Alexandr Tomsky - publisher, journalist, politician: Part 1

Alexandr Tomsky

My guest today in this special two-part One on One is the multi-faceted Alexandr Tomsky. Mr Tomsky has been a journalist, a teacher, an advisor to Margaret Thatcher and a right of centre politician. He set up the exile publishing house Rozmluvy (Debate) in England in 1980, before later running the prestigious Academia publishing house in Prague. When he visited Radio Prague the other day, I asked Alexandr Tomsky to tell us a little bit about his background.

"I come originally from northeast Bohemia, a place called Dobruska. But I'm not a typical Czech, because my father was...of German origin in a way, German speaking anyway. Although he was absolutely bilingual.

"And my mother was Polish, so my mother tongue is actually Polish, but I went to Czech school and I was brought up here, did my A levels here. I was almost 20 when I left the country in 1968."

Tell us more about your father. I understand he was a Jew who survived the War.

"Yes, my father was a very unusual man. He was a great scholar, and became a professor in Germany. And he was very lucky that in 1938 he entered a seminary in a place called Hradec Kralove, and he was actually saved by the Catholic Church.

"He was there studying theology, with quite a number of Jewish chaps, and it wasn't until '44 that the Gestapo got wind of it and tried to investigate. All these people were issued with false passports and they left, mainly for Germany. So my father spent the last year and a half of the War in Breslau which is now Poland, but it was in Germany then, and came back after the War."

He was a very strong anti-communist...

"Yes, he was indeed. We lived in constant conflict with the school, with the imposed ideology that most people conformed to. I remember I had early conflicts with class teachers. It was very difficult.

"My father even banned the communist radio. We listened to the Austrian Osterreich 2. It was a very schizophrenic type of existence."

But you still managed to get into university to study journalism?

"In the '60s, as you probably, know things began to change. The communist ideology became worn out, obsolete. People were almost ashamed of being believing communists. It was regarded generally as simply careerism if you belonged to the party. Of course, all the good jobs belonged to the party members only.

"By 1967 it was possible to enter university. And I entered the faculty of journalism, which was more ideologically based, obviously. Because communist ideology became worn out and the regime much more tolerant, and it was possible - even from an anti-communist family - to do so.

But you left in 1968, like many people.

"Well I didn't leave really, I was chucked out by my parents! My father, who could never be a professor in this country, even in the liberal '60s, decided to go to Germany. And of course he spoke German, so it was relatively easy for him to become established as a professor in Germany.

"I was almost 20, I didn't want to leave. Perhaps I always had a kind of feeling that I needed some roots. If you're brought up trilingual it's quite a job to think of yourself in non-nationalist terminology.

"Anyway, I was sent to England and it was relatively easy there, because we were welcome. I studied at the London School of Economics and later at London University."

How long did it take you to feel at home in England? Or did you ever feel at home there? I read an interview in which you described England as "very ugly".

"No, I never felt at home in England. England is very different from the continent. Wherever you are on the continent, you always find - maybe superficially - but something very similar. You find Renaissance, you find Baroque...the way people behave.

"Now in England is different, and not always in a pleasant way. It's a bleak country, people behave in a very strange way. If you think of the English understatement, we rather have overstatement here, you know. We are very direct in many ways, but the English aren't.

"So it was very difficult in that sense. But eventually I loved English literature, Irish literature too, which is very, very strong. I loved the culture in many ways, but the environment...and a big city like London isn't very pleasant to an émigré, in many ways.

"Although in one sense it is because it's very international. On the other hand it's too big, it's huge, it has more people than the entire Czech Republic. But again the life is very anonymous, I suppose and very kind sort of float there.

"My sense of needing some roots was increased, strengthened by my life in such a cosmopolitan city as London, and maybe this is why I came back in 1989."

Before we talk about 1989, can we go back to 1968. For many people in the West, for many young people, it was a year of fighting in the street and left-wing politics. How did you fit into that world?

"Oh, I didn't at all. Imagine I entered the London School of Economics which was in...the London mounted police were there, there were sit-ins, demonstrations, and they all believed in this idea of socialist equal society, this kind of state-run economy.

"That was something that we all here, or at least most of us, felt was deeply wrong, that you cannot mould a society into one big mass of people who would thing the same, who would do the same things, who would share the same beliefs.

"The Western young socialist students, they were colleagues of mine, they were idealists, but it was a very strange ideal to us. We always suspected these totalitarian practices as flowing from that idea of total socialism."

In London also you set up a publishing house (Rozmluvy). Could you please tell us something about that?

"Again it was part of my missing roots and my love of Czech literature that was behind that. I felt that banning 400 writers, some of the greatest Czech writers of the period...and banning even dead writers...they even banned writers from the Middle Ages, or Catholic writers or Protestant writers, or socialist writers who were not regarded as OK by the I thought that I would contribute to the survival of that literary culture, which in the '60s was still very strong - we live now in a completely different period, and I know it as a publisher very well.

"But in those days I still believed - maybe idealistically - in the enormous importance of art. So I set up this thing and published a lot of banned writers. And I was very lucky to do so, because I was working at Keston College, which was a kind of political set-up specialising in relations particularly between the church and state. So I had plenty of time and plenty of people who could help me there."

You can hear the second part of our interview with Alexandr Tomsky in tomorrow's programme. He recounts his experiences with Margaret Thatcher and Czech President Vaclav Klaus, and explains why he wants to see a monarchy in the Czech Republic.