Saturday, December 24, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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