The story so far – the actor Neil Titley has arrived in Prague to find somewhere to perform his Oscar Wilde show. He accidentally has booked himself into a hotel which had previously been the secret police HQ and was now a convent/ youth hostel. He has been given the name of ‘Vladimir Marek’ as a possible liaison producer.
March 1993: Tuesday
After searching for an hour around the Charles Bridge area, I found the Na Zabradli Theatre. It was small but very smart. I’d rather expected the usual black-hole-grudgingly-allowed-above-a-pub venue, but this was the real McCoy. I approached the girl at the box office and asked for ‘Vladimir Marek’. She understood some English but gave a dismissive sniff.
“He not here. Try again. After eleven in morning. Tomorrow.” She returned to her magazine. Well, at least this was some sort of contact. I went to a nearby café and ate some dumplings. As far as I could make out, dumplings were the staple diet of the Czech Republic.
With a spare afternoon ahead, I glanced through the guidebook. According to Berlitz, one of the true heroes of Prague was the ‘The Good Soldier Svejk’, the fictional character taken from the 1923 novel by Jaroslav Hasek. It was a book I had read years before and liked a lot. Svejk represented the survival of the underdog through insouciant muddle, dumb but indefinable insolence, and creative malingering. He was the passive but deadly spanner in the works. The type guaranteed to drive totalitarians and efficiency experts insane with frustration.
In 1938, Hitler threatened to carpet bomb Prague unless it surrendered. After weighing up the options, the Czechs decided that submission was the better part of valour. Very Good Soldier Svejk and very Prague-matic. Architecturally, the decision was a godsend.
I spent the afternoon walking around what remained of the medieval Jewish ghetto. This consisted of six synagogues, a town hall and a cemetery. Due to lack of space the graves in the cemetery had been layered vertically, sometimes twelve deep in places. There were hundreds of memorial slabs stacked in chaotic piles, in an area about half the size of a football pitch. It looked like an explosion in a stonemason’s warehouse. In the 1940s, the ghetto area had been rescued from annihilation by, of all people, Adolf Hitler. Not out of any humanitarian impulse but because he wanted to create an ‘Exotic Museum of an Extinct Race’.
Nearby I found a concert hall called the Rudolphinum. Until 1938, this had been the Czech Parliament, until it was closed down by the Germans. Last night, Androj the hotel barman mentioned this place and told me what he said was a famous story about this building.
On the front balustrade there had been a row of statues representing the great writers and composers of Central Europe. When the Germans captured the Rudolfinum, the infamous ‘Reich Protector of Bohemia’ Reinhard Heydrich, gave orders that the statue of the composer Mendelssohn should be knocked down and destroyed because he was Jewish.
Unfortunately for the demolition squad, (who were not the sharpest tent pegs on the camp site), the statues were unlabelled. So, with Nazi anti-Semitic logic, they proceeded to destroy the statue with the largest nose. Even more unfortunately for them and their future careers, this turned out to be Hitler’s favourite composer, the decidedly non-Jewish Richard Wagner.
Continuing across the Charles Bridge, I came across something I was not expecting. On a wall belonging to the Renaissance Grand Priory, there was a graffiti portrait of John Lennon. A few flowers were strewn on the pavement beneath it. The artwork was pretty dreadful but his face was recognisable. It looked rather like a bespectacled Turin Shroud.
A quiet evening in my hotel cell, contemplating the crucifixes on the wall, and reading Noel Coward’s Diaries. It would be hard to find a greater difference than that between the Good Soldier Svejk and Noel Coward.
Except maybe Eric Burden?
March 1993: Wednesday
I arrived at the Na Zabradli at 11am precisely and asked for Vladimir Marek. The boy at the desk did not speak English and disappeared to consult the authorities. Glancing round the foyer, I noticed that it was large enough itself to make a decent performance area. The only problem was that most of the space was taken up by an enormous cloakroom. There seemed to be a national fetish for coat hanging.
The boy returned, shrugged, and mimed that Vladimir was absent. I scribbled a note saying that I would return later.
Browsing through the guidebook while chewing more café dumplings, I came across an historical anecdote about Count Wallenstein, a famous Catholic general during the Thirty Years War. In the 1630s, Wallenstein started an engineering works near Prague. It survived his assassination and continued to produce a variety of goods. In the eighteen sixties, it was taken over by Ernst Skoda, a Czech businessman. The Skoda car factory was almost on its last legs by 1990 but it had just been taken over by one of the German car firms. It was a curious link between a forgotten 17th century conflict and today’s car market.
By 6pm, I was back at the Na Zabradli. A new box office assistant was on duty. She had a smattering of English and rang up the admin office. No Vladimir. I asked when he might be available. She shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe Thursday? Maybe Saturday?” Shit! My only contact had gone AWOL.
I strode quickly back to the hotel, trying to warm up. Along the street, a row of young, attractive girls were chatting and smoking, their bare legs goose-pimpling in the chill evening air. It dawned on me that I was living in the heart of the Prague red light district.
Back in the hotel bar, I found Androj on duty once more. “Allo, Neil.” I told him of my difficulties in finding Vladimir Marek. He explained that Vladimir was not, as I had assumed, a harassed, bearded fringe theatre administrator but was one of the most famous film and TV actors in the country – a cross between Anthony Hopkins and Kevin Spacey. No wonder I had received such a haughty reaction at the theatre. They probably thought that I was a stalker.
Androj added that the Divadlo Na Zabradli had been a centre of the dissident Czech Absurdist Drama in the 1960s and President Havel himself had worked there as a stage hand.
Androj: “Havel is a very interesting man. His father used to own a lot of property in Prague before the Communists came. Havel was arrested by the authorities because of his beliefs. He was imprisoned for a year in the cell directly below this bar.”
I looked at the wooden floor with new respect. As the place was empty, Androj pulled himself a pint and sat down with me. I asked him about the end of Communism.
“It’s only three years since the Velvet Revolution. It was fun then. I helped to knock down some of the Communist monuments. It was known as the Slaughter of the Statues. It was a very peaceful way to end an empire.
“They say the West is Best. And I think that maybe it is. But I think it will get more lawless. Nobody respects the police because they fought for the wrong side in ’89. Nowadays hotels and banks are hiring their own private police. We are becoming an economic colony of Germany.
“And the end of state welfare is not good. The suicide rate among the old people has risen by five times. I don’t know what will happen.”
He was not optimistic about the big talking point of the moment – the split with Slovakia two months previously, known as the Velvet Divorce. It seemed that the IMF had made it a condition that they would only back the potentially opulent Czech Republic if firstly it dumped Slovakia. The Slovak leadership, blinded by nationalism, had leaped at the chance to create their own state.
“But Bohemia is rich and Slovakia is poor. Their intelligentsia are coming here, leaving Slovakia even worse off. Soon the Slovak people will curse themselves for being stupid.”
In an attempt to liven the place up a bit, Androj disinterred an ancient tape recorder from a cupboard beneath the bar. Finding that no tapes were available, he asked if I had any American country and western music. It turned out that Dolly Parton was hugely popular in Prague. I replied that the only tape recording that I had with me was one of Noel Coward songs and that he was English.
“Like Eric Burden?” asked Androj hopefully.
I set off on the journey to the bedroom. Again the route was in pitch darkness and this time I’d left my matches behind. Swearing and fumbling at each lock, I finally collected the tape.
By the time I returned to the bar, it had been inundated by about thirty German and Polish teenagers demanding drinks from Androj. Having served them, he played the tape.
It was a truly odd experience. Sitting, partially pissed, in the middle of a horde of Mittel European girls, listening to Noel Coward singing ‘London Pride’. ‘Every blitz your resistance toughening/ From the Ritz to the Anchor and Crown’, etc. The fifteen-year-olds nodded along under the impression that it was a new number by George Michael. I tried and failed to keep a straight face.
By 2am, I ordered yet another drink.
Androj: “We have finished off all the alcohol. Would you like a lemonade?”
I trekked off to the bedroom and slept at 3am.
March 1993: Thursday
One of the most pleasant Czech social habits is the institution of ‘Name Days’ – I had never heard of them before. Every day of the year is dedicated to a different name. On the specified day, people give presents or perform acts of kindness for anyone they know of that name. However, as the 365 name allocations must have run out about one hundred years ago, it must be a bit of a problem if you are called Elvis?
At 6 30pm I returned to the Na Zabradli for the third time that day. ‘Yes, Mr Marek is in touch but he is Vienna tonight.’ ‘No, he has not left a message.’ I stumped off into the darkness.
By this time, the cold was beginning to seep into my marrow. Craving alcohol simply to keep warm, I returned to the Little Bears beer hall on Na Perstyne, the scene of my first evening in Prague. I ate goulash and dumpling and drank beer, while reading the emaciated version of the Euro-Guardian newspaper. An ultra English gent.
After half an hour a man sat on the other side of the long table. He was about thirty, with tattooed knuckles – presumably LOVE/HATE in Czech – and evasive, swivel eyes, usually the sign of heavy drugs. Then a girl of about twenty joined him: short red hair, leather jacket, animated and pretty in a biker’s moll way. They talked in Czech. Then she gave me a bright smile.
We clinked beer mugs, then she pointed to herself.
She pointed to the man.
There followed some dire attempts to converse in my (non-existent) German. All I could remember was from the war comics of my youth – ‘Donner and Blitzen’ and ‘Die, Englischer Schwine’. Neither of which seemed to be particularly appropriate. Ellen moved round to sit next to me. It crossed my mind that she was on the game and that Albrecht was her pimp.
She gestured at my cigarette.
I rolled her an Old Holborn special. She lit it, then coughed her guts up. It seemed that not even under the worst deprivations of Communism did they have to smoke Old Holborn. She beckoned me closer, kissed my ear and put her hand on my thigh. Yeah, she was on the game. I removed her hand and politely shook my head:
She ruefully subsided and Albrecht left. A few desultory attempts to talk failed, although I did show her an Oscar Wilde leaflet in the desperate fantasy that she might leap up to offer me a theatre.
Then Albrecht reappeared, this time accompanied by a tall resigned blonde with bad mascara and one missing front tooth, and by a sullen brunette who looked about twelve. They sat and stared at me. Ellen gestured at them proprietorially.
I was obviously being offered a choice of Albrecht’s wares. Ellen ordered a round of vodka while I was in the lavatory and I returned to find it on my bill. Now, Prague was admittedly cheap but this was getting out of hand. I decided to move out and finished my drink. The entire bill came to about £6.
I placed two hands to the side of my head to signify sleep. A ripple of animation spread round the table.
Rising, I walked to the door, and stepped outside on to Na Perstyne. I looked behind me. Ellen, Helena and Marta had followed. Oh hell!
A plaintive “Disco?” came from Marta.
I called back “Nein. Gut nacht” and quickened my pace round into Bartolomezska. The girls hurried along after me. Finally I reached the door of the hotel and fumbled with the lock. Helena’s arm slipped into mine, Ellen arrived on my right, while Marta continued to enquire about the disco.
At last, I got the door open. Two nuns stood talking in the foyer. Their eyes slowly circled round to the doorway to take in the sight of their new guest festooned with prostitutes. Ellen and co. fell back in some disarray.
With a firm “Gut nacht”, I shut the door on them and gave a queasy smile to the bleak watchers. Feeling their eyes boring into my back, I returned to the cell.
11pm. I slumped on the bed, opened a can of beer and contemplated a particularly morbid crucifix on the wall opposite. Bloody hell, the ludicrous was taking over again. I imagined that my sexual proclivities must be the subject of some conjecture back at the Little Bears.
“He said he was Oscar Wilde.”
” Then he said he wanted three girls.”
“Then he said he didn’t.”
“Then he locked himself into the secret police headquarters.”
“With two nuns.”
I opened another beer and slept at 2am.
Next Tuesday June 20th – Prague Three: John Lennon and a Very Guided Tour.