The excitement for me as an artist lies not in exploring the unknown but in how I can effectively organise a visual arrangement that reflects the atmosphere and intensity of an environment, evoking a precise moment of the day under specific light and conditions. I hope you enjoy the work

Feature of the week  23/12/2018

Cafe Slavia

From 1983-2006 I lived with Czech artist Roman Kudibal, who came to London following the upheavals of the Prague Spring in 1968. In the eyes of the Czechoslovak authorities his crime was that he was the son of a social democrat and supporter of Alexander Dubcek. He was not allowed to go back until 1989, following the Velvet Revolution. This was my first visit with him during the cold Spring of 1990. Travelling on a bone-shaking CZ plane, we left Heathrow seven hours later than scheduled and with no apologies. This was to set the tone for the whole visit. When we arrived it was dark and Roman’s mother, whom he hadn’t seen for eight years had long since given up waiting for our arrival, returning home. We travelled on a very old, rattling bus through dark streets until we reached the tram terminus. There were a lot of confused foreigners onboard as the officials did not speak English and the Czech language is very hard to master. Even I, a competent linguist, was to have some difficulty in being able to learn the basics.

 

As we waited for a tram to arrive, rain began to descend onto the cobbled stones that gave out a shimmer of light in the darkness. The only other illumination  emanated from headlamps of the occasional Trabant or Skoda, and by the light of these I caught sight of a man relieving himself in the shadows. There were no advertisement hoardings and there was no colour except for the reflections cast by the cars, which were nearly all white. The tram when it came, was exactly on time to the second and shone out like a beacon in the gloom, with colours of red and cream, and welcoming warm yellow lights accompanied by charming pinging sounds. On board one had the addition of soothing automatic voice announcements for each stop. Because of the stark contrast with the unwelcoming streets, I immediately fell in love with Czech trams, making several paintings of them over the coming years. As we hurtled through the narrow streets, perched on uncomfortable wooden seats, I tried to peer into the darkness, looking in at the shop windows but could make out very little; they were not lit up at all and I was reminded of the austerity of my childhood. Then, as the tram rounded a corner, there was the first inkling of the invasion from the west, a Benetton shop emblazoned in neon lights. This was only a foretaste of a future wherein Prague embraced capitalism with open arms. The commercialism was yet all to come and that first Spring a lot of those who visited were either intrepid trippers ‘going it alone’ or Czech returnees like Roman, who had been banned since 1968.

 

Over the next two weeks, we explored the Prague that Roman had left behind twenty-two years earlier and he was astonished so little had changed. I remember he took me to the printing shop where he had been employed before fleeing the Russian tanks he had thrown rocks at. The assistant greeted him by name at once, as if he had simply been absent on holiday for few weeks.

At the time it seemed to me that the cafes and bars of Prague were of two extremes with little in between. They were either serious drinking dens with spit and sawdust floors, selling only beer and spirits or rather clandestine, formerly elegant looking cafes and restaurants, intimidating in appearance to the foreign eye. One such was the Cafe Slavia and I doubt if I would have had the courage to venture in alone unless Roman hadn’t have taken me.

 

It had been extremely popular with Communist party members but was now almost empty of customers. The waiters wore black leather waistcoats and crisp white shirts with shoe polish blacked hair, slicked back. They stood on guard glaring disapprovingly at the new clientele even though they reluctantly served them and almost threw the coffee on the table. Two years later a smiling young student served us with a charming expression eager to practice her English. The food in 1990 certainly wasn’t up to much and I still remember the grainy black coffee. One had to be careful not to swallow the bitter dregs lurking like sludge at the bottom of the tiny cups. Today I believe the cafe is very trendy and having just visited its website I swear I recognise the wooden chairs as being the same!

 

I came to realise very quickly that many of the people we encountered assumed those of us visiting from the West were very wealthy with ever-open purses. This included Roman’s mother who had been accustomed to a comfortable lifestyle prior to WW2 but In our case, it was certainly a misapprehension and it was to cause considerable embarrassment during our stay. Other returnees whom we encountered also commented on this aspect of their experience. We also learned of another more disturbing side to the situation which were those who were ‘coming home’ to reclaim apartments, houses and factories that had been taken over by the Communists following 1968 and had subsequently then been leased out to various people, some of whom had been favoured by the regime. There was to be a lot of anger and bitterness on both sides at that time.