It was Nancy Mitford who led me to join Amnesty International. Not personally; she didn’t grasp my hand and suggest, in that cut glass Mitford accent, that I should check it out.
I read her novels and that led to reading about the Mitfords and Jessica Mitford’s autobiographical books, Hons and Rebels, and A Fine Old Conflict. After that, it wa a step to The American Prison Business. This was shelved in Guildford library with other books about penal systems, so I moved on to accounts of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment, and Diary of A Chilean Concentration Camp. This last book described the horrors of the author’s incarceration in a matter-of-fact way that did more than any emotionally charged reports to appall and shock me.
Back at school, my history teacher, a thoughtful woman had constantly tried to make us girls engage with the world around us. Cuttings from the Times, underlined and annoted were pinned to the notice boards outside Room 10 to draw our attention to what was happening beyond Surrey.
We were more interested in the Top Ten.
For a woman so passionate about current affairs, her lessons were generally uninspiring, so it was fortunate that the subject matter was gripping. She believed in the dictation method, and silence. This was a problem when she set us a task where we had to work in pairs, yet were still not allowed to speak. The girl I was working with lived in a village some ten miles from mine, so we could hardly meet up after school.
But I digress.
One day, as we massaged our aching wrists after another hour of dictation, this time about the Spanish Civil War, I think it was probably in the summer term, she made a comment that I have never forgotten.
General Franco, she said, is still alive. This man, an ally of Hitler’s, is in charge in Spain. He is a dictator. People are still being imprisoned and prosecuted for their beliefs. If you go to holiday in Spain, the money you spend on your ice creams is helping him to stay in power.
I don’t know if she left the room thinking none of us had paid attention, but for me, the phrase struck. I vowed not to go to Spain until this regime was overthrown. That wasn’t as noble-minded as it may sound. My parents were pretty hard up and Sapin wasn’t on the agenda for a holiday. Holidays weren’t on the agenda, at least not ones where you actually went away.
But I kept my vow. So I suppose when Nancy led me to Jessica who led me to Chile, the soil was already fairly well prepared. I’ve been a member of Amnesty International ever since.