Tag Archives: Prague

There is much more to Mr Twonkey aka Paul Vickers than just surreal comedy

Having a hearty breakfast with Mr Twonkey

I met up with Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winner Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey over breakfast to talk about his show Twonkey’s Night Train To Liechtenstein but, initially, we got sidetracked by the three gigs he recently played at the Prague Fringe – in the Museum of Alchemists.


JOHN: What is the museum like?

PAUL: It’s a lovely place. It’s got a lot of… not waxworks… fibreglass dummies of alchemists.

JOHN: I like Prague.

Mr Twonkey was a cover star at the Prague Fringe

PAUL: Oh, it’s a beautiful place. we always give money to the Infant Jesus of Prague. They change its clothes every day; it has different jackets and stuff. The more money we gave, the busier the show got. 

JOHN: Did he bleed more if you gave him more money?

PAUL: He doesn’t bleed, but he smiles. He is in a little glass box in a little church just over the Charles Bridge. He is small, but he has big fluffy coats and very flamboyant clothing. 

JOHN: It’s not a small statue of Liberace, is it?

PAUL: It does look like Liberace, but it’s Jesus. It’s one of those things like his eyes are following you round the room.

JOHN: His stigmata are following you round the room?

PAUL: Yeah. But the more money you give him, the more people come, you know?

JOHN: Anyway, you are performing your Twonkey’s Night Train To Liechtenstein at the Bill Murray venue in London next Thursday. Is that the same show you did in Brighton?

PAUL: Slightly but not totally different. It’s finding its feet. I have different terms for my shows now. The current show is an Arrival show. But I also do Gateway shows.

JOHN: What are they?

PAUL: A Gateway show is where you find a way in or a way out. With creative ideas, I find sometimes you get trapped. You get a formula for doing something and then, over time, that formula becomes stale, so you feel trapped by it. A Gateway show shows you don’t actually have to do it like that.

In another show, Mr Twonkey spent Christmas in the Jungle

You experiment with a new format and, if that works then, after that, you can have an Arrival show which I think is the most exciting type but it’s also potentially The End. In which case you need another Gateway show. Unless I have two Arrival shows, which is what I’m thinking.

I wonder if that’s possible.

JOHN: Maybe Liechtenstein will have a fire escape.

PAUL: Yeah. That would be great: if I could have two Arrival shows. 

JOHN: …and a fire escape show, like West Side Story.

PAUL: It makes sense in my head, but…

JOHN: So what you did before feels a bit stale to you now?

PAUL: Well, my first three shows – Twonkey’s Cottage, Twonkey’s Castle and Twonkey’s Kingdom – were like a trilogy and the idea was I was only going to do that. I was telling the story of the mythical character Twonkey. But the trouble was no-one understood what I was going on about; no-one was following the story. In some respects, you had to have seen the show before to fully understand the threads in the other show.

JOHN: What was the over-all narrative of the three shows?

PAUL: It was following the journey of Twonkey, who was an accountant… well, a dragon, really… Basically, a dragon who moved from a castle and got more and more powerful. He started off in a cottage, then had his own castle, then had his own kingdom. 

Mr Twonkey had a colourful and successful Blue Cadabra

Then I broke away. I killed Twonkey off after the third show. So the dragon died and I became Mr Twonkey. I became the essence of Twonkey. What I realised was that Twonkey was not a dragon but a state of mind. That freed it up. I had a Gateway show – Twonkey’s Blue Cadabra – which I had quite a bit of success with.

After that, I did a series of shows in that kind of formula…

JOHN: How many?

PAUL: Eh… How many were there?…Two?

JOHN: You’re not quite sure?

PAUL: No. I did Twonkey’s Private Restaurant, which was an extension of Cadabra. In Twonkey’s Stinking Bishop, there was a log flume park. Then Twonkey’s Mumbo Jumbo Hotel was the one I got the Malcolm Hardee Award for. That was a Gateway show, because that was the first time I introduced the idea of an interwoven narrative throughout the over-all piece. 

I have carried on with that since and the new show – Twonkey’s Night Train To Liechtenstein – probably has the most clear narrative I’ve had.

JOHN: And you are doing that at the Edinburgh Fringe in August?

PAUL: Yes.

JOHN: Are you playing Fringe By The Sea in North Berwick while you’re up in Edinburgh?

PAUL: Yes, but not as Twonkey. I’m doing my band stuff. Paul Vickers and The Leg.

JOHN: Your band is active again?

PAUL: Yes. We are recording an album at the end of June.

Paul Vickers (right) and The Leg: part of a body parts boom

JOHN: Why are they called The Leg?

PAUL: There was a boom in Scotland of bands named after body parts. There was Wounded Knee; there was Withered Hand; and so there was The Leg. There was also Frightened Rabbit.

JOHN: That’s a body part?

PAUL: No. Not a body part. But it fits in somehow.

JOHN: Fringe By The Sea sounds good.

PAUL: Yes, an odd mix of acts. The Sugarhill Gang. Mica Paris. Lewis Schaffer, David Steel and Roy Hattersley.

JOHN: David Steel and Roy Hattersley? The politicians?

PAUL: Yes.

JOHN: They’re singing…?

PAUL: No. Sitting in chairs and speaking to people.

JOHN: Roy Hattersley should join your band.

PAUL: Well, he had the reputation of spitting a lot… on Spitting Image… My girlfriend is making a seagull at the moment.

JOHN: What?

PAUL: My girlfriend is making a seagull at the moment.

JOHN: As a prop for your Twonkey show?

PAUL: She says it is. Though I haven’t got anything with a seagull in my act at the moment. 

Paul/Twonkey has been known to use occasional props

JOHN: She makes your props.

PAUL: Some, yes. And Grant Pringle makes the bigger ones.

JOHN: Is he related to the Pringles crisp dynasty?

PAUL: No. I think he is related to Pringle The Slayer.

JOHN: Who?

PAUL: Pringle The Slayer was a Borders Reiver. He had people locked up in a tower near Galashiels. I wrote a piece about Pringle The Slayer for Border Life magazine. I used to write for that. We interviewed David Steel for that too. Local interest. I also did Border X-Files, which was about  aliens and ghosts.

JOHN: That was a separate magazine from the one David Steel was in?

PAUL: No. It was all local interest. There was a lot of going to manor houses and talking to rich old ladies and there were photos of horses and green fields. It was the most successful thing we did after the music magazine failed. When BritPop deflated, the music magazine went down and we went into local publishing. But then the band took off and we were alright.

JOHN: What was the music magazine called?

PAUL: Sun Zoom Spark, named after a Captain Beefheart song.

JOHN: Ah. How are you enjoying your baked beans?

PAUL: They’re very nice.

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Filed under Comedy, Music, Surreal

In Prague, Lynn Ruth Miller, 84, re-evaluates why people become comics

Just over a month ago, I posted a blog about UK-based US comic Lynn Ruth Miller’s extraordinary up-coming world travels. Later this week, she is off for seven days work in Dublin.

She has just returned from nine days performing in the Czech Republic. This is (part of) what happened there.


I arrived in Prague and within minutes I had demolished a bottle of wine. It seems the city is fuelled on alcohol and dumplings… but who am I to judge?

My first comedy show was in Brno. 

Lynn Ruth Miller performed at the Velvet Comedy in Brno

I stayed the night in a huge apartment that automatically turned on lights whenever I stepped into the room and was filled with encouraging English sayings, like: You are what you want to beLife is for living… and Please do not put anything other than you know what in our toilets.

The city is filled with ex-pats who have come here to live because the cost of living is low, the people are friendly and the preponderance of alcohol soothes the ruffled mind. These people use beer to jump-start the day.

We returned to Prague the next day. I stayed in a very retro flat with all kinds of old-fashioned furniture and one ton of mosquitoes and spiders. I felt like a pin-cushion and scratched in very embarrassing places. 

The comedy show was at a hostel and the audience was thirsty for a laugh and Czech beer. The accepted routine is a large mug of local beer with a whisky chaser and two dumplings to line the tummy. The audience was from every corner of the globe including a former teacher from Boston who had taught in LA, Okinawa, then moved to Mexico, then Prague and now makes jewelry and does improv; a Japanese comedian from Tokyo; and a guy from Manchester who was the only one who got my jokes.

The next day I tried my hand at teaching a comedy workshop to five eager would-be comedians. I realized once again that people have to have a sense of funny and, if they do not, no matter what they say, it won’t get a laugh.

I learned a couple things about would-be comics however. They will fight to the finish to keep a bad joke. They cannot understand the concept of set-up > punch. It is more long diatribe and feeble ha-ha. And, if one friend laughed at one of their jokes once, they think it is sure to become a classic. I knocked off a bottle of wine and – believe me – I needed it.

After dinner, we went to a tapas place with the woman from LA who lived in Okinawa and Mexico and is now a Czech citizen. She has lived in Prague for 15 years and still cannot speak Czech. I am told it is the most difficult language in the world and it seems to ignore vowels. Another bottle of wine down the hatch and the evening was very sparkly… or what I remember of it.

An insight into the Czech sex psyche

We talked about the Czech attitude toward sex and equality. It seems women have always had to work and are on an equal basis with men when it comes to salary and promotion. The MeToo movement doesn’t really make sense to these people, mainly because Czech men do not come on to women.

I cannot figure out whether they do not make the first move because they are ashamed of their bodies or because they have no vowels.

Porn is a way of life here. It is their substitute for not getting any. They all watch it and that is why Czech people think they have excellent technique when in reality you have to be an accomplished gymnast to do what you see on film. I have given up the idea of finding a Czech lover. It is far too risky. I have osteoporosis.

My second comedy workshop was in a café. Four of my students showed up and I heard their attempts at a five minute set which was horrifying. We all worked together to try to help each other tighten up the diatribes they had created and I hope I am not deceiving myself when I say I think we made progress.

This has made me evaluate why people become stand-ups. I am convinced we are all misfits who have never been able to make ourselves heard in conventional areas of life. Humor is a great facilitators and when we manage to make our buddies laugh we think: “Well, I’ve fucked-up everything else, maybe my real talent is doing stand up.”

It never occurs to people that stand-up is an art and has to be continually revised and re-evaluated to be effective.

I suspect that is why so many people start off in this very challenging and demanding career like an atomic explosion and then peter-out when they realize that getting laughs involves work.

The reality is that finding venues to PUT those laughs in is a boring grind. I was talking to one very enthusiastic new comedian who said: “It is the journey I love, even more than the success.”

Hopefully she will not mind the pitfalls, roadblocks and road crashes. Those of us who stick to it are bruised, wounded warriors. For me, at least, it has been well worth it.

When I listened to my students in this second session, two of them got what I thought we were after. The other two were determined to pontificate about racism and sexual misdirection without giving us anything to even smile about. 

There is a lack of coq in Prague

I spent Sunday eating Belgian food (a coq au vin that was a lot more vin than coq) and drinking copiously as they do here and then going to The Jazz Club Reduta to listen to a lot of music I danced to in the forties in Toledo, Ohio.

That involved a few more bottles of wine, several beers (each one different of course and arriving in a different shaped glass) and a couple of whiskeys – so I cannot remember many details of the day, just a warm fuzzy feeling and muddled brain.

Czech Cafes are always especially charming with flowers on the table and very clean toilets. (Obviously, when you are my age, this is a determining factor.)

They eat a lot of pastry evidently and do not seem to gain weight… but the alcohol I consumed might have blurred my vision.

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Filed under Comedy, Czech Republic, Sex

Mr Twonkey’s world of rubber pigs and blow-up women

Mr Twonkey’s selfie, taken yesterday

Mr Twonkey’s selfie, taken at the Soho Theatre Bar yesterday

I met Mr Twonkey in the Soho Theatre Bar yesterday. He was on a two-day trip to London from Edinburgh to see the opening night of his play Jennifer’s Robot Arm, which is on for three days at the Bread & Roses venue in Clapham. I blogged about a read-through of the play in February.

Mr Twonkey wrote the play but does not appear in it.

He told me: “It’ll the the first time I’ve sat in the back of a theatre and watched people perform a play of mine without me in it. I think I’ll laugh because I’ll just be amazed it’s happening. – What am I putting these poor people through? – I’ve changed a few bits since you saw the read-through and it doesn’t have Auntie Myra in it any more. But we do have a guy who isn’t really a drag act who is going to dress up as a woman for us.”

“Isn’t a man who is not a drag act who dresses up as a woman a drag act by definition?” I asked.

“Mmmm…” said Twonkey.

Time Out has described his shows as “oddly entertaining and utterly bizarre” and my fellow Grouchy Club podcaster Kate Copstick says he “makes Edward Lear sound like the Six O’Clock News”

Twonkey’s Acid House Circus Tour poster

Twonkey’s Acid House Circus Tour poster

I had forgotten, but it turned out we were having a chat because he was plugging Twonkey’s Acid House Circus Tour – a fair title for two different shows in three different cities next month.

He is performing his new show Twonkey’s Stinking Bishop at the Brighton Fringe and last year’s show Twonkey’s Private Restaurant at London’s Soho Theatre and at the Prague Fringe.

“I was going to promote it as Twonkey Goes To Eastern Europe but they told me: It will be taken the wrong way.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I’ve no idea,” said Twonkey. “They said calling it ‘Eastern Europe’ might be offensive.”

He is appearing at the Divadlo na Prádle venue in Prague.

“Apparently,” Twonkey told me, “that means Theatre of Lingerie.”

I checked Google Translate when I got home and it reckoned Divadlo na Prádle simply means Theatre on Prádle. But then I did a search for ‘lingerie’ in Czech and it turns out that the Lingerie Football League is “a league of American football played by women”. It does not elaborate on what they wear as their team strip. One must never forget that the actual name of Prague is Praha and it can be almost as bizarre as Mr Twonkey.

Yesterday he showed me his flyer for the Prague show.

Mr Twonkey’s Prague Fringe flyer

Mr Twonkey’s Prague Fringe flyer, with fish

“Why,” I asked, “are you opening a can of tuna in the photograph?”

“Well,” he said, “I’ve been buying a lot of things from a prop store.”

“Specialising in fish?” I asked.

“I’m kind of addicted to the prop store,” he continued, “sometimes to the point where I buy the prop before I come up with the sketch or the…”

“Is there,” I asked, “much demand in the props world for half-opened tins of fish?”

“Not really,” he admitted, “and, to be honest, I haven’t been able to incorporate it into the show. But I suppose it suggests I’ve got a restaurant and the show is called Twonkey’s Private Restaurant. One of the problems in Edinburgh last year was that there was sometimes a bit of confusion because some people expected food.”

“What was the show’s origin?” I asked.

“I’ve always wanted to run a restaurant and a lot of my shows take place in outer space or in different dimensions, so I thought it would be good to just restrict myself to an actual place. Also it’s easier to do. You just need a tablecloth, some plastic food and a candle.”

“No cutlery?” I asked.

“It would be a bad idea,” replied Twonkey, “to give the audience knives.”

Mr Twonkey (left) with unexpected red drag act

Mr Twonkey (left) with an unexpected red drag act yesterday

At this point, a drag artist wearing a bright red dress appeared in the Soho Theatre Bar; she had her own film crew following her around. Or him around.

“I like that show,” Twonkey told me.

“Which show is it?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said Twonkey.

“Why,” I asked, “is your new show called Twonkey’s Stinking Bishop?”

“The idea,” he told me, “is I’ve been kicked out of the restaurant and I’m now been demoted to a…”

“Bishop?” I suggested.

“No,” said Twonkey, “I’m at the cheese and drinks counter of the log flume centre.”

“The log flume centre?” I asked.

“Yes,” he confirmed. “The log flume centre of a small hamlet. But it has a massive catchment area.”

‘Is the show built round props?” I asked.

“Yes. It’s got a big trick in it involving two cheese wheels an a chain and some pigs and some padlocks. It’s basically like an escape act, where a pig escapes from a mountain of cheese.”

“Can to do a re-cap here,” I asked. “… a pig?”

Swedish farmer holds pig, early 20th century

A Swedish farmer holds a pig, sometime before the outbreak of the First World War in Europe

“Not a live pig,” Twonkey re-assured me.

“A dead pig?” I asked. “So is it a bacon sandwich?”

“It could be seen as a bacon sandwich,” he agreed.

“Though,” I said, “I suppose any pig can be seen as a bacon sandwich.”

“It is a humorous pig,” explained Twonkey. “It is made of rubber. I actually have eight of them, because I’m predicting something bad is going to happen to them. They are quite fragile. Last year, at the Private Restaurant, quite a few things got damaged. People kicked the bag and my puppet’s faces imploded and a balloon burst. So I keep being paranoid about the rubber pigs bursting. I’m also worried about… Can you take a hot air balloon onto an aeroplane?”

“Surely,” I suggested, “if you have a hot air balloon, you do not need an aeroplane?”

“It is only about a foot wide,” explained Twonkey.

“The aeroplane?” I asked.

Mr Twonkey tries not to display his worries

Mr Twonkey tries not to display his worries

“The balloon. I am worried that air pressure in the aeroplane will make it decrease in size or explode.”

“Can’t you deflate it?” I asked. “That’s how balloons work.”

“No. It’s permanently inflated.”

“If you have a permanently inflated balloon,” I suggested, “is that not really a ball?”

“Yes,” said Twonkey, “it could be classed as a ball. Have you ever known of exploding beachballs?’

“I have never,” I told him, “had exploding balls myself.”

“I am hoping,” said Twonkey, “that my balls won’t explode on the plane. The only reason I’m worried is that I have heard tales of women who have had breast implants… If they go on aeroplanes, apparently there is a chance their breasts will explode. I’m sure I have read that some woman blew up.”

“Could this be a new type of terrorist suicide bomber?” I asked. “Women with exploding bosoms.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Twonkey. “I suppose no-one’s going to check at security, are they?”

At this point, the drag act in the red costume left the bar.

Producer/director Simon Jay (left) & Mr Twonkey (right) after Jennifer’s Robot Arm show last night.

Producer/director Simon Jay (left) & Mr Twonkey (right) after Jennifer’s Robot Arm show last night.

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Six days in March: mafiosi in Prague, war in Serbia, Yanks in Amsterdam and a flying saucer in the Thames Valley

I have no time to transcribe the blog I should be writing today so, as always in such cases, you get a copy-and-paste from my e-diary – in this case, starting today 16 years ago in 1999


MONDAY 22nd MARCH 1999 – AMSTERDAM

Amsterdam (Photo by Massimo Catarinella)

Amsterdam (Photo by Massimo Catarinella)

There are precipitous stairs up to my new hotel. This, as with other houses in Amsterdam, is because there are two storeys below the two-storey hotel and people live vertically because, at one time, house tax was based on the width of your house so everything was built narrow.

The hotel is run by two thin gay men, probably in their late-40s or mid-50s, heavily wrinkled like white prunes.

The room has a brown carpet, pink bedsheets and bedspread; high light green walls with horizontal hanging ivy atop one of them. When trams pass, there is a thunderous rattling through the tall, single-glazed window. I think I may move soon.

TUESDAY 23rd MARCH – AMSTERDAM

Dinner with the Englishman who runs the TV station where I am freelancing. We previously worked together at TV stations in Prague in 1994 and 1995. He says Prague has changed since I was there; the various foreign mafias have taken over large sections of society; it started, he says, with the privatisation of taxis. The TV operation we both worked for in Prague was sold (at a loss) by UIH to Time-Warner last week; but, in return, UIH got Time-Warner cable interests in Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Eastern Europe has become the new Wild West.

WEDNESDAY 24th MARCH – AMSTERDAM

Dinner with three workmates. One of them observed that the Dutch give a bad time to Germans – shop assistants are coldly difficult to them in shops etc – because of the Second World War. As we ate, NATO planes and cruise missiles were starting to attack Yugoslavia/Serbia/Montenegro/Kosovo.

THURSDAY 25th MARCH – AMSTERDAM

In McDonalds, the assistant was giving a hard, contemptuous time to a well-dressed family of Russians who spoke very bad English.

FRIDAY 26th MARCH – AMSTERDAM

At breakfast in the hotel, there was an American couple: he was wide and tall like some American Football player, she was much smaller and much younger. The TV was tuned to BBC1 News. The American couple had missed the start of the bombing of Serbia, presumably because they were travelling around. Their abbreviated conversation went:

Him: “What’s going on?”

Me: “NATO has started bombing Serbia.”

Her: “What’s NATO?”

Him: “North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. It’s…what is it?…The big six?” (LOOKS AT ME)

Me: (CONFUSED)

Her: “I thought that was just a trade organisation.”

Him: “No, it does some policing, too.”

At Schiphol Airport in the evening, there was a group of very jolly people in their 20s – about a dozen – on the travelator in front of me. It turned out they were going to my Gate. And they were drunk – amiable, jolly and drunk. It came as no surprise they were travelling on Finnair to Helsinki as the only times I had encountered Finns before – in Leningrad in 1985 – they were all amiable, jolly and staggeringly drunk. Something to do with the strict drink laws in Finland: at that time, Finns came across to Leningrad, sold denim jeans and Western goods to Russians and got very charmingly drunk on vodka.

My friend Lynn’s partner Frank had asked me to get him some schnapps at the airport duty free – stuff you can only get in Schiphol. It comes in an opaque brown bottle. I couldn’t see it, so I asked a man who was stacking the drinks shelves: “Do you have any schnapps?”

Inevitably, I was standing right by the schnapps: he pointed to two different brands, both in white bottles.

“I was asked to get some schnapps in a brown bottle,” I said: “Do you have any in a brown bottle?”

He looked at me as if I was mad, almost shrinking backwards, and replied:

“No, we do not have schnapps in a brown bottle.”

The EasyJet plane to Luton took off two hours late because:

a) the incoming plane broke down in Luton and
b) they had to fly a replacement plane into Amsterdam and
c) they said: “Air traffic over Western Europe has been disrupted by NATO”

I suppose squadrons of giant B-52 bombers taking off from Gloucestershire and flying to Serbia would do that.

SATURDAY 27th MARCH – BOREHAMWOOD

John Ward drives home in his Wardmobile

John Ward driving to his home in his self-made Wardmobile

My chum mad inventor John Ward has built a flying saucer. Today, with his son, he was collecting it from a garage in Weybridge then coming round to collect some stuff from me on his way home to Northamptonshire.

On the way to me, he was stopped by a Thames Valley police car with flashing lights and siren. Inside was a Sergeant Whittaker.

“What do you think you are doing?” asked Sergeant Whittaker.

He told John they had looked at their cameras and seen John and his son driving along the road in their car pulling an object brightly painted in fluorescent orange, red, yellow and blue.

“You are a distraction,” Sergeant Whittaker told John.

“Thankyou,” said John.

“Don’t be flippant,” Sergeant Whittaker warned him.

Sergeant Whittaker then appeared to flounder around trying to find something on which to arrest John.

“Have you got a licence for that?” Sergeant Whittaker asked, pointing at the flying saucer.

“It’s a trailer,” John replied.

“It has a seat in it,” observed Sergeant Whittaker.

“Ah,” said John, “But it has no engine in it: so it is legally a trailer.”

John Ward knows about these things.

At this point, an old man on a motorcycle passed by and was so amazed by the flying saucer and the police car with the flashing lights that he lost control of his motorcycle, hit the central barrier and fell off.

“Look!” Sergeant Whittaker told John. “He was distracted by your… your… thing!”

“No,” argued John. “It’s all your flashing red and blue and white lights distracted him.”

Sergeant Whittaker said accusingly: “Why didn’t you tell us you were coming? We could have arranged a police escort.”

“You’re joking,” said John.

“No I’m not…..Where are you going with it?”

“I’m dropping in at a friend’s in Borehamwood to collect some stuff, then taking it home.”

“Oh no you’re not. You’re a distraction. You’re taking it straight home.”

At this point, John phoned me on his mobile.

“Are you phoning the press?” the sergeant asked.

“Not yet,” said John.

“I know you from somewhere,” Sergeant Whittaker said. “Have I seen you on television?”

“No, I’m not him,” said John. “Reg, the bloke with the glasses in Coronation Street. People sometimes confuse me for him. But I’m not him.”

“No, you’re not him,” agreed Sergeant Whittaker, “but I think I’ve seen you somewhere.”

Eventually, Sergeant Whittaker got in John’s car and his policeman mate drove the police car. They set off in convoy, lights flashing and escorted John’s flying saucer to the border of the next police area – where a Buckinghamshire police car took over.

“Is that it?” the Buckinghamshire policeman asked when he saw the flying saucer. He had obviously been expecting something like a vast over-hanging mobile home on a pantechnicon.

When the Buckinghamshire police car reached the borders of Northamptonshire, there was a Northamptonshire police car waiting for them.

“Oh,” the Northamptonshire policeman said on seeing John, “It’s you.”

“Have we met?” John asked him.

“No,” said the Northamptonshire policeman.

When the other car had gone, the Northamptonshire policeman told John: “They’re mad down south. It’s a waste of time. They should be out catching criminals. I’m going back to the station.”

And off he went.

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Filed under Czech Republic, Eccentrics, Holland, Police, Yugoslavia

Bouncing Czechs & Presidential pranks

(This was also published by Indian news site WSN)

Vladimir Franz - the face of Czech politics

Vladimir Franz – the tattooed face of Czech politics

I worked in Prague a few times, making promotions and press tapes for some start-up TV channels around 1995/1996.

It was only a few years after the Soviet empire crumbled and I thought Prague – and the Czech people – might be a bit grey and dour. It only took me about a week to re-appraise the situation, when I started to think of the country not as the Czech Republic but as Bohemia.

The Czechs are bohemians.

That is not 100% politically and geographically correct, but it is psychologically correct.

Certainly, when I was there, they liked their beer and they liked a party.

I should have realised this earlier because, before I actually worked in the Czech Republic, my sole experience of Czechs was bringing Ernő Rubik (inventor of Rubik’s cube) over to the UK for a couple of appearances on the anarchic children’s TV show Tiswas.

Erno was a very laid-back dude who liked jazz and wore corduroy trousers.

And THAT was under Soviet Communism.

I like the Czechs. They are generally sophisticated, cool and creative.

During my time there poet, playwright and former dissident Václav Havel was President. He had new uniforms for Prague Castle’s guards designed by the man who designed costumes for the movie Amadeus. He appointed glorious rock god Frank Zappa as ‘Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism‘ for the Czech Republic.

You have to like the Czechs.

But, like all relatively small countries (population 10.5 million) you have to accept the good (the capacity for eccentric decisions) with the bad (a possibility of corruption). In that sense, it is not unlike the Republic of Ireland.

Which brings me to the President of the Czech Republic.

In the UK, today’s Guardian newspaper carries a piece on Vladimir Franz, a tattooed-all-over opera composer, painter and professor at Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts. He is running for President and, in this week’s Presidental election race, he has an estimated 11% support and is running third. He has been compared (because of his tattooed face) to “an exotic creature from Papua New Guinea”, has no political experience and admits he doesn’t know much about economics.

So, obviously, I asked former Scots comic Alex Frackleton (now living in the Czech Republic) for some background on current Czech politics.

“In the outside world,” he told me, “it is the year 2013 – but, alas, not here where, despite digital television and high-speed internet, it feels like we’re living in the middle ages, circa 1320.

“On New Year’s Day, the out-going president of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus (known to me as ‘Cunty Baws’) announced a presidential pardon that would see the release of 7,000 prisoners from Czech jails and court proceedings. Among those released are a number of persons either convicted of or in the process of being prosecuted for multi-billion dollar frauds which took place during the privatization process of the 1990s. Purely coincidentally – and I hasten to add this is merely an observational point on my part – Václav Klaus was Prime Minister of the Czech Republic in the 1990s.

“I seem to be alone in assuming that this is merely a coincidence as every single person I know here is furious. Everyone is going mental. Even people who don’t normally care about politics are shouting their heads off.

“To date, 600 Mayors and 500 schools have taken down the President’s portrait in protest at the amnesty. The British equivalent would be removing a picture of the Queen, the Pope or Stephen Hawking …

“Cunty Baws is shouting about how the press/media/his enemies are blowing the whole thing out of proportion. This is the guy who, as a visiting President to a conference in Chile, was caught on camera stealing a pen.

“If he wanted to do something to mark his out-going-ness, he could easily have granted free heating to all pensioners during the three coldest months of the year.

“If ever there was a moment for another ’68 Prague Spring uprising or a real revolution to replace the velvet cushiness of ’89, then that moment ought to be now.”

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The new Wild West of Eastern Europe and its new stag party capital of Kiev

Dancing the night away in the Wild West of Eastern Europe

(This piece was also published in the Huffington Post and on the Indian news site WeSpeakNews)

I was in a basement disco in Kiev a couple of nights ago at three o’clock in the morning.

Anyone who knows me will tell you this is not my natural habitat. I hated dancing and strobe lights in the late 1960s and early 1970s when people not only dressed in primary-coloured clothes and juddered in bright flashing lights, but also wore flared trousers.

I remember going to a very jolly Saturday night party in someone’s house in London around 1981. The colours, the lights, the loud pulsing music. It was very well done but, that morning I had been in the studio in Birmingham for the live three-hour mayhem that was the Tiswas children’s TV show – and I think it was towards the end of that season’s 39-week run.

For people at the party, bright exciting colours, lights and noise were a good thing. I just wanted to stare at a beige wall for three hours. Sensory overload was not excitingly stimulating; it was more of what I had already had all morning, minus the smell of shaving-foam-filled ‘custard pies’ and whatever the sweet-smelling ingredient of the occasional explosive puffs was.

Which brings me to a basement disco in Kiev at three o’clock in the morning and me being there with a runny nose and a hacking cough.

Unmarried twenty somethings with disposable incomes way beyond the wild imaginings of their parents at the same age were dancing and drinking the Thursday night away to 0730 on Friday morning

Kiev’s streets are busy with Range Rovers and other 4-wheel drive vehicles and occasional nightclubs and 24/7 restaurants.

“It’s a cross between the decadent remnants of a Communist state and the Wild West with mobile phones,” I told my eternally-unnamed friend back in the UK via Skype and the free WiFi in my very good room at the Impressa Hotel. “It’s young people with money for the first time,” I added, knowing what I meant but not knowing if that phrase communicated what I meant.

In The West in the mid-to-late 1950s, ‘teenagers’ first appeared. Before then, people in their late teens had been schoolchildren or students or a living-with-their parents underclass with no money. But then they suddenly had disposable incomes and could afford to build their own lifestyles.

Then, starting in the Swinging Sixties though the Seventies, sexual liberation added a whole testosterone-fuelled extra dimension and (a phrase I hate) the Working Class British kids found they could be as decadent as the upper classes had always been because, suddenly, their parents were going on holiday to Spain not Blackpool and ‘Working Class Yoof’ was ‘in’.

From the early 1990s, post-Soviet Union kids had a theoretical new freedom, though without the money to fuel any real new lifestyles. I worked in Prague in the mid-1990s and saw this after it started but before it fully happened – there, the change I saw seemed to be heavily-fuelled by foreigners and tourists finding an open-minded country with relatively cheap living costs.

A Brit who has been coming to Kiev since around 1992 told me: “You could really see the changes happen from about 1999 onwards.”

The old Soviet Union is the new Wild West. Not an original thought, but true nonetheless. I vividly remember being behind a young couple in 1996 who were walking hand-in-hand down Wenceslas Square in Prague. He was wearing a dark jacket which clearly marked him as working for some private security company. Out of the bottom corner of my eye, I saw something bouncing on his right hip as he walked with his left arm round his girlfriend and it was then I saw it was a handgun in a hip holster.

It really was the Wild eastern West.

There was much talk in Prague at that time of the various mafias – German, Italian, Russian – who controlled parts of the city’s and country’s economy – one mafia ran most of the taxis. There is talk today in Kiev of the mafias and a surprising number of people – taxi drivers, shop assistants et al – without prompting, show extreme verbal dislike of the current President, openly calling him a ‘criminal’.

Where all this goes, only time will tell.

I do not know if the testosterone-fuelled mating rituals in that Kiev basement disco are a sign of a new awakening or the last belated gasp of a decadent Europe before the inexorable rise of China.

When I was in Prague in the mid-1990s, it was becoming (with Dublin for Brits) the weekend party capital of Europe. In last week’s edition, the Kyiv Post was touting Kiev as the “new stag party capital of world”.

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Filed under 1960s, History, Prague, Russia, Sex

Russian & Soviet sleeper agents in Western Europe and the death of Ché Guevara

British newspapers are getting their knickers in a twist over Katia Zatuliveter who was working as a Parliamentary Assistant and Researcher for Mike Hancock, the Liberal Democrat MP who is currently on police bail over an alleged indecent assault against a female constituent; he also sits on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Russia as well as the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. The Security Service aka MI5 apparently reckon Katia Zatuliveter is a Russian agent. Stranger things have happened.

WikiLeaks have also recently released documents claiming modern-day Russia is, in effect, run by the Russian Mafia.

In 1995, when I was in Turkmenistan, I met and later almost wrote the biography/autobiography of a man who had been a Soviet ‘sleeper’ agent working in South America and Western Europe during the Cold War. He had been part of a network of agents run on behalf of the Soviets by East Germany’s ‘Economic Planning Minister’ Erich Apel. But then something happened and, in this extract from tape recordings, he tells what happened to him one dark night in East Germany back in 1967, when cracks were starting to appear in the Soviet Union…

*** *** ***

It was all falling apart. Ché Guevara was abandoned on his operation in Bolivia in 1966/1967 and then killed by the Americans. Between 1965 and 1968 – between the ousting of Khrushchev and the attack on Prague – the Soviet Union was closing itself in and creating a big, expensive conventional army and a shadow economy. It was closing down its destabilising operation around the world.

By 1967, most of the people I had worked with in the Soviet-backed Network had already been caught – they had ‘disappeared’ – some had been captured by the West, some had been disposed of by the East. I was the last one left of those I knew. I was in West Berlin and had been asked to deliver an envelope to a town in East Germany. I knew the envelope contained microfilm, because I had made the same delivery before. I had no overnight visa for East Germany, so I had to get a train back to East Berlin by 11.00pm and return through the Friedrichstrasse security checkpoint into West Berlin before midnight, otherwise I was in trouble.

East German Security was separate from the police. Everything was separate. Everything was chaotic. There were so many different agencies all working separately from each other – sometimes in competition with each other. I didn’t have full coverage. It wasn’t as if I was officially working for the East German secret service. I was working for the Network but the complete implications of that were uncertain. I knew my network was handled by part of a section of East Germany’s security system and was linked to the Soviet Union, but things had changed when Erich Apel ‘committed suicide’ in 1965.

When Apel was made to die in 1965, it sent a signal to all marginal people like me. Apel had been one of the masterminds and controllers of our subversion operation and when it was said he ‘shot himself due to depression’ it was clear something was changing very fundamentally. Our entire project of undermining and fighting American power in the Third World – and ultimately in Europe – was falling apart.

I took a metro to Friedrichstrasse, then a cab to another station. At about 3.30pm, I stepped into the very last carriage of a train, despite orders that I should board a carriage in the centre. The train arrived in the German town of Frankfurt an der Oder at about 4.30pm, when it was already getting dark. Because I was in the last carriage, I didn’t get out directly in front of the station building as ordered. Instead, I walked along the platform and discretely down the side of the station building. There were three men in expensive leather coats waiting inside the station; there was a black saloon car waiting behind the station with its engine running. I went silently back to the railway line and walked along the tracks away from the station.

Then the men came looking for me.

When they couldn’t find me, they sent for the soldiers – the VoPo.

I was an irregular; I was a Westerner. I was not supposed to be there. I had an envelope with microfilm showing heavens knows what. The soldiers started to close in on where I was hiding. There was a little passage for water under the railway tracks – something just a little bigger than a pipe. I pulled my dark sweater up to cover the white collars of my shirt. I crawled into the narrow little culvert and held myself up in the top of the passage by pressing my hands and feet against the vertical side walls. It was totally dark outside the culvert. I heard the boots of the soldiers coming closer on the stones by the railway track and I was terrified because, by then, I knew I had been sent by my Controller into a trap. My own side were going to catch, imprison, torture and possibly shoot me.

The muscles in my arms and legs were straining, I was aware of his own heart pounding. I saw an armed VoPo soldier come to the end of the darkened passage in which I was hiding. The VoPo man was outlined by the lights behind him. He held a sub machine-gun in his hands, wore an East German uniform and his dull metal helmet reflected no light. I was hiding about six feet into and up in the roof of the passage. The armed soldier squatted down and silently looked in, waiting until his eyes adjusted to the darkness. Then he saw me, took one step into the passage, looked me in the eyes, pointing his gun at me, and did something very strange. He took his machine-gun and turned it behind his back, which was a very dangerous thing for him to do. I could have been armed, although I was not. He took a few more steps into the passage, completely unprotected, and looked up into my face. We could see each other’s eyes and he said to me in German:

“I am your contact. I have the stuff.”

He gave me the password and, at first, I didn’t believe it.

I gave him the envelope with the microfilm in it.

“But who are you working for? I asked him.

“The other side,” he told me.

“What other side?”

“It’s neither of the two you’re thinking of. The Americans. The Brits.”

Even as early as 1966 or 1967 the Soviet system was disintegrating. They had started to fight each other within the system. There was money from oil, money from gas, blackmailing. The Red Army became more important than the networks…

Under Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet Union decided it no longer wanted to be leader of the Third World or to convert and subvert other countries to socialist ideologies. Nor to become the world’s industrial leader. What became important was to keep power internally by having a strong army – the biggest army and navy in the world – and to sell resources for hard currency. Russia is a country full of natural resources. Why bother becoming a rich industrial nation or risk giving power to the workers? With the profits from the sale of natural resources, the Soviet Union could buy industrial products from other countries. Better clothes, better cars. Give the people enough to keep them quiet and pocket most of the vast profits yourself.

Politicians under Brezhnev could become personally immensely rich by selling gold, oil and gas. The Party of the Russian People became the Party of the Russian Mafia. Under Brezhnev, the shadow economy became more important than the real economy. Eventually, it ruined the country.

To disguise the fact they had opted out of Third World subversion, they armed everyone they could. They sent huge stockpiles of weapons to Mozambique, Egypt, Nicaragua so that the locals could fight their own wars without involving the Russian Army or Soviet-backed irregulars run by the East Germans, Czechs or Cubans.

As part of this process, Ché Guevara was betrayed by the Russians in 1967.

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