Rokytnice nad Jizerou


  Snow sculpture of Krakonoš, the Spirit of the Giant Mountains, annually made on the town square at Jilemnice.
I was a little over ten years old when I met Krakonoš. Who or rather what is a Krakonoš? It is a mythological figure, a bearded giant, whose job is to be a guardian of the mountain range known to the Czechs as Krkonoše, and to the world in English as the Giant Mountains. On left is a sculpture of Krakonoš, annually made up of tons of snow on the town square at Jilemnice. As mountains go, these are not particularly large or tall, but are still the highest in the country, after the split with the more precipitous Slovakia. The range stretches for about 40-50 kilometres in the north of the country, forming a natural border with the neighbouring Poland. The highest peak is Sněžka, translating as “Snowy”, and 1603 metres high. How did we come to live there?

    Life in Prague was getting too expensive for Mother, and she wondered how she was going to make do, with her thin pension and myself, growing up, needing new clothes all the time, eating like a horse, etc. For a time we moved to Zbraslav and aunt Jiřina, where the family had always found a refuge if needed, including even her worldly and successful brother, but that was always going to be only a temporary solution. We stayed in Zbraslav for about six months; I went to school there for the end of 4th grade and beginning of the 5th grade, by which time I was happy to leave. I didn’t like the new teacher we got in the 5th grade at all, especially when compared to the previous one, who was the sister of a well-known writer, poet, dramatist and painter Adolf Hoffmeister. The way the lady went with us through the rich history of the ancient town we lived in she had, in the course of a few months, managed to make me become interested in the subject of history, and in the school work more generally.

    Moving from Prague to Zbraslav had been a major change, but we still lived quite near Prague. The move that was to come next was a bigger one, and Mother was a bit scared of it. Even though she came originally from a small township, she had become used to living in metropolitan cities, such as London, Berlin, Prague or Belgrade. But it had to happen; it was the only logical thing to do. It was made possible by my father having made one wise investment while he had the chance. After the war there was the controversial forced exit of large part of the German population from the so-called Sudetenland. The Sudetenland became a major source of contention between Germany and Czechoslovakia before the war, and in 1938 participants at the Munich Conference, yielded to Adolf Hitler, and transferred it to Germany, in efforts to avoid, or at least postpone the war. After the defeat many of the Germans were forced to leave, which left a number of dwellings unoccupied and for sale. Father bought one, very cheaply, and he had it registered in the name of his sister Jiřina, intending to have it gradually renovated, to be ready for his retirement, which had never happened. My aunt now felt obliged to have the title transferred to Mother. The prospect of not having to pay any rent was too tempting, so one day she asked me:

"How would you like it, if we moved out of Prague?"
"You mean to live somewhere else?"
"Of course."
"How far out?"
"Oh, pretty far, more than a hundred kilometres."
"In some rustic village, teeming with boorish peasants?"
"Don't make fun of me, I'm being serious."
"So am I."
"I said fine. Let's move."
"Just like that?"
"Why not? Let me enjoy my young age as a country boy!"

    Mother often repeated this utterance of mine, as a proof of my early wisdom. Many years later, when I was sorting out the pile of documents that were left after my mother‘s death, I came across plans for the renovations that had been made by some architect for my father. It bore the rambling title: “Dwelling house belonging to Mr Dalibor Koreis, Consul General“. What had really hit me was the date of completion that was stated on the plans. It had really made me think hard about the human destinies, where the chance ends and the faith begins (the Jungian term “synchronicity“ was known to me, by then). And the date of completion? 7th August 1950. The day of Father’s death!

The house in Rokytnice, in its present state. The snowy top of mountain Kotel (1435 metres) is just visible in the background. The house in Rokytnice, in its present state. The snowy top of mountain Kotel (1435 metres) is just visible in the background.

The renovations did not happen until at least ten years later, when the local medical practitioner had bought the house from us. At the time we had moved in it was liveable, even though there were some problems. The only major thing Mother had to do was having the shingle roof covered with paper coated with tar, to stop some leaks that were there, particularly when the snow on the roof would start melting. The back part of the house, which some good soul had done in bricks fairly recently, was never plastered as intended, so that the red bricks remained shining throughout our entire stay in the house. The house was a cottage typical for the area, perhaps about a hundred years old. The front part was made of roughly hewn timbers, which one would probably find underneath the surface even now. The ceilings were low; a tallish person could have easily touched them. Downstairs was the kitchen and two rooms divided by a hall; a steep angled staircase lead upstairs, to a large landing and two more rooms, and a ladder took you to the attic. It was full of strange things, including rolled-up canvas with what looked like backgrounds to some stage decorations. Behind the house there used to be a water stream, but that was blocked, because the wooden pipes had collapsed in places. For a time we had to go to the pump next to the neighbours’ house, until a dowser discovered the original stream, which was renewed. We were awarded fantastic water, full of minerals, very tasty. Because I was drinking this water for about ten years when my body was building up, my teeth even now are particularly strong and healthy. Visitors that we often had from Prague always went home with bottles filled with our water, to put off at least for a day or two drinking the stuff that dribbled from their water mains. There was no bathroom, except the one on Father’s plans, so we bathed in a tin tub filled with water warmed on the stove. A very basic latrine completed the list of facilities, the accumulated dung had to be removed from time to time with the help of a peripatetic and labour intensive device, known in the sonorous Czech jargon as "hovnotzutz" or shit-sucker.

    Cooking was a problem, particularly in the beginning. There were three stoves, either of which could be used for cooking, but all of them were very slow. To get water to boil one had to be very patient, which was a problem for Mother, particularly when her ever-hungry son kept asking “When will food be ready?” Two of the stoves, one downstairs, one upstairs, were covered with ceramic tiles, and had ovens capable of producing wonderful bakery products, if only one had the patience and willingness to light up the fire and keep feeding it, which neither of us had. Later, most of the cooking mum did on the electric appliances, which had become available in shops by the late 1950’s. By then Mother had a reasonably well paid office job in the largest local factory, a spinning mill that had several hundred workers, whose wages she was looking after. So we could have afforded to pay higher electricity bills.

    I became a poacher of trout

    To a city grown child, the place was an absolute paradise. Waters of the creek, or perhaps a rivulet, which formed the boundary of the half acre or so sized block of land, came from high in the mountains and, except in times of heavy rains or rapid thawing of snow, which occurred in the early spring, were crystal clear. Trout lived there in abundance. It was against the law to fish without a licence, and Mother stressed this to me many times. However, I had soon discovered that the enterprising locals scarcely observed this prohibition. Moreover, a boy who would not fish for and catch some trout, would never quite make it amongst his peers. I had armed myself with a couple of fish hooks, a nylon line and a short stick to wind it on. No fishing rod, this would have been far too conspicuous. The stick with the wound up fishing line could be easily hidden under the shirt, which in those days was worn loose, so that nothing betrayed the intending poacher. Under stones, I had found a good supply of earthworms and was thus ready to embark upon the steep learning curve of an illegal angler.

    Fishing in the creek next to our house. Sitting on the bridge is Ivo Šteiner, a future leading Czech pathologist.Trout are a smart fish. A trout is constantly on alert. It can swim in a very fast current, moving its fins and tail almost imperceptibly, just enough to remain in one particular spot, as if hanging on by an invisible thread. But move closer to it, and it suddenly darts away and disappears under a bolder or in a hole between the roots of tall trees lining the bank. You too have to be vigilant and carefully note the exact spot where the fish had disappeared. Drop the line with the hooked fat worm into the water, in front of the hole. Be patient. The trout will need some time to settle down after its flight. Eventually it would come out to nibble on the worm. Let it nibble, don't scare it off with any sudden movements. Even be prepared to put in another worm, if the first one is partially eaten. When the fish finally decides to throw away all caution and take the morsel in one bite, this is when you have to jerk the line and pull it towards you, all in one movement. The trout lands on the bank and you have to tackle it decisively, put your thumb into its mouth and force its head back. You feel and sometimes even hear a tiny "click", and the fish goes limp in your hands.

    I had learnt this fishing method quickly. The most important trick was to get the wriggling worm onto the hook properly. It is not a job for the faint-hearted. The thing in your hand is very much alive, you have to make the sharp tip of the hook prick its skin and then push it on, so that the entire length of the bent steel runs through the body of the hapless creature. You must be prepared for the revolting sight of some spilled guts and bodily fluids. Within a year of moving into the town, I had become the acknowledged master of the line fishing method. The mark that separated the masters of the illicit fishing from the also-rans was the ability to make more than three catches in one session. I could beat it consistently. I was proud of my achievements, but not entirely satisfied. Rumours reached me that there existed an infinitely more efficient though esoteric method of catching the trout. No details were available. No one in my immediate circle knew anything more than that the catching was supposed to be done by the bare hands! Apparently, the few adepts who practised this method had kept it strictly to themselves, as it was not in their interest to initiate others into this arcane knowledge. If more competent unlawful fishermen prowled the rivulet and its several tributaries, there would soon be little fish left to catch. This I had instinctively understood. Thus, when I decided that I was going to crack the secret I went about it entirely on my own, without telling anyone.

    I used logic to deduce how to catch trout with bare hands. Obviously, one could not stand on the bank, it was necessary to get wet in the creek, and it was equally evident that it could not be done in the open water, only in the holes under the banks or boulders. The first time I went into the creek only in my shorts and a pair of old tennis shoes. The water, rarely reaching above the knee level, even in the peak of summer was almost freezing. It did not take me too long to discover the fundamental law number one: Always move upstream! The fish must have been able to discern some unusual sounds or smells when I was approaching it down the stream, and it always managed to disappear without a trace. Moving upstream, I could usually get close enough to see where it went. Once I had marked the exact spot I had to get to it and put my hand into the hole. The rest required some practice and fine-tuning.

    Contrary to what one would perhaps expect, the trout in its hiding spot, when touched by a human hand, would generally not shoot off. Instead, it would try to retreat as far back as it could into the hole. If the hole turns out to be deeper than the length of your fully stretched arm, you have lost it! Remember the exact spot and when the same situation arises, just move on, this hole is too deep, you can save yourself a lot of frustration. After a time I knew all the holes that were too deep, and did not waste my time with the trout that went into them. Many holes are not too deep and when that is the case, you and the fish have approximately equal chances of winning. If your fish hides in the hole that is of a reachable depth, very slowly bring your hand to it until you can touch it. The fish will tolerate this, so long as you do not make any harsh movements. Slowly and gently, begin to tickle it with your fingers. At this point the trout appears almost as if hypnotised. Maybe it is, what do we know about its psyche? As you tickle the trout feel its head with your fingers and move slowly behind it, finding the flaps covering the gills. This is the only spot where you can get a good grip on your intended catch. Should you try to hold it in any other way, the trout would almost certainly squirm out of your hand. Having found the right spot, moving very cautiously, close the arch of your thumb and the forefinger around the flaps and then tighten the grip. You have caught your trout! All you need to do now is pull it out of the water and put it out of its misery. As a young boy, I was still able to do this quite easily. Children can sometimes be cruel. Subsequently, I had lost this capacity. Australia is an angler’s or a fisherman’s paradise, but I had not harmed a single fish since I arrived to its shores.

Ondřej Sekora

    Ondřej Sekora, writter and illustratorRokytnice was founded in the middle ages as a tin and silver mining town, but a glass-making, and eventually textile industry had developed; the later was still dominating when we moved in, though by now it has gone entirely. In around the middle of the 19th century, there were over ten thousand inhabitants, which made it a fairly sizeable town for the period. In the following years the numbers steadily dwindled, to about three and a half thousand at the time of our arrival. Presently, the population remains about the same, but the demographics have changed entirely. The town is now almost completely manufacturing industry free, being geared towards tourism, skiing in winter, trekking in summer.

    Some prominent Prague residents had their holiday houses there even then. Perhaps everyone, born after about 1930, and who grew up in the country now called the Czech Republic, knows Ondřej Sekora. Sekora was a central European, if there ever was one. He was a painter, illustrator, writer, journalist and, not in the least, entomologist. Had he been born in the USA, for instance, perhaps he might have been as well known as Walt Disney with his character Micky Mouse. About the same time, in the early 1930s, Sekora had created a children’s book character named Ferda Mravenec (Ferdie the Ant), here seen below with the helicon. Together with Ferda, he invented a number of other figures, all of them originating from the world of insects. He wrote and illustrated a number of children’s books, nearly all of them with the wonderful jolly insect characters that children loved to read about. Apart from that, Sekora was also an illustrator of works by many important Czech writers.

Ondrej Sekora: Ferdie the Ant

    During the German occupation of the country, Sekora had shown himself as rather a character. In 1944 he was imprisoned in the German labour camps in Kleinstein in Poland and Osterode in Germany. The reason for this was his wife Ludmila, who was of a Jewish origin. Even though he was pushed hard by the Germans, he refused to divorce her. She was deported to the concentration camp in Terezín, which was often the last stop before the annihilation camp at Auschwitz, but miraculously she had survived. In Osterode, Sekora met and befriended Czech actor and director Oldřich Nový, of whom I write elsewhere. Nový was imprisoned by the Germans for similar reasons as Sekora.

    With Sekora we used to go on nature walks ─ as one would expect, he was incredibly knowledgeable about insect life, which after all, was his bread and butter. He also played football with us, and he was a wonderful coach, too. Soon after being coached by him I had made it into the school first team, which previously was only a dream to me. However, he never tried to raise our interest in rugby, of which he was the first propagator in the country.
Author at about 9, drawing by Ondrej Sekora 

    It was to be only some years later when I had learnt that Sekora had virtually single handily introduced this code in his country in the 1920’s. He had begun to play rugby while studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, and when he came back he translated the rules of the game into Czech. Despite his best efforts, rugby remains a Cinderella in the Czech Republic, where the game my present countrymen the Australians call “soccer” remains the big favourite!
  On a pen drawing right, made by Sekora, and which I still have with me, I’m about nine years old. Unfortunately, he had to use the only paper available at the time, which is a very low quality, so it has faded in places.

Skiing in winter, football in summer

    Ski jumping on a small hillNext to Sekora’s cottage was a steep slope that in winter was used as the ski-jumping hill, it was called Na staráku or the Old Place. Nowadays most of the area has been built-in, so it’s no longer there. When we moved to Rokytnice, I had a lot of catching-up to do, if I wanted to only get nearer my peers in anything concerning skiing. I had to learn to stand on the skis first, that‘s how hopeless I was, well, a typical Prague child! Next I would try skiing down the more gentle slopes. At least two winters went by before I would gather enough courage to try jumping. At first only on small hills that I had built myself, and where I could jump a couple of metres, but eventually I had even tried the Old Place. The ramp of the hill, about a metre tall, was built by someone as soon as the first snows came; the approach track was not very steep, thus it had to be reasonably long. Near the ramp one had to cross the road, which could be a bit tricky even though it was covered with snow. When you took-off at the edge of the ramp, a view opened up all the way down, almost twenty vertical metres below. The slope was quite steep, just as it should be; about two thirds of the way down there was a maple tree on the side, and the aim of all of us was to jump at least as far as to be landing beside or below it. Not everyone managed that ─ to achieve this you had to stay in air a minimum of about twenty metres. All the way down, to the place where the slope was beginning to level up, it was around thirty metres. A couple of my peers managed to reach even that land of magic ─ it took a lot of courage not to panic when the flat ground was looming near you ─ a few of these guys later became competitors of some note, one even making the national Olympic team. For the rest of us the goal was taking a jump without causing yourself harm on the “big“ hill, which really wasn‘t terribly big in ski-jumping terms.

The hill in Rokytnice
The jumping hill in Rokytnice, and a competitor using old-fashioned technique.

    Nevertheless, to an uninitiated it looked awesome, especially when you climbed to the top. To get there was not easy either, particularly with a pair of rather heavy and long jumping skis on one’s shoulder ─ in process one had to negotiate some steep ladders. It had a proper tower, with the structure made entirely of round timber logs. From the top, track lead down to the ramp, and what is known as the “calculation level“ for the hill was 50 metres, which means that it would allow jumps of near 60 metres in the extreme. The hill in Rokytnice no longer exists; it looked rather precarious even in my times, and eventually the tower had to come down. It would never meet today’s safety standards. In Harrachov, a few kilometres over the mountain crest, there was a similar, but larger hill, by about twenty metres, where one could graduate to. A ski jumping team there was about the best in the country; one member of it, a year older than I, was Dalibor Motejlek. He was to make it to the Czech Olympic team in Insbruck in 1964 and, remarkably, for one day he even held the world record of 142 metres, which he jumped at Oberstdorf in Germany. The next day somebody jumped a metre or so farther. In Harrachov the hill not only still exists, but a new one was added to it, the so-called „mammoth hill” for flying, which allows the competitors to fly well over 200 metres. There are only about half a dozen of such hills in the world, and the world record achieved on one of them has recently gone past 250 metres!

 The old fashioned and current styles.

    The jumpers used the style above right, with the arms stretched forward, in my days, while inset above left  is today’s style. While the new style gives the jumpers more stability and allows them to fly longer distances, the old one seems to me much more elegant, wouldn’t you agree? While Rokytnice had lost its ski jumping hill, it had gained something else, which in my youth was only in a very basic state of development. It now has a downhill ski run, reputably the best in the country, with the ski lift. The championship run is over 3 km long, with nearly 700 m of vertical drop ─ that rivals the best of the Alpine runs.

    Contrary to the appearances, downhill racing is far more dangerous than ski jumping, mainly because with the latter there usually isn’t much that one can hit. Unless you land awkwardly, there isn’t a lot of damage that you could do to yourself, other than breaking a leg, twisting an ankle, general concussion, or similar, mainly so if you have not lost the skis in time. When a fall looks inevitable, you just protect your head and pray that the safety binding lets go. I know however of one case that happened in Jilemnice, where I went to the high school. There is a relatively small hill, with a tower (I had also been jumping in a competition there), allowing about 30 metre jumps. One young man had lost his life there. It turned out unfortunately, that he was an undiagnosed epileptic, and he had happened to suffer a seizure right in the middle of a training jump. He flew with no control whatever and broke his neck.

    I had had a fairly serious accident myself, at the Old Place, where I had been practising the most often. It was a freak one, and the fault was entirely mine. I went out practising on a day when the temperature was relatively high and the snow was wet and heavy. Consequently, I had to make the run-up much longer, moving it some twenty metres up, and above another road, which did not normally come into play. And worst of all, I was alone, which was not very wise either. On that day negotiating the upper road transition turned out to be difficult. I was thrown to the side by it, where I had first hit the branch of a cherry tree, broke it, and became sort of impaled on the sharp splinter that was left there. I remembered only the sound of the braking of branch; next I woke up on the sled some good Samaritans had been using to take me to the doctor’s surgery. Later they told me that they had found me half standing and half hanging by my chin on the splinter of the branch that I had broken off. My chin was torn open rather badly, it needed several stitches, and I had a serious concussion. To hide the scar that I have in the place, eventually I had begun to grow the beard that also appeared in the title of my autobiography in Czech. Now you know why I had titled it “Můj bíbr” or My beard! After the accident I had  to stay for about a week in the hospital, but it did not prevent me from ski jumping ─ perhaps only for about a month or two...

    As soon as the snows had disappeared, and the ground became reasonably dry, usually between about March and April, but sometimes as late as in May, the football season had begun. Not far away from our house, there was a small football field, which was built for the Hitlerjungen, the youth organisation that the Germans had run, usually very efficiently. In the hilly surroundings it was not easy finding a level ground that would not already be built-in, so they had cut into the slope, which must have been rather labour intensive before today’s machinery was invented. On another level there was a narrower strip containing a volleyball court, the pit for long jumping, etc. In contemporary photos I see that a block of flats now stands there; let’s hope that there are some other facilities for young people about. Up to the high school age, we had been spending most of our free time there, sometimes playing for many hours. I became a reasonably good player, with the ability to score some important goals, which came handy later on, when I had been playing regularly for the junior teams. Once or twice I had been selected for the local senior team, when I reached the required age of 18, but soon after that I had gone into the Army and eventually moved out of the town. By then, I was far more interested in things around the theatre, music, singing, etc., and sports became secondary activities.  However, some years later in Karlovy Vary, I made a couple of appearances for a team of actors against the musicians of the symphony orchestra, and behold! On either occasion I even scored the winning goal.

 Junior football team Spartak Rokytnice
The junior team of Spartak Rokytnice, c. 1960. I am in the top row, left.

    The school

    After Father's death all was unstable, uncertain. With Mother we had the part of the old house to ourselves, and I continued to attend the primary school in Sušická street. But none of the female teachers that I had in that school found her way to my heart. To find out what it means to have a good teacher, I had to go to school in Zbraslav where Miss Hoffmeisterova was teaching, but that only lasted a short few months.
Once we had moved to Rokytnice, and I had the time to settle down, I soon gained the reputation of being the best or the second best in class. One of the teachers, Vanclova was her name, had forever been trying to resolve the dilemma of who is the best: Koreis or Breuer? Sometimes it was I, the next time my rival Přemek, depending on which one of us had sparkled in some way on the day. Nowadays, when I have had the chance of comparing her teaching method to those of Montessori or Waldorf, for instance, where competitiveness is frowned upon, I see how “old time“ that approach was.

    After finishing the primary school, at or near the top of the class, I had begun to attend the Grammar School in Jilemnice a town about 20 kilometres distant. For three years I had to get up before 6 am to catch a bus at 6.10. Fortunately, the bus stop wasn't too far away, only about 300 meters. It took about half an hour for the bus to get through the long Rokytnice valley, to arrive at the railway station by the river Jizera. From there, another 40 minutes on a diesel train through the most spectacular country alongside the Jizera river to the district town of Jilemnice, stopping about eight times. Finally, we had to walk for about 20 minutes to finally reach the school. Once or twice a year the train would not run, when too much snow fell overnight. Oh, joy!

 Train to school

     I was about average with my school results, except for my German, which once I must have been quite good at when in company of Frau Keller. However, I wanted to learn English, which was not possible, as there weren't enough of us enrolled; we would have needed a couple more. I don’t know why I hated the German language so much, maybe because my father had died in Germany, in any case I struggled through the three years of hell. I am in contact with many of my schoolmates of those three short years even now. When the Czech website Seznam started the school reunion programme, I had opened a page there, and about half of my old schoolmates, around twenty, have joined over the last few years. When the 50th anniversary of our graduation came, those who gathered on the Jilemnice square had put up a sign for me to see and waved to me. I was watching them on my computer in Brisbane, and later phoned them on the mobile, to speak to each of them individually. The joys of modern technology…

A group of schoolmates greet me over the web during a class reunion. 
A group of schoolmates greet me over the web during a class reunion.

    A singer?


     I was in the last year of high school when I discovered that I could sing. Mother had always maintained that there was some kind of an entertainer hidden in me, and it rather scared her. According to her, it had come through even when we still lived in Stratford (where else, with the Shakespearian theatre just round the corner?). I did not quite kick-start my career by proclaiming a Shakespearean monologue, but sang a part of an aria from the Czech classic opera The Bartered Bride. Mother, while engaged in some domestic task, was humming to herself the aria of Kecal. She said that I suddenly stood up and sang the same tune, quite recognisable, inventing my own words, of course. I was about two at the time, maybe even a bit less. About quarter of a century later I was to sing the same part in London, but of that more later.

     Fifteen or so years after that first performance, I began to attend various events in my home town, mostly dance parties. Once, on a cold winter night, the heating was not working very well, and the revelry was not up to expected height, at least not in the mind of the leader of the dance band. So to raise the cold temperature in the hall a bit, he asked if anyone present would want to sing a song with the orchestra. I did not hesitate a second, before going to the microphone. The waltz about the tulips in Amsterdam was popular at the time, so we had agreed on that, and I sang. I earned a good applause. The band leader was happy too, so I sang several more times that evening. I was elated with my success.

     The schoolmaster at my old primary school Jaroslav Hejral had a musician of sorts hidden in him. I don't think that he played any instrument particularly well, perhaps a bit of trumpet, but he got it into his head that he was going to found a big band in the town that he would conduct. It was the era of big bands, after all, well let's say the tail end of it, but none of us knew yet that within a few short years four boys with electric quitars and longish hair will pop up in Liverpool. There always used to be a decent brass band in the town, the winner of several competitions, so there was some potential there. The schoolmaster managed to put together some sort of a dance music band, but it only had the core of a few good musicians in it, the rest were there so that the band could call itself "big". When it got smaller as a combo, it caught on, and soon it needed no conductor either. That's when they came to me, if I would sing with them regularly, as well as act as a presenter. I jumped at the chance! Soon I got a female singing companion, the "little teacher", as we used to call Eva Fišarová, a cute, petite freckled brunette several years older than I, who would also play Mimi in the infamous stage play that I will tell you about later. We were improving at a fast rate, so that when we were all due to appear in front of the relevant commission that set up the level of fees we could charge, we did surprisingly well. From then on, at about 18, I'd begun to make some decent money from singing, which didn't take a lot of getting used to. The drawback was that while my peers were kicking their heels on the dancing floor, I couldn't join them; not that I would particularly want to. From where I was, on the podium, I had a perfect view of their silly movements and I even got paid for it!

The crooner
The crooner with a dance orchestra

Personally, I had little doubts about what I wanted to do. I wanted to sing or act, maybe both, if I could, anywhere they would have me. But here my plans were in sharp conflict with the views of Mother, who desperately wanted me to have a "respectable position" in life. That, in her mind, meant studying to have the "ing" or "Dr" in front of my name, like some of my cousins. Even though she had spend several years in the western countries, it had not registered on her that unless one happens to a be a medical doctor, in which case it is practical, such prefixes are not normally used there. It's mainly the Germans and the Czechs who must brag in such a way ─ look, there it is, I have a degree! So it was Mother who made the decision that I should apply for university place, even though I had shown no inclinations whatever towards electrical engineering, which was the occupation that she wanted me to take up, and which would entitle me to having the “ing” proudly and permanently displayed in front of my name. Thus one day she surprised me with the decision she had made on my behalf:

"I'd made an arrangement with the relatives in Pardubice, regarding your accommodation. For a year you will go to Tesla in Přelouč, so that you'll learn a bit about the radios. The next year we'll try to get you into the University!"

And that was that, all I could do was take the train to Pardubice. I was still a bit too young to challenge authority, too timid to oppose Mother. But her decision came back to haunt her ─ in that factory all I was doing was unqualified and badly paid work. It took several months before I learnt what a transistor ─ the wonder of wonders of modern technology, looked like. The flame of desire to make radio prototypes had not been set alight in me at all. Of course, I had no idea that one day in distant future I would spend many hours in the studio broadcasting radio programmes. But that had nothing to do with technology. At least, Pardubice turned out to be quite an interesting place. For a year, I played football with a good team of juniors, which at that level played in the highest competition in the country. I had made a few friends, went to ice hockey matches, heard some good music (once even seeing and hearing Edmund Hall, one of the best clarinet players of all time, who used to play with the Louis Armstrong orchestra). I sang with the local band on occasions, and above all, I made sure that Mother knew about all these things, good and bad, to put some pressure on her psychologically. Such a sustained effort on my part had to makes some breaches in her orthodox views, eventually!

Jan Mach

Jan Mach, my teacher and also the stage director

The teacher Jan Mach gets here, into this rare company of remarkable people I have met, partly because of his teaching, but mainly because of the theatre. But before I could elevate him into such grand position, my mother would have had to succumb! And she did so. She had finally realised that she wouldn't have an electrical engineer out of me. In summer 1961 I arrived back to Rokytnice, found myself a stop gap job in the local factory as a technical controller, to resume my singing with the local band, and to add a great hobby. This is how it developed: Mach, who was our class teacher in the final year, was a rather formidable character, a man of about fifty, whom we all greatly feared and who reigned in his class with an iron fist. He was versatile, he  taught the maths, chemistry and physics, but was no stranger to literature or history either; rarely seen combinations of subjects. Besides being a dedicated educator, he was much into local amateur theatrics. We had an occasional glimpse of this softer side of him, when he directed school plays, but most of the time we anticipated in trepidation being pulled out of the bench to the blackboard, there to be subjected to a humiliating routine of writing mathematical or chemical formulas we knew little about with a piece of chalk, and accordingly being treated like congenital idiots for not knowing the date of some battle, significant to the Czech history. I was much relieved when at fourteen I moved on to high school, and from there on lived in a safe distance from this imperious personality. Or at least I imagined that I was safe.

The very next day after my arrival home, I heard a rather timid knock on the front door of our wooden cottage. I went to open it and, to my bewilderment, accompanied by an elderly man, whom I knew to be an accomplished actor who had even spent some years on the professional stage, there stood my former teacher. It turned out that the two men came to convince me of the necessity, or the way they had put it to me, the noble duty, of my becoming a star performer and the saviour of the local amateur theatrical society. A brand new summer theatre arena was recently completed in an old abandoned quarry, and for its inauguration, Karel Čapek’s play The Robber (Loupežník) was selected. The rehearsals had been going on for a few months, and only a week remained to the first night, when a great disaster befell the town’s enthusiastic amateurs. The actor who was to play the main character found himself in hospital after a serious accident, with no prospect of a speedy recovery. In the time of crises my former teacher, who directed the play, remembered that several years earlier I appeared successfully in some school plays he had also directed, and he believed that I could step in, even on such short notice. He was prepared to take the risk with me in the role, rather than posteponing the play that was already announced, with advertising posted, etc. I was flattered by his faith in me, besides one doesn't turn down such proposals, so without much hesitation I said yes.

Only seven full days remained to the premiere, and while I was assured that there would be full rehearsals held every night, the mission that stretched ahead was a fearsome one. The Robber, whom I was to play, is on the stage for the best part of three hours, and I realised that learning the lines properly was not going to be easy, even for my young and flexible brain. After the two men left, leaving the script in my hand, I walked to the nearby forest, and laying on the grass in a nice little glade where no one could hear me, till the late afternoon I worked seriously on memorising the role. By the evening I was already on the first name terms with my one time foe, and we were rehearsing enthusiastically, full of optimism.

There isn’t a great deal the author of this play provides in the way of instructions, but it is obvious that the Robber is meant to be quite a young man, perhaps not much more than twenty, possibly a student. When I appeared in the same play about three years later in one of the minor roles, this time however on the professional stage, the character was played by an actor who must have been in his mid-forties. Some of his efforts, like the attempts at scaling and falling off the wall, which are an important part of the production, looked laborious and perhaps even slightly ridiculous. I could not help feeling rather jumpy while watching him from the wings, but I knew my place in the pecking order. Now, at eighteen I was young and supple; so climbing up a wall that was about eight feet high presented no great problem. I had to rehearse the scene well enough though, as when in the first act he finds himself on the top of the wall, the Robber is shot at, and wounded, by his rival in love, the Forester. The jealous Forester is provoked into shooting at the Robber by his daring leap onto the top of the wall and by his sardonic exclamation “Adieu, imperishable marksman!”

The hero’s subsequent fall off the wall should be spectacular enough for the audience to gasp loudly. When during the dress rehearsal we had ran through the shooting scene it soon became obvious that the traditional method of providing sound to the riffle being shot on stage, by hitting a plank against the wooden floor, brought about a whimper that was quite useless in the open-air theatre. For the full effect we not only needed the gunshot to be loud and impressive, but also its echo to mightily reverberate in the surrounding woods. An expert from the forestry department was called in, who at speed arranged for two proper hunting guns to be lent to us, an empty one to be carried on the stage by the Forester and the other, loaded with a dummy cartridge, to be shot from behind the scene. This proved satisfactory.

A scene for The Robber
A stage design for the production of the play The Robber at the National Theatre in Prague, in 1925. Our design was very similar ─ house with  the  barred windows, the balcony, the high wall with the strong gate, and the bench. 

On the first night the house, roofed with the starry canopy offering a perfect drop to the lyrical night love scenes that with my limited experience I had not anticipated without trepidation, was near full. In the early sixties, television was still in its infancy, and inhabitants of a small town like ours usually had little else to do on a Saturday evening but go to the cinema or, if they had the opportunity, to the theatre. After the seven days spent on diligently learning my lines, and the seven nights of intense rehearsing with the other actors, I was reasonably confident and comfortable in the role and, except for the afore mentioned love scenes, surprisingly little nervous. But fate spared me from having to be a romantic lover and making stage love to the freckled little teacher, soon to become my singing partner as well, at least on this one night. No one will ever know how it happened that in the muddle that goes together with every first night, the two guns to be used in the shooting scene were accidentally switched, with the loaded one finding its way into the Forester’s hands. I leaped onto the top of the wall, waved my stage adversary good-bye while uttering the confrontational words after which, while standing close to the wall, he pulled the trigger. The sound was indeed thunderous, and to my surprise I could also see a flame come out of the business end of the Forester’s riffle. At the same time I felt something hot scorching my right thigh. The fall off the wall onto a piece of grassy carpet laid there for the purpose I performed well, exactly as I had rehearsed it. However, even as the echoes of the gunshot were still heard coming back from the forest, I already knew that something was not right. Lying with my left side towards the audience, unobserved I could use my right hand to feel my thigh, which had begun to hurt a great deal while swelling up alarmingly. Eventually my probing fingers reached a hole in the charred fabric of the trouser, and felt a large open wound underneath it. At this moment I knew that I was in serious trouble. Meanwhile the play continued, several extras playing the villagers crowded the scene and, in accordance to the script, attended to my imaginary head wound, finally loading me onto a barrow and wheeling me off the stage. While all this went on I continued to act as the wounded Robber, even though it was becoming clear to me that I would not be able to continue acting to the end of the play.

The performance had to be called off, and an ambulance arrived. On the operating table in the hospital, the doctor on duty extracted from my wounded leg substantial parts of the cartridge ─ most of the shell together with several pieces of felt plugs, cardboard, etc. which had no time to disperse as they would have done had the shot been fired from a longer distance. After the treatment I was left with a prominent scar a good ten centimetres long, which to this day reminds me of my first major stage role. I don’t even want to think about what could have happened if the Forester had aimed higher (according to the script the shot is supposed to brush the side of the Robber’s head…) I stayed in the hospital for about two weeks and some days later while, still limping slightly, I was able to play the role to the end. Also several times after that, always in front of large audiences, as the fame of the Robber shot on the stage grew to high proportions, almost becoming a national legend. Even those who before this event would never come near the theatre suddenly found it irresistible.

Soon after this incident I left the town to live elsewhere, eventually altogether leaving the country. Nevertheless, I cannot possibly leave out of this narrative an episode that occurred more than three decades later. I came back to visit my old hometown, after a long journey from Australia, where I had been living for many years. With a former schoolmate we went to a pub. One of our peers sat there; he casually looked me over as if I had never left the town, and declared in a dry manner:

“I’m not talking to you!”

“What have I done?” I asked him.

“You caused me getting into a big trouble with my old man.”

This called for an explanation, and subsequently it turned out that the poor fellow was dating a girl that his parents did not want him to go out with, mainly because she was Jewish. Parental authority was still strong in those days and especially in these parts of the world, as was xenophobia. On the same night I was stricken with the gunshot, he was with her, stricken by love. When his parents asked him later how he had spent the night, he innocently told them that he was in the theatre all night long with friends. Understandably he knew nothing at all about the shooting accident, which so easily could have ended my life, and of which the whole town was talking. With the deception thus revealed, naturally, his disbelieving parents were not impressed.

I bought him a drink or two and all was well again. On the next day in the town square, coincidentally I ran into the girl, also my classmate, who was the other party in the clandestine rendezvous. I questioned her about it and she confessed that she too was severely disciplined by her parents for the same transgression, that she broke up with the guy soon after this, and ended up eventually marrying another man whose parents were more broad-minded, having several children, and by then even some grandchildren. This too called for a drink. In the nearby pub where I invited her, we drunk to our glorious ─ though long departed ─ youth and, naturally, to Karel Čapek, who had made such an unexpected and profound impression on our lives.

The shooting incident apparently is still remembered in those parts of the world. I write regularly as a columnist to a Czech daily, and consequently get quite a few letters from readers. Fairly recently one came, and it held a surprise for me. I quote.

"I am a daughter of the man who had shot you with the gun on the stage during the play The Robber. I remember that evening very well. When the shot was fired and you had fallen from the wall, the buzz in the audience was "Voyen's playing it well!" After a while, the news had come through however: "Hladík had Voyen!" Horror! Together with my sisters, we had ran to the dressing room under the stage. A pandemonium was there, you were being treated, dad was all white and didn't even take a note of us. "They're going to arrest him," went through my head. They did not arrest him, but there were consequences, nevertheless. There were five of us, girls, and as we were growing up, the boys used to say: "Be careful, their old man's got a gun and he shoots without asking questions..."

She added: "You had, particularly with the adolescent girls, carried an air of a Prague boy, and a handsome one, too. I think that this might, even after all those years, give you some joy."

Thank you, it did. I got even though with Karel Čapek, the author who was at the root of all these troubles, by translating his play into English.

Play by Topol
Here on the left, I play a soldier in a contemporary play. The young woman of the second pair was to be my partner in the Schiller classic Intrigue and Love.

The Army beckons...


The summer was coming and with it ─ military conscription. Mentally I was preparing myself for the inevitable. For two years I would become army property. I would be posted to some far away village, perhaps in Slovakia, just as my father had. There would be nothing to do, but to find myself some village girl and return with her in tow and in an advanced state of pregnancy. I've seen this happen to those who went to the army before me. Some did not even return; they must have settled in their new home, having begged the whole village on their knees to be allowed to marry the local beauty. They became shepherds or makers of goat cheese.

 Looming was also another, even more catastrophic scenario. I could be sent to the south-western border, where I would be patrolling along the barbed wires charged with high voltage electricity, and thus guard the Paradise of socialism from the bad and ideologically subversive West. Perhaps I even might be required to shoot at someone, who had decided to cut through the wires that were really not designed to stop any subversions from the West, but to keep the happy citizens in their land.

       The day had finally arrived when the warlords had enlisted the whole group of about twenty of us, all from the same town. Present was also an officer of a rather high rank, a lieutenant colonel or something similar, perhaps even more, who knew me and who liked my singing. We had met briefly at some function and he had told me so. While I was standing naked in front of the commission he winked at me (I had problems remembering who he was), and then made a couple of cryptic remarks, which I didn't understand at the time, regarding my posting and the surprise I'll get. I put it down to the patronising attitude some officers displayed, and didn´t pay much attention to it.

The recruits
With the group of conscripts, front left

Several months later, the first call-up papers had begun to arrive. The few unfortunates who received them were bound for the "line", as the guarded border with West Germany and Austria was known. Those who went there, for some reason received their draft cards two months earlier than the rest ─ on the 1st August, while the standard was the 1st October. They nevertheless had to serve those extra two months, and went back to civilian  life on 1st October, like the others. I could let out a breath of relief, as the worst scenario was avoided. It was beginning to look like Slovakia. Thinking that I had left another two months of freedom, and of the near nightly beer drinking sessions with friends under the same predicament, I was much surprised when I got the message that my call-up letter was waiting for me at the post office, to be signed for. Where could they be sending me to? And why at such unexpected time? While running most of the way to the post office, I prayed for it be at least a half decent place where I would be spending the next two years. The man at the counter was watching me closely, as I was opening the envelope, after signing the receipt he gave me. He was used to sharing the excitement of the newly recruited upon finding out about their destiny. He was also puzzled by the unusual date of arrival of my letter.

"So, where is it you'll be going?"

He had to repeat the question, because I was far too much absorbed and did not react.

"To Prague."

"To Prague? Lucky you! You're the first one I know of in the last few years to get called to Prague. Which troop?"

I had read it, but it looked too crazy to even consider it seriously. I handed the conscription order to him. He had read it, frowned upon it, as if he didn’t know what to think of it. Finally he smiled.

"The Army Central Entertainment Unit? Looks like you've made a scoop, mate!"



© Voyen Koreis 2016