John Bok - former dissident still driven by anti-establishment zeal

John Bok

John Bok must have one of the strangest CVs in history: anti-Communist activist, theatre producer, senior ministry official, radio journalist and night club toilet attendant, to name just a few of the things he's done over the last 30 years. Now he's the chairman of a group called Salamoun, which investigates miscarriages of justice in the Czech Republic. When John Bok came into the studio last week, I began by asking him about the origin of his unusual first name.

"I'm named after my [English] grandfather and great-grandfather, who both came from Leeds. My [English] mother met my [Czech] father during the Second World War - my father escaped from Czechoslovakia after the German occupation, travelling via Poland to Russia before going to Africa - he fought at Tobruk and El Alamein. After that he arrived in England, and from there he was sent to the States, where he started flying Liberators."

Did he return to Czechoslovakia after the war?

"He came back by himself. He wanted to see his family - he came from a really big family, and he wanted to see them, especially his father. During the war his family had no idea where he was, or even if he was living or not. He couldn't send them a message, because he didn't want to risk it - logically they would have been sent to a concentration camp. But what was funny, and typical of my country, was that even though my father was fighting against the Germans, in 1948 he joined the Communist Party. Most of the [Czechoslovak] pilots who had fought with the RAF during the war were later put in concentration camps, and many were killed there, many were murdered or died."

They were treated as enemies of the state by the Communists.

"Yes, because the Communists were afraid of them. If you've already fought once against some kind of totalitarianism, some kind of evil, then you're the sort of person who's prepared to fight again. The Communists didn't trust my father anyway. For those people who don't understand the absurdity of the Communist regime, here's an example: my father joined the Communist Party five times, and was chucked out five times. It's unbelievable. Even Czech people don't want to believe it."

So you were brought up as a Communist, in a Communist family?

"Half and half. Even my English mum - because she loved my father - she joined the Communist Party as well. Later, in the 1950s, she left the Party, and she had a very difficult life after that. My parents got divorced in 1955 or 1956, it was a pity. My mother left the Party, and life became quite difficult for her. She was even investigated by the StB - the Communist political police. But what was very helpful for was that her mother - my English grandmother - came to Czechoslovakia to help her. What was funny was that my grandma didn't learn Czech, she only knew a few words like "bread" or "potatoes" or "Johnny's not home" and things like that. Once, the StB came to our house, and she chucked them out! And they were shocked! It was like a Kafka book, unbelievable. Because a lot of foreigners did go to prison. Only my grandma was such a strong person, so full of her life and beliefs and culture, that she got through without any harm."

You're also someone who's spent much of his life opposing authority, especially the Communist regime. When did your opposition to the Communists begin?

"To tell the truth, at a very early age. We were sent from place to place, because my father was a "western" pilot, and my mother was English - a foreigner, an "enemy". I also had difficulties because my name - John - was a "capitalist" name, according to Communist ideology, which was crazy. So very soon I discovered something was wrong. When I was ten years old, I was "joined" - I didn't join, I was joined - in the Pioneers, which was a Communist youth organisation, something like the Scouts but it was incomparable. The Pioneers were built on the ideology of the State. It was autumn, and I caught a cold. We were given some scarves - red scarves - to be worn around our necks. We received them as presents from some kind of Soviet Pioneers, from some town in Russia. I didn't want to wear it, so I mostly carried it in my pocket. Anyway, I was chatting with a boy in my class, and I had this scarf in my pocket, and suddenly I needed to blow my nose. And the teacher - who I loved, she was a beautiful, pretty person - was passing by, and she saw me blowing my nose in this red scarf. And she started yelling at me, shouting. It was horrible - even her features were distorted. Just because a little boy was blowing his nose in a piece of rag. And she was yelling that I was harming the blood of the anti-fascists and working class. So I was chucked out of the Pioneers immediately."

At the age of ten.

"Yes, because they said I'd done it on purpose. I didn't care. The boy who I was chatting to - his face, his expression was in shock. Not that he was a "red" boy, but because he already knew in what kind of country we were living. I was somehow still living in some kind of "nice world". So this was the first incident, and it was followed one after another."

When I've spoken to former dissidents, I've often sensed a feeling of nostalgia for the closeness and togetherness that you had.

"It's logical. Don't forget that the whole of society - not only the dissidents - was divided into what I call ghettoes. There were people who were interested in folk music, so they were closed. There were people who were interested in gardening, so they were closed. And one of the ghettoes - a very special ghetto - were the dissidents."

Among this group of people was of course Vaclav Havel, who you were fairly close to, I believe, in the 1980s.

"More the end of the 1980s, not the beginning. I knew him, I'd met him several times, but I didn't see him all the time."

Tell me about your first meeting with Havel - do you remember it?

"To tell you the truth, I don't. What I do remember is the first time he came to my flat, and when I came to his flat, but I really don't remember the details. It wasn't even so important for me. The kind of "cult of Havel" started much later. He was an unusual man - he still is - but there were a lot of people around who nobody remembers any more. So for me, Jan Patocka [a leading anti-Communist dissident who died in police custody in 1977] for example, was much more interesting. Vaclav was always a very public person, ever since his youth. He lived in the theatre world - I know it as well because I also worked in the theatre for a long time, and I know the mentality and the lifestyle. It doesn't denigrate anything, it's just a different way of life."

After the fall of Communism in 1989, your life took a very strange course didn't it? You worked in several ministries, but you were even a toilet attendant in a night club at one point.

"After the changes, I was even an officer of the Interior Ministry. I was the director of the department which was something like the intelligence service. But because I was uncovering some things which some boys didn't like - new boys like Jan Ruml and so on - in the end they got rid of me because they said I was letting out secret information. Which was bullshit. After that I was working at the Agricultural Ministry - I didn't understand anything about agriculture, I was uncovering hidden property and so on. After that I worked for a very short time at a private radio station. One day I was absolutely out of money, no job, and I met someone in the street and he said - hey, if you're looking for a job, there's a toilet at Radost night club, they need someone to work there.' It was very funny because they knew who I was, they said - a man like you, you met President Bush and the Dalaj Lama, and you want to come and work in a toilet?' And I said - do you have a better job for me?' They said they didn't, so I said - OK, let me do this one, because I have a family to support.' So I worked there, at the toilets in Radost. And I transformed them into a beautiful clean place, there were even exhibitions of pictures, in the toilets."

An extraordinary career change, from high levels of government to radio to cleaning toilets

"Yes, because I never joined the right groups. If I'd been a good boy, if I'd followed the rules of each group interested in taking a share of the power, then perhaps I'd be a general by now. Perhaps I'd be a deputy minister. I don't know. But you know life is about God-knows-what will come tomorrow. People stick too much to security - having money and a house. And if you notice what's happening around you and in the world, you find out that these things are very"


"Yeah - that's the right word. So this is - a little bit - my philosophy. Of course it doesn't mean that it doesn't annoy me - after all I'm responsible for my wife and my children, and this responsibility sometimes puts pressure on me and makes me do things I don't want to do. But on the other hand it can't force me so much that I would give up my self."

That's a good note on which to end I think. John, thank you very much.

"It's a pleasure."

And to learn more about Salamoun, see