Podium: The charming allure of Prague

Alan Levy

From a lecture by the founding editor of the `Prague Post', delivered at the Czech Centre in London

MY WIFE and I were 35 - and our daughters two and three - when we came to live in Prague for the first time. That was in 1967. And I came back to live late in 1990 in that haunting, haunted golden city of castles and churches, the golem and Kafka: the place from which my family and I had been expelled and deported in the middle of one cold winter night almost 20 years earlier for my sins of truth-telling about 1968's Soviet-led invasion.

Having lived away from Prague for so many years, I was often asked when I came back: "Has it changed much here?" At first, my answer was a polite, "Not much, but people are happier."

But asked the same question a year or two later, I would reply: "Not much from 1971 to 1990, but many times more between 1990 and 1992" - and the changes seemed to be multiplying exponentially each year thereafter.

By then, the city was teeming with tens of thousands of young foreigners - Americans, in particular - finding needs to fill and putting down roots. With their Czech-language and licensing problems resolved by mating with natives, the synergy was fantastic: The Czech geniuses of ingenuity and improvisation were energised by can-do American spontaneity and ambition.

They opened pizzerias and piano bars, McDonald's and Mexican restaurants; they revitalised the kitchens of the splendid Art Nouveau municipal house, Obecni dum; and introduced the bagel and the cuisines of California to Prague; combined bookstores with coffee-houses, started amateur and professional theatres, fused 21st-century computerised quality control with the 16th- century craft of lute-making while learning from the masters they taught.

And they published.

So it came to pass that on a summer afternoon in 1991, six months before my 60th birthday, two young Americans - one of whom I vaguely knew and both born in 1968, which I took as an omen - approached me in Old Town Square for advice about starting up a weekly newspaper in English.

I had no experience as an editor or as boss of anything, but I knew I had something to contribute to Prague. This was now, after 31 years of working for myself as a writer. I crossed the desk to become founding editor-in-chief of The Prague Post. The first words in our first issue that fall were deeply, sincerely, exuberantly mine.

In my first "Prague Profile" column - which minted the labels of "Left Bank of the Nineties" and "Second Chance City," both of which have stuck -- there was a third concept that I've since recanted: "I think I have found, or rediscovered, the kinder, gentler place that George Bush exhorted America to become in 1988."

I based this pronouncement on such research tools as the sounds of dogs barking and children playing in playgrounds (both of which are far less shrill or racial than I've heard in Germany, France or America), and the way that people treated each other during the demeaning years of what the neo-Stalinists called "normalisation". If you were a dissident, your son or daughter couldn't go to university.

However, the man who went in one week of 1970 from conductor of a chamber orchestra to conductor of a streetcar and later to porter and pensioner was still addressed as "Maestro" by his neighbours to the end of his life.

Let me tell you about the day in October 1992 when I decided Prague was no longer "the kinder, gentler place." I had invited a visiting American academic to share a lunch with me in our old office building, but the communal kitchen was out of everything, so we headed down the Street of Political Prisoners to a salad bar.

My guest was making a lot of noise and we were taking up a lot of space on the narrow sidewalk, so a balding, middle-aged pedestrian trying to get past us jumped out into the street, but then jumped back swiftly as a car roared toward him. In doing so, he brushed my guest's sleeve and - to my merely mild astonishment - didn't apologise.

"You know, Alan," my guest said, "If I knew a word of Czech, I'd teach that guy a lesson in manners."

The man understood English and, to my amazement, he whirled about to face us in a boxer's crouch.

I knew I didn't want to die, so I did my Good Soldier Svek number and raised both hands in abject surrender. The stressed Czech strode off satisfied with himself. And I never again called Prague "the kinder, gentler place."

On the very day I had experienced my revelation, Bill Clinton had said: "America is not "the kinder, gentler place" President Bush promised in 1988. That place is Prague, Czechoslovakia..."

Well, I'll leave it to you to judge.

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor