Monday, 29 November 2010

A visit to Trocnov

The Jan Zizka Birthplace Museum at Trocnov is a very Czech affair. The Hussite leader Jan Zizka was quite simply a military genius. When I arrived the Museum was closed, but a note said I could get the key from the cafe/pub. I walked past a couple drinking beer at a trestle table and up to the counter. A nice young lady, who seemed to double as barmaid and museum caretaker, picked up the key and opened the door for me. The museum was divided into three rooms - one about Zizka's family and family home, the second about Zizka's campaigns and the third about the cult of Zizka. Unfortunately for British visitors the bulk of the exhibition text is in Czech, but it still is interesting to see just how small Zizka's familial home was - a simple tower house, but nevertheless made of stone, which probably made it stand out among the wooden structures that surrounded it. Zizka's father is described as a member of the gentry, but  clearly not a very wealthy one. 

I found room 3 particularly interesting, showing as it did the role of Zizka as a hero first of Czech nationalism and then of communism. The displays are full of posters and prints of Zizka. I was joined in the museum by a woman and her young daughter. Every few minutes the child would let out a cry "Zizka, Zizka!" when she saw yet another picture of the man. Zizka, it would appear, still has a strong hold on Czech imagination! 

I left the museum and walked around the site. The archaeological remains were disappointing, a few low walls revealed a remarkably small footprint. I walked along a path and into a small wood. Several groups of Czechs were walking there in the afternoon sunshine, carrying baskets and collecting mushrooms. At the end of an avenue in a grove I found the stone memorial to the site of Zizka's birth. The feature that dominates the site is a giant sculpture of Zizka. A young couple were photographing each other in front of the great man's feet. Seeing me they invited me to take over and so I did. Then they left and I was alone looking up at the craggy stone features. Was this what Zizka looked like? Probably not, the look was a creation of the cult of Zizka. But as a historian I have always been interested both in getting to the historical truth and in how history is used through the ages, which is of course also true.


Friday, 26 November 2010

Lost in Translation

I thought I might share with you more  about what was discussed at the Lost in Translation exhibition opening, which featured the work of Czech artists and writers who live in the UK and the work of British artists and writers who live in the Czech Republic. 

The picture above is by Katia Lom who said;

I have found refuge and my own way to come to terms with this industrious city through its pockets of nature. I have come to realise that there is peace to be found amongst this bustling city and that, even within its urbanised landscape, heavens of trees and animals can be found, from an animal farm in Hackney, to the great leafy neighbourhoods of North London. These discoveries have enabled me to start feeling more settled as I have found a common ground in nature and animals.

It struck me that this attachment especially to trees is very Czech. The forest is very powerful in the Czech psyche, equivalent perhaps in its significance as the sea is to the Brits.

A number of the pictures referenced another profound influence on the Czech psyche - fairytales. In Hana Vojackova's artwork (above) the Little Red Riding Hood's forest becomes London's East End. She writes:

One feels that Little Red Riding Hood is fascinated and worried by wandering around in a scary and dangerous place; for her the scary place was the woods, for me it was the inner city at night. Both situations engender a tension between irrational fascination and the rational fear of what is new or undiscovered to us. It is a tension familiar to everybody, and one that is immortalized in the childrens story.

More pictures from the exhibition together with the artists' thoughts can currently be found in a  Facebook web album.

I have always admired the way the Czechs are able to accept the truth of fairytales. Many Brits would be embarrassed to talk about such "childish" things, we have put them away. But they are still there, hidden and hiding inside us and they still are "true". The reason Czech art is so strong is that it can see the world through them. We Brits have a lot to learn.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


A pair of swans have taken up residence on our local swimming pond. As swans are birds of habit and mate for life, they are probably the same pair that I watched this time last year. The pond, which in the summer was full of local families swimming and laughing, now only has my two swans floating serenely across its surface, breaking the reflections of the trees. But Winter is coming, the first snow has fallen, the pond will soon ice over and they will be gone again. I do not know where and would welcome thoughts on the matter.

I do so adore watching them. They bring back a very early memory from my childhood, of when we lived in the mill flat beside a pond. In the morning I would eat my toast, but leave the crusts, so that my mother and I could feed them to the two swans that lived on the millpond. I would have been aged about two at the time. There is something about my village and South Bohemia more generally that has the effect of triggering old memories, nearly always good ones. When I first came here to look at the house, it was not the house that resonated so strongly with me but the children's den in the trees and the hopscotch squares chalked on the tarmac outside the gate. It was like stepping back fifty years.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Who is Reading This?

Over the years that I have been writing this blog I have come to know some of my readers, through the comments they leave, emails they send me or from the profiles of those that follow the blog. They come from all over the world. Some, such as fellow blogger Karen of Empty Nest Blog, I now consider friends.

When I started this blog I had no idea really who would read it. As I say in my profile (right) I hope it introduces the Czechs to the British and vice versa. But I presumed my primary audience would, if only for language reasons, be British. I recently was interested to see in my Blogger stats that Britain only comes third in the list of countries sending me readers, the US is second and top of the list is the Czech Republic, which given the language barrier is remarkable. I am so pleased.

I attended the launch event for the Lost in Translation exhibition on Sunday (yes, I know the exhibition is almost over) and found myself chatting to some delightful young Czech expats and comparing notes. It was fascinating to hear from them about the things they like and dislike about living in the UK. Consistently they spoke about being straight-talking in a country where people hide what they mean. I gave them the reference for Kate Fox's excellent book Watching the English. They confessed to having secret stores of piskoty (a type of biscuit) and kofola (the Czech cola and infinitely superior), I confessed to carrying over to Czecho supplies of teabags and marmite. I was intrigued to hear their feelings and experiences and comparing them with my own. It helped me understand why so many Czechs are reading this.

Monday, 8 November 2010

A Knowledge of Czech History

The other day I was browsing in a local antikvariat (second-hand bookshop) and working my way through a pile of mostly uninspiring old prints. I was about to abandon my hunt (I did not know what I was looking for anyway), when I came across some prints by a local artist, who worked in Ceske Budejovice about 40 years ago. The prints were from a larger series about a dramatic and traumatic period in Czech history – the time of the Hussite rebellions in the 15th century.

The prints were very much of their time (probably 1950s/60s), when the Communists adopted the Hussites as heroic members of the Czech proletariat taking on a German aristocracy, conveniently forgetting that the Hussites were motivated by religion (a.k.a. the opiate of the people). At 50 kc each (under £2) how could I resist? I chose six of the best prints and wandered over to the shop's owner.

I asked about the artist (Karel Stech by the way) and whether the owner had any prints which showed the one-eyed general of the Hussites - Jan Zizka. The owner looked at me with surprise: “You are English?”

I nodded.

“And yet you know about Czech history!” he said in amazement.

I explained that the English were indeed interested in the Hussites (well the historians of the Archaeological Society certainly were), because they like military history and there was the English link with the Lollards.

“Of course, John Wycliff,” he said and nodded.

I walked out of the shop with a package under my arm, feeling slightly guilty. I couldn't quite bring myself to say that most English know nothing about the history of this country, but then I consoled myself that most English don't know who John Wycliff and the Lollards were either.

Thursday, 4 November 2010


Above is a notice advertising the museum in Jindrichuv Hradec. Come and see “the biggest mechanical creche in the world.”*

One of the things that has struck us as we wander around the Czech Republic is this obsession with comparisons. “Cesky Krumlov is the second largest castle complex in the Czech Republic”, “Jindrichuv Hradec Castle is the second largest castle in South Bohemia” (after Krumlov of course), Vyssi Brod Abbey has the “third largest library in the Czech Republic” and so on. Once you start looking, you'll see such comparisons all over the place. It's not something we see very much in England. Why is that?

A friend once said to me that it was probably to do with the Czechs needing to assert themselves and their legacy in the face of wider apathy, which may be true to some extent, whereas we have a confidence born of several centuries of being a major world player. But I suspect it is more to do with our English sensibilities. After all the Czechs are just promoting what they have to offer. The Hungarian emigre and humourist George Mikes wrote that “All advertisements... are utterly and hopelessly unEnglish. They are too outspoken, too definite, too boastful.” My wincing at Czech claims is therefore my problem, not theirs.

* BTW By creche they mean a carved nativity scene. Not only do you get the stable, but a huge automated tableau of life in the surrounding countryside and towns, which takes up three sides of a room. Some guy spent a lifetime making this - you can imagine what his wife had to say on the subject!

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Update to Harvesting The Forest

Radio Prague has just reported:

Sumava National Park director resigns

The director of the Sumava National Park, Frantisek Krejci, has tendered his resignation to the Minister of the Environment, Pavel Drobil. A ministry spokesperson told the press that Mr Krejci had
resigned in order to facilitate the new conception for the park promoted by the ministry. Frantisek Krejci was appointed by the Green Party in 2007 when it controlled the environment ministry in order to fulfil a policy of non-intervention against the bark beetle infestation that has devastated parts of the forest. Environmental organisations say the resignation was forced by the new ministry, which want to take a head on approach to the problem.

As I said in the previous post a lot of people are very cynical about the Government, suggesting that it is using the bark beetle as an excuse to justify wholesale removal of trees in the forest. This news seems to confirm this.


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