Usually, for all my curmudgeonly exterior and grumblings about the pressure to have fun being a pain in the arse, I get sucked into “having a good time” in jovial company on New Year’s Eve, and to my enormous shame heartily enjoying it to boot. This time, however, I really started the year as I meant to go on – staying in on my own, suffering from a cold, drinking slivovice and watching reruns of Father Ted (I have to admit, I rather enjoyed that too). Naturally the runny nose and solitary New Year wasn’t anything I planned, but it seemed to capture the pessimistic, miserablist feel of the times.
Back in Blighty people really are shitting themselves! It’s ace! Nobody feels secure in their job any more, everyone’s fretting over the family finances, and on this occasion, for the first time since I’ve been living out here I didn’t feel a complete pauper on my return there. To say I felt stinking rich would be an exaggeration, but with the triple-whammy effect of the post-Christmas sales (I still remember the days when they used to be called the January sales), the economic crisis causing yet further price slashes and the pound falling through the floor, Britain is now a shopper’s paradise for Czechs. Clothes are now in many cases down to a third of the price of similar garments here, and the same also applies to some other goods. Astonishingly even the price of beer is now comparable – when I first came out here in the mid 90s I remember telling jealous and incredulous mates back home that I was paying 25p a pint while they were paying approximately £2. Now, however, out of sheer desperation J.D. Wetherspoon’s have cut the price of one of their beers to 99p, which is little more than the average price of a pint, or more precisely half-litre, here in Spleensville. Of course this means that Wetherspoon’s pubs will now be attracting even more psychos than usual and will have to spend more on cleaning their upholstery after punters have pissed themselves, but evidently they think it’s their only option. At least train services are still reassuringly overpriced, overcrowded and shit, with all trains in the entire country cancelled on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, plus all sorts of other disruptions throughout the period. Business as fucking usual there then.
No longer considered penny-pinching East European peasants in today’s recession-hit Britain, and with their country now holding the rotating EU presidency, perhaps the Czechs might be lulled into thinking they’ve finally arrived then? Maybe not. Czechs do a pretty good line in pessimism, and in some cases it’s justified. For a start, few people are foolhardy enough to believe we’re not all going to get shafted here too, even if it might be amusing to watch the Yanks and Brits suffer in the meantime before we get our dose of misery. Leaving aside the depressing issue of the President’s insanity, there’s also the rather perturbing fact that, with temperatures down to –20°C in some places, the Russians have shut off the gas supply to the country. In addition, the EU presidency is not something that most Czechs have awaited with eager anticipation, but dreaded as a period that has to be stoically muddled through with gritted teeth, all the time praying that the country doesn’t embarrass itself too much.
Things didn’t get off to the best of starts, since within a couple of days of taking over the presidency the Czechs raised eyebrows worldwide with their statement, on behalf of the entire EU, that the Israeli action in Gaza is “defensive, not offensive”. This immediately prompted other European leaders to break with the “official” EU line and condemn the Israeli offensive, with even the USA supporting UN calls for a ceasefire. Nicolas Sarkozy, seemingly convinced that he is still European führer, snubbed the Czechs further, embarking upon a separate diplomatic mission to the Middle East. In other words, prompted by the clodhopping buffoonery of the Czech administration, it took less than a week for the rest of the EU to reveal their true colours and shun the official EU leadership as that of an insignificant, tinpot little country. Hopefully Sarkozy, a worthy rival of Klaus in terms of ludicrous egomania, will at least help divert attention away from us while the matter gets swept under the carpet.
The What Republic? Happy New Year!