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Friday, 10 August 2012

Roger McGough, CBE, Dorchester, 2012 (and Prague, 1988)

Thomas Hardy Society Website

Roger McGough  in Dorchester, 18 August, 2012

One of the last times we met was in Prague in 1988,  a year before the Velvet Revolution (we met again in Australia).

In my mind’s eye I can still see the huge crowd which had gathered to mark the anniversary of John Lennon’s death on December 8, when Roger was dragged into the crowd to read three of his most famous Liverpool poems. He'd arrived in Czechoslovakia on November 28, 1988, and gave a reading at my offices on December 8.

Notes from my journal:

Yesterday, 8th December, was John Lennon Day in Prague. Roger McGough read at Charles University (200), English Teachers’ Club and at the John Lennon Memorial (1500 people?): “Let me die a young man’s death”, “Q” and “40-Love”. Czechs singing songs, holding candles. Pavel Šrut, the poet and translator, organised Roger’s participation.

“Let me die a youngman’s death…
Not…’what a nice way to go’ death”.

Roger was taking a brave but calculated risk….

Visby, Sweden, 11.6.2006.

I’m re-reading Roger McGough’s article in The Mail on Sunday of October 29, 1995:

“There’s a place called John Lennon Wall in Prague- and a visit there was the highlight of a three-week trip for me in 1988. The British Council had invited me to Czechoslovakia, and there was an annual peace procession to this wall. Poets and writers asked me to go as a British visitor with a Liverpool connection…In the past this gathering had been broken up by police and the British Council chap was worried about me. It was in the old town, which was dark, misty and chilling-there was a sense of danger. There were hundreds of coaches full of police. People there were prepared to be beaten up. But everybody lit candles, the crowd wasn’t dispersed and the whole thing went off peacefully. And after this everybody wondered if things were changing at last.”

Soon after his visit to Czechoslovakia he was to write “Of all the trips I have undertaken with the help of the British Council, this was for me the most memorable and exciting”(Feb.1989). Five poems and an interview in Slovak covered a whole page in Literárny Týždenník on 24 March, 1989, and his provocative and amusing poem “I wanna be the leader..Yippee I’m the leader…OK what shall we do?” was also published in Slovak translation in “Literárny Týždenník” on 12 May 1989. An interview and two other short poems in Czech appeared in Mladá fronta on 22.4.89. Helena Císařová must take full credit for those.

This was a landmark visit, I believe, because of the amount of media attention, the access to students and the unofficial, spontaneous appearance at the high-risk John Lennon Memorial Celebration. I reviewed Roger’s autobiography “Said and Done” (2005) in the magazine Live in London (May-July 2006). He doesn’t write about the Prague visit in his autobiography, perhaps out of modesty. He could have made it into an engaging chapter, “My Part in the Velvet Revolution and Fall of Communism”. As I wrote,

“One of my enduring images of Roger McGough dates back to 1988, when I accompanied him to a mass rally or counter-cultural ‘peace celebration’ to commemorate the anniversary of the death of John Lennon at the ‘Lennon Wall’ in Prague, a wall beloved by courageous young people and dissident graffiti-writers, which they daubed with Freedom slogans, invocations of their heroes and calls for change. This was on December 8/9, 1988, eleven months before the Velvet revolution, the fall of Communism and the Berlin Wall, at a time when the Czechoslovak Police were prone to use considerable violence to persecute protesting dissidents and to break up unauthorised gatherings. I was worried for his personal safety.

He was dragged off into the dense, excited crowd to give a spontaneous reading of “Let me die a youngman’s death” and two other poems which put more nails into the coffin of Czechoslovak communism, even though  the rally and his reading were no doubt being recorded on the closed circuit television system of the Czechoslovak Secret Police. He was the closest that disaffected Czech and Slovak youth could get to the free spirits of Liverpool and John Lennon. ‘The Mersey Sound’ had come out at the height of the Prague Spring, in 1967. 

I, for one, will never forget his unscheduled, historical reading to the excited crowd of people who later bore him off on their shoulders to whatever fate might have awaited him…In the beer-hall or at the hands of the Secret Police.”

Back to my Prague journal notes:

9.12 1988.
A turning point? Roger McGough afternoon reading at Charles University organised by Rory Allardyce and Dr Martin Hilsky. 200-plus students. McGough’s reading was mentioned in the papers, re the Lennon Commoration. There was no police interference. They say the Czech Socialist Union of Youth was “in charge”. There was TV coverage too.Who knows the truth?

Roger McGough, poetry reading: "Greek Tragedy"

From the poem Blackest of Blues (Nailing the Shadow)

"Marketa Prachaticka is an award-winning artist from the Czech Republic. Her wild and beautifully drawn illustrations for Alice in Wonderland won her the prestigious Premio Grafico prize at the Bologna Children's Book Fair. She has also illustrated books by authors such as Roger McGough and Roald Dahl (including the Czech edition of James and the Giant Peach)". Bloodaxe.

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