Wednesday, May 16, 2012


Coming as I do from the UK, I am, of course, used to politicians with a totally unblemished record of moral rectitude. No way would any of our leaders do things like shagging Cabinet colleagues while wearing a Chelsea shirt, allowing hookers to caress their perfectly smooth happily married back, finding God while doing jail time for perjury, or fiddling their expenses to build a duck house like this one…

Indeed not; we can leave that kind of thing to Johnny Foreigner. Who, at least in this neck of the woods, has been rubbing his hands in unconcealed glee for the last day or two, as what one MP has described as the most serious political scandal to have hit this country since 1989 has unfolded. Enter the star of our show, David Rath (pronounced ‘rat’), who, it’s fair to say, is one of the highest-profile and least liked figures to have pranced across the Czech political stage in living memory:

He brings the same kinds of qualities to Czech politics that, say, Berlusconi has done in Italy or Sarkozy in France, but with a heady mix of furious ambition and a kind of naked venality instead of Silvio’s loucheness or the Poison Dwarf’s pathetic pursuit of whatever limelight may be on offer. Although, unlike Nicolas, he is said to maintain not one happy home but two, in the same village, which, the joke now has it, is going to be the setting for a new Czech series of ‘Desperate Housewives’.

So just why are these ladies so desperate? Well, it seems our Davidek has been caught with his hands well and truly in the till and has been a guest of the police since yesterday on corruption charges. 
Exhibit A is a shoebox. Its contents? Shoes? Not according to Rath, who said they were a bottle of wine he had been gifted. The police, on the other hand, say there are 7 million crowns in the box. You can buy a lot of wine for that. You can also float quite a few jokes:

This one revives an old TV quiz show called 'Kufr' (Suitcase): Rath is the one in the black tie. 

This one is a spoof IKEA advert; the box, complete with cool Scandinavian name, is just perfect for that little 'bottle of wine' you have lying round the house.

Exhibit B is more money, this time under the floorboards, where there were 30 million crowns. Our boy tells us they were put there by the guy who laid the floorboards as part of a conspiracy to frame him. Well, of course. It happens all the time. This was probably about the time the dog ate his homework and a bottle full of Vaseline just happened to fall on to his dick.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the police, themselves the butt of a myraid jokes about stupidity, have failed to take his words at face value, so our hero is now languishing on remand without so much as a bottle of wine or a cuddle from his womenfolk to console him. His erstwhile political bedpals, meanwhile, have dropped him like the hot potato that he has become – so much for being innocent till proven guilty, you might say, but, like most career politicians, he is not a person who arouses much sympathy. It can truly be said that this is a case of the shits abandoning  the sinking Rath. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011


Yesterday the state funeral of Václav Havel took place. I watched it on TV. More than once I found myself wondering what the guy it was all about would have thought of it. Like all these things, it was very grand, very impressive, very formal, very serious, rather lengthy, and, truth be told, pretty tedious, and I think it’s fair to say that some of the people present were not exactly his intimates. I guess it’s nice that heads of state like David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy came along, but I’m not sure if they were quite the representatives of the UK or France that Havel himself would have chosen to see him off, and I am sure that Havel the playwright could have created quite a scene around his poor wife Dagmar having to stand next to Václav Klaus, of all people, throughout the event.

Just after dusk, a bunch of us met up by the statue of Masaryk here in our village for our own little farewell. I guess there were about thirty or so adults and ten or fifteen kids, several of them still young enough to be in prams. We lit candles in front of a portrait of Havel that someone had put up, swapped greetings and slivovice and other nectars that many of us had brought in hipflasks, then our friend and neighbour Lucie made a speech that must have lasted all of forty seconds, and then, to the accompaniment of a ukulele, we sang the Czech version of ‘We shall overcome’, one more song from the soundtrack to the so-called 'Velvet Revolution' of 1989, and the national anthem. Meanwhile, the kids ran round being kids. Then we wished each other the compliments of the season and went home.

Since he died last Sunday there has been a huge outpuring of words and images about Václav Havel and what he did and meant, on TV, the radio, the print media, the Web, blogs, and God knows where else too. A lot of it, unsurprisingly to me, at any rate, is fulsomely positive, but by no means all of it. A fair sample of the range of feelings that he aroused can be found in the readers’ comments on the eulogy to him by Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian, which you can find here.

They range from the obvious to the profound to the profoundly gaga; no way am I making him out to be a saint, but, for example, to blame him for the breakup of Czechoslovakia or the way that after 1989 the country got sucked into the neo-con/libertarian/corrupt/globalised/mafia brand of modern capitalism starts out at idiotic and then moves through disingenuous to downright mendacious, depending on the level of ignorance of the persondoing the writing. Political naivete is another accusation frequently levelled at him, but one man’s naivete is another man’s idealism and I prefer to see him as a decent person in an indecent sphere of activity. And there are far, far too few of those.

Me, I prefer to remember him for things like these:

• coming up with the idea of 'the power of the powerless';

• the way he turned up to address the people in Ostrava during the revolution wearing a beat-up leather jacket and jeans;

• the idea of him getting round Prague Castle on what was basically a kid’s scooter;

• the fact that when Lou Reed came to Prague the two of them went out and drank beer together;

• his humour, modesty, warmth, humanity, intelligence, and unshakable essential goodness.

And I’d like to think that it really is true that truth and love will triumph over lies and hatred; rest in peace, Mr President. The world will be a smaller and sadder place without you.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

10,001 WAYS TO DIE

Every time I sit down and stand up I do so like the frailer type of 90-year-old, and I have only slept on my left-hand side for the last ten days. I have what is now a very battered copy of 10,000 Ways To Die, Alex Cox’s book on Italian Westerns, sitting on a table. And I have a new mobile phone. Want to know what links all these? Read on...

My favourite way of travelling to and from work is by bike, which is good for the body, soul, pocket, and environment, but at this time of the year it’s not always realistic. Wednesday 1 December was a case in point; snow up the wazoo and the temperature was quite a bit below zero the whole day. So I took the train. Lenka decided to come and meet me at the station here, accompanied by our dog, who is always up for some exercise. The train was late leaving Olomouc and I whiled away the wait and the journey by reading the plots of a few films.

When I arrived there was a splendid snowstorm going on. Lenka suggested that my rucksack might be a better place for the book than my hands, which was where I had it. During the transfer process the handle of Charlie’s lead, with him attached to the other end of it, somehow managed to fall out of our hands and onto the ground. Being the kind of dog who is always wide open to the call of the wild, he made off and entered a nearby garden which had the gate open. Keenly aware as we are of what can happen when he escapes (we have vet’s bills and horribly clear memories of irate citizens bearing deadly weapons that they intended to use with maximal vengeful force on him) we set off in hot pursuit.

Charlie went past the house and into the back garden, which was large, white, and very featureless, with me hard on his heels. I was just about to grab him, with a huge sense of relief, when what I had fondly imagined to be the ground gave way beneath me and I found myself up to my chest in freezing water, surrounded by the ice I had just caused to break. I tried to get out but the sides of what I guess must have been the garden pond – it wasn’t deep enough to be a swimming pool or I might not be writing this now – were too slippery for me to get a grip. I managed to catch hold of the the dog’s lead but there’s no way a 10-kilo fox terrier can pull something like 85 kilos of me out of a pool, even if he wants to. So I did the next best thing and hollered for Lenka. She came and tried to gave me her hand, but then she slipped and ended up on her back, partly on the ice and partly in the water too – and let’s not forget that we are talking about a woman who is due to give birth within the next three or four weeks.

Amazingly, nobody came out of the house to investigate; you’d think two screeching people and a furiously barking dog might stir some kind of interest, but maybe they were out or watching TV or something. We managed to get first Lenka and then me out of the water, rescued the book, which was floating rather forlornly, and headed off towards the exit.

But we’d reckoned without the dimensions of the pool and so, with a ghastly feeling of deja vu, found ourselves immersed once more, but not so catastrophically this time. We struggled out again and headed home. We passed a couple of neighbours on the way (it was after dark and so the fact that we were soaked to the skin and icing up fast was not immediately obvious) and, like the nice suburban people we are, we all greeted one another as if nothing had happened.

Once in the house, we peeled off our clothes, many of which were quite literally solid with ice by now, and went and lay in the bath to unfreeze and most definitely not to chill out. Lenka was able to feel the baby moving, so that was our biggest worry out of the way. My mobile phone wasn’t so fortunate, though; it’s been given a Christian burial and a replacement has now been recruited. And my ribs started hurting like hell an hour or so later. An X-ray the next morning revealed nothing broken but the pain was, and occasionally still is, quite exquisite.

Thinking about it now, though, it strikes me how fortunate it was that it all happened just a few minutes from home and not somewhere further afield. It was, as more than one person I have told the story to has said, like something out of a film; luckily, it turned out to be an adventure story rather than a horror.

Oh yes, and the book survived too, although not in the kind of shape in which I can, in all conscience, return it to the guy I borrowed it from...

Monday, September 13, 2010


A few weeks ago I wrote here about seeing the Stooges in Ostrava. Not far across the Polish border, there’s a place called Katowice which, in the deeply unfashionable stakes, could give it more than a run for its money. The two cities have a lot in common. Populations around 350,000, built on coal and iron and steel, both terminally linked in the popular imagination with the smokestack twilight of the very worst of the socialist past, and both struggling to rise above it. Ostrava, sadly, has just failed in its bid to become the European City of Culture in 2015; Katowice is hoping to land the gig in 2016.

The first edition of the Rough Guide to Poland, published in the early 1990s, describes Katowice as ‘a place you wouldn’t go out of your way to visit’ (something I read for the first time just before the guard informed me that the train I was in and which I thought was bound for Krakow, a totally different kettle of bigos, was headed to Katowice instead). Arriving at its main station, then or now, you see the point; man’s inhumanity to ferroconcrete if ever there was. This is typical:

But even this doesn’t really bring home the way the rain pours through the leaky roofs onto the platforms, the orcs who congregate there, the random awfulness of the ‘information’ about train departures served up at maximum distortion and in Polish only, or the sheer crapness of the Worst Kebab Shop In The World. Try their botulism special. Take it from me, Katowice station sucks.

But this is a blog that tries to be positive and upful; there’s enough gloom and doom in the world already. So let’s move out of the uninviting surroundings of the station and adopt a broader perspective.

One thing both of them have in common is that they host well-known music festivals. Colours of Ostrava celebrated its tenth anniversary this year and was sold out in advance; Katowice has the Off Festival, now in its fifth year and this time actually held in the city itself rather than nearby Mysłowice, where it was held for the first four years of its existence, but where, according to the festival programme, murky politricks led to its demise. So Mysłowice, a distinctly unimpressive place (think the view out of the bus window in Eminem’s ‘8 Mile’ or the landscape in ‘Fort Apache, the Bronx), has missed out on the only shot it was ever going to have at becoming a happening global metropole. But it’s definitely good news for Katowice, as, IMHO, the Off Festival is bloody good; just look at the line-up for this year’s event.

On to the highlights and twilights, brothers and sisters, starting with the latter:
The Fall – one of our main reasons for going, and boy, did they disappoint. Mark E Smith had clearly been on the pop before kick-off and, after a bright start, resorted to shambling round the stage, buggering round with the equipment, interfering with the keyboards, and mumbling gibberish in lieu of lyrics. They were booed off at the (early) end of their set. I first saw them in Liverpool in 1978 and on this showing would be quite happy to wait another 32 years before seeing them ‘live’ (well, they had a pulse) again. The alternative was the beer zone; yes, you’re only allowed to swill in a specially designated area and there are guys with big biceps and mean attitudes to enforce it. Additionally, Polish beer is ghastly stuff; it always seems to taste metallic and fizzy and far too overtly alcoholic for my taste, if not Mark E Smith’s. Fortunately, there were enough good bands on that we didn’t have to spend too much time there; some of them, like the Horrors, the Flaming Lips and Dinosaur Jr., are pretty well known anyway, but check these out:

And that’s just the ones beginning with ‘A’…

In all conscience, I can’t end this without mentioning the Dum Dum Girls, who, for reasons best known to themselves, are too coy to allow me to embed their YouTube clips here, but do yourself a favour and check them out there; they are WONDERFUL!

As are these people:


Friday, August 6, 2010


One of the more charming features of architecture in Russia is that they often have pairs of churches together. As Colin Thubron puts it in his book Among the Russians, – “a long one for winter worship, a tall one for summer”, like these two in Suzdal:

Perhaps it’s because of the climate. Moravia has four definite seasons – a riotous explosion of nature in the spring, a hot summer, a golden autumn, and a cold grey winter that sometimes seems as long as the other three combined – but no way is it as extreme as it gets further east, and so we don’t have anything quite like that here, at least, not in the religious line. But Czechs aren’t exactly big on religion. What they are big on, of course, is beer. Unsurprisingly, then, there are scads of beer gardens, like these at the Red Ox and Crocodile pubs in Olomouc:

And jolly fine places they are too; as ways to entertain yourself on a hot day, there are surely few better ones than assembling a few myrmidons who are capable of good conversation and sitting and refreshing oneself with good Czech beer in a place like this and watching the world go by for a few hours. But something I have noticed in recent years is that we increasingly have what almost amounts to winter and summer pubs. Not that the former cease to function in the summer, but they are complemented by temporary outdoor versions which are not just a bunch of tables but actually have their own bars and staff and, in one or two cases, even a completely separate food menu from the indoor ones, built around grilled stuff and salads. And, for those who, for whatever inexplicable reasons of their own, prefer alternative forms of refreshment to beer there are also outdoor versions of cafes as well (although, of course, you can get beer there - it just isn't at the top of the menu). Here are a couple of them from the main square on Olomouc, the veteran Caesar, which in all frankness, has been rather resting on its laurels and magnificent interior for rather longer than anyone here cares to remember, and Mahler, a nonpareil among cakeshops:

Of course, there are others too, and many people would say far better ones, but then I'd be a fool to tell you where they are, wouldn't I?

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Here’s a little guessing game. As a percentage of the size of the population, which recording artist scores the highest in terms of units of recorded music shifted on home turf? An obvious candidate to me was The Beatles, but they seem to have sold a lot more elsewhere than in England, where they are actually comfortably beaten by Queen. American big-hitters like Michael Jackson, Elvis, or Madonna? Close, but definitely no cigar. What about trying some smaller countries, like, say, ABBA in Sweden? Apparently not – they were probably a bit too raunchy for many of their countrymen. U2 in Ireland? Bob Marley in Jamaica? Nana Mouskouri in Greece? Well, quite possibly, but damned if I can find any solid stats. Which leaves us with...Karel Gott! Yes, sirree, up till 1992 he had flogged a whopping 13 million albums in Czechoslovakia (pop. at that time 15.5 million), and since then has doubtless managed a hell of a lot more.

The ‘Sinatra of the East’ aka ‘the golden voice of Prague’ is, by any standards, quite astonishingly prolific. In the period from 1962 to 1993 Supraphon in Czechoslovakia apparently put out 66 albums and a massive 178 singles, while between 1967 and 2000 he released no fewer than 125 albums on Polydor in the German-speaking parts of Europe, where he is hugely popular. They loved him in the Soviet Union as well.

But, I hear you ask, is he any good? Well, he’s been a regular winner at the Golden Nightingale awards (a Czech/Slovak music competition) and has so many of them that chez Gott must look like a rather crowded aviary. And he had a six-month residency in Las Vegas in 1968 and has performed at the Country Music Fair Fan Festival in Nashville five times, two of them together with Elvis Presley’s old muckers The Jordanaires, and he even played the Carnegie Hall in 2000, so he can’t be a total chump.

But on the other hand, drawing big in places like Austria, Russia (whose sole noteworthy contribution to world pop music seems to be Tatu), and even Deutschland, which may have given us Rammstein or Kraftwerk but also produced 99 Red Balloons and the Scorpions, is something of a double-edged sword. And let’s not forget that in 1968 he came thirteenth in the Eurovision Song Contest (representing Austria!) with something called Tausend Fenster; and there is the little matter of that Vegas residency in the same year. Not exactly the kind of place where the cutting-edge hipsters strut their stuff, is it?

His acknowledged showstopper is a number called Lady Karneval; take it away, maestro:

Hmm; not looking too good for Kaja, is it, ladies and gentlemen of the jury? I have always had a great horror of TV variety shows and the particular clunker that this was taken from is up there among the medals; I’m not quite sure which aspect of it makes me laugh most, but there are plenty of possibilities. Perhaps the only good thing that does emerge is the voice, which is not bad at all. But the song; dear me. It couldn’t be more MOR if it had double white lines and cat’s eyes down the middle, could it?

Let’s give the guy another chance. This one’s from the ’sixties:

On the plus side it’s outrageously camp, mercifully brief, and somehow curiously reminiscent of Nosferatu in its use of lighting:

For reasons of space and time we won’t go into the minus side. On to Exhibit C for the prosecution, although with a cautionary note; ‘Bum’ is simply the way Czech writes ‘Boom’, so don’t go getting all excited by the title:

So is this another case (you can find a few of these in pretty much any country you care to name) of an artist being such a national treasure that critical judgement based on their actual qualities is simply suspended? The evidence seems strong that it is and he is the Czech Republic’s answer to people like Cliff Richard and Cilla Black; the guy seems more than capable of beating the rap on charges like being responsible for dreck like the three clips above and, more seriously, the strong whiff of collaboration attached to his name because of things he got up to in the good old days, such as being one of the first signatories of the Communist regime’s response to Charta 77, the Anticharta, or the awards that said regime pinned on him at the same time as they were giving a distinctly hard time to other less malleable performers.

But on the other hand, not everyone loves him; Zdenek Lukeš famously wrote a few years ago that "Gott is a zombie who used to chase me for all of my childhood and corrupted the taste of many generations," a statement that aroused a lot of debate on both sides. My own cultural attaché, when asked what she thought of him, was more pithy; “He’s a prick,” she said.

Thanks, by the way, to Orlík for giving me the title of this posting.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


Some years ago I was living in a concrete flatblock in Olomouc. Matthew, an English guy from London, came to visit and looked out of the living-room window. “If this was London, mate, I’d ask you what the fuck you was doing living here,” was his considered way of praising the view, which was chiefly of the almost identical flatblock opposite.

“It isn’t.” I’ve always had a way with words…

But from his point of view, I could see what he meant. Apart from some of the more fashionable parts of London, where there have been flats for centuries, the English seem to be uniquely unhappy about the notion of living up in the sky; just look at how low and sprawling English cities are when you compare them to their equivalents elsewhere. You don’t even have to cross water; tenements are far more part of life in Scottish cities than they have ever been in England. And you don’t have to go as far as the ex-Soviet bloc; there are flatblocks all over Europe. But perhaps the quintessence of the genre is to be found east of the former Iron Curtain.

Of course, the real heavyweights are to be found in the megalopolises of the former Soviet Union. There’s a well-loved film, called ‘The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!’, in which the uniformity of flatblock existence plays a central role; a guy gets fantastically drunk in Moscow and is put onto a plane to Leningrad by mistake. There he takes a taxi. The name of the street where he wants to go in Moscow has a doppelganger in Leningrad; not only does the street look the same but the flatblock does too. His key fits the door of the flat and inside it’s similar enough to the one in Moscow for him not to notice the difference. So he goes to sleep. What happens next isn’t important here. What is important is the sheer scale of the uniformity that makes the idea possible and so funny.

Little countries like this one, which has a total population rather less than Moscow, can’t compete in size terms, but there are some impressive displays up and down the land, such as Prague’s Jižní Město:

and just over the Slovak border, Bratislava’s Petržalka:

In fact, you can find ‘panelák’ flatblocks pretty much everywhere. And unlike England, where a lot of people wouldn’t dream of living in one, here there isn’t that kind of stigma and, as the News of the World used to say, all human life is here.

A lot of them were built in the twenty years before the revolution of 1989 and they tend to reflect the priorities of that time, convenient housing for young families being high on the list. So what you tend to find is kids’ playgrounds, kindergartens, schools, health centres, public transport and the like, and a good thing that is. They’re solid, there are no maintenance worries, there are often communal laundry facilities, the hot water never stops flowing, and in winter the heating is all-amps-on-11, so much so that a lot of people I’ve met seem to regard it as a kind of human right to be able to parade around the place in their undies when it’s minus fifteen outside. And there’s a lot more space than you might think; Czechs often tell me how shocked they are at how tiny English houses and the rooms in them often are. In fact, a panelák

is a lot like a street of terraced houses

that follows the y-axis rather than the x-axis: same amount of space; same uniformity from outside; same lack thereof from inside. Just no individual yards or gardens.

On the minus side, they aren’t what you could call quiet and they don’t deal well with hot weather. They’re like saunas in summer, and all that concrete means they don’t cool down much at night either. If you open the windows, your slumbers are likely to be fitful, what with late-night revellers returning home and sharing their joys with the neighbourhood and the merry whooping of car alarms. And one thing they were most certainly not designed for was the way car ownership patterns have changed. In 1996, finding a parking place was a struggle; nowadays, I’m told it’s become routine to double-park but leave the handbrake off so that the people whose vehicles you’re blocking can move your car out of the way if they need to leave before you do.

On balance, though, paneláks are going out of fashion. It seems to be the dream of most Czechs to live in what they call a ‘family house’, and there’s a frenzy of construction is going on, not just in towns and cities but within pretty much every village within a certain radius of them. So, slowly but surely, those with the wherewithal to join the rural bourgeoisie are doing so, those without are staying put. But there’s still a long way to go before living in one becomes a negative statement about the kind of person you are; vertical sink estates they ain’t.