18 December 2017

Prague 2017 - Bohemian Rhapsody

Closely Observed Bohemians.....

[complementary pictures to be found at: http://www.richardpgibbs.org/p/prague-2-bohemia.html]

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see

Man Hanging Out - David Cerny's depiction of Sigmund Freud 

Prague.  The Kingdom of Bohemia.  We dine with Constanze Mozart.  It is a subdued evening.  As Lorenzo da Ponte (another guest) says,  It is not easy to convey an adequate conception of the enthusiasm of the Bohemians for Wolfie’s music.....  but we have just attended the first memorial service for Mozart to be held in Prague.  It was a momentous occasion – thousands came and over a hundred musicians performed a great Requiem mass without any expectation of payment.  We are reminded that only four years before, the Prager Oberpostamtzeitung had proclaimed that Connoisseurs and musicians say that Prague has never heard the like, after the first ever performance of Don Giovanni in the new Estates Theatre…..

We spend a week in a quiet house in Malá Strana.  We are staying with Jan Neruda, the author of Prague Tales, and other feuilletons.  It is quiet, except that Žanýnka, the old woman who lived on the ground floor, has just died, and her dog has been barking and howling the whole night.  Ivan Klíma, is also present, writing a study of Karel Čapek, who not only gave us the word Robot but who, with his brother Josef, created The Insect Play, which, if I recall correctly, I once produced with some international students in Rome….

Neruda’s friend, Bedřich Smetana, visits, but he is too ill with syphilitic dementia to be much fun, so we go out to join in the delayed sixtieth birthday celebrations for Antonín Dvořák.

As if this wasn’t confusing enough, we are invited by my old school friend Sir Cecil Parrott, erstwhile British Ambassador to Prague, to attend a meeting of The Party of Moderate Progress within the Bounds of the Law at the Golden Litre, a café-bar in Vinohrady.  The café is full, and I bump into Max Brod and his friend Franz Kafka, but the star turn is Jaroslav Hašek, the author of The Good Soldier Švejk, who promises reform and expounds his electoral programme.  It is exhilarating, though he does speak for three hours!

Prague is so Bohemian.  I have coffee with Kafka who introduces me to his Jewish friend Kaspar Utz, who keeps a private collection of Meissen porcelains.  I drink beer with Hašek, laughing uncontrollably at his anecdotes about his exploits during the war, especially of the drumhead mass with Chaplain Otto Katz…..

I talk poetry with Rainer Maria Rilke, Miroslav Holub and Vladimir Horan, none of whom can agree on rhyme nor rhythm.  Then I fall into dubious company at U Zlatého tygra (The Golden Tiger) at Husova 17, in the Staré město district.  While Bill Clinton enjoys a chat with Václav Havel, I find myself quaffing jugs of Pilsner Urquell with the arch Bohemian Bohumil Hrabal and his wife.  The songwriter Vlasta Třešňák is arrested from our very table by the State Security, but the evening hardly falters. The film director Jiří Menzel wants me to take a small part in his film of Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains, but Miloš Forman makes me a better offer. 

And that, dear reader, is more or less how we find ourselves back dining with Constanze and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Nothing really matters
Anyone can see
Nothing really matters
Nothing really matters to me

Any way the wind blows

Bohemian Rhapsody
Freddie Mercury

Dramatis Personae:

Brod, Max    1884 - 1968         German-speaking Czech Jew, friend, biographer and literary executor of Franz Kafka

Čapek, Karel      1890 - 1938         Czech writer, famous for his play R.U.R. and the novel War with the Newts

da Ponte, Lorenzo    1749 - 1838         Italian opera librettist, poet and catholic priest.  Responsible for the libretti of Mozart's operas, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte

Dvořák  Antonín    1841 - 1904         Czech composer, best loved for his New World Symphony and Cello Concerto

Forman, Miloš        1932 -     Czech film director, famous for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the cinematic version of Peter Schaffer's Amadeus,  made in Prague in 1984

Hašek, Jaroslav     1883 - 1923         Czech writer, humorist, bohemian and anarchist, most famous for creating The Good Soldier Švejk and thereby spawning a thousand hostelries where the infamous Švejk might just possibly have paused.....

Havel, Václav      1936 - 2011         Czech dissident, writer and statesman.  First president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003

Holan, Vladimir   1905 - 1980         Czech poet and pessimist

Holub, Miroslav   1923 - 1998         Czech immunologist and poet

Hrabal, Bohumil    1914 - 1997         Czech bohemian and novelist, author of Closely Observed Trains, I served the King of England and Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, among others.  Patron of The Golden Tiger and other Prague bars. Died attempting to feed pigeons from a fifth floor hospital window

Kafka, Franz      1883 - 1924        German-speaking Jewish Czech novelist and short story writer, most famous for The Trial, The Castle, and Metamorphosis.  An excellent museum commemorates him near the Charles Bridge in Prague.  It is generally very quiet and the ticket lady is delightful....

Klíma, Ivan       1931 -    Czech novelist and playwright, best known perhaps for Love and Garbage

Kundera, Milan      1929 -    Czech-born writer who moved to France in 1975.  Not encountered on this trip…..

Menzel, Jiří        1938 -    Czech film director and screen writer, famous for Closely Observed Trains

Mercury, Freddie    1946 - 1991       Born Fred Bulsara, singer and songwriter, most famous as the lead vocalist of Queen.....  

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus    1756 - 1791      Composer, musician and cheeky letter-writer.  Possessed of genius.  Regular visitor to Prague, where, perhaps, he was most popular?

Mozart, Constanze 1762 - 1842         Austrian singer, married to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1782, then after his death to George Nikolaus von Nissen.  Mother of Mozart's six children (though four died in infancy)

Neruda, Jan      1834 -1891   Czech poet, novelist, essayist and journalist.  One of the first modern writers to use the Czech language.  Chilean poet Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Baloalto (1904 - 1973)  adopted the pen name Pablo Neruda as a teenager, to avoid detection by his father, who loathed the writing profession.  If you had forgotten, he was the one who received letters on the island of Procida from the fatally ill Massimo Troisi in Il Postino (supposedly) in 1950.... All of which was directed by Michael Radford, (who had a brief connection through his son with a school I was associated with in Harpenden.....)

Parrott, Sir Cecil    1909 - 1984      British diplomat, translator, writer and scholar.  Educated at Berkhamsted School and Peterhouse, Cambridge.  Translator and biographer of Jaroslav Hašek, and, at the time of his death, working on a biography of Leoš Janáček....

Rilke, Rainer Maria        1875 - 1926          German-speaking Austrian-Bohemian poet and novelist.  Brought up, for his first six years, as a girl  

Smetana, Bedřich    1824 - 1884         Czech composer, best known for the opera The Bartered Bride and for his symphonic cycle Má Vlast (My Homeland) which holds a special place in Czech culture.....

Utz, Kaspar      c1914 -1974        Eponymous hero of Bruce Chatwin's novel Utz, about a Jewish Czech porcelain collector who lived in Prague in the mid-twentieth century;  published in 1988.....

*     *     *     *     *

Would-be Bohemians in Old Town Square, Prague,
Easter 1999

*     *     *     *     *

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/

*     *     *     *     *

[complementary pictures to be found at: http://www.richardpgibbs.org/p/prague-2-bohemia.html  ]

15 December 2017

Prague 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......]

*     *     *     *

{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}

*     *     *     *

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

*     *     *     *

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/

*     *     *     *

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)