"Don't you understand? Russian tanks are in Prague! Listen!"
My room-mate knew very well that I couldn't understand the news in English on the loudspeaker, even if I'd listened all day. She must be having me on, it was one of her tricks.
It was impossible to go on sleeping; half awake, I set off for the washroom. A very stuck-up boy from Prague stopped me on the way. For once he had lost his aloofness.
"Have you heard? The Russians have invaded Czechoslovakia! There's fighting in the streets of Prague."
So it was true. The news sank in on my way to the coffee bar. The horrible supervisor, who never allowed us to sit down because it didn't look good in front of the guests, was suddenly all smiles. She wore a special expression I was to see often on British faces in the months to come: poor you; what are you going to do next? But, at the same time, how very interesting. She even allowed me to drink a cup of coffee, a treat normally forbidden.
The date was 21 August 1968 and I was working at Butlins' holiday camp in Bognor Regis. It was the year of the Prague Spring and for the first time since 1948 Czechs and Slovaks could travel freely. Everybody feared it was too good to last and wanted to catch a glimpse of the forbidden West. Hard currency was in short supply, so students flocked anywhere in the Western world that offered a working holiday.
The Bognor Regis Butlins employed 80 Czech and Slovak students that summer. We were terribly grateful for the opportunity to work incredibly long hours for pounds 4 a week, with disgusting food and a bunk bed with sheets that were never changed. We tried to avoid each other's company; we couldn't waste precious time in England speaking our mother tongue.
That disappeared after 21 August. We just wanted to be with others in the same boat - to exchange news, to discuss plans and listen to the radio. Those with transistor radios were constantly surrounded. The airwaves were suddenly filled with Czech: it took time to distinguish between the official Czech radio, he collaborative Radio Vltava which praised the invincible Red Army, Radio Tirana in Czech, China broadcasting in Czech (the Chinese were overjoyed at the opportunity to upset the Russians), Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. We wanted only the Czech official radio; the rest was strictly for amusement. Its signal was very clear in England, even on the cheap transistors of the Sixties. It was our main source of information. We saw pictures of Prague in English newspapers, but nobody's English was good enough to read them. We were too poor to buy them, anyway.
Someone was always listening to the news; any Butlins workers off duty would listen to the radio outside restaurants, coffee bars and Wimpy bars where their friends were working, and would call out the latest information. The girls on duty would come out during breaks, bringing food and hot drinks for everybody. We would cry whenever the national anthem was played.
It was my first experience of patriotism, which had always been an object of fun in cynical Czechoslovakia. Girls with fiances at home took the first available plane home. The rest were undecided. Immediately after 21 August, Britain offered us the right to reside indefinitely, but our Czech exit permits were valid only till the end of summer. We knew we could extend our stay only as long as Dubcek's people were still at the embassy, so we hurried to London.
The old embassy was a much more modest affair than the current monster. It had a garden, full of students whose time abroad was up. They didn't dare to return home, but had nothing else to do. They spent most of their day in the embassy garden smoking, drinking and flirting in the best tradition of the Sixties. The embassy was in chaos. One member of the embassy staff advised us to return, while another whispered to us in the corridor that we were much safer staying put. But they extended our exit visas by 10 months, no questions asked.
When I got back from London the mood in the camp had changed. "Switch that bloody radio off," said my room-mate. "It gets on my nerves. And, by the way, can you sleep somewhere else tonight?"
I walked around the camp till 3am but nobody had a free bed so I reclaimed my bunk bed. It was occupied by my room-mate and the cook from the restaurant where she worked. The cook was wearing only a flower in his hair. I felt bad about it, but I had to get some sleep.
"OK", said my room-mate. "I was getting fed up with him anyhow. Out!" She was in a talkative mood after he left. "I took quite a few pairs of tights from the shop today," she said proudly. "Do you want a pair?" My room-mate was a sales assistant in a Butlins shop during the day, and she already had a suitcase full of stolen stuff. It was not only my room- mate. The whole place was indulging in wild behaviour. A few boys who were in the camp enjoyed the privileges of a Turkish sultan with a huge harem. The atmosphere was apparently similar among young people during the Second World War; people began to live for the day.
Representatives of the National Union of Students came to the camp to spread the news that we should apply to British universities and that there was an English course in London to prepare us for an interview. They also found jobs for us, and people all over London offered us free accommodation.
The management of Butlins wouldn't let them in. It did not want to lose staff in the middle of the season. Of course, we found the information anyhow. By that time I knew I was going to stay, as my parents had already fled Czechoslovakia. I had fallen in love with the British calmness over matters that would drive a central European mad, and with British tolerance. I had to start working on my future. I decided to go to London, and handed in my notice to Butlins.
"I'll stay on here till the end of the season," my room-mate said, obviously happy to have the room to herself from now on. "Then I'll see what to do next. What do you think about working in Soho? At least I would get paid for what I give free of charge anyhow."
I was quite sorry to part from her; she was a pillar of strength in her peculiar way. I have never seen her since.
"What do you do?" a couple of students I knew from Bratislava later asked me at a dinner in the International Students House, which gave us free meal tickets and consequently became a meeting place for all the Czech and Slovak students in London.
"I lick stamps and envelopes in an office," I said, "and make tea. I don't think they really need me; they just want to be charitable. What do you do?"
"We are unemployed," the couple said proudly. "The jobs on offer are stupid anyhow. It is wonderful. You don't lift a finger and the money keeps flowing in." They were elegantly dressed, as they always used to be in Bratislava, suntanned and well rested. I looked at them with horror; as we all came from the country where not to work was a crime, I did not understand how they could have sunk so low as to receive alms from a state that was not even their own. But we were all on the receiving end of charity, in one form or another. Old clothes were even collected for us. We were housed with British families who had offered rooms in their homes. There were more on offer than there were Czechs and Slovaks in need of them, and some of my compatriots picked and chose: when they became fed up with one family, they would just move in with another. One, I remember, moved because his hosts would not pay for his Underground tickets. But most of us are still friends with our hosts after 30 years.
Everybody pampered us. Everybody treated like us like heroes, which was a bit much, seeing that we were sitting in safety in England while our homeland was being stripped of its independence and dignity. The NUJ, with the help of Jan Kavan, a Czech student who has just become the Czech foreign minister, organised boring meetings for us, and our university interviews.
The Czechoslovak embassy invited us to a party. We were all in jeans and T-shirts, and we were treated politely by diplomats in grey suits, served escalopes and potato salad - which we all craved, after English food - on silver plates, and given lots and lots of Czech beer and wine. Most of us got drunk. Then a man who had recently arrived from Prague gave a long speech claiming that everything was all right at home and we should return as soon as possible. He also said that Hungarian students from 1956 had never finished their studies here and most had ended up in menial jobs. People ate, drank and made merry, and realised that a different wind had begun to blow at home.
Most of us refused to give our new addresses "to be invited to the next party". That was my last contact with the Czechoslovak embassy for 21 years.Reuse content