Czech it out

JAN GARRIGUE MASARYK was born in Prague (Czechoslovakia) in 1886. Son of the first President of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937), Jan was Foreign Minister of his country between 1940 and 1948, when two things happened. First, the Communists began tightening their grip on Czechoslovakia and possibly connected with that, Jan Masaryk was found dead in his pyjamas in the courtyard of the Foreign Ministry in Prague on the 10th of March. By 1948, Prague already had a reputation for defenestration. Whether or not Jan was pushed out of a window remains uncertain. Two years earlier, a large non-descript house in Hampstead’s West End Lane became home to the recently formed National House, a meeting place for Czechoslovaks (mainly war veterans) in London. Now, it is known as Bohemia House. Its website (https://bohemiahouse.london/beginning-of-national-house/) explains:

“After communist revolution in 1948 and the USSR invasion to Czechoslovakia in 1968, providing the homely atmosphere as well as traditional cuisine. Converted into public house in mid 80’s, the National House serves also as a traditional restaurant showcasing Czech & Slovak cuisines to the public.”

It was in the 1980s that I first began visiting the place to sample Czechoslovak food and drink. After many years, I revisited the place recently (in March 2022).

If it were not for the sign advertising Pilsner Urquell beer projecting above a tall privet hedge, most passers-by would hardly notice that they were passing what is now a bar and restaurant. Immediately after entering via the front door, I noticed several commemorative plaques. One of them honours the British historian RW Seton-Watson (1879-1951), who fought for the rights of the Czechs and Slovaks and other subject people/nations of the former Austro-Hungarian Empireafter WW1. Next to that, there is a large metal plate remembering the Czechoslovak “soldiers, airmen, and patriots”, who fell in WW2. It makes special mention of the Czechoslovak men who flew from Leamington Spa and were parachuted into their Nazi-occupied country to assassinate Heydrich (see https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2021/11/25/leamington-spa-heydrich-and-the-tragedy-at-lidice/).

A doorway from the hallway leads into a front room used as a formal dining room. This is decorated in a mildly baroque style. A gold-framed portrait of TG Masaryk faces the door. Various other framed portraits including one of Queen Elizabeth II hang on the walls. A metal bust of TG Masaryk stands on a mantlepiece next to a credit card machine and a metal sculpture of a Czech airman and there is an old-fashioned gramophone with an LP on its turntable between the two metal sculptures. The formal dining room is separated by a folding screen from a much larger room behind it. The latter, with tables and chairs, a pool table, and a table-football unit, is a less formal space, which I do not remember from the 1980s. In those days, food was served to ‘outsiders’ in the formal front room.

The larger, rear room with windows overlooking the back garden has several interesting objects on its walls. A sombre-looking metal plate covered with many names lists those who “gave their lives for Freedom” between 1939 and 1945. On the wall facing this, there are two posters with photographs of Alexander Dubček (1921-1992), a Slovak Communist politician, who tried to reform the Communist government during the Prague Spring of 1968, which ended after a few months when the Soviet Army invaded his country. On a wall behind the table-football unit, there are two large, colourful, framed maps. One is of the Czech Republic and the other of the Slovak Republic. Between the end of WW1 and 1993, the two now independent countries were parts of one country: the former Czechoslovakia.

A visit to the toilet involves climbing the stairs to the first floor. After ascending the first flight of stairs, the next short flight approaches a huge painting depicting TG Masaryk dressed in a flowing light beige coat and sporting a straw hat with a black ribbon tied above its rim.

Today, Bohemia House continues to welcome guests, both from the lands, which were once Czechoslovakia, as well as others. Its bar offers a range of beers, spirits, wines, and soft drinks, from that region of Central Europe. I sampled a can of Kofola, a carbonated Czech soft drink, whose taste vaguely resembles Coca Cola. The pint of Pilsner Urquell beer was more enjoyable. We also tried a variety of dishes typically cooked in the Czech and Slovak republics. They were enjoyable enough, but I prefer the cuisines of both Poland and Hungary. However, do not let this comment put you off paying a visit to Bohemia House, where you will receive a warm welcome from its charming staff. And … if you wish to know more about Hampstead’s Czechoslovak, other Central European, and Soviet historical associations, you could do no better than to read my new book about the area, available from Amazon [https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92] and bookdepository.com [https://www.bookdepository.com/BENEATH-WIDE-SKY-HAMPSTEAD-ITS-ENVIRONS-2022-Adam-Yamey/9798407539520]).

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