Letter from Prague

"Towards the Volcano" - that's the name of a street near where I live. In fact, to call it a street is something of a compliment. It is just a short road lined by a couple of rather neglected houses with gutted Skodas abandoned outside, that continues as a muddy concrete track and ends in a small rocky outcrop by a couple of derelict garages. This little outcrop is, I suspect, the explanation for the street's name, but if ever it was a volcano, it must have been a long, long time ago.

We are in that strange no-man's-land between town and country - what is known in Czech as the "periferie". Now this isn't the same as the rather dull and dismissive English term "periphery"; in that Czech word "periferie", which roles slowly off the tongue, there is hint of poetry. It evokes a melancholy, neglected twilight world, the blurred edge of the city, where a street called "Towards the Volcano" maybe isn't such a surprise. Here we see the remnants of what were once villages, a few cottages and barns, there are piles of rubble and rusting corrugated iron fences, with the remains of posters inviting you to last year's circus. If you look through the many cracks in the fence you can see a mass of neglected fairground attractions - lying at strange angles and waiting for the summer. And around all this, sitting in the mud, are the vast concrete housing estates, put up in a hurry in the 1980s, and where I live with my family. Because everything was built so fast, and because of the huge windy distances between the blocks, even here fragments of the lost countryside remain, mingling with piles of concrete and earth left over from when the estate was built. Quite often I have seen hares run out from the undergrowth at such a speed that the passing suburban lapdogs and their owners don't even notice, and in spring the air fills with the mating calls of frogs in what remains of a muddy pond. This too is the wonderful world of the "periferie", refusing to be pushed out by suburbia. It is a world beloved of many a Czech writer, nearly always as the place where strange or seedy or criminal things happen, as often as not in pubs without signs, or in one-storey cottages that the concrete left behind. But the true champion of the "periferie" is the painter Kamil Lhotak, who died in Prague a few years ago. For decades his paintings and drawings celebrated this world. They are filled with bits of machinery, sheds, hangars, bicycles propped against crumbling fences, advertisement hoardings, broken merry-go-rounds and airfields. He makes the "periferie" as beautiful as anything we'll find in Prague's Old Town. I'm just in the process of moving back to the city centre. Everyone tells me I'm lucky, but I have to say that I shall miss Kamil Lhotak's world, and I know that my three-year-old son will miss it even more. At that age what can be more fun than squeezing through a gap in a rusty overgrown fence.