Jan Culik - Part Two

Jan Culik

Jan Culik lecturers in Czech at the Slavonic Studies department at Glasgow University's School of Modern Languages and Cultures. He is also well known here in the Czech Republic as a political commentator and the man behind the Britske listy website. In the first part of our interview last week, he recalled aspects of his life in Prague before he left Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. Today Jan Culik talks about what happened when he moved to Glasgow.

"It was actually quite a traumatic experience, I mean, leaving your country then, I suppose the whole world was much less globalised or whatever. My wife was from Glasgow. We ended up there.

"By a coincidence there was a Czech department there. The Czech department had a relatively long history from the 1950s onward. The person who was teaching there was one Lumir Soukup, who used to be a secretary to Jan Masaryk the Czech foreign minister, who was probably killed early in March 1948, shortly after the communist takeover.

"So he was still there, and he was going to retire. I came there in '78. They kind of liked me. They gave me a temporary lectureship for a year, and they basically quite openly said that they would like me to take it over when Dr. Soukup retired. So I was given various jobs for a couple of years.

"And what happened was - and this is really kind of an interesting joke -Margaret Thatcher got into power, right? She distrusted universities, especially those centres that dealt with Eastern Europe. She thought they must be absolutely subversive kinds of communist cells.

"In fact, she was absolutely uninformed, because East European centres at British universities were the only places that were not left wing. People knew what these regimes were like.

"Maybe it was in '82 or '83. In the very week when the advert for the replacement of the permanent Czech lecturer went to press, Margaret Thatcher decreed that there would be no appointments at British universities for the next three years, because they were too expense. So there was a freeze.

"I had to leave, so we sort of did something else. This was the time when the British commercial cultural station Channel 4 started, which was a very interesting venture. Now it's more or less normal but it was like a publishing house, whereby you had a handful of commissioning editors thematically ordering programs from private filmmakers.

"We set up one of those companies. My wife was an animator - she now works in mobile phones - but she made several fairly experimental cultural films for Channel 4. We did it for 10 years. I did production and some documentaries. It was a very interesting experience for me.

"At the time as a 25-year-old, being kicked out of university from the job you wanted to do forever, I found it quite traumatic. In hindsight, it's probably the best thing that could have happened to me because I then did lots of other things. I got into television, got into radio, got into the media.

"When they eventually invited me to go back to Glasgow University in 1995 I met my colleagues, who had been there all along. You could say cynically that being a university lecturer is like getting a pension at 25 - you're basically doing the same thing for 35 years. You don't really have an idea of the real world.

"I'd have to say, immodestly, that the kick that life has given me has really taught me certain things. So it was very useful."

Among other things, I'm sure, you were a commentator for the BBC and Radio Free Europe. What drew you toward journalism and commentating?

"I happened to find myself on the borderline between two cultures: the English-speaking, British one and the Czech one. Basically, I felt, as someone who is experiencing this comparison between cultures, which is very important, that I should bear witness to it.

"So I was kind of starting to bore people with it and I put it on the radio."

You also started Britske Listy, I guess, British Press.

"Well, the name really could probably be translated as 'Letters from Britain'. This is how it started.

"It's actually been going on for 10 years now. In 1996, in May, Ondrej Neff started his own web newspaper. It was really a blog, a very early one. It was very subjective, very hard-hitting, even sort of outrageous. He's since become much more conventional in it.

"I contacted him saying that I wouldn't mind writing occasionally for him. He thought I was some kind of student in Britain, and that these would kind of be touristy little columns about life in Britain. He gave it the name. He called it 'Letters from Britain'.

"It developed into something else. I really did want to do an investigative newspaper, which is difficult because we don't have any funds for this kind of stuff. So it's become a kind of hybrid.

"It has been devoted to breaking the barriers between the Western thinking and the Central and Eastern European thinking. It's been an incredible chore, in a way, because I've been doing it for 10 years every night for five days a week. You need to devote about six or seven hours a day to it, which is horrendous.

"On the other hand, it's a very interesting kind of probe for me because I get lots of mail from people. No Czech lecturer, especially abroad, ever, I think, has had such an insight into Czech society. If you get a hundred mails from people, from villages, or whatever you maybe understand those people better than you would have otherwise.

"Of course this is not a sociological sample, so I don't know really what it means. But nevertheless it's interesting."

I wanted to ask you: Is it difficult to stay on top of affairs here [in the Czech Republic], from Glasgow, to have a good overview of what's happening here?

"I suppose it is difficult, but on the other hand the world is now so interconnected. You can get most of the stuff on the 'net. I have collaborators here who mostly cover local affairs.

"Frankly, this is maybe also quite unkind, if I look through the Czech newspapers, I find many of the concerns not terribly important.

"I think being 2,000 miles away from here gives you a bit of a detachment, which is very useful because you realise the newspapers may start going on about something and it's actually nonsense. You actually realise, or maybe local people realise...because they're in the middle of it, they don't necessarily feel this. But maybe later, six months later, they realise.

"If you think of various kinds of scandals a year later, you discover what a lot of fluff it really was. When you are slightly detached from it, maybe you see this slightly sooner."

I know you also teach here in Ostrava, in Prague, in Brno. What does that give you coming here every year to teach occasionally?

"It's very useful for me because frankly when I teach Czech subjects for the United Kingdom it often has to be from scratch and I have to take it from basic principles. Here you can do that on a slightly more advanced level.

"Having said that, students in Britain and now students in the Czech Republic - they don't have a clue about communism. They were about six when communism fell. So what do you do? So in a way it's similar.

"But on the other hand, no, sometimes, some students here are - well, I wouldn't say more interested - but more knowledgeable. So you can take it further. Over the years I've made some very, very useful contacts.

"What I really value is the contact with young people, because actually it keeps you on your toes."