Tag Archives: Prague Spring

A Life in a Year – 5th January, Communism, Oppression and the Prague Spring

All of my childhood, and indeed the first thirty-five years of my life, was spent with Europe separated by an iron curtain behind which lurked the spectre of communism.

This post war balance of world power was highly significant and provided the tense atmosphere of the Cold War years that lasted until the Berlin Wall finally came down in 1989 and I spent my childhood with a dread fear of the USSR and in an environment preparing for imminent nuclear conflict and the end of the world.  During this time the very thought of visiting eastern European countries was completely absurd which makes it all the more extraordinary that in the last few years I have been able to visit the previous Eastern-bloc countries of Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland, Latvia, Estonia and the Czech Republic.

In 2006 I visited the Czech Republic and went to Prague Castle, which, according to Guinness World Records, is the largest ancient castle in the world and stands proudly at the top of a very steep hill.  It was already getting warm and the walk was pleasant.  We decided not to go in straight away and we walked instead to discover the Hradčany area that had a regal air full as it was of old royal palaces and government buildings.

Krakow Russian Tank

We walked to the top of the town, which brought us out close to the observation tower that we had climbed yesterday and at the top we stopped and admired the view over the city and hurried past a beggar with no toes just in case he was a leper.  He didn’t have a little bell however and on reflection I guessed that it was more likely that he had just enjoyed a spell in a Gulag in Siberia and lost them all to frostbite.

This was quite likely because one of the principal features of Stalinist Communism was the vigilant exposure of the alleged enemies of the state and the political purges in Czechoslovakia from 1950 until Stalin’s death were on a larger scale than in any other Eastern European country.  Thousands of accused individuals were coerced into admitting to crimes they hadn’t committed for which they were sentenced to years of slave labour or if they were lucky very quickly executed.

In 1968, the Prague Spring was a brief period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia during the era of its domination by the Soviet Union. It began on 5th January, when reformist Slovak Alexander Dubček came to power, and continued until 21st August when the Soviet Union and other members of its Warsaw Pact allies invaded the country to halt the reforms.  The restructuring, you see, especially the decentralisation of administrative authority, was not received well by the Soviets who, after failed negotiations, sent thousands of troops and tanks to occupy the country. A large wave of emigration swept the nation and Czechoslovakia remained occupied until 1990.

1968 – The Great School Hymn Book Robbery

At school it must have come as something of a relief to my parents that there was a little bit of improvement in 1968 and a tiny glimmer of hope because although I finished the third form in July still rooted in the fourth stream I must have done reasonably well in the end of year exams because when I returned in August for the fourth year I unexpectedly found myself promoted to the third stream.

This surely meant that I wasn’t a complete no hoper after all and someone had at last spotted my potential.  Significantly it meant that I might be allowed to take a few GCE ‘o’ levels in a couple of years time and I was pleased with this because it meant that I didn’t have to do the manual stuff like woodwork and metalwork, which were lessons for the boys who were going to be working in factories quite soon and at which I was completely hopeless because the only things I ever completed were a wonky wooden tray and a bent metal fire poker, neither of which were suitable for their intended purpose.

It wasn’t all plain sailing however, I was still a ‘back of the class’ sort of kid who liked getting into mischief and larking about and in 1968 I nearly went just that little bit too far and put my new elevated academic status at risk.

The Dunsmore School Great Hymn Book Robbery wasn’t quite on the same scale of the 1963 Great Train Robbery but this is what happened:  every morning the school had an assembly and as we all trooped in lines into the main school hall we would collect a hymn book from cardboard boxes on a table by the entrance and on the way out we were supposed to put it back again.

No one liked going to assembly very much and some of us (me, Mick Kowell and Simon Howells) hatched a cunning plan to close it down.  The plot was brilliant and simple, if the three of us didn’t actually return our hymn books each day then eventually there wouldn’t be any to hand out in the first place and that would put an end to assembly and it would be even more brilliant if we took two hymn books each every day.  Actually, to be honest, I have now revisited the plot and the thinking behind it and I have to say that it was most unlikely to have ever been successful, not least because there must have been something like a thousand hymn books and at the rate of one each per day for the three conspirators this would have taken two complete school years to achieve and during this time someone would have been sure to notice.

Actually they noticed a lot sooner than we gave them credit for and after a week or two, maybe a month, our stash of books was discovered in our desks at the back of the class and we were called to see the headmaster to explain ourselves.

The Headmaster really made a terrible fuss about it and I remember thinking at the time that in my opinion he seemed to be unnecessarily over reacting to what was after all only a silly schoolboy prank.  For a while it was touch and go, mum and dad were called in as well and expulsion seemed on the cards but I put up a decent defence and my punishment was commuted to no worse than six of the best from Frank Hodgson’s garden cane and the sentence was carried out the following day, which gave me time to take the appropriate steps to lessen the pain by wearing double underpants and a pair of speedos for extra protection that morning.

It turned out that at the same time as our hymn book heist quite a lot of other school property was going missing as well and turning up in second hand shops all over the town and the headmaster suspected me of being the criminal mastermind behind the thefts.  Most of the school orchestra’s musical instruments went missing and eventually the finger of suspicion turned towards the Welsh music teacher, a nasty aggressive bully called Mick Self, and soon after he was caught and charged he spent some time sewing mailbags at her Majesty’s pleasure at Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight.

The face of a master criminal…