Monday, February 22, 2010


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


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


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.