Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Jiri Trnka - Illustrator

I recently bought an old book from a second-hand bookshop called Legends of Old Bohemia. It was published by Paul Hamlyn in the UK and by Artia in the former Czechoslovakia, where the book was printed and designed. The book appealed to me on three grounds - firstly of course the subject matter, secondly it was translated by Edith Pargeter (see my blogpost on her) a favourite author of mine and finally the illustrations were by Jiri Trnka (illustration from book above).

I had first come across Jiri Trnka , when I was working at the Puppet Centre in Battersea. There I had come to admire Jiri Trnka as a designer and maker of animated films. In my next post I will give talk more about his animated films. But he was a man of many parts and created some wonderful book illustrations. And this book is full of them.

I also have a copy of Grimm's Fairytales (again published by Paul Hamlyn) illustrated by Trnka, and again absolutely wonderful. The last three illustrations are from it - very Trnka and very Czech.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Collecting Berries

I was very amused this summer to see on the BBC's coverage one of the RHS garden shows (Chelsea or Hampton Court) an enthusiastic presenter singing praises of a berrypicker. "You can get it in the plastic version or a deluxe wooden version." The plastic pickers' prices began at about £8. At this point I nearly choked on my cup of tea. Goodness knows what a deluxe wood version costs!

My shock was because this wonderful new device has been on sale in Czech ironmongers for centuries. And you can bet they don't cost very much at all and they are made of wood. At the Museum of South Bohemia in Ceske Budejovice I saw a lovely film from the late 1940s of lorryloads of Czechs hitting the Sumava forest with buckets for the fruit and berrypickers. They were picking bilberries and cranberries. So my advice is if you want a deluxe berrypicker take a cheap flight to the Czech Republic, better still get several for presents for Christmas. You might get your money back and you get a great holiday as well.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Exchange Rate

When we bought our Czech house three years ago the exchange rate was just over 40 and it stayed there until last summer. Then the financial crisis hit and sterling dropped to 30 crowns and then to as low as 23, rose to 30 and now seems to be dropping again. It had always been in my calculations that the Crown would strengthen as the Czech economy grew. But this current level appears to me to be definitely too low, many things including essentials are now cheaper in the UK, in some cases significantly so.

For a long time the Czech government was buoyant about this, apparently seeing the Crown's strength as some sign of virility. But as far as I see it can only harm the local economy. It is noticeable that the numbers of visitors in Cesky Krumlov are down. I gather that spend is down too. The town has always relied heavily on EU visitors, especially their neighbours the Germans and Austrians coming on day trips.

Whilst the rise in the crown could be argued to be because of improvements in the Czech economy, but not everyone has benefited from these. I was chatting to a neighbour who told me that she has seen no increase in her wage as a waitress for five years and that now everything is very expensive. Nor is it just a problem with the crown/pound exchange rate, the crown/euro rate is so out of kilter that she told me she and her friends go shopping in Austria where they get more for their money than here in Cesky Krumlov.

The wider economy is suffering – the second quarter of this year saw the largest decrease on GDP year on year (5.5 per cent) in the country's history with a fall of 12.8 per cent in manufacturing. As someone who has worked in economic regeneration this worries me immensely. Some towns rely on one major employer or one industry and this ridiculous exchange rate can only make life for those businesses and their communities very hard indeed. Unemployment rates are rising, they reached 8.5 per cent in August.

I find it extraordinary – I just can't understand why this happening. Experts seem to be similarly bewildered and have been predicting in a drop in exchange rates for some time. Well we must wait and see what is to come, one thing is certain, everything is uncertain now.

Thursday, 17 September 2009


Just over a year ago I blogged about my meetings with Czech foxes I wrote then of how they are meant to be lucky. My meetings with our local fox have continued, often I will see it making its way across the fields as I walk up from the bus or down from the woods. And I have come to associate it with creativity, one of my favourite poems is Ted Hughes' Thought Fox, which is for my money the best poem about the writing process I know:

I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is print

As some readers of this blog will be aware one important reason why I bought my Czech home is that I needed somewhere to write. It is so to speak my den, my dark hole, built into the hillside, a hill called Fox's Lair. Over the last year I have indeed started to write again, and not just this blog, and superstitiously I have partly put it down to my fox companion. Even when I do not see him, I hear him in the woods above the house, tormenting the village dogs. "Ha!" he seems to be saying, "You have sold your freedom for a bowl of meat. I have the woods, all the roots and dark places as my kingdom." And at this the village dogs go mad with vain barking.

I have put his face on my door in the form of a brass knocker, he hangs on the wall as one of a set of horse brasses, I have drawn him in oil pastels. And the more I find out about him and his place in folklore and superstition, the more I think I have found the right familiar. A month or so ago I was telling my husband about this, and how strangely although I had been writing almost continuously, my fox had kept out of sight. My husband stopped me at this point "Look, look," he said. There in broad daylight no more than a metre away from the window my fox was strolling across the grass in the direction of the neighbours' chickens.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Bark Beetles

I was disappointed to see, when I made my visit to the forest above our village, that there has been a lot of tree felling. Swathes of forest have been felled and some of my favourite spots for mushrooms disturbed in the process. Then I noticed these strange boxes on poles.

They are cause for concern, they are bark beetle traps. The bark beetle has been responsible for major damage in the Sumava National Park, sometimes called the Green Roof of Europe. Opinion is divided between those who wish to fell and dispose of infected trees and those who see the beetle's damage as part of a natural process. Direct action has happened with protesters literally hugging trees.

I am normally in the conservationists' side on issues such as this, but find myself in a quandary. I am sufficiently old to remember the destruction wrought by the dutch elm disease in Britain. I have a vivid memory of a fine line of old elms that stood on the top bank of a local field, one of which housed a rope down which the local boy scouts would slide. And I remember running and catching the leaves as the sick trees suddenly let them fall. For a few years the barren corpses of the elms stood until unsound they too fell. England lost a major natural feature, its elm trees, in a matter of months and they have not come back properly. All because of a bark beetle and the fungus that it carried. I would hate to watch the same happen here.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Airport Security

The recent conviction of terrorists who were targeting commercial airlines reminded me of an incident at Prague Airport. I noticed a large plastic bag, unattended, next to a bank of seats by the Relay newsagents. Being a Brit and thus having had to be aware of potential bombs since the IRA's attacks in the 1970's I immediately went into bomb alert mode.

Fortunately walking towards me and the bag were two Czech security police, so I walked on confident that they would see the bag and deal with it. Fifteen minutes later I walked back and there was the bag, the security police had walked straight past it. I decided that I would report it. The two policemen were now on their return patrol and so I walked up to them and told them. They hardly responded and I watched in amazement as they sauntered in the bag's direction. I do not know if they acted on my information, my flight was being called.

I cannot say how shocked I was by their attitude. Of course I knew that in all probability the bag was completely harmless, but it needed to be treated as if it wasn't. In the UK it would certainly have been dealt with efficiently and without fuss but nevertheless seriously. The Czech Republic has soldiers in Afghanistan - it is a potential target, as indeed is every country in the West. I pray to God that the Czechs do not have to deal with terrorism, as we Brits have done over the decades.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Dawn in the Woods

I mentioned that I have been wandering round our local woods at dawn. Well mushrooms aren't the only reason for going. I love the misty Czech dawns – the view across wooded hills towards the Klet mountain, the light coming through the trees picking out countless dew bejewelled webs, deer crossing my path and the song of birds.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The Early Bird Catches the Mushroom

I was up and out of the house at 6am this morning. This was partly because the weather is so hot that to attempt anything physical after 10 is foolhardy and I wanted a walk in the woods. Of course this was not just any walk but a mushroom-gathering one, and in order to get the best one has to be up early. Already there were two women in the wood rummaging under fallen pine branches. On the road on the other side of the hill several cars were parked, including this one which had illegally been driven up the track to gain a few yards on its owners' mushrooming rivals.

Well I was lucky and got a good basketful. This year is a spectacular one for chanterelles. They are huge (four inches high) but the moss in which they nestle is likewise tall, so it is very easy to miss them. In addition I got some sheep's polypore, hedgehog mushrooms and russulas. So that's my supper sorted for a couple of days.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I share in the Czech obsession of mushrooming and how in England I am often met with disbelief when I assure people I meet in the forest that you can eat what I have collected. I would like to think that my eccentricity on this is seen as normal in the Czech Republic. But this is not always the case. Czechs are taught what to collect by their parents and grandparents, they inherit a repertoire of mushrooms that they collect and often this is not large. I was taught mushrooming by a Czech with a large repertoire and I have additionally made a great study of mushroom books (so much so at least two are to be found next to the loo in both my Czech and British homes).

Today a fellow mushroomer (a Czech) stopped me in the woods, and she busily told me that the charcoal burner (a russula much prized in Britain) was not edible and wrongly identified the sheep's polypore as a field mushroom. Tut, tut, tut, she went as I showed her I was confident enough to nibble some, and away she went shaking her head. Another Czech friend with whom I occasionally go mushrooming was shocked that I collect blewits (great favourites of mine and ones which are now commercially cultivated) or fungi that grow on trees. She will however collect the blusher – which you will find often listed as poisonous in English books, but which is very popular in the Czech Republic.

So there you go, I can't win. By the way I have eaten blusher – it's okay but not worth the fuss the Czechs make over it, especially as you go through a polaver to cook it.

PS. In response to Karen's comment - here is a photo of my basket of mushrooms. The egg yellow ones are chanterelles, the charcoal coloured one is (you guessed it) charcoal burner, the white ones with the beige tops are sheeps polypore, and the large brown one is a boletus.


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