Life's journey of an uninteresting man - By Milan Lorman

English version.    Slovak version.

Family background
Early Childhood
Boyhood in Lazy
Student years
Leaving the nest
Eastern front
Six Days Behind Enemy Lines
A Little Light Relief at the Front
A Close Brush With Disaster
The Story of the Lifesaving Grapes
Prisoner of War
My French and American experience / One year in Austria
Four years in England
To the end of the Earth

Four years in England

Life's journey of an uninteresting man
By Milan Lorman

Havant, our new temporary home, we found to be a pleasant little place. It seemed to be, as far as I was able to notice, little affected by the storm of war. The town itself, that is. The people living there, that is another story. Like the rest of the population of the British Isles they were only slowly beginning to get over the whipped up wartime mentality, the distrust of foreigners, the resentment over still persisting leftovers of wartime restrictions, the grief over lost family members and friends and the rest of it. And now it was all, perhaps instinctively, unreasonably, aimed at us – aliens. Maybe it was nothing more serious than the traditional british reserve towards everything unfamiliar on their side and our understandable feeling of being unwanted, but – that was just the initial situation. As time passed, after a few years, we became gradually accepted and in return started to accept England as our new home.

The name of the refugee camp on the outskirts of Havant was Bedhampton. Life in the camp was not so much unpleasant as boring. The main reason for the feeling of boredom was the clearly temporary stay there and the lack of any kind of useful activity. Perhaps not a complete lack, but we were all waiting impatiently to be given an opportunity to earn a living and stand once again on our own feet. The camp itself was quite nice with small lawns and flowerbeds scattered among the pre-fabricated huts. But there was still the high wire fence and the guarded gate left over from the wartime. We were free to come and go all day, even travel short distances by bus, but by nightfall we were expected to be back in our respective huts. In the camp we had our regular three meals a day and a princely sum of five shillings a week spending money, but apart from that only far too much time to kill.

We were beset by do-gooders missionaries from a number of born-again sects all fishing for our souls, but I suspect that they got little joy from their efforts. I recall that bread was still rationed, three years after the end of war, although by 1948 it only applied to fresh bread. Even one-day-old loaves were freely obtainable from the town's bakeries early in the morning. And so, some of us, rather boldly, picked up our few recently learned words of English and our five shillings pocket money and with empty sugarbags under the arm set out on a round of bakeries. We bought up all the day-old bread that we could afford to buy and brought it into the camp, where it was quickly sold for a fair profit.

Another way of making a bit of money and also, get a few hours break away from the camp atmosphere, was taking a bus trip to Portsmouth. There, mostly in the port area and nearby streets and parks, frequented by large numbers of sailors from all over the world, we spent hours collecting cigarette butts. The following morning, in the camp we opened them up, rinsed the ashes from the tobacco and then laid it out in the sunshine to dry. We trusted that the sun would at the same time take care of any bacteria in the mixture. That tobacco was also very much appreciated by our fellow refugees. To be precise, our official label at that stage was: European Voluntary Workers (EVW's)

Quite early in the first few days after arriving in Havant I had joined a group of about seven or eight Slovaks and Czechs, when a young Czech former university student from Prague offered to give us English lessons. He himself had learned the language at the university and while in Havant he was already learning to speak Spanish, because his next target was South America. He was a good teacher and the fundamentals, which he taught us during the few weeks before we went our separate ways, have enabled me to progress faster and more successfully than most others. Soon, while some of us, after six months in England, still did not dare to go shopping unaccompanied, I was reading English books cover to cover and translating English news and articles for my friends and also for our émigré publications. But, I am jumping too far ahead.

I shall mention just two more things before we leave Havant behind us. It was the time when the first post-1936 Olympic Games were held, in London. That occasion was celebrated all over England by the flying of the flags of all the participating nations around the local sporting ovals. And so one day, while walking from the camp to the business centre of the town we have noticed, in the line-up of flags, the bright red one with the hammer and sickle emblem in the corner. We reacted about the same way a bull reacts to a red rag. The time was only three years removed from the end of the bloody war and already the Cold war was starting. We were all blaming the Soviet Union for having to live in exile. We were young and emotional.

There were a lot of us spending a lot of time together and we had nothing better to do. That's why one night we sneaked out of the camp under cover of darkness, climbed over the fence into the sporting ground and headed for the red flag. Originally we intended to lower the flag, cut it up, then hoist it again and go home. Now we have found that these flags were not run up using ropes, but were instead fixed to the top of the pole. Lowering the pole and erecting it again after the deed, would have taken too long and we wanted to return to the camp as quickly as possible. I was feeling pretty fit at the time, not long after my field engineering training, so I volunteered to climb the pole with a pair of scissors stuck in my belt. In the morning, the good citizens of Havant saw a dozen red ribbons flying from one of their flagpoles.

From time to time I would take a walk in warm afternoon sunshine some two or three miles in different directions from the camp, just exploring the countryside, admiring the neat suburban houses and beautiful gardens and occasionally exchanging a few – very few – words with the "natives". One day, soon after walking out of the camp gate a car pulled up next to me and the gentleman behind the wheel asked me something, which I didn't quite understand. I bent down and spoke to him as best I could, mainly letting him know that I could not help him with any information, being a stranger in the land. But after a while it turned out that he was offering me a lift in the car. He was just going for a joyride and he would bring me back to the camp after a while.

I saw the opportunity to see a bigger piece of the countryside than usual that afternoon and also to practice my elementary English. He seemed friendly enough and I was innocent (dumb) enough and so I got in the front seat with him. It didn't take long though and his hand came to rest on my leg above the knee. And I suddenly woke up: The English Disease ! I told him very insistently to stop the car and he did so while apologising profusely.

I didn't have very much farther to walk back than I was used to. But I returned to my hut a little bit more world-wise. The tapestry of life shows many varied images. After about three months lazing about work was finally found for us. My new address became No.5 Camp, EOD (Engineering Ordnance Depot), Arncott, Bicester, Oxon. (The name of the town is pronounced: Bister).The camp consisted of a large number of (corrugated, round-top) Nissen huts and a few more traditionally looking large prefabricated buildings for communal purposes. Some of the Nissen huts were internally partitioned into four or six smaller rooms affording occupants a little more privacy, but I ended up sharing common accommodation with eleven others.

We coped quite well. Most of us, if not all, in our hut were Slovaks and very soon we had our living space decorated accordingly. I have contributed by drawing three larger than life-size portraits of our most prominent patriots, Hlinka, Tiso and Štefanik above the door on one side of the hut. Someone else decorated the other end with a High Tatra landscape. This was a time long before what we know as marking pens came on the market and my line drawings were produced with the aid of matchsticks dipped into fountain pen ink.

"We started forming organizations, publishing newsletters"

The work allocated to us in Bicester involved largely what amounted to a "Big Clean-up" after the messy war. In various locations in the vicinity there were during the war established stores of an endless variety of ordnance materials. Some were stored in sheds but a lot were simply stacked in the open air. As a rule, these heavily greased car-, truck- and tank-parts were, at least at some stage, covered by tarpaulins, but more than three years after the war a lot of that material was just laying there exposed to the elements. It was now given to us to take stock of all that gear, dump what was damaged and re-grease, re-stack and cover the rest. And, of course, count it all and prepare stock-cards for the Department of Supply. Finally there was some useful purpose in our lives again.

We were young and full of energy and it seemed as if the new daily work routine had helped us realise that we can do more than just earn a living. The Cold war had just started and the exiled people from Eastern Europe were encouraged to believe that sooner, rather than later, they may get a chance to return to their homelands. And so, we started dreaming of returning home as "liberators". We started forming organizations, publishing newsletters and other periodicals and contacting groups of countrymen, who have settled after the war in other countries around the world. We have provided mostly moral but, within our modest means also financial support to the few prominent exiles in various parts of the world, who had the stature, the talents and the contacts needed to promote the anti-communist cause in places to which we, mere mortals, had no access.

Pretty soon after our arrival in Arncott camp the Association of Slovak Youth in Great Britain was formed. The foundation members were the one dozen occupants of our hut. For the Secretary's position we have elected Jan Beliansky and this was an inspired choice. Even now, as I write these recollections, although already in his eighties, he is still actively promoting the Slovak cause in the US an in Canada. Chairman became Michal Varga, a former hussar lieutenant. Finally, the job of treasurer was offered to me and I had accepted it as a great expression of trust. Not that I had to look after a great amount of money. Quite the opposite. One of the first tasks I was given was to raise a loan of some thirty pounds sterling.

This was at the time when our weekly wage, on top of the board and lodgings in the camp, was about three pounds and ten shillings. The money was to be used in the first place to purchase a typewriter, a flat duplicator, at the time commonly referred to as Gestettner, and, hopefully also some initial stocks of paper. I set out and soon charmed three local businessmen in Bicester to lend me ten pounds each. All three of them at first just asked me to find two more. When I had their three slips of paper stating "To whom it may concern… " I had the money. We not only bought the typewriter, but had three of the keys (the fractions) converted to the most frequently used Slovak diacritic signs (accents). By late October 1948 the first issue of our modest Slovak newsletter "Vatra" was on its way by mail to all the three hundred-odd Slovak refugees in Great Britain, whose addresses we have managed to discover.

"Vatra" brought to its readers as many news from the home country as we could gather, and also some announcements of activities by various groups of our countrymen in England and elsewhere in exile. Frequently one or another leading figure from Slovak public life, political or cultural, would contribute a few encouraging words to keep alive our hopes of one day returning home. I kept urging my friends to include on the pages of our newssheet some entertaining items and a joke or two. I didn't expect all of our readers to be as deeply steeped in patriotic feelings, or – call it – politics, as we were. But no-one was keen on increasing the workload. I felt strongly enough about it to go it alone in the end. With my own money I bought stocks of A3 duplicating paper, including coloured for cover. I could freely use the Associations typewriter and the duplicator, if I wanted it. Only I wanted to produce something different.

My monthly publication, which I have decided to call "Nedela" (engl, Sunday) was going to be printed two A4 pages on each side of an A3 sheet. Four A3 sheets, including coloured cover, were going to be folded and stapled in the middle. In order to be able to print two pages at a time I persuaded our camp carpenter to build for me a flat duplicator with a twin printing frame. The screen was made from parachute silk. It worked beautifully. Using stylus I was drawing illustrations and cartoons to brighten the pages. I was translating short amusing stories from English into Slovak. For a while everything went well, but I couldn't go on like that, on my own, for very long. No-one was volunteering to help and no-one was sending in subscriptions. After only four issues I had learned my lesson and called it Quits.

I shared the hut in the camp with my friends until mid February 1949, when I joined the growing number of people, who have decided to brave the English speaking world outside and moved into private lodgings in town. I still wasn't on my own. Three of us took over two bedrooms in the home of an old lonely widow-lady, Mrs Rivers. I use the word "old", but at the time she was some twenty years younger than I am now. As our landlady, she cooked our meals and took care of our laundry. To look at her, she was no different from a dozen old ladies in any suburban street, but it turned out that Mrs Rivers had a tale to tell: When she was still a young girl at the turn and in the early years of the twentieth century, her father was posted as a consular official to Egypt.

The future Mrs Rivers lived in Alexandria until well into her teen years. As was, and largely still is customary, members of the expatriate families in foreign lands tend to live in close proximity of each other and that's how this young girls closest childhood friend for many years became a German boy, Rudolf, the son of an import-export merchant. They grew up together although Rudolf was some three years her junior. Eventually their friendship had to end when Rudolf's father, old Herr Hess decided to return to Germany. Probably the main reason for that repatriation was the need to give the then 14-year-old boy a proper German education in the land of his Fathers. And the rest – as they say – is history.

With the change of address went also change of employment. Some of us have found work in Bicester, one of my friends was shovelling coal and coke in the local gasworks. Every community in England had lost in the war a number of its young and also not so young people, so there was need for workers everywhere. And we were ready to take on pretty well anything. That reminds me of another of my friends. We were still both living in the camp, when he came in one day from a shopping trip and looking all elated announced to all and sundry that he was offered a job at the Bicester Post office. We could not believe it. He was probably the slowest among us when it came to learning the new language. Well, he compensated for that with a great sense of humour. He explained to us what the job entailed: he would be required to stand in the corner of the post office hall with his tongue hanging out so that customers can moisten the back of their postage stamps. And for that he didn't need to speak English.

Most of us on leaving camp have started working in a nearby brick factory. At first we were travelling to work on busses, but as soon as we could manage it, we bought our first bicycles. The work involved alternating weeks of day- and night shifts. The work was hard, but we were paid extra for shift work and soon we could buy new clothes and the rest. With that came increased self-confidence and by the end of 1949 the first of our comrades have moved to London. It wasn't an easy thing to do, because the government was still doing its best to direct workforce to where it was most needed. But, loopholes started opening up and when my friend Beliansky landed a job in a private nursing home for mentally ill in London, he directed me to an understanding old lady doctor who, after examining me, gave me a certificate saying that I was unfit for hard work, such as brick-making. But the dear soul could not resist confiding in me, before she sent me on my way, that she would dearly love to be as "unfit" as I was.

"She was a petite, pretty girl, only daughter of Slovak parents"

This was in October 1950. I took up employment as a nursing orderly in Camberwell House, which was a rather high-priced private hospital or hospice for patients with serious mental problems. I suspect they would have been in the main incurable problems, because during my six-months stay in that job I didn't notice any coming of new patients and only one departure, sadly, to the cemetery. The eight-hour working day was split into two 4-hour sessions with a 4-hour break in-between. Added to that was the occasional week-end work and altogether it didn't allow very much time for relaxation. All the while, in whatever spare time we found, we kept up with the publication of "Vatra". It was just as well that we have kept up interest in that work, because otherwise the atmosphere in that hospital was rather depressing. So much human tragedy in one big sorry heap !

One of the patients has left a lasting mark in my memory. Willy, his family name I have long forgotten, was at the time about 30 year-old South African ex RAF man. Towards the end of the war he had the misfortune of flying as member of the crew in a plane, which crash-landed. Physically he didn't suffer any great damage but his head must have been badly knocked and he lost most of the control of his mobility and also the faculty of speech. For almost six years since the crash he didn't speak a single word. Regulations kept him stuck in England until his condition improves. His parents could only afford to visit him twice since the end of the war because the high cost of his stay in that hospitals care was a serious drain on the family's resources. He seemed to be sentenced to a life in that virtual prison. Complete with bars on the windows, locked gates and a 10 foot-high perimeter wall. And then, suddenly – a break-through ! And I had an accidental beneficial part in it.

One evening, when it was time for the patients to retire for the night we, orderlies, had to ensure that all of them had undressed and went to bed wearing pyjamas. As usual, there was little problem with all the others in my room of about 8 beds but in the end, again as usual, Willy was still standing there, motionless, staring at the floor. In between helping the others with their pyjamas I had nudged him and he has taken off one item of clothing after the other, but he wasn't going to part with his underpants. But – orders are orders – they had to come off too. I said to him: "Willy, take off those shorts and put on your pyjamas." Nothing happened. "Willy, take them off and I shall help you with the pyjamas." Still no reaction, he just stood there, eyes aimed at the floor, so I bent down in front of him and pulled the underpants down for him. Suddenly I saw a flash of light, then darkness and blood started running from my nose.

Willy had finally moved. Well, at least his fist moved – like a bolt of lightning. I moved quickly behind him and while holding him in a "Full Nelson" I called for help. All the while, of course, my nose continued bleeding and when the Ward Sister arrived, the first words she said were :"Why, Willy! You are all covered in blood. What happened?" And to every ones' shock and surprise Willy answered: "But it isn't MY blood !" First words he spoke in almost six years. My blood was never spilled for a better purpose. I hope that it was the beginning of a progress towards a full recovery for him and he was able to return home to South Africa. By April 1951 I had enough of it and together with my friend Beliansky we took another job, this time in a General hospital, The London Hospital in Whitechappel.

We were employed in the catering store. Once again, during this time I started acting as a gad-fly and urged my friends, working on our monthly publication, to bring it out more frequently. It seemed to me that one monthly dose of Slovak news is not enough, that our readers would appreciate receiving a copy more often, perhaps even weekly, even if it was only four foolscap pages instead of eight. The response was unanimous: I was crazy. And so just to prove them right I said one day that I could do it by myself. They said: "Go ahead!" and I went ahead. After my experience with "Nedela" I knew I could do it, but I should have known also that I can't keep doing it for very long. The weekly "Vatra" was less ambitious than was "Nedela". It amounted to only four foolscap sheets folded and stapled in the middle. It was coming out as a weekly for about four months.

Perhaps I am devoting more space in this chapter to "Vatra" than it warrants, but I have done in my life very little of any consequence and therefore I like to hark back to that brief part of my life. Of course, other things were happening in my life as well and one of them was, finally, some lovelife. One day a friend who had by that time lived in London a few years and was already married to an English lady introduced me to a visitor from Paris. She was a petite, pretty girl, only daughter of Slovak parents, who had emigrated to France. She was 24 years-old, employed by the prestige store Galleries LaFayette. The Paris store, where she worked, had put their counter ladies through a course of English. Katherine qualified with the highest score and as a reward for effort received a three-week holiday in London, with high-class accommodation in a flat in Knightsbridge and generous purse of spending money.

As soon as we met we fell for each other. Within two or three days of our first meeting Kathy contacted her employers and converted her spending money allocation to further three weeks of holiday and rent for the Knightsbridge flat. We have spent six weeks in blissful happiness. It was far too good to last. We were both prepared to get married, but outside circumstances made it impossible. Kathy's parents, Mr and Mrs Vincent wouldn't consider leaving France, Kathy could not leave them alone in their old age and I could not possibly bring myself to live in France among Frenchmen and speak French. So we had to part. I am still grateful for the six-week "would-be-honeymoon". I was later given another chance of a happy family life and sincerely hope that Kathy was too.

Then, one day, one of our friends from outside the "Vatra" circle came to the London Hospital to see John Beliansky and myself with an offer of a chance of re-settlement to Australia. Briefly, as a background let me mention the fact, that in the mix of groups of exiles in Britain at the time there were three distinct groups from Czechoslovakia. I mention first our group of Slovaks, who were hoping to be able to return one day to a re-born independent Slovak Republic. The second group was composed largely of Czechs but also some Slovaks, who had no problem with the common Czechoslovakia except for the fact that it was then ruled by Communists. The third group was less prominent, less vocal and unhappily largely ignored.

They were the Czech separatists organized around the Czech general Lev Prchala. The publicity efforts by this Czech separatist group were in the hands of a publicist, journalist and author Vladimir Ležak-Borin. This gentleman now, early in 1952, probably saw any prospects which we may have once had of influencing events in Europe receding into a vanishing point and had decided to do something more practical with his remaining time in this world. In his younger years he gained some experience in saw-milling back in Bohemia and now had negotiated a contract with the Australian Newsprint Mills in Boyer, Tasmania. He was going to bring a group of fit and willing young workers to do contract work on a bush sawmill. I was the final sixth man and that completed our outfit. Three Czechs and three Slovaks.

Only one thing bothered me. I was almost 28 years-old. I was about to disappear in the Tasmanian bush for who-knows-how-long with only a group of fellows for company. I didn't like the idea. In my hospital workplace I had shortly before got to know a very good-looking young lady just four years my junior and I decided to ask her to marry me and go to the other side of the world with me. Perhaps we were both crazy but – as I write this story, 53 years later, we are still a couple. A couple of oldies. A couple of great-grand parents. And neither of us is lonely.

© 2006 Milan Lorman