Bill Bathurst - Radio Prague's Literature commentator on life in the Czech Rep and returning home

Little introduction is needed for this week's guest in One on One: Radio Prague's own Bill Bathurst, a writer and poet who listeners know well for his smooth-as-bourbon voice, inimitable humour, and more than a few memorable broadcasts on Czech literature and poetry. Now, fourteen years after Bill began at Radio Prague he's decided to hang it up in the Czech capital and return to his home in California...

Bill BathurstBill Bathurst Bill Bathurst, thanks for coming into the studio today...

"You're welcome Jan, my pleasure..."

Let's discuss your beginnings in Prague... it's been fourteen years. You moved to the Czech capital when the country was still Czechoslovakia, and what's more it was still a Communist country. How did you feel about that, at that time?

"The guy who sent me here, Richard Marley, known as Mariner then, asked me if I'd like to come here and experience Socialism... I said "Why not", I didn't have a job in California at the time. I came here, to radio, on November 1st, 1989, and immediately went on some sort of field trip, and by the time I got back it was almost time for November 17th (the Velvet Revolution that brought down the regime). So, I didn't get too much of a chance to experience Socialism."

How did ordinary life in Czechoslovakia strike you, though, compared to life in the United States?

"I liked it. It was new, I had never really been anywhere beyond my home town and San Francisco, I liked it. You know, I liked everything here, the idea of the nuclear family being very important here, where it wasn't in the States. And I liked a lot of other things too: no advertising, no billboards, no McDonald's, no Kentucky Fried Chicken, nothing like that. At the end of Wenceslas Square there was actually a place called 'Koruna', where ordinary people could eat, that's all gone now. But, of course, there are lots of other good things here instead..."

Okay, so as you say, you didn't experience much of the Communist regime. Nevertheless, it must have taken a while for Radio Prague to change its format, because up until then it was a mouthpiece for Communist propaganda, wasn't it?

"Yeah, you could say that, and actually it took Radio Prague a few weeks to decide whether to 'abandon' Socialism, because it wasn't apparent until mid-December that the Communists were going to step down, so we were...'very careful' here, at first! And it wasn't until the Communists stepped down that Radio Prague really changed, swept out the people who didn't know much English and had nothing to recommend them but their Party cards."

Radio Prague went through this transformation then; what was the new format like? What kind of programmes were you broadcasting?

"Well, we just dropped a bunch of programmes completely, but some continued. When I first came here this woman Monika Sladka was doing 'Readings in Czechoslovak Literature', it was back then, and when she quit I inherited this programme. It was a lot of fun, actually, for a while. And I think probably the longest running programme at Radio Prague, until I hung it up this year." [To replace the readings programme RP has scheduled a new show called 'Czech Books' to air for the first time in April. Ed. Note]

Over the years you've been exposed to an enormous amount of Czech writing - what are some of the works, who are some of the writers who left the strongest impression on you?

"Probably my favourite Czech writer is Bohumil Hrabal. I live, fortunately, in the neighbourhood he used to live in, Liben, and I think 'I Served the King of England' is probably my favourite Czech book, in English of course. I don't read Czech."

What is it about his style though, what is it that sort of gets your blood going?

{laughs}"Well, I guess there's no other writer like him. In the world. I've never read any other writer like him. And it's like people talking in the pub, actually, his style. I like it."

Let me ask you this: how receptive are Czechs still today to literature. They say people are reading less and less. Do you find that that is the same in this country?

"Yes, I'm afraid I do. It used to be that you'd see, when a book was published, people queued up outside, might be snowing, might be raining, but they were out there to buy that book. You don't see that anymore."

You yourself are a poet, you grew up influenced by the Beats, we talked about jazz, Be-Bop... Is it safe to say that in Prague, throughout the 90s, that you were able to recapture something that maybe the US had lost?

"In a way I did, because it's kind of like a time-warp here as far as music goes. Yeah. When I was hanging out with mostly black musicians back in the 1950s, of course I listened to mainly Be-Bop, because that's what the cats were into back then. On the other hand Prague doesn't have places for Czech musicians to jam anymore. As the States had back then, this place called 'Bop City' in San Francisco, an after-hours club. Musicians don't really get to jam here anymore. Aside from that, I love the music here, and for years I had a show called "Live in Prague', where I'd go to clubs and record groups here."

Are you going to try and get into radio back in California?

"Well, they have a station in Chico where you can go up and work for absolutely nothing, I'm sort of used to that!" {laughs}

Ideally, what could of programme would you like to have?

"Well, it would have to be a jazz thing I guess, that's probably what I would do. And hopefully the jazz show would give listeners a chance to, you know, talk to me on the air, about music."

When do you consider 'radio' to be at it's best?

"When you can shut your eyes and actually see a picture when you hear the programme. To me, that's it."

What are some of the things you are going to miss most, being away from Prague?

"Czech beer. Pub life. My musician friends and my other Czech friends. And I'm going to miss radio."

Lots of people describe this aura that Prague has, this mystique, because it is such a mix of architectural styles, and history obviously. Is this something that has a strong meaning for you?

" Yes it does. Or, let me put it this way, it did. This is one of the few cities that wasn't bombed flat in World War II, so when I came here, it was wonderful. But since then we have 'bombed' the city of Prague with McDonald's and so on, you know, I think that's bad. I think that when foreigners come here they should eat Czech food, drink Czech beer, experience Czech life. If you come here and you're a tourist, it's best to have a Czech friend to take you around places. And to take you out of Prague into the beautiful countryside which they have here. And avoid the tourist traps, of which there are many."

The Czech temperament, how does that strike you?

"I could tell you one good story, there was this cartoon when I first came here, that sums up the Czech sense of humour. It was at Malostranska Beseda [a local Prague music club], during this benefit for Civic Forum, the first real political group here after the Communists fell. The cartoon showed this guy who was going to commit suicide, and he had this rope which he had strung up over this big tree. He had the rope around his neck, but also a sprinkling can in his hand at the same time, and he was watering this tree. {laughs}Yeah, so that pretty much sums up the Czech sense of humour to me. And I love that."

I have a request as we come to the end of today's programme, which is that I'd like you to read one or two poems that you've written; after all this time of reading other peoples' literature, we can finally get to hear some of your own writing.

"The title of the poem is 'For Peggy', who was a woman, a black woman I knew back in the 50s - she was in New York at the same time as me. I could explain more, but never mind. I'll just read the poem.

For Peggy

1959 with you again in
my head's the same blur
as jail. Nothing new
New York. August afternoon.

Daydream of Lady Day
dead there, that July.
Her last record over
an' over, in a bar.

Then, I'd have shouldered
her pain the rest of my life,
was too late. Likewise,
like the bartender's face

that afternoon, I've lost your eyes.
Jail again 1961. Letters.
Your handwriting is a woman's
like Lady's voice. That much is clear.

Okay, the last poem in this book, which is called Greystone Poems, is "Leavin' Blues".

Leavin' Blues

Put your soul in my
shoe / I'll save it
for a song. Put your hat
on my head / I'll leave it
at the gate. Raise your window
high / I'll go, goodbye

...Thanks a lot for inviting me to the studio..."

Yes, I'm glad we had this opportunity and not for the last time. As you said, you'll be back in Prague sometime pretty soon...

"I hope so...Bye."