The Czechoslovakia I toured in 1963 had been rather reluctantly de-Stalinised. I missed by a few months the destruction of the world's largest Stalin statue, which had been allowed to brood over the Vltava and dominate Prague for six years after Khrushchev had denounced the 'cult of personality'.

To all outward appearance communism was not merely dominant but permanent in a country which had declared itself no mere people's democracy but a socialist republic on the same ideological plane as its beloved Soviet ally and mentor. Its rulers, and the new elite that had emerged around them, appeared supremely confident, while on our side of the barriers, physical and intellectual, almost all our experts had decided that improvement must come from within the system. That was the guidance from the British ambassador, Cecil Parrott, later the definitive translator of the bawdy and irreverent Czech classic, 'The Good Soldier Švejk', conveyed over tea in the embassy garden of the Thun Palace, amid the baroque splendours of Habsburg Prague.

These were the moods in which the British and Czechoslovak foreign offices had ventured into an exchange of journalistic delegations. I was one of our touring quartet, of whom the doyen was the Economist foreign editor John Midgley, and presumably there because someone had realised that there was more to British journalism than Fleet Street, and more to Britain than England – and because the leading Scottish editors couldn't spare the time. The others were from Beaverbrook's Daily Express and Labour's Daily Herald.

When I came back I wrote some decent pieces about quite 'good living under a bad system' and tried to convey the contrast between the glories of Prague or Kutná Hora and the shabbiness of communism as well as the incongruity of the narrow dogmatism of Marxism-Leninism imposed on a people with significant democratic, liberal, artistic and religious national traditions.

But as I read my rediscovered diary of the trip now, I gain a new perspective. We did not dispute the merits of the Škoda works or Pilsen beer, or the horror of the Nazi atrocity site at Lidice, and kept an open mind about the organised welcome on a showpiece collective farm. We saw through a lot of what we were shown and were rightly sceptical about much that we were told. We recognised blatant distortions of history and sadly noted the way the regime still stoked up the anti-German feeling which is part of Czech history and was justifiably inflamed by the agony of 1938-45.

What was more remarkable was what we able to see and hear, sometimes from our guides and minders themselves, sometimes in encounters which they may have monitored but did not prevent, much that went far beyond our agenda. They found it impossible (or inexpedient) to fit in my wish to meet Protestant church leaders in this land of the martyred Jan Hus but they let me wander off in Brno to drop in on a Catholic service full of Saturday afternoon shoppers. Had we realised it, we were privy to the first stirring of what became the 'Prague Spring' of 1968, and reasserted itself more emphatically in the velvet revolution of 1989.

On the formal parts of the agenda our minders, young Foreign Office officials of impeccable communist credentials, stuck to the party line and showed predictable reflexes. They even betrayed a flurry of needless anxiety at a bookstall where I asked in phrasebook language for a Czech-English dictionary. Did one of these bourgeois journalists complicate their job by speaking Czech? They were quickly reassured. And at the Czech foreign ministry – where the surly hard-line minister, Václav David, told us he was learning English by reading the Daily Worker – one of our escorts grumbled about the 'morbid cold war interest' of the Western visitors who asked to be shown the window from which Jan Masaryk fell to his death after the communist coup in 1948. (Even now, after years of free inquiry, Czechs themselves aren't sure if he jumped or was pushed.)

But in less formal matters we encountered, five years before the phrase became fashionable, 'socialism with a human face'. We were promised a night at the opera in the national theatre, the great temple of Czech national pride. We had hopes of 'The Bartered Bride' or some Mozart but got Eugen Suchoň’s sonorous 'Svatopluk' in Slovak, described as a 'monumental dramatic fresco' set in the ninth-century Great Moravian empire. At the second interval a concordat was concluded between the clique of reactionary journalists and the escorting vanguard of progressive humanity. We adjourned round the corner to Prague's most famous tavern, U Flecků, where the customers were singing as heartily but more tunefully. Thus on one evening we saw two of Prague's greatest institutions.

On more important matters, but in private, these proletarian diplomats – selected as politically sound for university and then career advancement – were thinking for themselves and even cautiously speaking their minds. Caution and privacy combined when our head minder came for drinks to my hotel room, for he turned on the radio to beat the bugging. They had made a lot of mistakes, he said, agreed that they had given bourgeois journalists and politicians a rough time but was proud they had only had three years of Stalinism. Now their role was to find a new road, suitable for the first developed country to adopt communism, for like many Czechs he implied that Russians had been forward in revolution but were backward in everything else: 'What the common man here really wants is the Western standard of living with the Russian alliance.' Even that seemed to reflect fear of Germany more than love for their Slav cousins.

Our minders also had the courage and confidence to set up a lunch for us at the writers' club. I have tried with some difficulty to trace how life worked out later for our hosts, but at least two of them came westwards in 1968, the novelist Arnošt Ludwig and a translator named in my notes with Czech phonetic spelling. But this 'Jiři Tajner' must have been George Theiner, British-educated during wartime exile, cast out of journalism into the Silesian mines after 1948, recalled as a masterly translator, and eventually well-known in Britain for his campaigning against censorship. He was my neighbour at lunch and I asked a question other Czechs had gently evaded: had there been any moderation of the virulently derogatory attitude to Czechoslovakia's founding father and first president, Thomas Masaryk? 'Do you mean the official line or the view of the people?' he replied. 'For the view of the man in the street never changed.'

There could also be a surprising freedom of speech from people we encountered casually on our travels. I don't count the chap in the Bratislava hotel who roared out denunciation of the system, for as soon as he started the barman made warning signals and left me wondering if this was some low-level agent provocateur on piece-work. But there was the hotel receptionist on Wenceslas Square who checked me out with happy memories of wartime service in the RAF. That in 1963 was as political a statement as the notice behind him which proclaimed the allegiance of hotel staff to the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and possibly a more sincere one.

There was also the glass-worker at Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad) summoned to show us that a few 'anti-fascist' Germans had been allowed to stay on in the former Sudetenland but who insisted that he was no communist. There were others who confined themselves to caustic comment about the inefficiency of an ultra-regulated economy or smiled at the way Russian visitors, baffled or exhilarated, thought that they had come to the different civilisation 'in the West'. Many Czechs were also quite plain about their lack of enthusiasm for the supposed reconciliation with the Ulbricht east German regime, for they regarded the federal republic as the 'real Germany' with whom they had to live.

I perhaps shouldn't count either the only person who was frank about the problem which was to open up once the velvet revolution had done its work, and which was to turn Czechoslovakia into two countries, for he was an east German engineer working on some contract. After giving me an unfavourable character sketch of his own political masters, he assured me that Czechs and Slovaks were 'always at each other like cats and dogs'. But no Czech or Slovak we met casually even hinted at these tensions. The Slovak writers lined up for us played down their local nationalism, and there was no mention of it when we had some informal briefing at the British embassy.

Nor did it worry our escorts, though part of their agenda was to emphasise the industrial development and cultural vigour of Slovakia. The Slovak writers seemed a dull lot compared to the Czech ones, but we were promised a frank discussion with a leading politician who turned out to be, I think, the newly appointed first secretary of the party in Slovakia. He was friendly, seemed slightly nervous, and waffled a bit in reply to questions about buying British goods. If I made a note of his name at the time I lost it, but not the memory of that sharp-featured thin face – unmistakable when I saw it many times again in coverage of the 1968 crisis and Russian invasion. In 1963 no one could have guessed what travails awaited Alexander Dubček.

The two constituent nations of Czechoslovakia seemed sufficiently at ease then for me to risk a joke when it was my turn to make a short speech of thanks – it was at that writers' club in Prague. 'We Scots', I said, 'are England's Slovaks.'

It went down well, but more than half a century later I hope I was wrong. For the Czechs found in Václav Havel (who in 1963 had just managed to get his first play performed) a president with some of the qualities of Tomáš Masaryk and the Slovaks fell for opportunists, plausible or pugnacious, who had dubious political antecedents but shamelessly played the nationalist card. They got their independence, without even risking a referendum, because the Czechs didn't much mind.

They had tholed enough of the culture of grievance which was cultivated in Bratislava even after the creation of a federal republic, with every frustration and disappointment blamed on Prague. They decided instead to enjoy treating the Slovaks as sensitively independent but poor and prickly relations. They seem to get on tolerably well and they remain far closer to each other than to the Teutons, Poles, and Magyars who surround them. They understand each other but claim to speak different tongues, though outsiders may reasonably treat these as variations on a common language.

I'm happy to have been back several times to see a very different political landscape from 1963 and wish them both well. But I still wonder if they would not have been better together.

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