Appeasement and leisure in a London park

NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN (1869-1940) has earned a poor reputation, mainly because of his unfortunate policy of appeasement with Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, which included the Munich Agreement in September 1938, which allowed the Nazis to invade the Sudetenland, the western part of Czechoslovakia. It took the disastrous German invasion of Poland before the then Prime Minister, Chamberlain, finally made Britain declare war on Germany.

Today (24th of November 2020), we revisited Gunnersbury Park, which we ‘discovered’ for the first time a few weeks earlier. The front of the grand house, the Large Mansion, which was acquired by Nathan, a member of the Rothschild family, in 1835, has a terrace running next to its long rear façade. At each end of the terrace, there are two neo-classical archways, which we did not examine carefully on our first visit.

In one of these arches, there are two commemorative tablets inscribed in upper-case lettering. Both note the fact that Gunnersbury Park was opened for use by the public by “The Right Hon. Neville Chamberlain, M.P., Minister of Health”. The rest of the information on the tablets relates to the financing of the purchase of the park (from Lionel Nathan de Rothschild). One tablet commemorates that a quarter of the cost of the park, purchased by the Boroughs of both Acton and Ealing, was provided by Middlesex County Council. The other tablet recalls that in 1927, The Urban District Council of Brentford and Chiswick joined those of Acton and Ealing in the ownership and running of the public park. Thus, for a while, the park was managed by three different district councils. In 1965, Brentford and Chiswick became absorbed into the new Borough of Hounslow. That year, the Borough of Acton became part of the new enlarged Borough of Ealing. So, now the park is managed by two boroughs instead of three. According to a gardener, with whom we spoke, one of these boroughs has spent far more money on the park than the other.

In 1926, when he opened the park at an occasion that has been recorded on film (https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-the-official-opening-of-gunnersbury-park-by-the-rt-hon-neville-chamberlain-m-p-1926), Neville Chamberlain was Member of Parliament for Birmingham Ladywood, representing the Unionist party, now part of the Conservative and Unionist party. Two years before he opened Gunnersbury Park, he was appointed Minister of Health by the then Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

Although he might have had good reasons for doing so, allowing the Germans to enter Czechoslovakia and overrun the Sudetenland seems unforgivable. However, and this by no means makes his policy of Appeasement more palatable, his opening the gates of Gunnersbury Park to the public has provided joy to visitors from near and far for many decades. I heartily recommend a visit to this lovely place filled with picturesque delights.

Czech point

 

MUCH OF WHAT HAPPENED when we visited the Czech Republic in 1999 was our fault, but what followed left a bad taste in our mouths. We drove to Loket in the western part of the country, in what was once known as the ‘Sudetenland’ and stayed in a nice hotel, where we had stayed two years earlier, in the centre of the small town near to Karlovy Vary. Every day, we used our car to explore the country.

 

LOKET wiiki

LOKET in Czech Republic  (Source: wikipedia)

One day, we drove to Teplice (Teplitz in German). It was here that Beethoven met Goethe at the town’s well-known spa. On the way, we stopped in the square of a small town near to Teplice.  My wife and our small daughter were standing, waiting for me, when a car sped towards them and skidded to a halt about a foot away from them. Had it come any closer and they had not run, my family would have been badly injured or worse. Why had the Czech youths driving the car done this? Was it to scare them or even to hurt them because my Indian wife looked to them like a gypsy? The gypsies in many central and eastern European countries face much hatred and prejudice from those who regard themselves as true locals.

Somewhat shaken, we continued our journey to Teplice, where I parked in a spot (next to a police station) where one needed to purchase a parking ticket to display in the windscreen. Inadvertantly, I did not buy a ticket. We went off for a walk for an hour or so, and then headed back to the car. Before we reached it, I went into a music store to look at CDs and the others walked ahead to the car. A few minutes later, I reached our dark blue SAAB.

Our vehicle was surrounded by policemen. My wife was shouting at them in erratic German, accusing them and the Czechs of behaving like Nazis and trying to murder us. It was only after a couple of minutes that I noticed the clamp attached to one of our wheels. Blue in colour, it matched our car perfectly. It had been placed because of my not having bought a parking ticket. We were required to pay a fine.

“How much?” I asked.

“1500 Crowns”

“I don’t have that much cash.”

“How much do you have?”

“Five hundred,” I replied.

“Not enough. Go to that cash machine. Get more.”

We paid 1500 Crowns (about £25 in 1999) as required, and then asked for a receipt for what seemed like an excessive amount to pay for a parking infringement. One of the police officers brought a receipt book. He wrote something on one page, and then tore it and 14 other pages out of the receipt book. We looked at the fifteen receipts we had been given, each one to the value of 100 Crowns. Only one of them bore a date and our car’s registration number. The fine must have been 100 Crowns, and the rest a gift to the policemen of Teplice.

The following day, our penultimate in the Czech Republic, we ran out of cash. I suggested that as it was a Sunday and banks were closed, that we drove to a border crossing where we were likely to find a bureau de change. Why we did not look for a cash machine, I cannot remember. We drove along a road that led to a frontier post on a road into what had once been East Germany. On the way, we passed a road sign that I did not recognise but will now never forget. As soon as we drove into the Czech frontier post compound, our car was once again surrounded by uniformed men. They told us to drive into a small gravelly parking lot where I noticed an abandoned car with British registration plates. We were asked to disembark and hand over our passports. At this point, my wife, who was already fed up with the corruption of Czech officialdom, began banging her forehead against our car. Meanwhile, our passports were taken into a hut to be photocopied. Our crime was that we had driven to a frontier post that could only be used by local Czech and German pedestrians.

It transpired that the solution to our problem was to pay a fine.

“How much?” I asked, trying to explain that we had arrived at this post hoping to change some money.

“How much have you got?”

Having already learnt that 500 Crowns was likely to be insufficient, I said that I had enough Deutschmarks to pay up to 1000 Crowns.

“You will pay one thousand Crowns. You can change money there,” we were informed by one of the uniformed officers who pointed at a booth nearby.

Once the transaction was over, our passports were returned, and we headed back to our hotel in Loket, thoroughly disgusted by the corrupt behaviour of some Czech officials.

My wife and daughter went up to our attic bedroom to rest whilst I stayed at the reception to settle our bill.

“I have come to pay for our stay.”

“36,000 Crowns,” announced the receptionist in impeccable English.

“But,” I replied, “you agreed 18,000 in your confirmation email.”

“Your daughter has extra bed.”

“No, she did not. We brought her bed from London, as agreed in the email.”

“No, it is 36,000”

I took out my credit card. I knew that the hotel was trying to cheat us and that if I fell for their price, my wife would have found it hard to forgive me after what had happened to us already in the hands of the various officials we had met recently. Waving my card at the receptionist, I said:

“18,000 and no more.”

“We need 36,000”

“18,000, and no more,” I said more forcefully that I am usually and placing the credit card back into my wallet.

“Ok, 1800 will do.”

We left the Czech Republic the next day and have not yet felt the need to return. This is a pity because the country, which I have visited four times, does have a lot to offer the visitor.

Many years after our unfortunate trip to the Czech Republic, we were in Bangalore (India) when I learnt how to deal with corruptible policemen. Our driver, ‘R’, decided to take a short cut by driving down a one-way street in the wrong direction. A policeman stopped him. We said to R that we would pay the fine. Getting out of the car, he told us not to worry.

After a few minutes, R returned smiling. He told us:

“Fine is usually 300 rupees. I told him that if he accepted 100 rupees, it would save him the trouble of writing out all of that paperwork. He was happy with that.”

Clearly, a considerate crook can expect considerate behaviour from a crooked cop.

Divided but unified

CZECH BLOG

Notting Hill Gate, not to be confused with ‘Notting Hill’ as in the Hugh Grant film, on the western edge of central London is not lacking in mediochre modern architecture, mostly constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. One building stands out as being aesthetically a cut above the rest. This is the former Czechoslovak Centre, the Embassy of Czechoslovakia, a fine (if that is an appropriate adjective) example of ‘Brutalist’ concrete architecture.

The Centre was built between 1965 and 1970, and was designed by “…Šrámek, Stephansplatz and Jan Bočan, from the Atelier Beta Prague Project Institute, were the architects of the embassy, working in cooperation with British architect Robert Matthew and based in his office” (see HERE for detail). The building won an architectural award from RIBA in 1971. Unlike many buildings built at te same time, the Czechoslovak Centre building has not suffered from ageing. It stll looks in great condition.

In 1993, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. It split into the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia. Despite this, the Czechoslovak Centre building continued to have diplomati cfunctions. The building was divided into a Czech Embassy and a Slovak Embassy.

Before and after the separation of the two parts of what was once Czechoslovakia, I was a member of  the Dvorak Society, an English organisation for promoting interest in music from  the Czech and Slovak lands. The Czechoslovak, and then later the Czech and Slovak embassies used to host occasional congenial recitals of music for the Dvorak Society.

On one occasion after 1993, my wife and I attended a recital at the Slovak Embassy. After the music was over, we were treated to delicious food and Slovakian wine. The ambassador mingled amongst the guests. My wife asked him how the Czechs and Slovaks were coping with sharing the same building. Smiling, he replied:

We have to cope well because we have to share the central heating and hot water system that was installed to serve the building when it was a single embassy.”

Two professions

We made several visits to Central Europe in our car during the mid-1990s.

CZECH

Twice during those years, we drove to the Czech Republic, entering it from the eastern edge of what had formerly been prosperous West Germany. The Western part of the Czech Republic, which had been the largely German-populated Sudetenland before 1945 is thickly forested with tall dark pine trees. We were dismayed to discover that for the first ten or so kilometres beyond the border, the roads through the Czech forests were lined with ‘gentleman’s’ clubs and prostitutes.

When we were in the middle of one forest, the rain began pouring down. At the corner of a road junction in the middle of the wood, we saw a young lady dressed in a shiny red jacket with matching short hot pants. Our three-year old child saw the woman, took pity on her, and said:

“Shouldn’t we offer her a lift.”

The innocence of our child was touching.

Hungary is south of the Czech Republic. In the late 1990s, we drove into it from Austria. For the first few kilometres of Hungarian territory, we saw no prostitutes, but numerous dental surgeries with signs both in Hungarian and German. Often the dental surgery was in a little compound that included a restaurant and a food shop. The presence of so many dentists offering their services so close to the border with Austria suggested that dentistry in Hungary was good value compared with that in Austria. And, while a member of an Austrian family is having his or her teeth repaired, the rest of the family could enjoy a good Hungarian meal and buy some tasty souvenirs to take back home.

Dental tourism is still popular in Hungary. English newspapers frequently contain adverts encouraging people to obtain supposedly cheaper dental treatment in Budapest.

The proximity of Bohemian prostitutes to the Czech border and Magyar dentists equally close the Hungarian border made me consider a possible uncomfortable comparison. I wondered whether people ever see some similarity between the two professions. I hoped not!