15 December 2017

A Winter's Tale

A sad tale's best for Winter.....


Our street is all snow and ice.  Unseasonable winter weather.  For the time of year.  We skid the car out and skate downhill at four a.m., gingerly making it to Heathrow, heading for the fridge of Eastern Europe.

Prague.  Winter.  Whatever possessed me to think this was wise?  But we are presently surprised.  It’s chilly, but dry.  Not a snowflake in sight, not an icicle to behold.  Cloudy but charmingly bearable.  And so: Christmas markets, chimney cake and punch, baubled trees and little pens of sheep and donkeys.  The very essence of kitsch, but the absolute lie to Wenceslas  - nothing at all deep or crisp or even.

Our Hotel - Art Deco ceramic dining room, slivers of walnut walling the lift – warmly welcomes us.  Old Town Square is filled with cheer; Charles Bridge thronged with tourists, like us, bleary with travel, unconscious of history.  The Castle, St Vitus dancing at the summit, that vast complex of styles and masonry that slips down to the Vltava as if it were marzipan that had not quite set. The Castle, a chess piece in the Czech story, capable of nothing but straight moves, either black or white.

I was in Scotland in August 1968 at the time of the Soviet invasion.  I had no idea what was going on, though I remember being shocked.  Black and white television images of tanks were scary, and the very word invasion had connotations with so many of the bad things I had heard about in history.  It was shocking too because this invasion crushed the flowers that had begun to grow so hopefully in what is known as the Prague Spring.  Coming so soon after the Parisian barricades and the student activities of Daniel Cohn-Bendit and others, it seemed as if the world was suddenly a repressive place.  The world of peace and love was in jeopardy.  Not for nothing (perhaps?) did the Beatles release Revolution that month.

And then, as interest in Prague declined with the end of the summer, autumn dissolved into winter.  A strange sense of darkness enveloped me as I returned to Scotland after Christmas, into almost perpetual night, until, on January 16th, 1969, 20 year old history student Jan Palach set his petrol soaked self alight on Wenceslas Square to wake us all from our slumber.

His painful death still disturbs me.  And yet it was another twenty years before the country emerged from the communist grime with the Velvet Revolution. 

From Jan Hus to Vaclav Havel, the story of Prague and what is now known as Czechia, or the Czech Republic, is complex and bloodstained.  Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale takes place in this imagined Bohemia.  Under the Austrian Hapsburgs it wasn’t happy, with the German language imposed on its indigenous culture.  As Czechoslovakia there was an uneasy mix until the Nazis bludgeoned it into submission.  After that war it was miserably subsumed into the Soviet Bloc, before the famous Spring, and the Winter of Discontent. 

Now, as the year turns, we hear of a new Prime Minister, right wing billionaire Andrej Babiš (mini Trump to his supporters?)  A new Spring? 

We’ll see.  As Jakub Patočka wrote in The Guardian in October: The best the country can realistically hope for is a kind of chaos. The worse, but very likely, possibility, is an emergence of an authoritarian regime managed by a ruthless oligarch supported by neo-fascists or whoever is willing to sell him their votes. Almost 30 years after the Velvet Revolution, democracy is in danger.   

Plus ça change…. In the meantime, our brief holiday was a delight.  We were tourists.  Ignorant, uncaring, rested, well-fed and away from the snow on the M25…..  On the third day the sun shone and the river sparkled under the medieval bridge.  

Almost Spring-like.  A fitting advertisement for our friend Simon Mawer’s new novel, Prague Spring, due out on August 2nd, 2018. As the pre-release blurb on Amazon has it: It's the summer of 1968, the year of love and hate, of Prague Spring and Cold War winter….. a first secretary at the British embassy in Prague is observing developments in the country with a mixture of diplomatic cynicism and a young man's passion. In the company of Czech student, Lenka Konecková, he finds a way into the world of Czechoslovak youth, its hopes and its ideas
For more Mawer, please see 

I can’t wait…..  Enough of this Winter!

Our street is all snow, and ice.....

[Like Mozart's......]

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{We flew from Heathrow with BA - and M&S! - and stayed at the Art Deco Imperial Hotel, Na Porici 15, Prague 1.

It is worth considering a Prague City Card if you wish to explore: https://www.praguecard.com/index.php?lang=en

There are so many places to eat and drink that it is fine to wander and take your pick, but we enjoyed the relative peace of the centrally located Pizzeria Café Bar "U Budovce" at Týnská 7, budovecjazz@email.cz

For a more 'authentic' locale, you could try
Pivnice U Švejků
Praha, Újezd 424/22, 11800
where the two of us ate and drank very well for €27}

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For more pictures from this trip, see: http://www.richardpgibbs.org/p/prague-1.html

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Do you have a travel blog?  Would you appreciate expert advice on your travel writing?  Contact Peter Carty, at travelwshop@gmail.com or see his website: https://www.travelwritingworkshop.co.uk/

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10 December 2017

Winter Wonderlands

Winter Wonderland

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening, 
In the lane, snow is glistening
A beautiful sight,
We're happy tonight.
Walking in a winter wonderland.

When it snows, ain't it thrilling,
Though your nose gets a chilling
We'll frolic and play, the Eskimo way,
Walking in a winter wonderland.

Beautiful winter weather.  A crisp snow fall, blue skies, and bright sunshine.  I drive up into Monmouthshire, past Abergavenny and into the Vale of Ewyas.  I stop at the ruins of Llanthony Priory, stark against the snow.  

I take the trail up to Hatterall Hill, slippery in the cold, but well trodden by sheep and horses.

At the top, Offa’s Dyke should greet me, but I fear the thick cloud rolling towards me from the west.  It is clearly pregnant with snow, and has an unearthly colour, a little like pumice, so I decide to turn back.  Or sort of.  Rather than retrace my steps, I traverse the hill, following sheep and horses, keeping the priory in view. 

Not good hill craft!  The snow hides the tussocks and covers the boggy stream beds.  The hill gets steeper and, just when I thought I should have met the other path leading up the hill, I fall, plunging into snow and grass, mud and rock, and hearing tendons in the back of my left knee twang like Bert Weedon.  Ow!

But, fortunately, nothing is broken.  There is no one to help me, so I limp twistedly on down the every steeper hillside, nursing the image of my corpse being pecked by ravens.  Then, eventually, cold and stiff, I gain a level track and return across the snow fields to the haunting, black ruin of the priory.

Where, fortunately, the under croft houses a hotel bar, and warming soup is on offer.

So much for this winter wonderland.  The sky has darkened, the air is chill, and it’s time to head back out of the vale of tears.

But on the way, before recrossing the Severn, I stop by at RSPB Newport Wetlands, to wish the starlings a murmured good night.  At dusk, thousands of them warm their toes on the electricity cables strung high on the pylons that stalk out from the power station, which glows in the gloom.  

Then, magically, tens of thousands of them burst into coordinated flight, wheeling and fluttering across each other in a short display of solidarity before plunging, chattering, into the vast brown reed beds before the beach.  In a moment, as the dark slips down like a hood over us all, the reeds are twittering and rustling as the birds settle.  

Then all is quiet.  There is no one around. The cables hum faintly.  The lighthouse stares dimly across the estuary, and night gathers.

On the way home from Bristol the next morning I encounter the crowds, out enjoying the winter wonderland of the M4 and M25.  Five hours it takes, averaging about 45mph on the bleak, slippery M4, and then down to a nose to tail crawl on the M25, shuddering over encrusted ice, and sweeping away the snow flakes.  The Christmas Decorations – red lights saying 40 or 30; yellow messages saying, SLOW, INCIDENT AHEAD, or QUEUE AFTER JUNCTION, and, more merrily, SLOW, SNOW! at least brighten up the Home Counties' nightmare.  Too many cars; too much weather.  The great British Christmas!

Happy Yule Tide!

Later on, we'll conspire,
As we dream by the fire
To face unafraid, 
The plans that we've made,
Walking in a winter wonderland.

Lyrics by Richard B. Smith (1901-1935)

25 November 2017

Our Generation

People try to put us down!

My Generation

People try to put us d-down (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

Just because we get around (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

I hope I die before I get old (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

This is my generation

This is my generation, baby

Why don't you all f-fade away (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

And don't try to dig what we all s-s-say (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

I'm not trying to cause a big s-s-sensation (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

I'm just talkin' 'bout my g-g-g-generation (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

This is my generation

This is my generation, baby

Why don't you all f-fade away (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

And don't try to d-dig what we all s-s-say (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

I'm not trying to cause a b-big s-s-sensation (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

I'm just talkin' 'bout my g-g-generation (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

This is my generation

This is my generation, baby

People try to put us d-down (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

Just because we g-g-get around (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

Yeah, I hope I die before I get old (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

This is my generation

This is my generation, baby

The Who

Pete Townshend

Released October 29th 1965