We have all been appalled by the stories of the Windrush generation and how, for the want of a little piece of paper identifying them as British citizens, they have lost their jobs and been threatened with deportation, even though they have been living in Britain for fifty years or more. This is a story of bungling mismanagement, and even plain inhumanity. Bureaucracy, it seems, causes basic common sense to fly out of the window, to be replaced by mindless pen pushers only concerned with carrying out the letter of the law.
This raises the interesting fact that our very right to live seems to rest on the possession of a piece of paper establishing our existence.
I have the utmost sympathy for these people, though it appears the government is now preparing to rectify these injustices which have resulted from past government decisions.
This has brought back many memories for me of my own story. When I was born in Nice in 1928, my mother, who was unmarried, forgot to register my birth at the time. When she remembered, her French doctor advised her that she would receive a heavy fine (not very good advice) for not having done it before, so she did nothing, and thought no more about it.
When I was nine, in 1937, I came to England with my mother and I travelled on my mother’s passport, which was possible in those days. My mother, being Canadian, had British nationality at that time. All went well, until in 1945, when I was seventeen, I wanted to visit my pen pal in Lille, France. It was then that we discovered that, without a birth certificate, I had no nationality. It seemed that I could not be Canadian, I could not be British and I could not be French, as I did not conform to any of the rules prevailing at the time.
What to do? I wrote to Sir Anthony Eden, believing in my naivety that he would surely come to my aid! And received an anodyne letter couched in the usual bureaucratic waffle, offering no help whatsoever. This made me realise for the first time, what a tiny little cog in this great universe I was.
Eventually, after my mother consulted a lawyer, a solution was found. I was declared an ‘alien’ and I was given an ‘Aliens’ certificate, which then enabled me to travel. The only inconvenience was that whenever I changed address, I had to report to the local Police station.
And there the matter rested for many years, and I was able to travel abroad when I wanted. Of course, being considered and named as an alien did nothing to enhance my self esteem, which was already pretty low.
So when I applied to work for NATO in Paris and was accepted, I was over the moon. The year was 1959 and I was thirty one years old. I had carefully explained to the Personnel Officer in NATO my legal status. However, once in Paris, with my mother, I then learnt that I needed an ID card in order to live there. The Police station in Paris informed me that I needed an official Passport, and that my Aliens certificate was not sufficient.
It seemed that once again my hopes and dreams were to be dashed to the ground. I was instructed to have an interview with the Deputy Head of Personnel. I remember him as a thin, grey man, with an inscrutable face. Even when, in my desperation, I exclaimed “But I’m alive, I exist!” I saw no flicker of expression cross his face.
I then went to see the Welfare Officer in NATO, Mme Dreyfus. She was a doughty lady, small and dark, with flashing eyes. “We have engaged you and we must look after you” she declared.
It was my good fortune to have this formidable woman on my side. She went to see my French boss and together they decided that something must be done about “my lack of nationality.” The sources of power in NATO were set in motion, resulting in my being called to the British Consulate in Paris, where I met the British Consul, Betty Barclay, and I became a naturalised citizen of the United Kingdom.
Finally I had that little piece of paper which enabled me to stay on in Paris, and finally I was able to declare myself to be British. My eternal gratitude goes to that one small lady with a big heart, Madame Dreyfus.
Which is why my heart goes out now to the Windrush generation.