The ever changing world of Czech and Slovak Britain

We are joined by two writers, Milan Kocourek and Zuzana Slobodova, to talk about their new book "Cesko-slovenska Britanie" - Czech and Slovak Britain. This is a fascinating book that profiles 22 Czechs and Slovaks, who live in Britain or have a connection with Britain, and a further 10 British people who have in some way a close link with the Czech and Slovak nations.

How did the book come about?

Zuzana: "One day, about two-and-a-half years ago, Milan and I were talking on the telephone. Milan said that he would be interested to write a book about all the famous Czechs and Slovaks who feature in Britain and people know nothing about."

So, Milan, it was your idea.

Milan: "I suppose so, but I must say that by that time, when we thought it would be a good idea, Zuzana had already published several essays in the journal of the British Czechoslovak Association. So it was really the effort of both of us. We then decided who will be in it."

So how did you choose the people that you decided to profile?

Milan: "We started thinking of prominent members of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences, to start with, because that society, which has been based in America since the 1960s, I believe, has in its midst in Britain very important characters, like Professor Krejci, Karel Brusak and Ivan Jelinek - quite a few people who were very prominent as poets, journalists or scientists. So we started there."

In a way, if you hadn't written the book, you could both have been in it yourselves. You're a Czech and a Slovak, both living for a long time in Britain. What about your own links with Britain, and since you've been in the country, your links with your homeland?

Milan: "As far as Britain goes, it's my second home and my basic idea was that there would be people who are settled in Britain rather than occasional visitors or guests, or sportsmen and women. They were meant to be stories of people who had something important to say - about their countrymen or about freedom - for instance soldiers who were fighting during the war, like General Kaspar and General Hartman, who are featured. They are people to whom we are in debt. I wanted to write mainly about those who have gone through something."

Tell me about your own story. How long have you been in Britain and how did you come to be there?

Milan: "I came in '69, one year after the Soviet invasion, so you could say that if the invasion hadn't happened I would not be in Britain today. I came with my girlfriend. Then we got married, we settled there and we have a daughter. We are in Britain but we hope to come home for retirement."

Zuzana: "I came in 1968 as a student to work for Butlin's Holiday Camp, and then the Russians invaded. Because Britain behaved so well towards us, I was at university within two months and somehow never looked back."

You both left Czechoslovakia involuntarily. Is that why this Czech-Slovak-British link has always remained so important for you - that you felt it was essential to keep this link alive?

Zuzana: "I think it's impossible, if you come to Britain as a foreigner, to become anything else. I think that if people like us - Czechs and Slovaks - come to Britain, they can't just pretend they are real Brits, or real English people; they would lose their identity. If you don't keep your identity, your personality falls apart. I think that's something which is inescapable."

We haven't mentioned many of the people who feature in this book. Could you tell us about some of your favourites?

Zuzana: "First I'll mention a very sad story. It's Marian Slingova. She was a young British intellectual, who during the war met a young Czech called Ota Sling. She then married him and went with him to Czechoslovakia to build socialism, because she was an enthusiastic communist at that time. Ota Sling became a very important political figure within the communist party. And he was a person who was then accused of treachery and executed during the Stalinist trials in the early 1950s. His wife, an Englishwoman, was put in prison, she was kept in solitary confinement for about two years, their children went to a children's home. After Ota Sling was executed they all went into internal exile within Czechoslovakia, and now she lives in England. She's over 90. She still loves Czechoslovakia, she is not embittered, and it's quite an extraordinary story. What I've put in the book is also an extract from her own book about those days in the 50s."

Milan: "I must come back to Zuzana's work, because I think that most important of all, and also most vital in terms of new information, is her work on Karel Brusak. He was our colleague in the BBC World Service, in the Czech Section, who was a poet, a journalist and scientist at the same time. He was a Bohemist, who brought up several generations of students in Cambridge. He was teaching Czech, Slovak and Old Slavonic there, and he was a very important man, but he never liked talking about himself. Zuzana wrote one of the best essays I've read on him. I think it is the best."

Zuzana: "There is one thing which I want to say, and I'm going to Milan's work. He has a chapter on something very different - on the latest wave of immigration. It is about Roma, who were coming to England between about 1997 and 2004. Milan has a feature on a Roma activist called Ladislav Balaz, the story of what brought him to England, and then how he lived in England. That's something which is not documented. People don't know about these things, and sometimes don't even want to know."

Can you tell us his story?

Milan: "Ladislav Balaz is a gentleman who lives today in Britain. When his friend, Milan Laco, was murdered by hooligans near Ostrava, he protested publicly in the Czech media against the way Laco's murder was investigated, and he even formed a group to defend Roma people in the locality there. He got a letter from neo-fascists saying, 'We know where your children go to school, if Hitler had survived after the war, your problem would not be there, because we do not like black, Roma people.' It was an anonymous neo-fascist letter which made him think. He was not so concerned about his own safety, but about his children, of course. He contacted by telephone someone in Hungary, who told him that they can help him to get to Britain. He left the Czech Republic out of fear of neo-fascists."

Under communism the position of Czechs and Slovaks living in Britain was very different - they were bastions of non-communist political culture, science and arts. How has that changed now since the fall of communism? Borders are open, we are all in the European Union. Is there still something special or different in the position of the émigré or exile community in Britain?

Zuzana: "Now there is a new community of Czechs and Slovaks who live in Britain, because after the borders were opened and after 2004 [when the Czech Republic and Slovakia joined the EU] thousands and thousands of Czechs and Slovaks came to Britain, seeking jobs and a new life. There are new stories coming out and some of them are really heartbreaking..."

... people who came with great hopes and were disappointed?

Zuzana: "People who came just with the hope perhaps of a job and now live homeless on the streets of London and have nothing to eat, who have to steal in order to get their next meal, who think that without the knowledge of the language and having qualifications that are really recognized in Britain, they can find gold on the streets of London. We could write not one but perhaps two or three books full of stories of all these people. So this is not something which is static, which disappeared with communism. This is a new situation, a situation which goes on and on."

The book "Cesko-slovenska Britanie" - Czech and Slovak Britain was published this year, 2006, by the Czech publishing house Carpio. Unfortunately the book is not going to come out in English...

Zuzana: "Yes, but if somebody wants to sponsor us and if somebody says, 'Yes, there is a readership, there are plenty of English people who would like to read it,' then why not?"