The first time I encountered the word asylum was in the context of Lunatic Asylum. This, we were told , was a kind of prison where they locked up mad people, usually forever.
Later our excellent Latin Teacher, Mr Christie, in Portobello School, taught us that Asylum was a Latin word. It meant Place of Refuge. This was duly memorised. Next day Mr Christie confronted a girl called Christine.
“What does asylum mean, Christine?” he demanded.
“A place of refuge, Sir.”
“And what is a place of refuge, Christine?”
“Well, it’s a place where you put your refuge, you know, your rubbish.” Ah, the joys of a classical education.
I first met Karel in Prague in the late 1970s. A bright, personable lad with an excellent command of the English language. He told me that he would be visiting England before too long.
Permission to visit the UK was difficult in those days. The communist authorities were unenthusiastic. But Karel had an advantage. His wife’s sister lived in Birmingham so this qualified as a family visit. Much easier.
I offered him a bed in London and before long he arrived. As it happened I was short of a barman at work and suggested he stay longer, if he was interested in earning some cash. In those days one was less than rigid about working permits.
He did work – I paid cash. My employer didn’t ask too many questions. Karel was a great hit in the bar. He stayed several weeks, before departing for Birmingham
The following couple of summers he reappeared and we repeated the procedure.
What happened subsequently I did not learn directly from Karel, but I managed to piece together the story from various friends.
Karel decided that life in communist Czechoslovakia was not for him. Why not relocate to the UK? He discussed it with his wife, and also with his widowed mother-in-law, who lived with them.
Of course they would not get permission to emigrate. What they would do was all go on a family visit to Birmingham. Karel, his wife, his mother-in-law and his toddler son. Then they would apply for asylum and never return.
Having agreed on this they began to systematically sell off all of their possessions being very careful not to give away any clues about their intentions. So after some months they were ready in an empty flat, with their bags packed and their return tickets booked.
At which point they hit an unexpected snag. On the mantelpiece sat a great urn containing the remains of the late father-in-law. Mother-in- law announced that she would not be leaving the country without the urn.
Wife would equally not be leaving without her mother. Karel was distraught. How could they explain to those suspicious border guards that they were off on holiday to England, and needed to carry an urn full of human remains for the trip?
Then Karel thought of a solution. How about leaving the urn but taking the ash? This compromise was reluctantly agreed. Karel went down to a local gardening store and purchased four tubes of fertiliser. The tubes were emptied and replaced with father-in-law. A nice present for the relatives.
The journey went without a hitch. They all duly arrived in Birmingham amid great celebrations.
But now they had the small problem of asylum. Karel made some discreet enquiries among the Czech expat community. Immediately they began to query his role as a political dissident. How much trouble was he in with the Czech authorities. Had he signed Charter 77, the Czech document demanding that the government follow the Helsinki Human Rights criteria.
Well, actually no. He wasn’t very political. Was he being harassed by the secret police, and was his career being impeded by his political beliefs? Well, to be frank, he tended to keep his head down. It was not a good idea to mess with these people.
So his advisors assured him that he should not apply for political asylum, as he had no case. But perhaps he could apply for some other kind of asylum? Well, yes, but there was no guarantee that it would be successful.
Then one person suggested that he should be very careful. There was a rumour that those who applied and failed would not only have to go home but that the Czech authorities would somehow find out. And then the whole family would be intercepted at the Czech border and be sent to an internment camp.
His academic career would be permanently over and he and his wife would be assigned some low level manual work in perpetuity as a punishment for being politically unreliable.
After weeks of soul searching and sleepless nights they began to pack their bags. No application for asylum would be made. The risks were too great. At last they turned up in Prague and unlocked their empty flat. No one would ever know.
But at least one member of the family emigrated successfully. Father-in-law never dwelled under the communist yoke again. He stayed on peacefully in his fertiliser tubes in Birmingham.