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Havel: For young radicals or middle aged and middle of the road?

Václav Havel has lent his name and inspiration to many events and movements. His dissident writings have been translated into Arabic, serving as point of reference for activists and thinkers contemplating entrenched but brittle authoritarian regimes.

 More expectedly, perhaps Havel’s is a liberal oppositionists in Putin’s Russia which – as Havel himself suggested in later life – has seen communist structures morph into a new repressive structures.  So it’s no surprise to see a Guardian commentary by Natalie Nougayrède that flags Havel and the Central European dissident movement as inspiration for young, radical left movements that have emerged in Western and South Europe.

It’s a balanced piece, which notes the obvious differences between normalisation era Czechoslovakia regime and the far more open and competitive political and social systems of Western Europe.  The typewriter and carbon paper technology of 1970 and 80s samizdat is also clearly a world away from networked and internet-based communications of the early 21st century – even for those fighting authoritarian regimes thumb drives and encryption software have replaced clandestine printing and duplicating.

And Nougayrède is surely right when she suggests Václav Havel is in some ways an unlikely source of inspiration for Podemos, Syriza and similar movements (themselves often the products of mash-up of various heterodox Marxist traditions, Trotskyist, Maoist, Euro-communist etc)

 The sharp critique of Western societies Havel expressed in his writing of 1970s and 1980s as somewhat less extreme version of a single impersonal technocratic mass civilization mellowed after the fall of communism into a pragmatic, if critical, acceptance of conventional parliamentary democracy, capitalism and the European Union.  Havel’s disdain for party politics and big scale economics also saw him quickly outmanoeuvred after 1989 by opponents, on both left and right, who realised more quickly than he did both that parties were necessary workhorses of democracy and that voters’ concerns about economic security and prosperity needed addressing head on. Read More…

>Cutting edge stuff


To minimise exposure to the royal wedding, I spent part of the weekend reading Gabriel Weston’s short semi-autobiographical memoire-cum-collection of short stories Direct Red: A Surgeon’s Story, the tale of an English graduate turned surgeon and how things really look from behind the surgeon’s mask. Its a finely described, slightly detached account of  surgery; life and death, good and bad decisions by doctors; and medical and social hierarchies that structure their world. There are also beautifully written and finely gory passages about surgery. Most striking though is that surgeons need not only steady, sure and fine hand in cutting people open and quick and calm judgements in critical situations – the biggest danger when things do not go according to plan seems to be patients bleeding to death on the operating table – but also to know precisely their level of competence and incompetence: the  moment when they need to recognise their limits ask for help and call in someone more specialised (who may in turn need to go through  the same process and call up someone still more specialised).
Academics, of course, do not cut people open – although I have eviscerated a few books and PhD theses in my time – and, generally speaking, do not kill people, if they do things wrong. But I couldn’t help wondering if academia and academic research there  not be an equivalent mechanism.

>Election diary


I tried very hard not to be interested in the election campaign, avoiding the historic TV debates and most of the day-to-day media flim flam – although ‘Bigotgate’ offered a grim confirmation that politicians are exactly has depicted in the TV satire In The Thick Of It. In the end, however, the apparent Lib Dem surge, sheer uncertainly of the result and intriguing possibilities of hung parliament hooked me and pulled me and there I was on election night mug of coffee in hand up till 4am watching the TV results, pausing only to switch off the sound and dip into a Swedish crime novel when politicans and pundits came on to fill in a temoorary lack of any news. I, like they, could not work if it was a hung parliament, a Tory majority or another variant of hung parliament we were in until just before dawn the patter (or patterns) became clear: huge Tory gains against Labour in the South and Midlands, largely gains elsewhere, no gains in Scotland,; no Lib Dem surge, but a successful defence, with the odd exception, of seats held against Conservative challengers.
The oddest exception, of course, was North Irish-Estonian Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik, whose celebrity status on the chat show circuit and pop star Cheeky Girl girlfriend seemed no longer to endear him to Welsh voters he represented and he was overhauled by well established local Tory, who probably paid more serious attention to bread and butter issues. My colleague Allan Sikk mischeviously suggests that Opik could add a splash of colour Estonian politics by entering the race for the Estonian parliament in 2011 (party to be confirmed). Indeed, there is even a Facebook Group urging Lembit to enliven the political life ancestoral homeland with his own brand of eccentric liberal reformism. So far, however, it hasn’t exactly gone viral (supporters 3 including me). There is always an issue as to whether Lembit’s Estonian is as a good as Nick Clegg’s perfect Dutch.

A couple of days before the election I answered a journalist’s questions about the differences between British and UK parties for a mini-interview for the Czech financial freesheet E15. It wasn’t the first time I had chewed such things over but it was an interesting exercise. My thoughts? There is less more of an ideological divide in Czech politics, although not the gulf you would think from Czech parties in-your-face campaigning, and the UK has a post-Thatcherite consensus on certain fundamentals; the Czech Social Democrats’ high profile campaign defence of the welfare state and avoidance of the issue of how and when not if to make cuts makes it a very different political animal from the British Labour Party – although not necessarily less genuinely social democratic; the closest CEE equivalents to Blairite New Labopur were probably the market friendly ex-Communist parties of Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, but in the end they all got electorally roasted; if there is no Czech or Central European Nick Clegg is it probably because swathes of CEE voters tend to recognise themselves more in blunt spoken pugnacious strongmen like Orbán, Fico, Paroubek or even Topolánek than the role of clean cut middle class everyman (and, of course, it’s always a man) that British politicians seek to play – and English voters to go for. Interestingly, explaining the Liberal Democrats through a Czech prism is a convoluted and difficult exercise.

At 8 o’clock in the morning of 6 May, I walked down to polling station with my daughter before school, past a mass of Lib Dem hoarding that seems mysteriously to grow in size every day – perhaps a side effect of ‘Cleggmania’ – still wondering who to vote for. If there is a rising Lib Dem tide there is, the Guardian’s online poll-and-seat calculator suggests, an outside chance of this fairly solid Conservative seat changing hands.

There are no queues and I cast my vote, but instantly have h a vague presentiment that I had not quite done the right thing.

>The Straight Choice online UK election leaflet archive


I came across a very interesting website mapping UK election leaflets – The Straight Choice | The election leaflet project. Voters are invited to photo or scan election material that comes through their letterbox. Interesting, as it picks on variation in party organization and strategies characteristic of Single Member Distrcit contests and as a do-it-yourself, networkde way of building up an archive of historical material. Surprising, that no research institute thought of asking people to do this. And, of course, it would be an interesting exercise for other countries, CEE states included. Pity, I binned all the leaflets a week ago as part of my general UK-election-campaign-ophobia.

>Flexible friends


SSEES is visited by two members of the much re-constituted but officially legendary Plastic People of the Universe, the underground rock groups whose trial in 1976 spurred the formation of Charter 77: Vratislav Brabenec, one of the founding originals, and Eva Turnová who has been the Plastics’ bass guitarist since 2001. As this is, in Czech dissident terms, the equivalent of a royal visit, the current Czech ambassador to the UK, translator, Havel confidante, one-time politician – he led the Civic Democratic Alliance in its terminal breakdown phase in 1997-8, but enough of that – Michal Žantovský introduces proceedings in Masaryk Common Room. He sensibly sticks to water, leaving the red wine to the visiting Plastíci, chipping in the occasional translation, but like the good diplomat he is otherwise listens and doesn’t say much.
An array of armchairs and Peter Zusi’s relaxed and informal moderation give the event something of the feeling of an intellectual chatshow and we get a variety of observations and recollections: how the group was named after a Frank Zappa song, but, Brabenec later discovered, in exile in Canada slightly suggested the flexibility of a talking credit credit in aTV ad;
how records were smuggled in and traded on black market burzy in the woods near Prague in 1970s and 80s; how musicians made amps from electrical hobby kits; how boring the 1976 trial was; how capitalism is indeed the same as communism; how Brabenec fell over into middle of a performance at the National Theatre, but was forgiven.

The final question, from the Masaryk Society’s Michael Tate, who has brilliantly organized both this event and the Plastics’ concert in London at the South Bank in January, asks whether the group has not become too disneyfied as kitsch cultural icon. But it’s late in the evening and they need a cigarette, so all we get from Brabebc is a rather zen answer to the effect that the group’s credo is “Don’t be Stupid” – which would also make a good slogan for a university, I thought. Eva Turnová more straightfowardly explains that they are somewhat allergic to ageing hippies, who remember the group from 1970s and prefer to play for young people and international audiences. She can speak Chinese.

Brabenec was also interviewed this morning on the radion in the slightly unlikely venue of the BBC’s Midweek programme – listenable here.

Update: Tom Stoppard who was in the audience at the event (note to self: he was probably the bloke with the white manbag) and has played a big role in enabling the Plastics’ gig at the South Bank – has written a profile of the band and its music in the Times.

>Fairtrade with Josef Vissionovich


Tesco’s fairtrade coffee bears an image worrying reminiscent of a youngish Stalin. Somehow, I don’t think Josef Vissonovitch would have approved of Fairrade – as we know, he was not one to approve of petty bourgeois commodity production. Still, no doubt this will encourage the friend of mine who always turns down the fairtrade option and asks for a cup of capitalist-explotation filter coffee, though perhaps some kind of rebranding might be in order. Freedom Blend? Capital Coffee?

>Universities: A Wordle in your ear…


I read an article in the new giveaway Evening Standard on the train yesterday. It was by Steve Smith, Chair of Universities UK, writing about the future of higher education. At first just it seemed a meaningless jumble of jargon and buzzwords. Now, however but having fed it into, I find I understand it perfectly.

>Pooling resources


The Czech Republic is, as ever, distinctly short of things for children to do in the summer. So the only real option when the weather’s hot – and bar a few thunderstorms it has been continually sunny – is to head for the local open air swimming pool: health and safety and the big leisure department of big councils have pretty much eliminated the local lido as phenomenon in England. You can find them, of course, especially in nooks and crannies of London boroughs, but they are curiosities hidden away or forgotten about or turned into urban lakes where swimming is definitely not on the agenda.

Not so the Czech Republic. Despite tougher hygiene regulations pretty much every municipality has its koupaliště or plovarna and they are still a firm fixture of any Czech summer. Indeed, so much Civic Democrat leader Miroslav Topolánek, is kicking off his campaign to get acquainted with the voters of South Moravia – where he will head his party’s list – with a tour of local koupáky just to convince all and sundry that he is a normal down-to-earth Czech bloke on his second marriage and not a corrupt, sleazy politician who hangs out with lobbyists for big electricity companies and spin doctors on expensive yachts in Italy awhen not walking around in the buff on Silvio Berlusconi’s poolside. Perish the thought.

It’s a clever strategy. Unlike Klaus – who can wow and work a crowd and charm opponents, but whose efforts to join the victorious Czech football team and be one of the lads was one of the more excruciating things I remember seeing on Czech TV – the Ordinary Bloke role is one Topolánek can do very well. Equally, cleverly there’s no need to do much politics: no party programme (as yet) to defend and no big billboard campaign to annoy people and remind them they’ll have to go and: just the occasional swim or game of volleyball in lidos and sports grounds across various factory towns interspered with a bit of well publicized cycling between locations (taking the limo for the hilly bits, you understand). And, of course, Topol’s change of scene also leaves Karel Schwarzenberg – staring down lugubriously down from posters everywhere like some kind of aristocratic Big Brother – and the very boouent TOP09 party a free run in Prague, where they are likely to do well and, where, conincidentally Topolánek’s main party rivals are based.

Our own tour of Moravia also takes in every koupák and swimming lake (otevřené koupalište) for miles around- we even drive across the border into Slovakia and sample Trenčin’s large and clean municipal kupalisko sandwiched between fooball stadium, castle and main railway line – although less political reasons than to ensure the kids have something to do. We end, as we began, with the municipal lido in Starý Liskovec , the village on the outskirts of Brno long, which has since swallowed up by the high rise housing estate of Nový Liskovec built in the mid-70s. And, on balance, it is probably actually the best one. Not as clean Trenčin. Slightly less to do for kids, than some of the lidos renovated by ambitious mayors in increasingly sleek and prosperous looking villages around Uherský Brod. And certainly rather less genteel than in spa town of Luhačovic. It’s no high rise ghetto, but most people who could afford to do so have long since moved out of the estate and the pool attracts poorly off people who don’t have the money, time or paid holiday to go elsewhere. Much to my mother-in-law’s disapproval, there are chuge louds of cigarette smoke rising up in the air from the poolside area, as if there was some small factory there. Still, it’s shady; there’s enough space to swim in the main pool; the children’s pool has enough squirtly fountains to please the kids and they do do excellent hotdogs.

I keep my eyes peeled, half watching the kids, half wondering if Topolánek will turn up. Perhaps he has already turned up, incognitio? There is a bloke who looks a bit like him sitting on the lilo on the other side of the pool. But then again, he is reading the crime page of left-wing daily Právo, where would probably be a step too far even for this new style of low-key, politics-free summer election non-campaign.

>In cold blood


Last night I killed an intruder. He had been lurking behind the lace curtain by the open glass doors to the balcony. When he came into the room around 1am, I was ready for him. Shone a torch in his face and, before he could react, struck him with a metal shovel I had got from the grate in case he showed up again. He dropped to floor with a surprising heavy thud.

Emboldened, I went downstairs to deal with his mate, who I knew was waiting down there in the dark.

Damn pesky blighters hornets… But the kids are terrified of them.

This happens so often, it’s time I learned to decline the word properly: sršeň, noun (animate), masculine. Zabil jsem sršně

>One funeral and a christening


My wife’s grandmother died at the age of 96 in January. She is to be laid to rest in a short ceremony in her home village near Zlín. Relatives from various branches of my wife’s family gradually assemble in the muncipal cemetry. It is sunny and the atmosphere is sombre but low key.
Introductions are made, there some conversation and then the priest arrives. He says what his has to say in a straightfoward and dignifed way. There are short speeches by relatives. Flowers are laid, candles are lit. The priest departs and mourners drift off in small groups toward the local pub-restaurant where my mother-in-law has arranged a meal.
The children, who have behaved well throughout, want to walk around the the graveyard, so I agree. It is a municipal cemetry, not very near the church and there are relatively few crosses. One grave belongs to 32 year old who died in December 1914. A small photo set into the grave stone shows a man with a moustache in high collared uniform. Presumably he was killed in the early fighting on Serbian or Galician front which annihilated much of the pre-war Austro-Hungarian military at the start of the Great War. His wife, who died in 1930, and daughter who lived in 1980s are buried with him. There are some recent looking flowers on the grave.
We get to the restaurant. Very oddly, when we get there it is pulsating with very loud, live Gypsy music. Two policeman from the Municipal Police walk out. I assume we’ve probably got the wrong place, but we walk in anyway to find out what’s going on, despite disgruntled local drinkers outside that the place is full of Gypsies.
We are in the right place – and it is full of Gypsies. The pub, has somehow booked meal arranged by my mother-in-law to following the laying to rest alongside a Roma christening celebration There is an interesting kind of symmetry and the music supplied by 2-3 musicams with keyboard and synthaszier is foot-tappingly good, but the noise and ingruousness of it are too much for most of our party, who walk off – despite the landlord’s protestations – to see what can be arranged at the village’s other hostelry. Unsurprisingly, nothing can done for a party of twenty, so discontented mourners drift back, grumbling that the Roma – while not all of them are bad – have no consideration and shouldn’t even be there because they are not local.
Luckily, the landlord has indeed now rescued the situation and agreed with the Roma , there will be no music for an hour and a half while we have our meal. The musicians stop. While my wife talks to elderly great aunts and cousins, I have nothing much to do except keep an eye on the kids and my attention increasingly wanders to the Roma party, who are sitting around a large table in covered courtyard just by the pub’s main function room where we are. They seems to have provided their own food: huge quantities of fried or possibly breadcrumbed meat. The women have sequined dresses and one is wearing a satin dress that ressembles a sari, many of the children are dressed in a kind of Sunday best, white-shirts or ribboned party dresses. Most of the men seem to be sitting next door in the bar. There is a lot of raucous sounding conversation, much coming and going, and huges amount of smoking.
It is a world away from the more restrained Czech way of doing things : like some kind of Greek or Middle East event catapulted into Central Europe. Just after 12.00 as we are beginning to leave, the Gypsy music re-starts in earnest. A very large Roma man with moustache pork pie hat and fantastic voice fills the pub with a reverberating and haunting song.this time guests at the christening head into the pub to dance.
“Where did you learn to dance so well?” my wife asks a Roma girl of 7-8 in white frock.
“From my grandma” she replies.
My wife’s grandmother would almost certainly not have approved of all this, but both events seem to have gone well.