John Tregellas: going native in Prague

John Tregellas, photo: David Vaughan

I first met John Tregellas just after the Velvet Revolution, when we both started working for Radio Prague at a time of huge changes in Czech society. At the time neither of us suspected that nearly two decades later we would both still be here. These days, John, who grew up in the English county of Devon, runs a successful business organizing tours in Central Europe for choirs and orchestras from all over the world. Speaking near perfect Czech, he says that he now feels every bit at home in Prague as he does in his native Britain. I went to see him at his smart new offices in Vinohrady, just a few hundred yards behind the radio building, and I began by asking him how his interest in things Czech began.

John Tregellas, photo: David Vaughan
“When I was studying at university, I noticed one day that there was a course being offered in the Czech language. I’d been brought up with a consciousness that my family on my mother’s side came from Moravia. So when I saw this course I thought – Oh well, I’ll go along and learn Czech. So I trotted off to the language course and for an hour a week for the next year a politically reliable Slovak woman tried to instill in us the elements of Czech grammar.”

When you say “politically reliable” what do you mean?

“She’d been sent out by the Czechoslovak government, the communist government of the time, to teach at a number of British universities, so she must have had her party papers in order…”

…and this was in the mid-1980s, was it?

“It was in 1982-83. At the end of that year we were told that there was an opportunity to come to Czechoslovakia and take part in a summer school, organized by the university in Brno. So I jumped at the chance, because that sounded like something very exciting and exotic, and part of my family was from Brno originally. So I signed up and there was no difficulty getting places, as the number of people interested in learning Czech at that time was very small.”

People here were encouraged to be suspicious of the West. Did you sense that reserve when you were staying here, or did you find the opposite – that everybody wanted to know you and find out about the world you’d come from?

“You’re right. Officially people were supposed to report to the police all of their contacts with foreigners from non-socialist countries. In practice I think, as you suggest, the opposite was true. Because there were really few of us travelling over to study, we were completely lionized by people who wanted to speak to representatives from the West. They were very hospitable. They would entertain us in their homes, they would serve up wonderful feasts. It was a little bit like being a rock star. We were treated with kid gloves.”

The Iron Curtain fell at the end of 1989, and you decided pretty much immediately to move over here. What happened?

“I had friends over here who said to me after the Iron Curtain fell – now is the time to come; it’s possible to do absolutely anything here. And I made several visits in the year after the Velvet Revolution and discovered that they were right. The opportunities for getting involved in almost any sphere of social, political or business life here were enormous. The doors were wide open.”

And you started working for this station – for Radio Prague…

John Tregellas, photo: David Vaughan
“I worked for Radio Prague for about two years after coming over here. My appointment was sealed in true Czech fashion by the then head of the English Section over a pint of beer, somewhere at the top of Wenceslas Square within five minutes’ walk of the Radio Prague studios. And I am very grateful in retrospect for the experience that I was given, because essentially someone with no journalistic training was allowed to walk into a studio and start editing tapes, interviewing business and political leaders. It was a particularly fascinating time because everything was in flux and therefore whatever area of society you chose to cover, you were bound to come up with some interesting information.”

And the radio was very different from today. It was very relaxed for a start. We didn’t worry very much about deadlines and it was all extremely low-tech…

“That’s true. I had very usefully taken a touch-typing course whilst I was still in England, and that was enormously valuable because in the radio we still typed out our news bulletins on typewriters, vintage circa 1960, which required a great deal of force to get the keys to strike through the carbon paper. All of the editing was done by splicing physical tapes on large machines, and as far as the relaxed atmosphere is concerned, I seem to remember we used to roll up to an editorial meeting at about 10 o’clock, at which the day’s tasks were distributed, and then I would make a bunk for the radio canteen, where they had a wonderful array of Czech pastries, all with different names, and I tried to work my way through all of these and learn their names. By the time I’d got through that it was almost time for lunch, and I do seem to remember we knocked off at about four in the afternoon. So it wasn’t a very taxing working day. But you probably remember the old pre-revolutionary saying: ‘We pretend to work, you pretend to pay us’.

“We weren’t paid enormous amounts for doing this work, but it was a wonderful time, because every evening you could spend a lot of time with friends in the activity that was very popular back in those days – well, not popular but almost inevitable – of trying to find a place in a pub. As you will remember, before and just after the revolution there weren’t enough spaces in pubs and we used to spend whole evenings going from one pub to another, trying to find a place where they would let us sit down.”

You stayed at Radio Prague for a couple of years and then you moved on to a business connected with your other great love in life, which is music...

“That’s right. I already had musical contacts and had done work in music administration when I was in the UK, and when they realized that I was living in Prague, they contacted me and asked me for help in various projects. One of the earliest ones was to organize Vladimir Ashkenazy’s debut piano recital in the Spanish Hall of Prague Castle. That was a big event in aid of the Václav Havel Foundation. The Academy of Ancient Music also came and gave a concert there. So gradually I became drawn into the world of music administration, and in 1994 I set up my own agency, The Prague Concert Company, to facilitate concert tours by touring groups from outside coming into the Czech Republic. We now take in the whole of Central Europe and I’ve more or less become wedded to my business in such a way that despite having thought in the initial stages that I would only stay here maybe for a year or two, I am now looking forward to celebrating my 19th anniversary in Prague in November of this year.”

John Tregellas, photo: David Vaughan
And you’ve even done the ultimate Czech thing of buying your own “chalupa” – or cottage in the country…

“Yes, and I like to think that it was done in an even more typically Czech way, because it was all done through acquaintances and friends. But you’re quite right. I now look forward to my weekends in the Czech countryside, hammering things into the roof, planting bulbs, watering the garden, sawing up wood for the winter season and so on.”

You’re in your mid-forties and a successful businessman in the Czech Republic. Is this where you foresee spending the next 20 or 30 years?

“Well, there’s certainly a lot still ahead of us in terms of what The Prague Concert Company wants to do, so I will definitely be around to see that through. There are so many things about this country which appeal to me in terms of a place to live – whether it’s to do with the hospitable attitude of the people, whether it’s to do with the functioning public transport system, the excellent medical care. I could go on and record a whole advertisement for the Czech Republic, I think. But of course there are times when your thoughts turn to old age and where you’d like to spend it, and I haven’t ruled out the fact that I might go and end my days somewhere in a coastal town in Devon, as is the English custom.”