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IT IS DEJA VU, TRAGICALLY, ALL OVER AGAIN

The recent death of the New York Yankee’s baseball player, Yogi Berra, (after whom the Yogi Bear cartoon character was named), was famed for his penchant for odd sayings which made both sense, and no sense. The most famous was: “It’s deja vu all over again”.One of the great, and many, joys of the Penguin Collectors’ Society AGM weekend, is the sale of Penguin books, in all their multitude of incarnations. And this time I found a book of which I had no previous knowledge, but which struck a chord with recent events. And for me, as with many I imagine, it was a case of deja vu all over again.

The book was called Refugees 1960 and was written by Kaye Webb and Ronald Searle. And it cost me a very fair £3. The authors were married at the time. Searle of course was the great artist and cartoonist and creator of the St Trinian’s characters. Webb had been editor of the magazine Lilliput where many of those cartoons had first been published and later in her career was the inspiration and the driving force behind the great growth in Puffin books as they thrilled and enthralled the children of the post-war baby boom.

But what we forget is that another factor of the times was the number of refugees displaced throughout Europe after the Second World War who were still in refugee camps at the time of this book. And the purpose of the book, in the great Penguin humanitarian tradition, was to draw attention to their plight and to raise money for the efforts of those in what was then, in 1960, World Refugee Year.

This is where the deja vu comes in. The descriptions of the refugees, the stories told, and the views expressed could happily be lifted out of this book from 1960 and placed into any of the recent reports of the plight of refugees without anyone noticing they were reading what is now an historical account rather than a press report of today. Searle and Webb travelled amongst the countries and the camps where the refugees were and their reports form the book.

110,000 refugees, says the blurb on the back of the book, were still left in Europe alone, some 22,000 ‘are mouldering away in camps’. And Searle and Webb tell the story of the plight of individuals in camps in Greece, Italy, and Austria. All tell of the same sort of displacement we know across Europe today.

The conclusion in this book from 1960 could be written today. It asks what is needed to empty the camps this World Refugee Year. "The answer is simple. Every country with room to spare should ease open its bureaucratic door and undertake to accept without ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ a percentage of sick or economically useless human beings, to balance what they have gained from the young, healthy immigrants who will be benefiting their economy without any cost to them in education or training. A gesture of this nature on governmental level would gain active support. Individuals who care could then provide the cash, care, and patience needed to get these abandoned human beings happily established in a country they could call their own. Some refugees may be ungrateful, unlovely, difficult. Some may turn out to become permanent beggars. But if they are any of these things we have helped to make them so - by years of neglect and indifferent charity instead of positive help. It is a risk a nation can afford to take. For the children will flourish and put down roots, and the dank, dismal, hopeless camps of Europe will no longer be on the conscience of what we like to call the Free World”.

The day of the PCS AGM day in Salisbury was a joy. And, with this book, opened up all manner of thought, unexpected as ever. But, you suspect, as old as the hills, and that cathedral there as well.