When I went for a walk today, I was thinking how nice it would be to go to a pub, drink some Harvey’s and bore some of my friends by talking rubbish. I then started thinking about how little I was spending at the moment and what the price of beer was. This got to me remembering paying 8p a pint in 1989 on the exchange trip to Havirov in the old Czechoslovakia. I have written a little about this trip previously but more memories came flooding back on my walk.
The exchange trip was organised for any pensioners or Trade Unionists who lived in Harlow who wished to take part. I can’t remember how much, if anything, we paid for the week’s holiday but I know it was heavily subsidised by Harlow Council. We stayed with an exchange partner whom we hosted on their return to Harlow six weeks later. After our flight to Prague and subsequent four hour coach trip to the very East of Slovakia, very close to the Polish border, we were herded into a Community Hall where we were paired with our host. I was lucky to be allocated to Marcela, Zdenek and their two small children. Marcela was a charming beautiful woman and was very excited to meet anyone from the West. She had very liberal views and spoke excellent English. We had lots of intense conversations which her husband, Zdenek, tried his best to follow, even though his lack of English was quite frustrating to him.
There were plenty of trips planned for our six day stay. One day was in a school with a Russian tank on a plinth by the entrance. I don’t mean a model, I mean a proper Russian tank with a red star painted on it. Another morning was spent looking round a shoe factory. When the manager of the factory was asked where the shoes were sold, he became quite evasive and non-committal. Our group privately expressed the view that the shoes were probably destroyed and that the factory only existed to provide full employment. There was no unemployment in Czechosolvakia. Marcela told me that everyone in the country was entitled to free full time (6 a.m. to 6 p.m.) child care for children over one year old.
One day, a trip to some gardens was arranged. It was to be an hour’s journey there. Although Martin and I were staying with different hosts, we both coincidentally and unluckily missed the coach which meant we had to spend the day looking around Havirov by ourselves. Paddy was fortunate to be able to spend the day looking around the gardens, which sounded
fascinating. As Martin and I wandered past what we thought was a shop door at 11:00 a.m., we heard a blast of noise coming from within. Doubling back, we saw that it was a bar. A glance and a nod was all that was needed to come to an agreement about what to do next and we soon found ourselves in the best bar in the world. There were no adornments to the room, just lots of benches with loads of blokes drinking beer. There was a small hatch through which overflowing glasses were being passed to one guy. We were gestured by this guy to sit down which we did and he then said “Chceš pivo?” Subsequently, I learned that pivo is the Slovakian word for beer but at the time we just nodded hopefully and he put down two pints of lager and demanded 16p from us. I’ve just looked it up and that’s the equivalent of 40p today. The guy kept coming round, carrying up to 8 pints at a time and when our glasses looked empty he would say “Chceš pivo?” which we assumed meant “do you want more beer?” Martin and I stayed for a few hours and splashed out a total of 32p each. At one point a bloke sat next to us and showed us a book called “Quo Vadis”. He asked “Čítali ste túto knihu?” and we just shook our heads. When our comrades returned from their walk around the gardens in the late afternoon (and after Martin and I had walked off our hangover), we boasted of our experience and later that evening about 10 of us returned to the bar. We found that the beer wasn’t 8p a pint in the evenings. It was 6p a pint. When I explained to Marcela the following day that we had been to the “Cosmos Bar”, she was horrified as it had a bad reputation. I’m not sure what for – there was no violence, just good natured beer drinking and loads of us talking rubbish. Ah. Those were the good old days indeed.
Marcela and I had lots of discussions about political systems. The trip took place in late Spring 1989, six months before the “Velvet Revolution” that resulted in one party rule being substituted for a democratic system with a free election being held in June 1990. She was much better informed and more articulate than I was, especially after a few 8p pints in The Cosmos Bar but I can remember the main thrusts of the arguments. She believed in freedom; I believed in state support for the most vulnerable and needy. The West had freedom but the poor were, after a decade of Thatcherism, left to fend for themselves. Or so it felt at the time. I suspect that there was more support in the U.K. then than there is now. I was impressed with the level of child care and the lack of unemployment in her country.
In July 1989, Marcela came to stay with me in Harlow. In October, I flew to Havirov by myself and the following Summer, Marcela and Zdenek came to stay with me. I remember taking them to a Tesco supermarket in Hatfield and, in my mind, I can still see them staring, open mouthed, at the “Aladdin’s cave of treasures, a consumer’s paradise” when they saw the different food that was on display. I had been to a supermarket in Havirov and it was as well stocked as a normal corner shop in the U.K. but a supermarket appeared to be from a different planet.
I gave Marcela and Zdenek a great holiday in 1990. We met with Ben and Anne, had Sunday lunch with my sister and her family, drove to Beachy Head, the Cornwall coast, Malvern, Worcester, Stratford before spending a couple of days in Harlow. In my mind, shamefully, something came to an end when they left and I lost contact with them, not answering their letters. I can’t explain it and I regret it now. I thought I’d never see them again but I got my comeuppance a few years later when the Deputy Head at Brays Grove announced that we were to have an exchange teacher visiting for a week and it was Marcela. I was horrified at having to face up to my rudeness and very embarrassed but we met up for a meal – I apologised and she was charming but I had thoughtlessly ended our friendship.
“Call It Freedom” was released in 1988 and the title track addresses the issue of how to define freedom. R.H. Tawney, an economic historian from the first part of the twentieth century said that “freedom for the pike is death to the minnow”. In other words, freedom is relative, not absolute. In the song, Dick Gaughan describes freedom in the West – although we have “Aladdin’s cave of treasures, a consumer’s paradise“, we also have the freedom to starve, to be homeless and to be sick. By contrast, behind the Iron Curtain, there’s no unemployment and the State looks after the weak. Despite that, “we’re told they don’t have freedom.” It’s a brilliant song and it features keyboards, saxophone and drums as well as the actress, comedienne and political activist, Elaine C Smith on backing vocals.
The first time I heard anything by Dick Gaughan was when he did a session on the Andy Kershaw programme around 1988. He played a phenomenal song called “Amandla!” and it remains one of my favourite songs by him. The song was inspired by a music and dance ensemble (also called Amandla) who Dick Gaughan saw. He says that one of the songs was introduced like this. “When the white people came to Africa, there was no problem; we had the land, they had the Bible. Then they taught us to pray (with our eyes closed) and when we opened our eyes something strange had happened – they had the land and we had the Bible.” The word “Amandla” means “power” and Dick Gaughan dedicated the song to the African National Congress of which the armed wing was called uMkhonto we Sizwe, meaning “Spear Of the Nation”. The lyrics to the entire song are fantastic and, bearing in mind that the song was written in 1988, two years before the release of Nelson Madela, the last verse is especially powerful. “Spear of the nation, herald of liberty, arm of the people, strike true and fast. Smashing apartheid, the voice of the future Is crying Amandla! Amandla! Amandla!”
In The Independent in 2013, Tim Cumming wrote “Dick Gaughan’s remarkable guitar playing propels and underpins an astonishing voice, the kind of voice that could stop a train in its tracks. There can be few other singers capable of turning from aching tenderness to the high dudgeon of political rage within the space of a line, or, on occasion, even in the turn of a single word.”
The first song on the album is an instrumental that leads into “Shipwreck” a brilliant song about a wealthy man who is the lone survivor after a storm sinks his ship. He clambers onto the shore of an island wondering “what had been provided for him” but he was helpless and had to fend for himself. “‘Look at me. I’m worth a billion’ but the calling of gulls just mocked his pleading”.
“What You Do With What You’ve Got” is yet another brilliant song form this album. It was written by Si Khan, an American singer-songwriter and activist. Dick Gaughan wrote the following about this song. “a) I have been deeply impressed with the advertising by the Spastics Society stating “our biggest handicap is other people’s attitudes”. b) Perhaps the only thing the Thatcher regime will be remembered for is having made greed and aggression respectable again.” The song describes a beautiful looking man whose heart “grew twisted around itself” bringing pain to those around him. The singer asks what the use of having two strong legs “if you only run away” and what is the use of having a good voice “if you’ve nothing good to say“. Most powerfully, “what’s the use of two good ears if you can’t hear those you love.” The final line of the chorus is “It’s not just what you’re given; it’s what you do with what you’ve got.” It’s inspiring.