Sunday, 18 December 2011

Almost an encounter with a fine man : on being near Vaclav Havel

Early in 1990 my wife and I were in New York. We were staying at the Chelsea and one evening returning from a show on Broadway we decided we would go for a drink at the bar of El Quijote, the Spanish restaurant adjacent to the hotel which acts as the Chelsea's unofficial watering hole. As we approached the hotel we noticed  there were many police cars parked outside. My wife counted 22 of them. As we walked  to the entrance of  El Quijote our way was  blocked by policemen. They told us we couldn't go in. We said that we were guests at the hotel. Fortunately the head waiter, who was standing at the doorway,  recognised us and he confirmed to the policemen - I am tempted to write "he told the cops" - that we were guests at the hotel. We made a little more progress towards the bar when a number of  tall and bulky men who were not in uniform blocked our way. Fortunately they looked at the head waiter and he nodded, and they let us by. El Quijote was usually busy at this time but on this evening it was jam packed and buzzing. We asked a man by the bar why it was so busy. "There's some guy called Vaslav or something in." He looked at the woman standing next to him silently questioning her. "It's Vaclav Havel," she said. She nodded toward a table about 10 yards away and there he was sitting smoking a cigarette  with a group of  7 or 8 others.

I learned later that this was not  an official head of state visit to the USA but a private visit which Vaclav Havel had arranged in order to meet his friend Milos Forman and other artists, musicians and playwrights living in New York City who were friends or whom  he admired. This absence of grandiosity confirmed Vaclav Havel's place - he was already someone I admired -  in my pantheon of heroes.  Here was the president of a state - one which was  a symbol  for democracy gained by peaceful means  -  on a private visit not seeking to promote or glorify himself but simply to meet friends and fellow artists. We were told later by Richard, a friend of Stanley the hotel proprietor,  that Vaclav Havel had not asked for the level of security which surrounded his private visit. The New York City and USA authorities had demanded it.

Vaclav Havel, as well as taking a major role in leading the 'velvet revolution' against the communist regime in what was then Czechoslovakia,  showed humility, dignity, insight and more than anything respect for the democratic wishes of the people  when the Slovaks and the Czechs decided to take their own avenues  and form separate states.  This is what my late father in law would call "statesmanship."

How different this is from the tawdry, pompous two dimensional front bench prigs in the House of Commons who consider themselves our political leaders and who seek to score cheap  points at "PMQ" - as the prime minister David Cameron now calls it  -  in an attempt to get  their show higher  ratings than the X Factor.

Well, Vaclav Havel, the politician,  you were a dramatist too, but you were sincere, humble and one of us.  You died today, and I didn't quite meet you, or did I ?

Jeremy Millar writes, "a lovely story Charles, not sure if I'm more impressed by the proximity of Havel or how you dropped in 'we stayed at the Chelsea.' I guess you were aware of his love of the Velvet Underground and that is probably why he was at the Chelsea too."

Charles Sharpe responds " I can see what you mean Jeremy but be assured what I've written is utterly about a man, Vaclav Havel.

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