From Czechoslovakia: Secret Journals of the Poets’ Revolution
From SECTION 4: KRONIKA
Monday 5th June 2006
I have had a sudden illumination or realisation. It came
to me when we were having a late lunch in the Bakfickan Fish restaurant
in Visby’s Stora Torget, near the ruined church of St Katarina. I think
I now know what one of the challenges of this book must be, perhaps one
of its central underlying themes.
Maybe it is partly a meditation about my unresolved and
unarticulated political position or attitude towards socialism. I’ll be
sixty-two in November, the age my father died. I can’t spend the rest of
my life being an undecided, non-political diplomatic fence-sitter.
I could never actually be a member of a political party,
stand in a herd (as ?apek said of himself) or follow any party’s instructions,
that I know. But I must surely have some preferences or some conclusions
drawn from my experience of life, of living for long periods in countries
like Ethiopia, Kenya, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Australia and Sweden, my
experience of the Balkans, Russia/USSR, the USA and China?
I’m not ideologically inclined, although I like to deconstruct
hidden or unwitting ideologies in texts. Feel free to do the same with
mine! I see both sides of many questions and issues. I don’t feel animosity
to most people, unless they are terrorists, rapists, oppressors, torturers,
gaolers, executioners, assassins, war criminals, human traffickers, slave-traders,
bullies or murderers. Fortunately they’re in the minority.
We all carry some baggage with us through life, sometimes
My first poem was published when I was a Somerset schoolboy
of thirteen and a half. It was about the Space-Race, the secret research
and competition between the super-powers. It contained the embarrassing
“The future of the world was never so uncertain,
Everyone fears what’s behind the Iron Curtain.”
(Hazlegrove Dolphin, Summer 1958).
John Le Carré (David Cornwell) also sent his boys
to Hazlegrove House, I learnt.
At about the same time as I wrote that poem, “Who Knows?”
my first book-review was published. It was a review of Lawrence Durrell’s
adventure-story about Yugoslavia, ‘White Eagles Over Serbia’. The novel,
arguably Durrell’s most exciting and readable, if not his best, has as
its hero the Buchanesque Colonel Methuen, Special Operations agent. In
my little review I stated that ‘the main emphasis is on the awful Tito
Being politically correct at Prep School in the fifties
meant that one was well-prepared for an assignment behind the Iron Curtain
in the eighties. Perhaps I sometimes even imagined myself as a “Special
Operations Agent” in the cultural field. But I wasn’t a Cold War warrior.
I had an open mind. In the Sixth Form, I was influenced by writers like
Albert Camus, especially his powerful short essay, “Kadar Had His Day of
Fear”, on the Hungarian Uprising, first published in March 1957 (included
in “Resistance, Rebellion and Death”, 1961).
If I grew up in a Conservative-voting family in Somerset,
a county where it was almost unheard of for anyone to admit voting Labour,
the discovery of poetry and then blues-music opened my mind to other points
of view and experiences of life.
A university education certainly broadened my mind and
made it difficult to enjoy discussions or to express an independent point-of-view
over the traditional family Sunday roast, but it wasn’t until I went to
Greece to teach in 1967 that I began to think politically.
I was, like most decent people, opposed to totalitarianism
or any attempt to shackle free speech. Censorship and torture were anathema.
It didn’t take me long to realise, after the Military Coup in Greece in
1967 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, that neither side had
it right, the CIA and the KGB behaving and intervening in other countries
almost as badly as one another.
I came to love the songs and music of Mikis Theodorakis
and to appreciate the poetry of Ritsos and Holub. In the UK I responded
to the poetry of Adrian Mitchell, amongst others, and later to that of
Tony Harrison and some of Hugh MacDiarmid’s shorter, lyrical work (to name
some leftist poets). Their best work is great art and I respect and admire
it. Their worst is trite; slogans for soft minds. I had a continuous and
deepening love of the Blues. I sympathised with the underdog (some
underdogs, at least) whilst feeling a strong and deeply patriotic loyalty
to my country.
I wouldn’t have described myself as left or right, but
as somewhere in an independent free-thinking space, interested in discussing
and exploring a range of issues. I like and respect a lot of individual
Socialists but I do not like most systems of Socialism I’ve experienced.
I’m not a Tory Wet or a “bleeding-heart” Conservative either. I might accept
a term like “a conservative radical”. I don’t go along with Disraeli’s
saying that “a man who is not a conservative at 60 has no head”. Similar
sayings or versions of the same saying have been attributed to Lloyd George,
Bertrand Russell, Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Clemenceau, Aristide
Briand, Wendell Wilkie, Woodrow Wilson, Otto Von Bismarck and William Casey,
director of the CIA, whose version, as quoted in the Washington Post obituary,
went like this: “I pass the test that says a man who isn’t a socialist
at 20 has no heart, and a man who is a socialist at 40 has no head.” I
don’t pass that test, because life is not that simple. If anything I feel
close to the beliefs expressed by Václav Havel in “What I Believe”
(“Summer Meditations”, translated by Paul Wilson, Faber and Faber, 1992,
p.60-61): “First and foremost, I have never espoused any ideology, dogma,
or doctrine- left-wing, right-wing, or any other closed, ready-made system
of presuppositions about the world……I refuse to classify myself as left
The “Marxist” revolution in Ethiopia in 1974, which brought
down Haile Selassie and brought the Dergue to power, had nothing remotely
admirable about it with its Red Terror, White Terror and score-settling
executions. I was playing six-a-side cricket when the first fifty-nine
were being executed on Saturday, 23 November, 1974; we could hear the machine
guns shooting while we played. Later I saw photographs with images of familiar
buildings draped with the hammer and sickle and bearing slogans like “Long
Live Proletarian Internationalism” and “The Victory of Socialism is Inevitable.”
The assassination of the Bulgarian playwright and novelist
Georgi Markov, who had defected to London (he was shot on a London bridge,
on 7 September 1978, with a tiny pellet filled with a deadly poison), seemed
to sum up the ruthless tactics of the KGB and its allies towards anyone
who tried to tell the truth.
In spite of that, there was always a strain of humanistic-socialistic
art that appealed to me, a free, uncensored art that was compassionate
and caring, liberal and often radical. But it was banned or driven underground
in countries such as Greece as much as in Czechoslovakia. It proved easier
to get rid of the Greek Military Dictatorship than it was to get rid of
oppressive Communist governments in East and Central Europe and the Balkans.
Going to work in Czechoslovakia in 1986 came as a shock after experiencing
the artistic freedom of five years in Greece from 1980-1985.
In some ways I was prepared.
A short essay in Granta, issue 17, Autumn 1985, seemed
to sum up the situation. I couldn’t have had a better briefing than the
article by Milan Kundera (translated from the French by Edmund White) called
“Prague: A Disappearing Poem.”
“Prague, this dramatic and suffering centre of Western
destiny, is gradually fading away into the mists of Eastern Europe, to
which it has never really belonged….Let it be known: it is not just human
rights, democracy, justice, which no longer exist in Prague. It is an entire
great culture that today is
Like a burning leaf of paper on which
a poem is disappearing…” (a quote from Nezval).
Although this article proved to be unduly pessimistic,
it is still an incisive piece of writing. In seventeen pages Kundera manages
to throw light on many of the greatest works of the Czech heritage, from
Hašek and Kafka, to ?apek, Czech Structuralism and Surrealism, Jana?ek
and his operatic masterpiece, From the House of the Dead.
Kundera claims that “The Russian invasion of 1968 swept
away the generation of the 1960s and with it all preceding modern culture.
Our books are buried in the same cellars containing those of Kafka and
the Czech Surrealists. The living who have been killed are now lying side
by side with the dead, who are thereby doubly dead.”
What seemed true in 1986 is not true at all in 2006. Culture
is more resilient than we are inclined to think. That is a lesson for all
If “really existing Socialism” and “progressive culture”
didn’t offer an attractive model to the people who had to suffer under
it, or to an outsider who experienced it at first hand, what about naked
capitalism? I wasn’t impressed by that model either, as I witnessed
it at work in countries like Kenya and more recently in Albania, at its
worst when the mafia gets involved and the proceeds of drug-smuggling and
people-trafficking finance the building of totally unplanned if not illegal,
environmentally-damaging developments with a completely inadequate infrastructure.
Sitting here in my room in Visby, looking out at the Cathedral
and the Baltic Sea on a peaceful sunny day in early June, or thinking back
to the view we enjoyed from our living room on Strandvägen in Stockholm,
whether in winter or in summer, I can’t help thinking that there is a lot
to be said for the Swedish approach, even if we’ve been unusually lucky,
“spoiled” and highly privileged. If this is prosperous socialism with a
human face, or just a compassionate Welfare State, it’s preferable to most
other systems I have experienced (although I haven’t had to pay my taxes
It’s a country that gives the right priority to caring
for the environment, as does Australia (rain-forest logging and mining
aside). We spent seven years in Sydney and felt that the Australians had
achieved a miracle. Both Sweden and Australia have relatively small populations
for the size of their countries. That might have something, or more likely
a lot, to do with it. They can afford a decent health-care system and they
can provide high-quality educational facilities and opportunities.
If people have been brought up to care for the environment
and for the rights of other people, I’m not sure that it matters if you
consider yourself to be a Socialist, a Social Democrat, a Liberal or a
It looks like I am avoiding the challenge I set myself.
I’m back on the fence again. I will return to this topic from time to time.
When we first went to Prague, we spent a week in the Intercontinental
Hotel before moving to the dirty, moth- and cockroach-infested —but otherwise
elegant- former butcher’s apartment in Francouszká 29, where Sir
Cecil Parrott had translated Hašek’s “The Good Soldier Svejk’, during the
period (between 1960-1962) that the Embassy was undergoing one of its periodic
refurbishments or ‘remonts’. The Ambassador’s Residence was normally in
the Thun Palace (Thunovská) in Malá Strana, right below Prague
Castle. Mozart is believed (by some) to have stayed there and others like
to believe he wrote the Overture to Don Giovanni there. Our friend Bob
Jones wrote an informative little booklet about the history of the British
Embassy and its beautiful garden in Prague. I admire Cecil Parrott for
translating the full, unabridged version of the original novel. The Francouszká
flat was probably in the right area to do it, but I have to admit that
I’ve never managed to finish the book. I find it’s good in small doses.
There are some classic lines: “You’re master of the situation, as the saying
goes”, said Svejk with composure to the police inspector.” That was a common
Czech reaction to the threats of people in power, to bureaucrats and officials.
Nobody could ever get any information out of Svejk: “Svejk diverted the
deftist political conversations to the curing of distemper in puppies…”
Sir Cecil published “The Serpent and the Nightingale, Diplomatic Memoirs
of Russia and Czechoslovakia 1945—1977” in 1977 (Faber and Faber). He wasn’t
very Svejk-like in his comments about the British Council at the time that
he first served in Czechoslovakia after World War II, in charge of the
Embassy’s Information Department:
“I even did the British Council’s work for them at the
beginning because they only sent out to represent them a girl who had been
working as a secretary for the Czechoslovak government in London. One day,
when I was entertaining one of the Czech announcers in the BBC, the lady
in question disengaged herself from the bar and asked me who the gentleman
was I had been lunching with. I asked her why she wanted to know. She was
greatly confused. Some time later she defected to the Communists and was
by no means the only member of the Council staff to do so. My eyes were
opened at a very early stage to the operations of the Communist intelligence
In the 1980s the British Council occupied rather unsalubrious
premises in Jungmannová Street (in the Urbánk?v d?m building
designed by Jan Kot?ra, one of the founders of modern Czech architecture),
where we had to put up with a collection of up to twenty foul-smelling
dustbins (most with broken lids) in the main communal entrance corridor.
But at least we were down-town and reasonably accessible to visitors, just
above the Supraphon shop and the Mozarteum Studio. What with the offensive
office dustbins and the excruciating screech of the trams and metal wheels
of the meat-trolleys being pushed and rolled backwards and forwards, in
and out of the entrance-way to our apartment at night and early in the
morning (there was a large butcher’s shop and sausage factory beneath us),
and the trails and puddles of blood and entrails through which we and our
visitors had to step, we wondered if it had been arranged deliberately
in an attempt to destabilise us. The office had no janitor to empty the
bins or clean the filthy staircase. The office lift was prehistoric. On
one occasion it went straight down to the coal-cellar and stopped. The
power failed. It was like being trapped in a terrible, dark medieval dungeon.
No lights. Doors jammed shut. There was no one around-a most unnerving
experience. I never used the lift again. In the flat we were often woken
by meat-carts being crashed together like cymbals. Noise pollution is a
form of psychological harassment and oppression. It was even worse than
The flat was stifling. I’ll never forget the terrible
smell of the sausage factory at the back; the sight of the cockroaches
and animal carcasses. Apart from stepping through puddles of blood we often
had to squeeze past pigs’ corpses. The apartment itself was a barn-like,
nouveau-riche, neo-Baroque butcher’s flat with a large stone statue of
an angel and a fireplace with fat and evil plaster angels protruding, grotesque
giant-tarantula chandeliers, ancient British Council furniture, unpainted
walls and ceilings black with Prague’s ubiquitous coal-dust, ionised by
our predecessors so that it had stuck to all the walls with a vengeance
(“The main bedroom walls are very dirty I fear. We bought an ioniser as
an experiment. It certainly cleared the air but by depositing the grime
on the walls”). The coal-fired central-heating was oppressive, but it was
impossible to open the windows because of the dust, the noise of the trams,
the smell of the butcher’s shop and the smoke coming up from the chimneys
at the back of the apartment block, where the butcher had the sausage and
salami factory. The ‘garage’, a mile away from our flat, was unspeakable,
situated in the courtyard of a tenement due for demolition, with a rusty
metal sliding-door which made one filthy every time one had to raise it
or lower it. None of this is an exaggeration.
In his novel, The Fabulous Englishman, 1984, Robert McCrum
mentions the Council Office, the Cultural Section of the British Embassy
in its “unbelievably dingy first- floor office in the Jungmannová.”
Piers Paul Read, in his novel, A Season in the West, 1988, has a Czech
character say that he used to read The Economist in the British Council
library in Prague: “They do not arrest as you come out, but your name will
be noted and if you had a position of any responsibility you would certainly
I have always been surprised why Barbara Day, who was
secretary to the Jan Hus Educational Foundation, and who knew a lot about
the adventurous and innovative work of the British Council in Prague, never
mentioned it in her otherwise detailed and comprehensive book, “The Velvet
Philosophers” (London, 1999). Czechs like Mirek Pospišil, Petr Oslzlý,
Jaroslav Ko?án, Michael Žantovský and Jana Fra?ková
were common contacts of the British Council and the Jan Hus Foundation.
It was a curious omission. I’m not really sure about the difference between
an “underground seminar” and a similar event, a poetry reading or a concert
by someone like Jan Vod?anský, at the British Council in Jungmannová.
The risk of coming to the Council was possibly even greater. Even I, a
Cultural Attaché, was invited to give talks at the English Club
in Brno and at Summer Schools for teachers of English.
We were all trying to bring in some light from Western
Europe. I decided to brighten up our dingy office by commissioning Milan
Ressel to design and paint a ceiling mural in the reception room of our
office. Shakespeare would feature as well as John Lennon. The entrance
might be dingy, but the ceiling would glow! Before very long, Milan told
me that he was being asked by the StB to report on me too!
On the need for a new Mission
Come back Cyril and Methodius,
The captive nations need you now!
Open greatly the doors of their reason:
They have been misled and are much confused.
Albert Camus Visits Prague, 1936
(Collage in parallel text, from “La Mort dans l’âme”,
to Camus’s words and phrases and the translations
by Philip Thody)
“Stripped bare….sans parure…
Unadorned reality… realité sans décor
What does it mean? Qu’est-ce que ça signifie?
Floundering…Je me débattais…
—A bottomless pit…une crevasse sans fond…
I could not breathe between the walls... J’étouffais entre
Iron in the soul... La mort dans l’âme…
Anguish and despair... Angoisse et désespoir…
Give me a land that fits my soul…Donnez-moi une terre faite
à mon âme.
To Some British Poets Leaving Prague
Whom are we writing off today?
I’ll leave you time to plot and gossip,
But you won’t mind if I chance to listen….
“He’s off the boil, no more to say.”
“A good performer once, that one,
A pity that he gabbles.”
“Professionally nice”, the other-
“He’s going to get it in the TLS,
It’s rather sad he’s got so flabby!”
“It may be an extra-literary concern,
But he’s a real turd, the way he left his wife.”
“It was AIDS, he was a very active gay,
No doubt about it…”
“How’s it possible, not to make WHO’S WHO?”
“I’m nauseated by all those worthless entries,
I have to face that pile of rejects;
Yet another awful competition,
Which, yes, I am well-paid to judge.”
She’s freelance, female,
Banished to the smokers’ seats.