Quintessential Englishman Euan Edworthy has made Prague his home and place of business for the last 24 years. Neville Chamberlain notoriously dismissed Czechoslovakia in 1938 as “a faraway country of whom we know nothing.” Euan shares with us a fascinating and charming account of his experiences and observations.
Most people go to Prague twice. Once on a stag or hen weekend; then again, older and wiser, to revel in the architecture, the music, the restaurants and the historical thrill of walking where Heydrich’s assassins fled from the Gestapo.
I went once, back in June 1994, and stayed. It was a career opportunity. I’d run nightclubs at university, played a bit of cricket in Hong Kong and tried my hand at this and that in London. So, of course, I went into PR. The Czech government wanted someone to attract inward investment and they seemed to think that a 24-year-old Brit was just the ticket.
Chamberlain had a point. Prague is probably the most ‘foreign’ place you can visit within two hours of Heathrow. It resembles other cities but the way it works is totally different. Czechs look like other Europeans but their culture is all their own; after 20 years I still don’t understand it. My staff are all Czech or Slovak. They take great delight in telling me, with a sigh, that Czechs just do things differently.
Prague is a beautiful city. It’s also surprisingly small; the same size as Birmingham. You can walk everywhere, which makes Prague a good choice for a long weekend of meandering. Most visitors get a sore neck because there is so much to look at – a lot of it high up. They call Prague the ‘City of 100 Spires’ but there are really five times as many.
I walk to work and every day I spot something new and surprising – a plaque, a monument, a medieval alleyway, the house where Mozart lived, a 200-year-old painting on the front of a palace, three storeys up. Prague is full of architectural extravagance from the last 700 years, and because the city escaped bombing in World War Two it’s all still there. Well – it suffered one air raid but that was a mistake by Americans who thought they were bombing Dresden.
My timing was lucky. I arrived just as the Czechs were opening up politically and economically. The atmosphere was electric. People could start up any kind of business that took their fancy. With Vaclav Havel as President, Czechs at long last felt good about themselves. I didn’t experience the 60s in London but it must have had the same kind of can-do attitude for the young and adventurous. I confess that my memories of Prague in those early, ‘Wild East’ days are a bit hazy. Just like the 60s, then.
It was a good time to set up a PR agency, so I did. We have been very lucky, growing with the economy and working with some of the world’s most interesting companies, all eager to stake their claim in the markets of newly-liberated Central Europe. For most of this time the city was awash with expats from just about every country on the planet. Fortunately for people like me, English rapidly became the lingua franca. My friends and I speak ‘combat Czech’ but it’s a difficult language with a lot of rules and no resemblance to English, French or German.
Prague was then, and is now, what it has been since the Middle Ages: a cosmopolitan city, a melting-pot. Its artistic heritage can be seen and heard on all sides. Prague has more architects and more violinists per capita than anywhere else on earth and now as then, the city is also full of patrons and audiences. You can see five different operas in five days. You can bump into film-stars any day of the week. Barrandov has been one of the world’s premier movie studios since the 1920s and Prague welcomes location units with open arms.
I once found myself detailed to look after Sean Connery while he was filming here. Fortunately I can play a passable game of golf – or at least, I could then. We went round happily enough, me chirpy and Connery gruff. He took great delight in demolishing ‘an Englishman’. When I told him that my mother was from Inverness his face fell a mile.
Most tourists encounter Czechs in the hospitality industry – much like London. They are charming, professional, helpful, attentive and obsessed with doing things properly. And yet they haven’t had a very good time in the 20th Century. First they were dragooned into the First World War as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Thousands mutinied and made their way via Russia to join the French forces on the Western Front – which made Clemenceau a fervent backer of Czechoslovak independence at Versailles.
The First Republic was admittedly a wonderful time for Czech inventors, designers and manufacturers. If it was made of metal or had wheels, the Czechs made it better than nearly everyone else. The first trams, the first limousines, the first helicopters, the fastest aircraft, the biggest guns, the best tanks. Then the Nazis moved in; a blanket of oppression descended and 400,000 Czechs disappeared. No sooner had the Germans gone back to Germany than the communists took over; more oppression. The Prague Spring of 1968 is etched on the national memory. It was a tentative bid for freedom but the Soviets decided to make an example of this little country and sent tanks onto the streets.
Since 1989 the Czechs have been ‘free at last’ and making the most of it. The economy is roaring – there is full employment in Prague – and the country is a hotspot for software and online services. Metal still matters: VW acquired Skoda and turned it into a byword for reliability and value. Few visitors see the countryside, but they should. The Czechs worship nature and look after it properly. The Czech Republic has more sites of special scientific interest than anywhere else. You can sail, ride, ski and trail-bike in a single day. The next day you can drive a tank. The day after, you can drink surprisingly good Moravian wine in a 12th century castle.
And how about this? In 1938, it may have been a country of which ‘we knew nothing’ but that didn’t stop the Czechs and Slovaks joining the RAF and the British Army in droves. A total of 8,000 soldiers and airmen escaped; 2,500 joined the Royal Air Force and the Battle of Britain’s top-scoring ace, with 17 kills, was Josef Frantisek – a Czech.
This little-known piece of history led to my proudest moment as a Brit living in Prague. Some friends and I got together three years ago to raise funds for a memorial to this notable alliance. We commissioned Colin Spofforth to sculpt the ‘Winged Lion’, which was unveiled by Sir Nicholas Soames in the presence of eight Czech and Slovak veterans of the allied air forces of 1939-45. A Spitfire soared unforgettably overhead.
I never intended to stay here in Prague, but I’m glad I did. It’s a fascinating country full of people doing new and different things. It’s a safe city, ideal for our nine-year-old son. It’s ‘foreign’ but very close to home; I can be with my parents (or at Lord’s) in less than two hours’ flying-time. Best of all, it’s a constant inspiration. Prague lifts everyone’s spirits.
And when I’m wrestling with a knotty problem I put on my walking shoes and march up Petrin Hill. From the top I can see all 500 spires; gilded rooftops, golden statues, a stately riot of architectural styles: Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Deco, Cubist. I can see the river winding through the city far below. I can see forests and hills on the horizon.