I had started to study English as my fourth foreign language, after German and French, which were both spoken in the family and Russian, which was compulsory at schools behind the Iron Curtain. My native language was Romanian and long before I started private English lessons I had a cartoon-like impression of the British Isles from the plays of Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens, from the short stories of J.B. Priestley, the fabulous novels of Walter Scott’s and from my bed side History of Architecture by Sir Bannister Fletcher. I also knew and admired Henry Moore, whose exhibition was organized by the British Council in Bucharest. When I was a student in the 1960’s I was, of course, a fan of the Beatles, although I had to keep this a secret from the Communist authorities, who regarded the Pop Music as decadent. Well, I wanted to be decadent!
… within three months of coming to Britain, I learned to down eight pints of Newcastle brown Ale in one evening …
My first contact with Britain, was oddly enough with Newcastle-upon-Tyne and I was terribly excited to be the guest of the School of Physics, where I enjoyed the privilege of a visitor’s accommodation in a beautiful penthouse. This was all the more exciting, as it was built by Sir Basil Spence an architect I much admired for his rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. I could not understand Geordie being spoken in the pubs and did not know what a pint was and neither could I drink more than half a pint, but, within three months of my arrival to Britain, I learned to down eight pints of Newcastle brown Ale in one evening. I found the inhabitants friendly, although being called a pet took some time to get used to, given my stuffy Marxist upbringing: – well, some people were more equal then others back home.
In Newcastle I was asked by the University Librarian what language we spoke in Romania and if we had a language of our own! so, I decided to start a crusade in the form of a One-man Festival of Romania to proselytise the Geordies about the virtues of Romanian culture… This attracted the attention of Tyne Tees TV, who interviewed me live and made me, overnight, an unwitting hero, within two months of my arrival in town.
… My greatest trouble in England arose from my refusal to give up my Romanian nationality: in retrospect this may seem bizarre …
In the meantime I got very worried about my finances, as the one-pound-a-day grant was not stretching far enough, so, I applied for various research scholarships, of which I got two in Canada and the United States and a Scholarship at Cambridge. I chose the latter because I liked the architecture and the gardens. I think I got the Scholarship against intense competition, because I was quite relaxed about it, as I could not imagine in my wildest dreams that I will ever succeed in being a postgraduate student at Cambridge, so I did not take my interview seriously and felt no angst about it.
Whilst at Cambridge I translated and published in Encounter Romanian poetry and wrote articles about Brancusi in the Cambridge Review. I also wrote the first bilingual French-English pamphlet on the History of Peterhouse, which was my College and I remembered asking my long-suffering Tutor, who was a medieval Historian: Did you wait 700 years for a Romanian to come along and write a History of Peterhouse? In my second year I was elected President of the Graduate Society and managed to obtain new privileges, one of which was to be allowed to have the Society Dinners in the Combination Room. I also discovered in the College a portrait of Dewar, a scientist whom I admired in Romania and who was relegated to oblivion in the College cellars, so I granted him a place of honor in the Grad. Soc. Common Room, where it still hangs today.
My greatest trouble in England arose from my refusal to give up my Romanian nationality. In retrospect this may seem bizarre, especially that I was menaced on a number of fronts: by Securitate operatives masquerading as diplomats, keen to end my flouting of socialist order and drag me back to Romania; by a prospective mother-in-law who refused to allow her daughter to marry me, unless I accepted British citizenship… and by officials of the British Home Office, who assumed that my desire to retain what I saw as my unalienable right of birth, my nationality, might stem from communist loyalties.
Afterwards Lord Goodman decided to champion my cause, writing to the head of the Home Office that I was a man of impeccable character, clearly determined to belong here and make a significant contribution to our national life.
In retrospect I hope that I discharged myself honorably of Goodman’s expectations, as I gave generously my expertise in discovering oil and gas for Britain and batting for Britain abroad, on the cultural and scientific front, especially in my native country – Romania.
The whole drift of this saga is best captured in memoirs published by the Institute of Physics Publishers, under the title ‘Continental Drift –Colliding Continents, Converging Cultures’
Moving Here is the ultimate online database of original sources recording the migration experience