Vaclav Havel: a voice in my ear

One balmy summer’s evening in 1990, I went for a stroll in Prague and found myself drawn by a surging crowd into Wenceslas Square.

Flags were being held aloft in desultory fashion and people around me were switching between chatting among themselves to listening to the speakers on the dais. They told me, in that shrug-shouldered Czech fashion, that it was the six-month anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and they were getting on with their lives, pretty much as before. There was plenty complain about.

All of a sudden, the attention level changed.  A different speaker had taken the microphone and, insteaqd of exhorting the crowd, seemed to be grumbling along with it. Vaclav Havel had a growly voice, colourless and without much by way of emphasis or inflection. He did not orate: he flatlined.

The people around me explained that he was not making a political speech. There were no promises of better times ahead, no gloating at the fall of tyrants. He was just reflecting, in his own roundabout way, on the historic events they had shared and on the difficulties that lay ahead – the likelihood of a split with the Slovaks and an economic recession.

He did not receive the biggest cheer of the evening – that was reserved for Alexander Dubcek, who ruled during the 1968 Prague Spring – but Havel did not seem bothered as he shambled off. He had spoken, done his bit, and was off for a beer. For an intellectual and an artist, he had an unusual grasp of the concerns of the ordinary man and woman in the square.

That’s the image he imprinted on my ear. He was the voice of the Czech people.

He died today, aged 75.

Hear the voice, and the ideas, in an interview here.

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  • Vaclav Havel’s courage and conviction changed European history. Read his ‘Letters to Olga’ – his letters from prison. A man with total moral authority, something which is profoundly lacking in most politicians these days.

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