Poland, Hungary and Romania, helping dissidents and organising fund-raising events in England. She and her colleagues used the techniques of the secret police to shake off their "minders" and dodge the bugs. Yet many were arrested, interrogated and taken to the border for expulsion.

Her book combines the excitement of an espionage novel with the chilling tales of the daily hardships, courage and fortitude of the dissidents. It is often very funny, describing the ineptitude of the secret services and the gormlessness of officialdom. Arrested at Warsaw airport, she screams so hard that the policewomen body-searching her think she has gone berserk and run for help, which gives her a few minutes to chew up a piece of paper with the names of contacts.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Office met them "with condescending nods... as a potentially embarrassing nuisance", while the Church of England and the World Council of Churches' policy "was to work with the regimes in Eastern Europe, not with their victims".

Although the nature of oppression was the same in all Soviet satellites, reaction to it varied. Gradually, the trust's activities expanded to Poland, Hungary and Romania. In Poland, Solidarity sought to dismantle Communism by a peaceful "revolution of the soul", and the Catholic church galvanised the population. Jessica Douglas-Home meets Father Popeileszko and hears his impassioned sermon; on her next trip, he is assassinated. In Hungary, the same dictatorship and fear prevail, but the perception in the West is that the country is more prosperous and "liberal". Here, the Hungarian-born financier George Soros provides considerable help.

The most sinister and tragic country was Romania. Ceausescu's tyranny had reduced the population to abject poverty. Douglas-Home describes the horrors of malnutrition and privation and the corruption and vandalism of the regime: hundreds of ancient churches destroyed, thousands of villages razed to make room for grandiose palaces for the megalomaniac president. All dissent is punishable by overt or "accidental" death.

Yet Nixon's America befriends Ceausescu and confers trade privileges on him for being "independent of Moscow", and Britain bestows an honorary knighthood. It is rescinded just as Ceausescu is fleeing his palace, "probably as a result of pressure from Prince Charles", the only exception to official laissez-faire. He made a speech about the plight of Romania and the destruction of its architectural patrimony, while Hugh Arbuthnot, the ambassador, defied Foreign Office pusillanimity by lending unofficial support.

Jessica Douglas-Home's involvement with Eastern Europe coincided with the painful illness and eventual death of her husband. He continued editing The Times and backing his wife's crusade until the end. But her tale has a happy ending: the Soviet fortress collapsed like a house of cards, and her dissident friends rose to power as presidents (Vaclav Havel), ministers and administrators.

When extracts from the Securitate files were published in Romania in 1997, Jessica Douglas-Home figured prominently, described as O doamna foarte periculoasa - a very dangerous lady. On the strength of this remarkable testimony, she deserves the compliment.

Shusha Guppy is the London editor of the 'Paris Review'

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