Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Last week the Czech Republic celebrated the 20 year anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, which began on 17 November 1989. Various events were held to mark this occasion here in Olomouc, including free concerts on the town square and films of the events of 20 years ago. There was also an open air museum of communism, complete with the statues of Lenin and Stalin which previously stood in the town (modelled above by the lovely Mrs Sweney), mock queues for bananas, touts selling “Tuzex” coupons, which back in the days were the currency with which Western goods had to be bought, uniformed guards, a checkpoint, vehicles previously used by the security services and various other items to remind us of how shabby things really used to be. Disillusionment with the post-revolutionary situation has set in here with some ferocity, and it was impossible not to note how one of Olomouc's student revolutionary leaders quickly transformed himself into a high-ranking politician, who is now notorious for his alleged links to organised crime. Nevertheless, overall the celebration was intended to be an uplifting and encouraging experience, the point being that no matter how dissatisfied people might be with their lot these days, things are still nowhere near as grim as they were then – now we can look back at these things and laugh about the bad old days, but let's not forget how bad they were etc.

I have to say, never having experienced any of this, I felt slightly envious of those who had been involved in, or at least surrounded by such momentous events while I was quietly and unimaginatively beginning my university degree in the Free West. The fall of Thatcher in Britain the following year could hardly compare to the euphoria of 89 in the Eastern Bloc (in fact I remember feeling distinctly un-euphoric when the bitch went, knowing full well that the Tories were back in with a fighting chance of winning the next election). Walking around the square last Tuesday I felt that this was undoubtedly a commendable celebration. Czechoslovakia in the post-68 “normalisation” period may not have been quite such a dire and dangerous place as it was under the Nazis, but it didn't seem like much fun either and not for the first time I felt rather humbled seeing this in contrast with the lack of genuine hardship or oppression in my own life.

On the other hand I've often felt confused when I've talked to some people old enough to remember the revolutionary days and the times that preceded them. Some have of course been righteously scathing about the communists, and I've never doubted that they had good reason. In other cases however I've felt a little lost for words when a seemingly decent and likeable, if somewhat docile and unintellectual individual admitted to having been a fervent communist supporter throughout the normalisation years and even beyond, on occasion expressing nostalgic sentiments.

Last week, in our conversation class I took the opportunity to ask one of my students for his reflections on the past 20 years. My student is a bank manager, approaching sixty years of age, and contrary to the stereotypical image of bank managers, particularly in the current climate, is a thoughtful and intelligent man, with moderately left-leaning views. He started off by talking about how the banking system had changed, which was of little interest to me, but it killed some time in which we'd have otherwise probably been engaged in tedious grammar exercises. Still, what about life in general? He then went on to remark upon how there were far more goods in the shops these days and how we were now spoilt for choice, even if it has been at the price of the old securities. What else? Well, it's nice that we can travel abroad, he acknowledged. After all in the 70s and 80s we could only travel to other Soviet bloc countries, and if we were lucky enough to get a permit, to what was then Yugoslavia (which I've heard several times before and always reminds me that during my childhood, before holidays abroad became affordable for the masses, the most exotic place we ever visited was North Wales). By this point I was getting frustrated. What about political life? Hm, well you've seen our president and our other politicians, he shrugged. Even so, it must be better than the previous regime, surely? Back then most of us didn't think about it so much. Maybe a few students and bohemian dissident types (mostly a Prague-centred elite anyway) got in a flap, the rest of us got on with our work and thought about putting food on the table.

What about freedom of expression, isn't that important? At least now you can complain about the situation you're in these days, whereas before you couldn't even do that. His answer definitively closed the conversation: Czechs have always complained. Not complain as in protest, but complain as in grumble. That's how it was then, that's how it is now.

Evidently it wasn't just the party top brass who viewed political freedoms as superfluous bourgeois luxuries. I decided to open the grammar book.

Monday, November 16, 2009

It's that time of year again.

Yes, I know this is yet another return to an already frenetically milked theme, but let's face it, I exhausted my “range” long ago. And with Christmas looming, it's also kind of inevitable. A few days ago my friend Martin, who works for a publishing house in Prague, sent me a copy of “The Atheist's Guide to Christmas”. Martin is naturally well aware of my views on religion and so may have thought it might appeal, but was primarily interested in whether I thought it would go down well here or not – his boss, who no doubt has a keener business sense than either of us, is apparently considering having it translated into Czech and published here.

Immediately the obvious question that came to my mind was why on earth was Martin, a Czech, asking me what I thought might sell to Czechs? I still haven't had a satisfactory answer to that one, still, it's flattering that he values my opinion so much. On the surface of things it might sound like a good idea to market the book here, since the Czech Republic is possibly the most godless country in Europe, at least in terms of the number of people who freely and unselfconsciously classify themselves as atheists. Added to that of course, Christmas comes every year, so even if it's too late to get the book translated and on the shelves for this year's Christmas frenzy, there may be potential for it to become a perennial classic, an alternative bible even.

On the other hand, I couldn't help feeling that precisely because atheism is such a commonplace, prosaic phenomenon here, the whole exercise might be rather pointless, and as such, likely to be ignored. It might be partly due to the influence of communism here that religion has simply not played a very large role in this country in recent times – although of course communism didn't prevent religion from remaining a major force in neighbouring Poland or even Slovakia. Whatever the case, Czechs generally don't have as much reason to loathe religion as much as those who have been brought up in Britain, or worse, Ireland, the USA, or Poland for that matter. Surely anyone who deliberately goes out and buys an “atheist's guide” to anything does so out of some kind of antipathy to religion, whereas few people here feel anything more than indifference.

Having briefly skimmed through the book (or pdf. file, to be more precise), I can only say that my doubts have been compounded. Not only is it replete with cultural references to 1970s Britain – how are Czechs supposed to relate to Scalextric, Raleigh bikes, Bernard Matthews turkeys or Wizzard? – but on top of all that its stated aim is to be “the atheist book it's safe to leave around your granny”. Well what's the fucking sense in that? If you're going to publish a book that's meant to appeal to those who are pissed off up to their eyeballs with religious bullshit, why then frustrate your constituency by being so bloody nice about it? There are writings by some atheist “big hitters” such as Dawkins, Derren Brown, Ben Goldacre and also some respected music critics such as David Stubbs and Simon Price, so there might be some cause for the militant atheist to hope for a bit of merciless cleric-bashing, but this has to be weighed up against the rather dispiriting fact that there are also contributions from such luminaries as Claire Rayner and Simon le Bon (which I have to admit I haven't read in any great detail, but really, for fuck's sake!). And it's also a blatantly obvious fact that whilst Dawkins might be able to construct a coherent scientific argument, he's a fucking atrocious writer and believe me, he excels himself in this particular work. The boring old tosser.

When all's said and done, what self-respecting atheist needs a “guide” to anything anyway? Surely we're adult enough to read “serious” atheist texts, and I suppose if I was being generous I might include the God Delusion in those, but frankly it's shit, so I won't. But for Christ's sake (eh?), haven't there been enough brilliant and entertaining atheist thinkers for us to consult without the need for us to turn to this cheap, patronising, bite-sized whimper of platitudes?

A waste of time, in any language.

Lollobrigida - Volim Te

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Aaahh, don't cry!

Yeah, bite it bitch!

I didn't want to write about the evil bastard while he was at the centre of attention of the whole of Europe and so obviously loving it, but now he's finally bitten the bullet and signed the bloody thing, and so will now be shuffling ignominiously off the European centre stage, I feel quite justified about sticking the knife in his back as he does so. This isn't because I'm particularly pro-European, if anything I feel quite Eurosceptic myself (for entirely different reasons than Klaus, I hasten to add). It's also not as if I've read the Lisbon treaty myself – how many people actually have? So I can't really say whether it's a good or bad thing, I suspect I'd disapprove but don't have the intellectual rigour, or perhaps more realistically, a sufficiently high boredom threshold to find out. I certainly disapprove of the way it was forced through, the British referendum wriggled around on a legal technicality, the Irish the only nation balloted, who after voting against it were made to vote again until they said yes.

But just as I feel the usual dismally familiar mixture of resignation and disgust at the low machinations above, this is a mere minor irritant compared to the acutely personal loathing and contempt I harbour in relation to the president's recent conduct. This human pile of dog shit is one itch I am just going to have to fucking scratch. The whole affair of his dragging out the inevitable was patently about his own ego gratification and fuck all else. If the Eurocrats were abject bad losers in their response to the Irish No vote, then Klaus trumped even them by his deplorably lame attempt to throw spanners in the works at the last moment, appealing on typically pedantic, nitpicking grounds, cheapened further by his grotesque attempt to parade himself as a drum-beating patriot. Some Czechs fell for it, but a great many simply wanted to fucking puke. He still isn't as unpopular as I'd like him to be here, but the more educated sections of the population are increasingly regarding him as an appalling embarrassment afflicting the nation, whilst he's long been reviled as a clownish figure throughout the rest of Europe.

And what did he actually achieve? Well, he did negotiate an opt-out of the Charter of Fundamental Rights (cheers Vašek! Fucking rights – who needs em?), but this is no more than those other European champions of humanitarianism Britain and Poland got. He's had his moment of posturing like a cunt on a European stage, but the game's pretty much up. No doubt he'll find all kinds of ingenious ways to make our toes curl with vicarious shame and pure, naked hate throughout the rest of his presidency, and unfortunately there's plenty of fucking time left to go. But the fact is, for all his transparently empty grandstanding on this issue, he's capitulated. Choke on it.

And on the same day the European Court of Human Rights ruled that it's illegal to display crucifixes in Italian schools, which is bound to have millions of superstitious, prancing mamma's boys apoplectic with their hilariously banal fulminations. The shitbags.

Maybe I should reconsider my Eurosceptic tendencies if the EU can be used as a tool both to humiliate Klaus and antagonise vapid papist hypocrites. Not a bad day, all in all.