No. 8-9


Jim Potts  

From Czechoslovakia: Secret Journals of the Poets’ Revolution


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 from childhood.

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 lines,

“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 dictatorship.’

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 or right.”

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 politicians.

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 here).

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 Conservative.

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 services.” (p.24-25).

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 air-pollution. 

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 lose it.”

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”, with acknowledgements
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 les murs….
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.



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