Tom McEnchroe: ice hockey, cricket and Polanski

Tom McEnchroe, photo: author

We have heard a lot about reforms to the school system in the Czech Republic, but what is it like being an eighteen-year-old about to face the new school-leaving exams? Tom McEnchroe is in just that position. His father is English and his mother is Czech, and Tom has had all his education in the Czech school system. He is David Vaughan’s guest in this week’s One on One.

Tom McEnchroe, photo: author
Tom McEnchroe comes from an untypical family. His parents met in Prague shortly after the fall of communism, when both were teachers. His father is English and his mother is Czech, although she lived in Switzerland from the age of fourteen. So Tom has grown up between several cultures, at a time when the Czech Republic itself has been going through huge changes. I first met Tom when he was a toddler, living on the top of a hill in the beautiful village of Černošice just outside Prague. So I began by asking him whether he has any memories from that time.

“Yes, I do. It was a very nice place.”

A lot of steps… I remember your dad carrying the push-chair up the steps.

“That’s actually one of my earliest memories, going up those stairs. I can’t remember that much, but I do remember that I had to get up very early to get to Prague, because the transport wasn’t as easy as it is today.”

What was it like, growing up with three languages in your life? You had English and Czech with your parents, but also Swiss German from you mother’s family in Switzerland, where you also spent quite a lot of time.

“Actually, Mum told me that was one of the big questions: whether they wanted me to be trilingual or bilingual. They decided they were just going to speak two languages, Czech and English, because they thought I’d be too confused if I was speaking three.”

In retrospect, do you agree with them?

“That is a difficult question because, of course, it would be wonderful to know German as I know English or Czech, but on the other hand it is true that if you’re bilingual, you never know a language 100%. I think you always know them maybe 90%, but you can’t control it like a native speaker. So, I think, if I’d known German with that too, I’d have even bigger difficulties.”

So, do you really feel that you don’t quite have a mother tongue?

“Yes, I do. It’s strange, because when I’m in the Czech Republic I feel more English and in England I feel more Czech.”

Do you feel enriched by having this more complicated identity or do you sometimes envy your schoolmates who have maybe a more clear-cut identity?

“Well, that’s very strange, because I feel very British in that sense. I don’t know why, but I feel more British – as a country. I mean, if there would be a war or something, I would always fight on the British side… in that sense. I would say I’m even more strongly decided than most people…”

… even though you’ve never actually lived for a longer period of time in Britain.

“Well, that’s probably better, because you don’t get to know the negatives, you only get to know the positives.”

And one interesting aspect of growing up between different countries and different cultures is that you have an outsider’s view on aspects of the society you’re living in. Do you find that with the school system? You’re now in your last year at the Na Pražačce secondary school in Prague 3 – do you find that you tend to look on the way the school system works slightly as an outsider?

“I wouldn’t say that, because I’ve grown up in the Czech Republic since a young age, so I’ve only lived through the Czech school system, but now that I’ve been looking at universities and I’ve been looking at the systems in Switzerland and Great Britain, I have had a bit of a surprise, and I have compared both systems.”

And you’re in the middle of your last year at school. This year is particularly interesting, because the state is introducing a new system of school-leaving exams, the so-called state “maturita”. You’re really the guinea-pigs, aren’t you – this generation of school-leavers? What are your impressions so far?

“I would say we are guinea-pigs, but I have to say on the other hand that I don’t see these new introductions into the education system as so awful as they have been portrayed in the newspapers. I would say that it’s actually quite an improvement.”

What is new?

“Well, there is a whole new type of final exam, which is the same throughout the whole country, because in the Czech Republic up to now each school has had its own final exam, which, of course, could be used by the school to get more of their students through. But now the state has reformed that and all of them have to have one exam, which is the same, and I would say that is good, definitely, because – okay, people say that 15 or 20% won’t make it – but on the other hand we’ll actually have a much more effective system.”

So the system will be fairer, because everybody will have the same horizon.

“Yes, and also I don’t think teachers will have such power, because, if you made an enemy out of a teacher, he could pay you back in the final exam.”

One thing that is particularly Czech about your school is that you play ice hockey regularly. I gather that you’re a goalie.

“Probably the best thing about our school is that in the last two years we get to play ice hockey instead of physical education, and we get to have the whole gear and everything, which is paid for by the school. We play quite seriously. We always have an hour’s training and then an hour’s game. Yes, we have to get up two hours early because of it – around 4:50 – but everybody does it because it’s such a great game.”

And what’s it like, when you get your gear on – the pads, the mask – and you go out into the goal?

Illustrative photo: Wikipedia
“As a goalie, the team relies on your person more than on anyone else. If you have a bad day, then you lose. It’s as simple as that. But on the other hand, if you have a good day, you can win just because you were on form, so it’s great fun.”

And it’s not just ice hockey that you play. It is very surprising here in the Czech Republic that you also play cricket…

“Yes, it’s getting less and less surprising. Cricket is becoming a completely normal sport. There already exist something like ten teams in the Czech Republic, six of them in Prague, which play in a real league, seriously.”

Are these mostly foreigners who are living here, or are there also Czechs?

“It must be said that they are mostly foreigners, but I dare say that something like 40% are Czechs – and it’s getting more and more Czech.”

Some of our listeners might actually have seen you, without ever realizing it, because over the years you’ve acted in a number of films, haven’t you?

“I wouldn’t say acted. I’ve been a featured extra. That’s one of the big advantages when you are English and are living in the Czech Republic, because you are one of the few people who speak English with the accent. You get to play in films, because lots of these films were filmed in the Czech Republic. You get to have some Hollywood roles, but very small ones.”

For example?

“For example, Solomon Kane or The Illusionist…”

Oliver Twist, as well…

“Yes, Oliver Twist, but that was really a very small role. But it was fun to do it, because I think it’s always interesting working with Polanski. He’s quite an interesting, but also explosive director.”

So has he given you a taste for the silver screen?

“No, he gave me a distaste for the silver screen, because he isn’t nice to his actors. He always wants the best from you and if you don’t perform your best, then you get the agro – which luckily didn’t happen to me, but there was this poor lad, who didn’t do something right twice and he got a very verbally abusive lesson from Mr Polanski!”

Tom McEnchroe, thank you very much for talking to me, and best of luck in your state school-leaving examinations next year. I look forward to talking to you again soon.

“Thank you very much. It was nice talking to you.”