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

OFF!

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:



Enjoy.

Friday, August 6, 2010

OUTSIDE - NOW!

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

KAREL GOTT MIT UNS

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

WE ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW PANELÁK

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.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

THE STOOGES IN OSTRAVA

The first time I saw Iggy Pop was at the Apollo in Manchester in 1977. On the negative side, the Stooges, with whom he had made three albums that I had done my level best to wear out my copies of with constant playing, were history, but, in the plus column, so, as an NME journalist put it at the time, was “the singer’s propensity for getting utterly gaga on nefarious pharmaceuticals” and his frequently looking like a red-hot candidate for the next premature rock’n’roll death. Oozing rude health and working together with David Bowie, who was then probably at the peak of his powers, he was in the middle of the burst of creativity that spawned both ‘The Idiot’ and ‘Lust for Life’. It was brilliant, one of the standout gigs of a period of my life when it seemed that music really was going to be the answer to most of the questions. It wasn’t, of course.

Iggy’s live performances continued to be the stuff of legend, but his studio output was non-essential for me after that – competent big-noise rock with a bunch of sidemen who knew what they were doing, but not a patch on, say, this:

The first time I saw Ostrava was in 1991. I was expecting the worst. I’d read in the very first edition of the Rough Guide to Czechoslovakia that “If you told a Czech you were going to Ostrava, they’d probably think you were mad” and everybody I knew said much the same – not many of them had been there, but that didn’t stand in the way of their knowing it was rough and primitive and dirty and full of morlocks and football hooligans and bleached blonde leopardskin women like Bet Lynch. What I found was a big scruffy industrial city which I liked straight away; more than anywhere else here it reminded me of home. It was a lot like its counterparts in the north of England, and the people had a directness and style to them that felt comfortable to me.

I’ve been back there many times now. I go there several times a year for one reason or another. It’s changed a lot since then; like so many other post-industrial cities worldwide, it’s been busy trying to reinvent itself. There’s Stodolni, with its bars and nightlife, there’s an ambitious bid to become the European City of Culture in 2015, and there’s an annual music festival, Colours of Ostrava, which is held in the heart of this surprisingly green city and just grows and grows. This year was its tenth anniversary and it was sold out the best part of a month beforehand, apparently the first time this has ever happened in the Czech Republic.

The headline act this year was Iggy. Not with a bunch of LA henchmen, though, but with as many of the original Dum Dum Boys from forty years ago as possible – Dave Alexander is dead, Ron Asheton likewise, but the others – Rock Action, James Williamson, and Steve Mackay – were all going to be there. Four out of six of them surviving till now is actually quite an achievement, given the talent for self-destruction those guys had. But were they going to be any good? Although the music on their distinctly pedestrian 2007 album ‘The Weirdness’ suggested they might not be, word of mouth and reviews of other live shows they’d done said that they were going to be present and probably far more correct than back in the day.

It rained on and off the whole day, not enough to really dampen spirits but enough to thin out the crowd a bit, which was just fine by me – my days in the moshpit are well in the past. Ten o’clock came round, and then, after a brief word from the festival organizers, the Stooges trooped on and a launched straight into their first selection.

Iggy started out in a singlet, which had me thinking that maybe age was getting to him – he is 63, after all, an age when early to bed with a nice cup of cocoa is perhaps more in order than stirring up a crowd of thousands – but within thirty seconds it had gone and the most renowned torso in the business was stripped for action. He may have the face of a badly done Egyptian mummy these days and the body might not be what it once was, but he’s still got the voice and the moves and the sheer presence and can rip it up better than almost anyone I’ve ever seen play live, working the stage like some wild mix of a big jungle cat, a pole dancer, an anaconda going through a fit, and a hooker in a display window while behind him the band laid down a maelstrom of pure vicious noise that had the ground beneath my feet vibrating.

You can’t really talk about Greatest Hits in the Stooge context, as they never had any, but the set they played was all killer, no filler: ‘Raw Power’ was followed by ‘Kill City’ and ‘Search and Destroy’, and I can’t come up with the names of too many bands that have triple whammies of that calibre to kick off with. There wasn’t a lot of banter between songs, although at one point, to the bemusement of the no-necks guarding the stage, Iggy did mischievously invite a bunch of guys to join them and dance. They did most of ‘Raw Power’ (although not my personal favourite, ‘Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell’); ‘1970’ and ‘Fun House’ from the second album, as well as a few more left-field choices such as ‘Open Up And Bleed’, ‘I Got A Right’, and ‘Cock In My Pocket’ (introduced as ‘Up Your Ass’), plus ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ and, to finish with, ‘No Fun’, which may have been accurate forty-one years ago (!) when it was written, but certainly wasn’t true on Sunday night in Ostrava in the rain. It was the biggest fun I’ve had at a concert for years, up there with the best of them. Gentlemen, I thank you.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

VUVUZELAS, WEMBLEY GOALS, AND DAMP SQUIBS: THE 2010 WORLD CUP

Like hundreds of millions of others, my activities in the last few weeks have revolved around the scheduling of the matches in the 2010 World Cup, and after a dreadfully slow start it’s turned into a rather fine competition; the last eight include a whole bunch of really good teams and I’m looking forward to the remaining seven games. The Saffers have done a great job – lovely stadia, brilliant TV coverage , especially some of the stills and close-ups, and the best ever World Cup theme tune bar none. And I’d much rather the vuvuzelas than that stupid Mexican wave any day.

As for England, well, my patriotism is usually of the lukewarm variety, but I turned out with hope in my heart. Ten minutes in, we were 1-0 up against the USA after a slick move and a neat finish and things were looking rosy. Maybe not as rosy as The Paper That Supported Our Boys would have had us believe with this front page after the draw for the group was made:


But still pretty good. Then came that pub-team-goalkeeper-with-a-particularly-bad-hangover howler from poor Robert Green and all of a sudden things weren’t looking so hot after all. Next up was the wretched nil-nil draw with Algeria, where our ‘golden generation’ (an appellation that seems to reflect their grotesque earnings rather than their track record) turned in a performance that would have had the average junior school sports teacher weeping in frustration, followed by the get-out-of-jail result against mighty Slovenia that meant we staggered out of the group and in which we showed vague hints of the form in the qualifiers that had got us to the finals and had had the redtops bigging up our chances goodstyle.

Enter Deutschland. The old enemy. And also the first genuinely good side we’d faced. Two-nil down after barely half an hour and staring disaster in the face, then we got one back from a set-piece and then this:


Quite how the officials failed to spot that one (apparently they’ve been calling them ‘Wembley goals’ in Germany for over forty years now – can’t think why) has been one of the biggest talking points of the last few days. But it’s hardly a unique incident: the perfectly good winner the US scored against Slovenia that was disallowed for offside, the way Brazil’s Luis Fabiano handled the ball not once but twice to set himself up for his second against Côte d’Ivoire, and the ‘goal’ by two-yards-offside Carlos Tevez that started Argentina off on their route to victory against a Mexican team that had shaded them up to that point are perhaps the three that struck me most. This kind of incompetence is just ludicrous at this level of the world’s most popular sport and the howls of protest from the aggrieved parties are understandable.

It’s not as if the technology doesn’t exist or would be expensive or hard to install – it’s already there, at all sorts of levels of the game, and certainly at a championship like this, where the number of camera angles the South African TV people have been able to deploy for juicy morsels of the action has been quite staggering. And it’s not as if other sports don’t take advantage of it – to name but three, ice hockey, cricket, and tennis have all adapted to the modern world and what it can offer when it comes to dodgy calls. As for football, well, Sepp Blatter said as recently as April that there was no way they were going to go down that road, but I see from the press today that now he’s backtracking on his Luddite commitment to no technology, so let’s watch this space and see what happens.

But let’s be honest. No technology in the world would have prevented England from getting thrashed on Sunday, for the simple reason that they weren’t very good on the day and, whatever the tabloids might say, aren’t very good anyway. We may have invented the game, but the idea that the way we do it is the genuine article and Johnny Foreigner’s efforts are not quite the way it should be played is as horribly outdated as cricket dividing the Gentlemen from the Players. Just compare Germany, with their speed, movement, fluidity, teamwork, and ability to surge upfield and strip a defence bare, with England: what do we have?

A lot of people seem happy to dump the blame on the guy my mate Mark in Budapest describes as ‘the strict headmaster on the touchline’, the six-million-quid-a-year man Fabio Capello, and as the coach of course he has to take at least some of the blame. Our rigid formation; a ponderous defence; a midfield that showed little or no creativity; a toothless attack; playing a big butch target man (and how many teams at this level use one of those, for God’s sake?) who may be a lovely guy but who has a tendency, to paraphrase Frank Worthington, to trap the ball further than a lot of other players can kick it; all these can be laid at his door to some extent, I suppose. But there are other things I don’t think can.

A 100-hundred-miles-an-hour approach to the game that has always valued endeavour and commitment and ‘putting in a shift’ more than technical ability or wit or flair or subtlety; the frequent inability to find a team-mate with the simplest of passes; no notion of the value of keeping possession, and no patience with the ball, epitomised by the tendency to hoof it aimlessly upfield (the Gary Neville, as it’s called in the trade) rather than actually thinking about what to do with it; the English approach, in other words. Put it all together with unpredictable errors like Green’s and the lack of form shown by some key players and it’s not exactly a formula for success. More Dad’s Army than Cool Britannia, I fear.

Wayne Rooney has taken quite a bit of stick, and he certainly bore no resemblance to the player who has been terrorising Prem defences these last few seasons. But he’s far from alone in that. Between them Rooney, Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres, the King of Petulance aka Cristiano Ronaldo, and even the wonderful Lionel Messi had only scored a total of two goals by the time the quarter-finalists were known. The odds you could have got on that before the tournament would surely have been astronomical.

But at least there were others on whose shoulders the burden of expectation was even heavier than on England and who disappointed their people even more cruelly. The holders, Italy, for one, who needed to beat Slovakia to get out of their group and ended up losing in a welter of tears; now they really were Dad’s Army. But pride of place must go to les Bleus, with one point, enough skulduggery in the camp to build a year’s worth of soap operas around, and the wrath of a nation awaiting them on their ignominious return. Karma coming home to roost if ever there was; after that shameful handball incident against Ireland that got them there in the first place, they deserved nothing better. I wonder just what the Irish word for schadenfreude is?

Monday, May 24, 2010

IT'S ALL IN A NAME...

I heard not so long ago that the University of Western England is going to run a project designed to uncover the origins of every family name in the UK. What a wonderful idea. My own, so my dad told me, is an old Norse term for someone who lives in a valley, which is kinda prosaic, but there are all sorts of gems out there. I’ll return to this from a Czech point of view once I’ve put in the necessary research, but for now let’s begin with football, which, as in so many other areas, throws up some real gems.

Africa rather corners the market in weird and wonderful first names. Surprise Moriri, Naughty Mokoena, and Tonic Chabalala all ply (or used to) their trade in South Africa. And let’s not forget Bongo Christ, who hails from Congo. But these guys will have to go some to compete with Zimbabwe’s Laughter Chilembe, Have-A-Look Dube, Method Mwanyazi, and Danger Fourpence.

Another Zimbabwean, Limited Chicafa, has the kind of name that is just begging for its owner to be transferred to Juventus. In the season which, mercifully for them, has just ended, the Old Lady regularly featured a player called Ciro Immobile, although a cynic might note that with the number of defeats they suffered they might as well all have been called that. I think Limited would fit in just fine there.

Another fine Italian name belongs to the Australian Danny Invincibile, whose career has taken him to Swindon and Kilmarnock, who are both anything but. Also from Australia we have Norman Conquest, a man whose parents either had a great sense of humour or were potential Nobel laureates in obtuseness. Another whose folks’ choice probably gave him a few hard times at school has to be Wolfgang Wolf, who actually was the manager of Wolfsburg for some time – you couldn’t make it up, could you?

Leaving Europe once more, a big ‘hello’ to Johnny Moustache, from the Seychelles, and let’s spare a thought for Brazil’s Kaka and Hulk, who actually chose their noms de ballon, the silly billies. Still in Brazil, Rafael Scheidt never managed to overcome his surname at Celtic and Angelico Fucks featured in what has to be one of the greatest football headlines ever:


And Vágner Love just sounds like a porn star.

Small wonder, perhaps that Lyon’s Brazilian defender Fred opted for something a bit more prosaic.

Then, of course, there are the names that are simply unfortunate: Portuguese goalkeeper Quim, who gave the impetus to one of my all-time favourite gags on the Guardian’s football podcast, Germany’s Stefan Kuntz, Romanian international Razvan Rat, former England internationals Harry Daft and Segar Bastard, and a trio who have graced various English teams in the last decade or two, Nicky Butt, Dean Windass, and Danny Shittu. And Milan Fukal (there’s a Czech connection) is a man who, had his move to Derby County worked out, could have inspired some truly deathless chants.

But for my all-time favourites, we need to turn for inspiration to the world of film, to be precise, the Coen Brothers’ wonderful The Big Lebowski. Here’s some dialogue from the scene where the Dude, played by Jeff Bridges, goes to see Maude Lebowski (Juliane Moore) in her art studio:


MAUDE: Does the female form make you uncomfortable, Mr. Lebowski?

DUDE: Is that what that's a picture of?

MAUDE: In a sense, yes. Elfranco, my robe. My art has been commended as being strongly vaginal. Which bothers some men. The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina.

DUDE: Oh yeah?

MAUDE: Yes, they don't like hearing it and find it difficult to say. Whereas without batting an eye a man will refer to his "dick" or his "rod" or his "Johnson".

DUDE: "Johnson"?

Step forward, Dick Johnson (former goalkeeper of Tranmere Rovers) and Rod Johnson (Leeds United and Doncaster Rovers, among others). Congratulations, gentlemen. You win. And an honourable mention to American tennis player Andy Roddick.

Monday, May 10, 2010

WAKEY WAKEY!

Recognise this?


No? Stop wasting your time on internet trivia and beg, steal, borrow, or illegally download ‘The Ipcress File’ and don’t come back until you’ve watched it and made thorough notes. Yes? Read on.

Last night I watched it once again. I first saw it many years ago but have returned to it at regular intervals since then and it has never failed to delight me. Michael Caine’s performance as Harry Palmer is so cool you could build a mojito around it, and his enthusiasm for the kitchen was one of the main reasons why, when I was a teenager, I decided that cooking was a good thing for a guy to be able to do; the fact that the mushrooms he made such a fuss over were tinned rather than fresh is something I can accept as a sign of the times, just like his unfortunate tendency to refer to women as ‘birds’. I can forgive him almost anything for that moment when he says that he only takes off his glasses when he’s in bed.

One thing that did amuse me, though, was that when he was cruelly torn from the arms of Morpheus at the start of the film the time his alarm clock showed when he eventually bothered to turn it off, after slowly waking up, getting out of bed, and opening the curtains in a leisurely manner first, was eight o’clock. My immediate reaction was to burst out laughing. My second was to realise that this was another of those moments, like staying up late to watch Lukaš Bauer skiing in the Winter Olympics, when you realise you’ve changed. When I lived in England I too used to regard it as a gross imposition to have to get up at that time of the day and needed the combined ministrations of a strong cup of tea and ‘Today’ on the radio in order to face the world. Now my alarm is set for half past six and more often than not I’m up before it. What went wrong?

This guy, that’s what.


Franz Josef, the last of the Austro-Hungarian emperors and the last Habsburg to rule this country, was an insomniac. Because of that, he adopted a working day that started at six in the morning. He was also an autocrat. Because of that, lots of other people ended up having to do so as well. And in much the same way as the opening hours of pubs in England reflected the opinions of our teetotal leader David Lloyd George on how best to win the First World War until almost the end of the twentieth century, this is something that has persisted here.

And that’s why everything starts and finishes so much earlier. Lessons in school usually start at eight, unless the so-called ‘zero lesson’ is on the menu, in which case it can be seven; a total waste of time for everyone involved. And on the rare occasions I happen to be up really early, for example, to take a morning train to somewhere far away, I am still shocked by just how lively the station is at five in the morning. And unlike me, these people do it every day. And if you want to catch anyone at work on a Friday, forget it if it’s after midday; they’ll all have gone. Me too – early starts are one thing, but I’ve never met anyone I wanted to spend time with who wasn’t into the idea of an early finish. Well, at work, anyway…

Thursday, May 6, 2010

WARS OF MICE AND FROGS


Speaking in 1938, Neville Chamberlain, then the British Prime Monster, said these famous words: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is…a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing…a quarrel which has already been settled in principle.” He was, of course, weaselling out of the UK’s treaty promises to come to the aid of Czechoslovakia if it was attacked. We all know what happened next.

Fast forward to 2010: today the UK is having what Yuko, a Japanese woman I used to know, once referred to as a ‘general erection’, as a result of which the latest in the chain of which Chamberlain was a link will ascend to the giddy heights of daring to assume that he knows how to run the country. And what a meal they are making of it. And with such unsavoury ingredients. Just look at these guys.




And these are the cream of the crop, the publicly acceptable faces, the top boys; no way they’d fiddle their expenses to keep their ducks in five-star style, be non-executive directors in firms flogging arms to anyone with the cash, or pour the pork to their cabinet colleagues while wearing nothing but a football shirt. But there are surely others who, if you opened the door and found them on your doorstep you’d be calling for the police at the double and telling your partner to hide the kids, the family silver, or, in Cameron’s case, probably the dog.

Of course, the media have been running saturation coverage the last few weeks; every time someone running for office opens their mouth it seems that someone is on hand to record it and comment on it, however dumb and fatuous it may be. And let’s spare a thought for the poor old spin doctors. They must be running on fumes after all the sleepless nights they’ve surely been having.

One thing that strikes me like a sledgehammer between the eyes is just how grotesquely melodramatic the language being deployed is. Look at this, for example:


The article that accompanies it is full of quotes like this one: “The Conservatives are the only choice if you want to rescue Britain from disaster.” Disaster? Guys, all we’re talking about here is a change of government in one of the most stable and prosperous countries on a planet that these days is largely run by multinational corporations anyway and, as we all should know by now, there’s not really much of a difference between any of the main British political parties these days. If these people spent the first fifteen minutes of their day in the skin of an African villager they’d perhaps wake up and realise what a pile of crap they are talking. This poster has more bedrock common sense in it than the Sun and most of the rest of the UK press ever have:


In Czech there’s a term for this absurd inflation of the trivial into matters of life and death – hence the title of this post. The more I think about the election, the more I'm reminded of Chamberlain's words, but from where I'm sitting it's the UK that seems far way and overly fixated on its parochial business. Whoever wins, most of the campaign promises that were made will be conveniently forgotten or watered down or explained away as being impossible because of something or other that has cropped up. Whoever wins, nothing is going to change too dramatically. Whoever wins, life will go on. Because, as Proudhon said, “All parties without exception, when they seek for power, are varieties of absolutism.”

He also said this:

“Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy.”

“To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorised, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be place[d] under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolised, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonoured. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.”

Cool guy. Much, much more on the ball than any of those lummoxes beseeching the British public to vote for them today. Where is he now that Europe needs him?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

LITOVELSKÉ POMORAVÍ

One of the many pluses of our village is its geographical position. The Sodom and Gomorrah of Olomouc, with all its fleshpots and creature comforts, is within bricking distance, the hills are not much further away, and only a few kilometres across the fields there’s Litovelské Pomoraví.

The second half of the name comes from the River Morava, which is, of course, where the eastern part of the Czech Republic gets its name from. The river rises in the hills on the Polish border and then makes its way southwards. By the time it gets to a place called Mohelnice, about 40 kilometres northwest of Olomouc, it gets fed up with the headlong rush of its giddy youth and starts to take it easy, creating a forested floodplain for itself and splitting up into at least six different channels and a sprawl of swamps, meanders, and oxbow lakes.

One of the places it passes through in this languid mode is Litovel, a small town that is sometimes rather fancifully referred to as the Venice of Haná, partly on the strength of the various arms of the Morava that lap around it, partly because of a solitary and rather modest canal that flows through its centre. It did make a rather more serious effort to turn itself into La Serenissima during the epic floods of 1997, though.

Put the two together and you get Litovelské Pomoraví, a nature reserve which stretches all the way from Mohelnice to just a few kilometres outside Olomouc. It has beauty and charm during every season, but to be honest, in winter, like pretty much everywhere else round here, it’s frozen solid and not much worth bothering with, and by the time summer comes round you have to compete with a copious and lively insect population, with mosquitoes playing a prominent role, a situation which persists until another winter comes round and kills the little bastards off, so unless you actually like mosquitoes, in which case you should probably stop reading forthwith and tootle off to take your medication, the best time to go there is in spring, when it is seriously glorious, what with the merry burbling of the waters and a thousand shades of green as the forest comes to life.

There are flowers up the wazoo – we’ve been there three times in the last six weeks. The first time we found it still full of snow and ice but also ‘bear garlic’ (which, by the way, makes a great soup) and snowdrops; two weeks later the snow and ice was just a memory and a whole bunch of other plants were coming through, and last Sunday it was just a riot of spring colours. It’s home to beavers, otters, deer, and various other quadrupeds, plus, of course, all manner of birds; there are even a bunch of ostriches living on a farm just by one of the villages that dot the main route through it. It’s crisscrossed with paths and tracks, so you can plan as long or as short a trip as you feel like, and there are quite a few points along the way where you can access it from a bus stop or by train. It’s very popular not just with walkers but also cyclists – it’s flatter than a witch’s tit – and horse riders, rafters, and canoeists.

And, of course, this being the Czech Republic, there’s no shortage of pubs along the way where the thirsty traveller can pause for refreshment. Pretty much every village has at least one watering-hole. A favourite of many is the Lovecká chata, or Hunter’s Cottage.


In days gone by it was a woodland retreat for the bigwigs in the Communist Party, who, just like the bloated capitalists they loved to contrast themselves with, were inordinately fond of mass-murdering whatever hapless fauna happened along – just down the road there’s a huge pheasant hatchery that was built to provide them with shotgun fodder – but in these more enlightened and egalitarian times it’s open to the masses and the workers as well. In addition to good Litovel beer and a menu with a strong flavour of game, there are horse-riding stables and even that staple of many a Party Congress, crazy golf; just what a boy needs when the Five-Year Plan is going awry...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

EGGS, BUNNIES, AND BEATINGS

It’s the Wednesday after Easter, which we spent at the in-laws in South Bohemia, and I have just about recovered from the orgy of eating it involved. Not that this way of celebrating one of the key days in the Christian calendar is anything new for me.

When I was a kid in England the main way Easter seemed to be celebrated, certainly by everybody I knew, was to eat chocolate eggs and their contents till we either threw up or exploded. Even my father, not normally renowned for possessing any chocoholic tendencies, had a weakness for the type they used to make Easter eggs, which he claimed was a superior variety to the stuff he showed little interest in during the rest of the year.

Here chocolate perhaps plays rather a lesser role, and most of that in the form of rabbits rather than eggs. Instead, people tend to commemorate the crucifixion of Our Lord by eating lamb, something they almost never eat at other times of the year, or, failing that, a sponge cake baked in a lamb-shaped cake dish.

But the most enthusiastic celebrations of Easter, which take place on the Monday, are purely pagan, which is perhaps no great surprise in what is, apparently, statistically the most Godless country in Europe, together with Iceland. Posses of males roam the streets from early morning till noon, each armed with a tatar, a whacking-stick made of plaited willow wands and decorated at the business end with ribbons. Here's one as depicted by the great chronicler of Czech life Josef Lada:


They visit houses and use their tatars across the buttocks of the females they find there, who reward them with either painted hen’s eggs, like these:


or, in many cases, alcohol. In Slovakia, instead of this the guys often spray the women with either perfume or, less romantically, water, which prompted a young lady from there who I taught to write to me: “Today was Easter. I do not like Easter. The boys came to my house and irrigated me.”

The symbolism of this, while crystal clear, is also a source of great horror to many people who come here from places where strong notions of politically correct behaviour are in the ascendant. When I first got here I too was aghast at what I think I then categorised as an act of sexist physical aggression, but since then I’ve seen my ex-mother-in-law, a very dignified retired medical doctor in her sixties, skipping round the living room and giggling like a tipsy schoolgirl as a singer from the local opera house whisked her fundament with his tatar and with great gusto, and Lenka has made it very clear that it’s part of my duty as a good husband to give her at least a symbolic seeing-to, and these days I’m not so sure. Cultural sensitivity, innit?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

THE BROWN BROWN BREAD OF HOME

When I first came to what was then the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, way back when, I was looking forward to quite a few things. One of them was the beer, which I had already performed extensive tests on before leaving England. Even in those days you could get Budvar and Pilsner Urquell there and the results, let me be quite honest, played no small role in my decision to come here. Another was curiosity about the food.

In 1985 I picked up a Czech cookery book published in about 1960 for 50p in a second-hand bookshop in Faversham, and for months after that Czech dumplings were staples of my diet. I was curious as to how authentic the good solid rib-sticking ostrich egg lookalikes I boiled up were, and to this day I’m still not sure whether I was disappointed or delighted to find out they were pretty close to the real thing.

I was also looking forward to the bread, chiefly because of happy memories of what I had had when I was living in Germany, which is surely one of the absolutely very best countries in the whole world when it comes to bakery goods and which, I assumed, would be closely followed by its Central European neighbours. But in this there was no question about delight or disappointment.

In 1989 Britain hadn’t quite scaled the giddy heights of grotesque consumerism that seem to be the norm these days, but in terms of the variety of food on offer it still pissed all over Czechoslovakia from a great height. The main loaf to be found here at the time was one baked with rye that looked like this:


Not only visually but also in terms of edibility, it resembled nothing quite so much as Thunderbird 2:


It was OK when it was fresh, but usually it wasn’t, and it went sour and hard pretty fast. As did I when expected to eat it. Tears welled up in my pampered capitalist eyes when I thought of all those granary loaves just sitting in what until recently had been my local shop, and even good old English sliced bread, of which my dad used to swear one of the main ingredients was also in the recipe for soap flakes, had me slobbering like one of Pavlov’s dogs when I thought of it.

Of course, none of the people I knew had the slightest sympathy for my plight. Even without ever going to England, they just knew we lived on slops and that one of the lowest points of our wretched diet was our bread, and of course now that loads of them have been there their contempt is even greater – just watch them piling off the bus from London and hightailing it home to Mum to sink their famished choppers into the bread they grew up with.

Of course, in the Czech Republic nowadays we too have Tesco and 24/7 shopping-till-you-dropping and instore bakeries and wholegrain multicereal bread rolls and ciabatta baked with stoneground wholegrain flour from a south-facing slope and even something resembling a granary loaf, but the one that is sold in the biggest quantities is still our old friend Thunderbird 2.

But that’s the way it is with bread, isn’t it? Our daily bread. The staff of life. And what we grow up with, however dismal it may be in objective terms, is always going to be the yardstick against which everything else is tried and found wanting. Which is why I will still occasionally indulge myself in an occasional sandwich made with sliced white bread, and preferably containing traditional delicacies of my homeland such as bacon (from Denmark) or corned beef (from Argentina). Unbeatable!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A CZECH LESSON

Take a look at the picture below. Think long and hard. Use the visual information to help you. Now take a deep breath, forget the fact that you may not speak a word of Czech, and see if you can provide a translation into English.


If you’ve come up with ‘NO SMOKING’, well, close but no cigar. Or these days, more probably, no cigarette. I have done some thorough investigative fieldwork on this. I started at the main railway station in Olomouc, where numerous of these signs are prominently displayed on the exterior walls, although at the time of day I pass through there they are frequently obscured by clouds of, you’ve guessed it, cigarette smoke, chiefly generated, as far as I can see, by schoolkids and the homeless, both of whom gather there in large numbers. So I decided to do a backup study outside the teacher training college where I work, just in case. There are similar signs there and a presumably literate bunch of punters hanging round outside. This is what I found just a couple of metres from one of the signs:


So I think I can now say, with some authority, backed up by empirical studies and observation, that ZÁKAZ KOUŘENÍ actually means something like “Please come and stand here with all your friends and enjoy a cigarette together, after which you are welcome to use your imagination and the detritus of said cigarette to decorate the place in whichever way you feel is most appropriate.” Say what you like about Czech; it sure as hell is an economical language – where else would you find two little words so redolent and pregnant with meaning as that?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

THE SOUND OF SUNDAY

For many of the years that I have been in this country I lived in a flatblock, or rather in a series of four different flatblocks, where, curiously enough, I was always on the fourth floor. But a numerological analysis of any significance that this may have will have to wait till the portents are more favourable – today we have other fish to fry. Or rather schnitzels.

Pretty much every Sunday morning in those places I used to hear these rhythmic thumping noises, and I spent the longest time in a mix of ignorance and curiosity about them. DIY enthusiasts? Victorian disciplinarians giving it laldy with a running shoe? The kind of ardent lovemaking that has the bed doing a circuit of the room and to hell with the headboard and the walls? When I finally did find out it was, of course, something infinitely more prosaic – it was actually just chunks of lean pork being whacked with a big hammer to tenderise them.

There are a couple of competitors for the title of the nation’s favourite dish. Roast pork with cabbage and dumplings is one of them, but the schnitzel surely has to be another hot choice, whether as Sunday lunch, a regular on pub and canteen menus, or the discerning train traveller’s snack of choice, usually between a couple of chunks of bread and wrapped up in a paper napkin. Here's one, found at Die Österreichische Küche:


A lot of the Czechs I know, in that rather self-deprecating way a lot of them have, point out with a wry smile the fact that it’s somehow typical that an Austrian import should take such a central role in their eating habits. But actually, they’re not right about it, and nor are the Viennese who insist on putting the name of their city before the word ‘schnitzel’. Like so many other things in this part of the world it’s more complicated than that. This traditional Czech dish with an Austrian name is actually from Italy and was brought to Vienna by…a Czech. And not just any Czech either, but one with one of the best-known pieces of music ever written in Austria named after him.

In the middle of the nineteenth century there was war between the Habsburg monarchy and the Italians, who were fighting to unite their country. (Incidentally, and purely as an aside, the classic pizza margherita, with its red, white, and green celebrating the colours of the Italian flag, has its origins in the same conflict.) When the general who defeated the Italians came to Vienna in triumph after his victories, he brought his favourite dish with him. In its native land it was, and still is, better known as an escalope milanese. The Viennese gave him a hero’s welcome, which involved not only their adopting his favourite dish with enthusiasm, but also the penning of Opus 228 by Johann Strauss. You probably know it as the Radetzky March, named after Joseph Radetzky von Radetz, a native of Bohemia. Here he is, taken from here:


They are fond of saying in Vienna that “every true Viennese has a Czech grandmother”. But there is, as far as I know, only one true Viennese dish that has Italian parents and a dancing Czech general for a midwife.

Monday, February 22, 2010

ICE HOCKEY - THE TRUTH!

A common refrain among people translated to places they weren’t born in is “You know you’ve been living in [name of place] for too long when you start to enjoy [insert name of activity you would never have dreamed off back home on the farm].” I had one of those moments on Saturday night, when I stayed up to see whether the Czech cross-country skiing machine Lukáš Bauer would win some kind of gruelling 30-kilometre multiski event in the Winter Olympics. I got really involved. The subtleties of the differences between the two types of skiing it involved rather eluded me – I tried cross-country skiing once and since then have stuck to mulled wine, log fires, Dickens novels, and watching paint dry for winter entertainment – but no way was I going to bed till it was over. Sadly, he came in something like sixth in the end, so no medals, no patriotic outpourings, just a sigh, turn off the TV, and off up the wooden hill to blanket fair.

Last night it was the turn of the ice hockey, and this time I didn’t need any persuading to postpone my bedtime. The match was between the Czech Republic and Russia. As a fan of Liverpool Football Club with many a memory (mostly happy) of matches against Everton, I thought I knew a thing or two about local rivalries, but there’s a special poignancy about games between the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or Czechoslovakia and Russia/the Soviet Union. Following the events of August 1968, and all the way up to 1989, one of the few ways in which Czechs and Slovaks could express their outrage at what had been done to them was by supporting the national team to the max when they played the Beast from the East, and the town got painted the deepest shade of red you’ve ever seen when they actually managed to beat them.

Which happened more than once. Just as in cricket or rugby, where there are only a few truly first-class countries globally (we won’t go into just which ones they may be right now – we have other business to transact), there are only a handful of countries which dine at the top table in ice hockey – basically Canada, the States, Finland, Sweden, the Czechs, Slovakia, and Russia. There are others that play, sure, but effectively they’re just there to provide cannon fodder and make up the numbers. Even since the small country called Czechoslovakia split into two in 1993, both the constituent parts have won the biggest prizes; the Slovaks were world champions in 2002, and the Czechs have been world champions no fewer than five times since 1996, and the only thing I’ve seen in 21 years here that matched the scenes of joy that followed their Olympic gold at Nagano in 1998 was the good bits from the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

But – and this is what I’ve been building up to – the Czechs and the Slovaks, for all their chest-thumping about what great hockey players they are – and trust me, gentle reader, this is one of the precious few things that either of them come over all macho about – are sitting on a well-kept and shameful secret, which not too many people know about. Which is that for a short while in the 1930s the dominant world power in hockey was…Great Britain, and we stuffed them!

Yes, it’s true. We won the Olympic gold medal and the World Championship in 1936 and, during the eighteen months or so that we bestrode the sport like a colossus, played Czechoslovakia three times, out of which we beat them twice, including a demolition job in the Medal Round of the 1936 Winter Olympics; to quote from the Manchester Storm British Ice Hockey web pages, which you can read here, “In the finals, Britain made light work of the Czechs beating them 5-0, as too did the Canadians beating them 7-0.” And then, just to make sure they didn’t have a chance to get their revenge, we sold them down the river to Uncle Adolf not long after. See – it’s all a conspiracy.

But you can’t argue with the facts. Baldly, ice hockey is just one of the innumerable things that we are better than the Czechs and Slovaks at, and the statistics prove it. And as for the Russians, those arrivistes (who, incidentally, won last night's game 4-2), we have simply never deigned to play them. Wouldn’t be quite the done thing, would it, old boy?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

TITS OUT FOR THE VOTERS

In a few months there are going to be parliamentary elections both here in the Czech Republic and in Britain. Maybe despite the historical fact that totalitarianism of one stripe or another has so often held the whip hand here, or maybe because of it, the Czechs, when they get the chance, have always shown a lot of enthusiasm for forming, and breaking up, political parties. Jaroslav Hašek, whose biography by Sir Cecil Parrott, is entitled ‘The Bad Bohemian’, was renowned for his pranks, one of the greatest of which was his candidature, in 1911, for ‘The Party of Moderate Progress Within the Bounds of the Law’, which, regardless of its modest name, was just another of his scurrilous anarchist pisstakes of the society of the day. Some friends of mine were thinking of resurrecting it for the first Prague municipal elections after the revolution of 1989, with the major plank of their platform being the provision of more dog toilets; they didn’t get anywhere, either.

Among the parties that did get off the ground round then, though, and even prospered, were the Beer Lovers’ Party (no explanation needed) and the Independent Erotic Initiative, whose major policy was the introduction of more sensuality into public life. They voted themselves out of existence in the mid-1990s on the grounds that their programme had now been satisfactorily implemented; looking around the country as it is now, you can see their point. Especially when spring comes. The Beer Lovers’ Party has also disappeared; you could say their programme has succeeded, too.

Otherwise, political parties have settled down into the usual range of hues, ranging from the communists, who, uniquely among such parties in this part of the world, refuse to distance themselves from what went on before 1989, all the way to the Workers’ Party – I think the photo below gives a pretty clear idea of just which Munich beerhall inspired these guys. They’ve just been banned by a court of law, but an appeal is under way and, in one guise or another, will always be round to raise their shaven little heads and treat us to the brilliance of their insights into the human condition.


One novelty in the last year has been TOP 09, and if that’s not the worst name ever for a political party I’d love to know what is – talk about built-in obsolescence – who are the brainchild of Karel Schwarzenberg, formerly the foreign minister and a reasonably well-respected guy, despite such handicaps as a speech defect that is guaranteed not to make a positive first impression and being known for things like napping during sessions of the parliament. This was used by his opponents to ridicule him, but he turned the tables with a poster that showed him catching forty winks, with a slogan that translated roughly as “I only go to sleep when people are talking crap.” If that became the norm, most parliaments in the world would resound to the sound of melodious snoring 24/7. They’re never going to sweep the polls, but there may well be enough people fed up with the mainstream parties to propel them above the 5% margin that would see them join the parliament.

They’ve been in the news lately because of the inspired idea of a party member called Lukáš Grulich, from Brno, who’s clearly the kind of smart lad every go-ahead political party needs (and possibly a former member of the youth wing of the Independent Erotic Initiative), who thought it would be a genuinely brilliant idea to get female sympathisers to get their kit off and show their support – like this charming shot of a young lady, sans head, showing her own bust and holding one of Schwarzenberg.


If this appeals to you, there's a whole gallery of this kind of stuff here at the 'Karel is Sexy' website.

The party, perhaps unsurprisingly, has distanced itself from the initiative, as a notice on the website makes clear. My own first reaction was that this was political suicide, but that’s just the repressed Brit in me; it might be the case in countries as obsessed with political correctness as the UK, but in chilled-out Europe I suspect nobody really gives much of a damn, and it might really catch on in more than a few places.

In France, for instance, that publicity-obsessed wee poison dwarf Sarkozy would quite probably cream his immaculate designer jeans at the notion of showing off his trophy wife in the scud to his compatriots, and the sensitive mind recoils in horror at the possible ways in which the idea might inspire the terapriapic Silvio Burlesque-oni in Italy. In Britain, on the other hand, what would we able to offer? Jeffrey Archer and his immaculate back? David Mellor in his Chelsea shirt? Various male peers of the realm in stockings and suspenders? Margaret Thatcher in full-on dominatrix mode? In the interests of good taste, perhaps we should have a closer look at the Beer Lovers’ Party and their manifesto instead...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

HERE COMES THE SUN (?)

The other day, when we were on our way home from work, we saw something we hadn't seen for quite some time. Perhaps I should explain here that when we are on our way home from work it hasn't really been possible to see anything for months now, because it's usually darker than Satan's armpit, but the days are getting palpably longer now and there is some lingering visibility. What we saw was a patch, a foot or so across, of grass. Scruffy, more brown than green, and generally looking as if it had gone fifteen rounds with Mike Tyson in angry mode, but still grass. After a good six weeks of nothing but increasingly discoloured and manky snow and ice, it was a truly wonderful sight.

It has, it's fair to say, been a hard winter here. And let's get this straight, what counts as a hard winter in Moravia is a tad different from the UK version. Not so long ago we were on a station platform in the south of England and the train was late. That's nothing new, but the excuse given for it was. Not leaves on the line, not the wrong kind of snow, nothing like that. It was 'extreme weather conditions'. The temperature was around zero - zero Celsius, that is - and there was no ice, snow, or anything like that. We were gobsmacked. Here, if it gets down to below minus twenty - and it does, on occasion - then maybe the train might be a bit later than it usually is anyway.But otherwise, life would go on pretty much as normal.

I realise that the climate in Britain is balmy compared to here (well, at least till the Gulf Stream packs up and it turns into a kind of offshore Antarctica), and, given the rarity of snow there, I can understand why the place grinds to a halt as soon as there's a light dusting of the stuff, but what I really can't get my head around is the lurid language they use to describe winter weather.

The other night I was watching an episode of 'Steptoe and Son' in which the two of them are huddled round a feeble electric fire and trying, not very successfully, to keep warm. At one point the son, Harold, says "It's like the Eastern Front in here." Like the Eastern Front? Reduced to eating your comrades if you can't get your hands on a transport horse that starved to death? Force-marched thousands of kilometres to the Gulag after your boots have been liberated by your captors and still glad to be out of it?

But of course 'Steptoe and Son' is a comedy, where hyperbole is a good way of raising a laugh. But on the weather forecast, where you might expect to find something a bit more moderate, a bit more sober, it's not so very different. But no, it's 'Arctic' and 'Siberian' as soon as the mercury sneaks down towards the zero mark. But it doesn't just get a bit chilly in those places; they are seriously cold; when it's 'only' minus twenty the local wannabe tough guys probably walk round in the kind of outfits that make Geordies dressed for a Saturday night out look the way the Taliban like their women to look.

Here a more measured approach prevails, but I have noticed more than a few of my Czech friends starting to complain about the length of the winter. They, too, have their patches of grass, no doubt.

Of course, what this means in practice is that any time now the whole place is going to turn into a foul and glutinous quagmire, with treacherous puddles in every street, puckish motorists splashing their contents all over pedestrians, and all the dogshit and other crap that has been buried under the snow and ice coming to the surface, but right now even that feels like a welcome change. I'm sick of winter. Even if it isn't Arctic.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

MUSIC HATH CHARMS...

While lying in bed last night and enjoying the recollection of watching Liverpool finally finding a semblance of form and beating Spurs (God bless NOVA Sport), I found myself in one of those pleasant half-awake/half-dreaming frames of mind in which it suddenly occurred to me that I had seen Charlie (see previous posting) before somewhere. One swift Google search later and here we have not one candidate, but two. A third possibility might be Montmorency, the dog from Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, but enough is enough.

First up is the beast who was on so many of the old 78 rpm records my dad used to have when I was a kid and who I found here:



A bit chubbier, perhaps, and, in my admittedly jaundiced view, not nearly as handsome, but the colour scheme is, ha ha, spot on, especially round the ears. And here, in homage mode, is the other, Gromit of Wallace & Gromit fame, who I found here:



So it seems that my mutt has something of a pedigree after all. But I am not at all sure that I will be able to get him to pose for something like these; perhaps we could put an iPod on him...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

THE DOG IS DEAD; LONG LIVE THE DOG

Many years ago, when I lived in Whitstable, Kent, the landlord of my local pub once told me: "Simon, anyone who says you can't buy love has never bought a dog." It's one of the truest things I've ever heard.

Ten months ago, on a Sunday, our dog died at the age of thirteen and a half. Sigmund aka Sigi aka Smrdisaurus Rex aka a whole lot of other names of varying levels of daftness (no self-respecting Czech has less than half a dozen variants on their name, however prosaic it may be) was an Irish terrier. He cost 1000 Czech crowns and he repaid that a millionfold with all the pleasure and happiness he gave. He was exceedingly lively in his youth, in his old age he had a pretty powerful fragrance, he never got laid in the whole of his life, and he was greatly loved. It rained the day we buried him; it was a really bad day all round. Here he is:


A few weeks ago, some friends in the village called us. Did we want a dog that was staying with them? He'd been rescued from a guy who apparently just kept him locked up in a shed the whole time and they had hoped their own dog, an American bulldog bitch called Lara, would be happy to have him around as a companion. They were disappointed in that hope and now he needed a home. Initially we said no; we weren't ready for a new dog just yet. Then they called again; they'd advertised him and nobody had shown interest, so, with heavy hearts, they were going to have to take him to the shelter. We went round to their place 'to have a look' but it was pretty obvious what was going to happen from Lenka's first words when they opened the door: "Where's our dog, then?"

And so we are now sharing our home with Charlie, a two-year-old smooth-haired fox terrier (yes, another terrier). He cost nothing and so all the pleasure and happiness will be pure profit. He is exceedingly lively, with a Houdini-like ability to escape from the garden and a kind of four-legged pogo when he gets excited (which is often), and I don't think the neighbour's cat is ever going to come and visit again. We're working on the battery of nicknames; this is him.