On a bitterly wintry Saturday, some dozen IVS Vets from the 1960s and ’70s braved the elements and gathered at the home of Benny and Bertukan Dembitzer in south London. The turnout would have been greater but the weather conditions affected those having to travel from further afield. But the smaller numbers were more than compensated for by the warm and generous hospitality provided by Benny and Bertukan.

As arrivals trickled in, it was soon evident that everyone knew somebody! IVS is a family of shared experiences, sometimes life-changing. And in the late ’60s, that family was large: at its peak, it was running over 150 workcamps annually in the UK, sending 100 long-term volunteers overseas and had expanded to 100 local groups. IVS was even regionalised and two erstwhile regional officers from Merseyside were there. That growth spurt was triggered by the young, dynamic Frank Judd, IVS’s general secretary in the early 1960s and we were honoured to have Frank (now Lord Judd) with us, likewise one of his successors, Nigel Watt.

Memories were shared and re-lived. The 1960s were dangerous and worrying times – the Cold War was rampant with the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile crisis and later the 1968 Prague Spring followed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. IVS was not exempt from these issues; through SCI we had a substantial exchange programme of volunteers with certain East European youth organisations, especially Poland and Czechoslovakia, and we were reminded of the 1968 workcamp visited by a Czech embassy official who ‘removed’ a volunteer for ‘safekeeping’ – she was the daughter of one of Alexander Dubcek’s ministers. Memories also turned to Northern Ireland and the IVS Teenage Scheme which worked on bridging the sectarian divide – and not forgetting the shocking assassination of IVS’s Northern Ireland field officer, Sean Armstrong, on his doorstep in Belfast.

Some half of the Vets there had been overseas volunteers and were soon re-experiencing their lives with one another in Cameroon, Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho as if it was yesterday. One said her life had been significantly enhanced by the experience and friendships received and others that IVS had influenced their career paths.

With the afternoon drawing to a close, people reluctantly faced the reality of trekking home in bitter weather. The party was over but old friendships had been renewed and new contacts made. As one member wrote afterwards ‘It was fascinating meeting up with people one last saw four decades ago, hearing how life had treated them and in some cases how little they had changed’. Roll on 2021 when IVS celebrates its 90th Anniversary!

Russell Cleaver
Watford