Martin Fell - owner of a Czech cajovna in Glasgow


Martin Fell is the half-Czech co-owner of a Czech style tea-room in the Scottish city of Glasgow. The cosy tea-room has the Czech name Cajovna (phonetically spelled Tchai Ovna) and is to be found on the city's Otago Lane, near Glasgow University. When I met Martin there recently he smoked away on a hookah water pipe throughout our conversation. Between drags he told me a little about his background.

"My mother's Czech, my father's originally from Ireland and I was born in Edinburgh. So I'm a bit of 'pekny gulas', a bit of a mix-up."

When did your mother leave Czechoslovakia?

"In 1968."

One of the 75,000.

"One of the many, but one of the few who came to Edinburgh."

Is she still in Edinburgh?

"No, they moved down to Northern England, to Leeds. Now she's one of the few Czech in Leeds. But you get Czechs everywhere nowadays."

They use the term mother tongue - did she speak Czech to you when you were a kid at home?

"She did for a bit, yeah, and then I started speaking English, because me and my brothers were the only Czech kids about. And then I learned Czech later on - I lived in the Czech Republic when I was 18. I studied Slavonic Studies as well, so...half and half."

How old were you in 1989?

"In '89? I was actually in the Czech Republic at the time. I was about 10."

You were there at the age of 10 in November '89?

"Yeah, because we were on holiday. We used to go to the Czech Republic every year, even during the communist times. Because my mother was legally in Britain because she was married to my yeah, I don't remember much of it, just big demonstrations and a big speech by Havel on Wenceslas Square and that."

Were you there?

"Yeah, and the main thing I remember to be honest was that my little brother took a wee in the middle of the crowd - not very political really."

Tell us how was it as a British kid going to a communist country?

"It was very strange because we'd come with cans of Coca Cola - I don't drink that stuff now but - and various cans and things that we took for granted. We'd go to Czechoslovakia and no-one had ever seen it before. Or we'd go in a Nissan Prairie and we'd go through a village and kids would be running after us going 'wow, what a car'. And my cousins were there, and they were quite proud of the fact that they had cousins who came from a Western country.|

What was your mother's reaction to November '89 - it must have been a big thing for her?

"It was. It meant that there was more freedom for our relatives in Czechoslovakia to visit. My grandfather, my deda, was a dissident at the time, and he wasn't able until after the revolution to even go to wedding of my parents, because he had his passport taken from him and arrested and things like that.

"He was part of an organisation that protested against the show trials in the '50s. He was called Ivo Hais and he was also a very, very important scientist. Because he was such an important figure they asked him to become a communist, and in 1971 he told them that he didn't want to be a communist, and so he lost his job - it was a common thing. He got arrested and worked in the fields of Moravia."

Did he live to see the revolution?

"Yes he did, he became a professor in Hradec Kralove. He was made professor by Vaclav Havel. He used to come over every summer to the north of England, where we were living then. He was an artist as well so, he used to come around and sketch the canals in Shippely in Bradford."

You said you lived in the Czech Republic for a while.

"When I was 18 I just went for a year to the Czech Republic, to learn the language basically. I worked as an assistant teacher in a school, and for half a year I busked - I play the saxophone, so I played on Charles Bridge for half a year and got more money than I got from being a teacher."

Was that allowed in those days? You didn't get hassled by the police?

"I was hassled all the time, the police stole money off me and confiscated my sax...I do find Prague a xenophobic place. It's difficult, if you're not very good at the language it's difficult to have Czech people open up to you. So I got a Czech girlfriend who didn't speak English - that was a good way of doing it."

Do Czechs understand the concept of busking? You don't see many buskers there.

"It's not allowed...I met some of my best Czech friends playing on the streets, and had some of my best experiences hanging out with that element of society."

What year are we talking about here?

"It was 1997. So lot's of Americans over there. I hung out with them for half a year and then I got sick of them, and got to speak Czech."

Are there many Czechs here in Glasgow now? Do you know many?

"I know a lot. We're employing a Czech guy from Ostrava - in fact there are a lot of Ostravan or Moravian Czech people here. There's a very, very large Slovak Romany community here, so I'm learning Romany because it's very useful sometimes. It's interesting - there's a lot more cosmopolitanisation of Glasgow through this."

What are the Slovak Romanies doing here?

"Working, because they can't get work in Slovakia. And there's no racism, as is known in the Czech Republic. There's no organised racism, or institutionalised racism. So they find it a lot better here. And they look like Pakistani people, so therefore they integrate very well into society."

We're sitting here in your cajovna, it's a Czech word meaning tea-room, you're the co-owner - where did you get the idea to open a Czech-style, even though it's not very Czech, it's more oriental or whatever...

"It is a Czech-style place, it's a Czech teahouse, a cajovna as far as cajovnas are in the Czech Republic...I'm not going to say where I got the influence from, because it's a bit obvious, just hanging out in teahouses and rolling up joints and getting chucked out, in Prague in 1997."

Right now you're smoking a pipe of some kind, what exactly is it? I have no sense of smell, I should say also.

"It's a fruit tobacco, we don't do illegal things here. But yeah, I think it's apple tobacco. It's nice..."

Has your cajovna here become a bit of a centre for Czech people in Glasgow?

"Yes, it has actually. We've even had the Czech consul down, we've also had [the writer] Arnost Lustig, who came and visited very briefly. I've read all his books so that was quite amazing. It's become a bit of a cultural centre in that sense. Because it's called cajovna. Sometimes we write things on the menu in Czech, I speak Czech and some of the staff are picking up a bit as well - it's quite useful."