Sunday, February 25, 2007


In ‘The Trial’, the last words uttered by Kafka’s protagonist K. as he is judicially murdered, a knife buried in his heart by two men in frock-coats and top-hats for reasons neither he nor the reader understand, are “Like a dog”.

Of course, it’s been pointed out so often that it’s gone way beyond a cliché that Kafka anticipated the totalitarianism that descended on so many European countries during the twentieth century, but it’s worth remembering that what he was chiefly exploring in his novels was the gulf between the ordinary person and the authorities in his own country in his own time, in other words, the Habsburg Empire.

I wonder what his reaction would be were he to come back to his native Prague today. The Empire itself is long gone, as are nearly all the Germans whose passion for detailed rules both created its bureaucracy in the first place and then made it work (well, more or less), but the institution itself is still intact, its natural tendency towards absurd complexity and horror of anything approaching clarity boosted by the almost solid fifty years of dictatorship that stifled public life in Czechoslovakia between the Nazis arriving in 1939 and the final collapse of Communism in 1989. He’d certainly have plenty of material for a few more books.

I grew up in Britain, a country where information is quite freely available and most things are allowed unless they’re expressly forbidden, and so for me living to a country where the opposite sometimes seems to be true, and it all happens in a language I still don’t feel exactly the master of, is, to put it mildly, a bit tricky at times.

Although proposals to introduce identity cards in the UK have been met with horror from many people there, this is something most Europeans feel perfectly comfortable with; I don’t have a problem with that. Nor do I mind motorists having to have a driving license with them; I don’t drive and have no intention of ever doing so, but it makes sense to me that they need to be able to show the cops something if they get stopped, as many of them should be on a regular basis, judging from the acts of homicidal lunacy I witness daily on the roads.

But I do find it curious that every citizen has to have a special number, a ‘birth number’, in addition to their ID card number, passport number, driving license number and all the other numbers they have. Or that it is a legal obligation to have a permanent address registered with the authorities. Or that there is something called an ‘extract from the criminal register’, a document that states you are have not committed any crimes and which you get, for money, of course, from the police. Without a recent one you can’t marry, get a residence permit, start a business, or all sorts of other things; whatever happened to the notion of being innocent till proven guilty? Or that getting information from officialdom all too often resembles a nightmare version of the game ‘20 Questions’, where you only get the information you need if you ask exactly the right sequence of questions to which the only answers are ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Or that it’s essential for my employers to know my father’s domicile and job (he died in 1976, so I gave ‘heaven’ and ‘angel’). And so on.

To be fair, things on the human front are much better nowadays than they used to be. The staff at Czech Railways have obviously been sent on training courses to show them how to treat the public more kindly, and the woman at the social security office melted a lot once she found that we both had dogs. Even the people at the post office, who when I first got here gave the impression that the reason were they were there and not in the secret police was because their interpersonal skills weren’t up to snuff, are pretty human nowadays. But there’s still plenty of room for improvement in the realm of public service. My heart continues to sink whenever I get a letter from any of the public bodies I have to deal with, and as for the annual ritual of the income tax procedure, which is just coming up now, I’d rather undergo a full course of root canal work without anaesthetic.

For several years now one of the arguments used by the pro-euthanasia lobby has been the absurdity of the fat that when domestic animals, such as dogs or cats, reach a stage when it seems we would be doing them a favour by bringing their lives to a close, it is perfectly OK but that when the same is true for humans we have to soldier on till the bitter end. Maybe that’s what K. was thinking of when he uttered those final words of his. Peace at last. No more queues in front of doors that remain forever locked, no more meaningless questions, no more endless forms to fill in in triplicate.

But what if Hell is run on the lines of the Habsburg Empire? Now there’s a thought…

Monday, February 19, 2007


As in "V V shoe a pleasant journey", which is what the conductor on the train to Olomouc wished us as we left the main station in Prague on Sunday, after first having wished it in flawless Czech.

Wait, though, gentle reader. This is not going to be a pop at the linguistic gaucheries of the Czechs as they struggle in English; that might be the subject of a posting some time in the future, but as a non-native learner of what the locals here proudly claim to be one of the trickiest languages in the world (and I'm not arguing), I am painfully aware of the pitfalls faced by the wannabe speaker of foreign tongues. People. Glass houses. Stones.

No, my topic of the day is the much-maligned Czech railway system, which people I know have regularly described as antiquated, dangerous, slow, dirty, and many other less-than-flattering things. And, what's more, I am here to speak up in its favour.

For starters, it's still a complete system, unlike, say, Britain, where the road lobby's stranglehold on every governmnent of every political stripe for something like sixty years, coupled with Margaret Thatcher's deranged obession with privatising everything in sight, has reduced the network to whatever the word is for a skeleton that has had half the bones removed, with even quite big places no longer served by trains at all, the public no longer being referred to as 'passengers' but as 'customers', and an insane ticketing system that means it's quite feasible to have to spend more on a ticket from London to Manchester than from London to New York City.

Here in the Czech Republic, on the other hand, it may take a while to get there - the Rough Guide uses the term 'superhumanly slow' to describe some of the trains - and some of the trains themselves are pretty long in the gear tooth - but a remarkable number of places of all sizes are still reachable; my little village, for example, is served by a branch line with twenty trains a day in either direction.

It's not perfect, of course, but then what is? The trains can get very crowded at times, particularly when the country's students, a passionately home-loving bunch, are heading home for one of their four-day weekends or back to their place of study after one. And some of the toilets are not for those of a faint-hearted disposition. Last year, too, the date on which the railway company started, with a great fanfare, running a bunch of swish new Italian-made Pendolino trains (yes, the same ones as Virgin use in the UK - the first time I ever used one of those it broke down within half an hour of leaving Euston, leaving us marooned in Milton Keynes) unhappily coincided with the coldest cold snap in a long long time, which made their delicate Southern European systems pack up altogether and brought all of them to a grinding halt.

But they're running again now, and there are lots of other pluses to the railways here; the tickets are affordable - the 250 km from Prague to Olomouc cost me the equivalent of about 10 euro - the trains themselves are perfectly OK in the comfort department, and the dining cars on the long-distance trains are a traveller's dream. What better way can there be to travel round the country than sitting in one of those with a book, an iPod, a glass of good Czech beer, and all that wonderful scenery unrolling before your eyes?

Just make sure you enjoy it soon, before they privatise the system and wreck it forever.


The Guardian is generally a very fine newspaper, both in its dead tree and online versions, and they do a cool range of podcasts. But they do produce the odd glitch from time to time, and they sure managed one last Thursday in their daily news podacst. They had a woman banging on about a recent UNICEF report, which, shock horror, shows that kids in Britain live on a level of poverty virtually unmatched in the industrialised world, and she was making the point that everything was relative and that what would be considered poverty in the UK was rather different from what would be considered poverty in Czechoslovakia.

My strong suspicion that life for kids here is actually far more pleasant in most ways than it is in the UK is not why my ears pricked up at this or why I'm writing about it now; rather, it's the fact that it's now over 14 years since Czechoslovakia ceased to exist and yet there are still people who should know better but are happily displaying their ignorance of the world by perpetuating Neville Chamberlain's words at the time of the Munich betrayal of 1938 about "a far-away country...people of whom we know nothing".

I have mixed feelings about this. I loved Czechoslovakia - at the time of the 'Velvet Divorce' I was living in Slovakia and I have lived in both parts of the country - and still believe that the split was engineered in a shamefully undemocratic way by two men who both wanted to carve out careers for themselves in the two halves of the country and recognised that they could do so far more easily without having to keep compromising with the other. Step forward, gentlemen.

In the red corner we have Vladimir Meciar, the Slovak leader at the time of the split, an ex-boxer and throwback to the Socialist strongman school of leadership. He and his party, HZDS, governed Slovakia for much of the 1990s in a distinctly retro, thuggish, and autocratic style. A joke of the time is illustrative:

Q: Whose photograph does Meciar have in his wallet?

A: Slobodan Milosevic...

These days, a combination of ill health, old age, his own political bankruptcy, and changing times have pretty much sidelined him, thank the Lord.

His Czech counterpart Vaclav Klaus, on the other hand, is still very much on the scene. He's the president of the Czech Republic these days, which makes licking a postage stamp symbolically a far from pleasant thing to do. He is an ardent disciple of Margaret Thatcher, with the same kind of petty provincial you-can't-tell-me-anything-I-don't-already-know arrogance and disdain for others as her. Like her, he is particularly contemptuous of anything connected to Europe. The joke that says it all about him:

Q: What's the difference between Vaclav Klaus and God?

A: God doesn't think he's Vaclav Klaus.

But let's get back to the subject. There are special cases like the Czechoslovak National House in London where the past lives on, but otherwise there really is no excuse for referring to Czechoslovakia as a living entity these days. A few years ago I was in Tallinn, Estonia, doing some work. The guy who introduced me to the group of Estonians I was going to be working with introduced me as "Simon, who has come from Czechoslovakia to be with us". For a brief moment I wondered whether I should begin my own spiel by telling them all what a pleasure it was for me to be in the Soviet Union. On reflection, I thought better of it. Which was probably wise. So follow my example, people, and buy an up-to-date map...

Thursday, February 8, 2007


I’ve always been a sucker for a good sunset. I suppose pretty much everybody is. It’s one of the stock images of human contentment, even though there are some miserabilists who consider it a bit hackneyed or kitschy. Probably my own enthusiasm has a lot to do with the fact that I grew up in the 1960s and am thus a hopeless romantic idealist. Plus I spent my formative years in a small village in the middle of nowhere in the days when TV, if it existed at all, was in black’n’white, and we depended on things like fires and sunsets for colour in our little rustic lives.

I’ve also had the good fortune to spend various stages of my life in places which are in the west and near water, which is a big boost to us sunset fans. Liverpool, where I spent not only a good few but more than a few good years, is a great place for them; it’s that combination of a coastal setting, a westward vista, and the Gulf Stream, or so people tell me. Izmir, on the west coast of Turkey, is another big port where I hung my hat for a while, and I have many happy memories of sitting outside my favourite watering-hole on the seafront there, a nice cool Efes beer and a plate of meze (toothsome snacks that are just fine and dandy when consumed together with said cool Efes beer) to hand, gazing dreamily out across the bay as the evening breeze brought merciful relief after a baking hot day.

But surely the most spectacular sunsets of my life were when I lived in El Geteina, a town on the east bank of the White Nile in Sudan; I used to go down to the river, which is very wide there, and watch this enormous red African sun falling into the water so fast you could actually see it moving. Because it’s equatorial, the difference between the times it set in the summer and winter wasn’t that great, which was weird and wonderful for a European who was used to the huge differences we get here.

Not that I’m complaining. Here in Central Europe (not Eastern – calling this country Eastern Europe is up there with dissing their beer as a really effective way of upsetting Czechs in record time) we are blessed with some splendid examples, too. They can be a bit watery in winter, but in summer they can be pretty spectacular, and on a nice evening there is nothing that my plague of mosquitoes and I like quite so much as sitting in my garden and watching the sun go down over the forest.

Monday, February 5, 2007


Yesterday we (me, my partner Lenka, and Sigmund, the Irish terrier who is our constant companion) decided to take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather and go for a walk ‘in the nature’, as many Czechs are in the habit of referring to the great outdoors. This is one of the many great delights of life in the Czech Republic, and neighbouring Slovakia too; of course, they were both one big happy country till not so very long ago. Both republics are crisscrossed, especially in mountainous or otherwise picturesque areas, with footpaths for hikers, which vary from veritable pedestrian superhighways to trails that are absolutely impassable some of the time for various reasons.

These are shown on maps, from which you can easily plan your trip, and on the ground they take the form of blazes painted on trees, rocks, corners of buildings, and other permanent or semipermanent features of the landscape. All you have to do is follow these to get to your destination. At railway stations, bus stops, and other important points either where trails start or along them, you get signs indicating how far it is to various places. These are normally in kilometers but in mountainous parts of Slovakia they are actually shown in hours. Once you’ve done a couple of trips you can figure out how your own pace compares to what’s posted on the signs and calculate accordingly.

Yesterday’s trip was what a friend of mine once referred to as a ‘geriatric walk’; a mere twelve kilometers or so and the worst we had to face in the way of climatic conditions was a bit of mud on some of the paths. Almost enough to make me think I didn’t really deserve the splendid Czech pub lunch I had to fortify myself along the way. Almost, but not quite…