March 1993: Saturday
At 11am, I made my now usual pilgrimage to the Divadlo, and without much surprise received the information that “Mr. Marek is in Budapest till tomorrow”. I finally had to admit defeat – the Wilde attempt was doomed.
Sitting on a park bench beneath a statue of a soldier embracing a peasant girl, I noticed a large graffiti slogan on a wall – ‘CAPITALISME!!!’ Hmm. I wondered whether the Czechs realised what they were letting themselves in for?
I genuinely liked what I’d seen of Prague and its people. Rather like Ireland, because their traditional aristocracy had been wiped out in various wars and revolutions, and the country had spent so long under foreign domination of one sort or another, they had turned their artists and intellectuals into their true aristocracy. I don’t think that it was an accident that a playwright should have become President.
I just hoped that they could resist the most insidious invasion of all – capitalism. The dictatorship of the proletariat replaced by the dictatorship of the moneylender. You can fight against tanks but it is a lot more difficult to fight against banks.
In 1965 the American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was crowned King of the May in Wenscelas Square and 100,000 people turned out to watch the procession. He was deported by the communist authorities for ‘corruption of Czech youth’. Thirty years later, the American writer Gore Vidal visited the city to give a speech and was criticised by the capitalist authorities for ‘anti-Americanism’. The times they had a-changed.
A cold drizzle started to fall and I walked back to the hotel. On the way I noticed some very attractive cooked sausages in a shop window. Once inside the shop, though, I found I had a problem. The weights were all in metric. Born and raised in a world of imperial measures, I had never bothered to understand metric.
The sour-faced woman behind the counter gazed at me stonily. She looked as if she had just lost her job as a prison wardress. I pointed to the sausages. She mimed ‘how many’. Hesitantly I replied: “Kilogram?” She went to the rear of the shop, then returned with a parcel wrapped in brown paper.
Back in the hotel bedroom, I opened the parcel and found that I had purchased eighty-two sausages.
In the early evening, I looked out at the courtyard below. From an opposite window, a beam of electric light fell on to a few snowflakes curling down in the dusk. I decided against spending a night alone with the crucifixes. If the Oscar show was off the agenda, at least I might as well enjoy myself.
Down in the hotel bar, Androj was in charge again. After a pint of lager, I fell into conversation with a couple of Danish teachers. While it was pleasant to find people who spoke English, they were not, however, the best of drinking companions. They had the sturdy but grim demeanour of mountaineers on a mission. I explained my intention to convert Eastern Europe to the joys of the Wildean epigram. They were unimpressed. The elder man announced sternly:
“Tomorrow we will visit the Skoda car factory and a concentration camp.”
The conversation dwindled.
8pm. Androj called me over and asked me to keep an eye on the bar for five minutes. “I don’t want to die like Tycho de Brahe.”
“No, I didn’t think that you would have heard of that one.”
He explained that Tycho de Brahe was a world famous 16th century astronomer who had been invited to Prague to study the planets. After a mammoth drinking session, he died of a burst bladder. Something of a tribute to Czech beer.
“So, if you wish to visit the lavatory – that is what you say.”
10pm. My next companions at the bar were a German couple in their late forties, who said that they regularly visited the hotel. Wilhelm struck me as a somewhat self-important gent, who sported a small but aggressive moustache. His wife Gretal had a subservient air – maybe understandably. They opened a bottle of Finnish vodka and started pouring out a round.
Wilhelm announced: “You vill drink the glass in one devouring.”
Gretal was a doctor’s receptionist. She was enthralled by the British Royals and kept grilling me on the whereabouts of Princess Diana. Wilhelm was a security guard and had worked in this capacity for King Hussein of Jordan during the latter’s visit to Vienna. During the trip, an unsuspecting street vendor had attempted to sell King Hussein a newspaper and had been almost exterminated by the guards. Wilhelm, his shoulders heaving with laughter, spluttered out:
“And I broke his arm!”
The vodka flowed.
At another table, a group of Dutch teenagers started to sing a folk tune. Wilhelm bristled and ordered them to behave themselves.
Finally he insisted that I joined himself and Gretal tomorrow night at a strip club in Wenscelas Square. Stabbing my Berlitz map with his finger, he said:
“It is beside the Polish Cultural Institute. It is a very good stripping. It is where Franz Kafka did his work as an insurance clerk.” They left.
By 1am, I was beginning to reel from the effects of the Finnish vodka but kept on going with a fresh bottle of vodka, mixed with lemonade. Androj and I joined forces with the Dutch teenagers. Oddly enough, unlike the vast majority of British kids, they’d all heard of Oscar Wilde.
3am. The joint was jumping. Even Noel Coward’s thin warble had been pressed into service; ‘Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans’ proving to be very popular with the Dutch.
In the midst of the uproar, one of their teachers arrived – a hairy little man dressed only in a pair of jeans. He resembled an angry ape. After bellowing at his charges to go to bed, he gave Androj and myself a glare that could have burnt a hole in the curtains. He stamped off back down the corridor as authoritatively as was possible in bare feet. Satisfyingly, he skidded slightly in a small puddle of vomit. Androj and I finished off the lemonade and vodka.
4 30am. I stumbled my way back through the locks, collapsed on the bed and fell into a coma.
March 1993: Sunday
While not quite in the same circle of hell as that created after a night of mixing brandy and scrumpy cider, the hangover that descended when I awoke at 2pm was a humdinger. It was obviously the price of drinking poor quality lemonade.
I tottered along to have one last crack at the Divadlo Na Zabradli. It was closed.
I walked on for a farewell look at the Charles Bridge and its statues. It would not surprise me if, in thirty years’ time, there was one of John Lennon up there.
The hangover combined with the chilly wind across the river depressed my spirits even further. As Lennon might have said himself as he signed Mark Chapman’s autograph book: ‘Death is what happens while you’re making other plans.’
The Old Town Hall Square was crowded, and a German oompah band competed for attention with a traditional jazz band; not an ideal audio background for anyone in my condition. The jazz band looked like jazz bands all over Europe – all in their fifties, beer bellies, strands of hair plastered over bald pates, and the double bassist bearing a strong resemblance to King Edward VII.
As evening fell, I settled into a café overlooking the Square and tried to alleviate the mood with cups of tea, then onion soup, then dumplings. Nothing worked. The waiter looked like Igor the Assassin. I decided to fall back on the only real remedy in such a position – the hair of the dog.
Having browsed gingerly through the first pint of lager, I considered returning to the cell to sleep it off. Then thought again – what the hell, no way! After all, it was the last night here. I watched the deep purple dusk settle over the icy square.
On a visit to the Gents lavatory, as I zipped up, I became aware of an ancient woman sitting and knitting in an armchair at the rear of the urinal. Jesus Christ, was I having a lemon vodka flashback? Was it usual for a DT hallucination to thrust out a withered hand and demand two krona? Not wishing to upset the parallel universe, I paid up.
By 8pm, the jazz band had moved inside out of the cold and were setting up their instruments near my table. I drank a third lager.
There is a sensation known to anyone who has ever undergone the hair of the dog treatment – when tonight’s alcohol reconnects to last night’s alcohol. A sensually and intellectually perfect moment. It happened now. Add to that, the Old Town Square lamps shining through the frosty window, the cigarette smoke curling in columns above the gas lights of the warm and crowded café, and a jazz band playing ‘Basin Street Blues’ – in old Prague! A shiver shot up my spine. I don’t think that it gets any better than this.
March 1993: Monday
At 10am I boarded the packed plane, sat next to a man with the face of a corrupt Renaissance Pope, and brooded on the trip. No shows, no income, no real connections made, and, frankly, I didn’t care.
A couple of days previously, Androj had told me a story concerning ‘The Tank’. To celebrate the Liberation in 1945, the Russians installed their first tank to enter Prague as a memorial on a hill overlooking the city. For almost fifty years it had stood there, ceasing to be a symbol of liberation and becoming more of a symbol of occupation.
Then in 1989, as the Velvet Revolution began, somebody painted it pink. The authorities, nervous of Russian reaction, repainted it khaki. The next day, it was pink again. And so it went on – pink – khaki – pink. Finally the tank disappeared altogether. The Good Soldier Svejk had struck again.
At 10 30, the plane took off. Prague dwindled away behind us – a crumbling wedding cake set in a concrete sea.