Mark Baker is a travel writer and journalist. He first visited Prague as a student in 1984 and began living here, after a stint in Vienna, in the early 1990s. Since then he has written or co-written a number of guidebooks to the Czech Republic and other countries in the region.
Baker was also one of the founders of the Globe coffeehouse and bookstore, a centre of Prague’s English-speaking community in the ‘90s. This was after a period that he spent writing about business for the Prague Post in the anything goes, “Wild East” period when capitalism returned to Czechoslovakia.
“I’ll tell you, it was the craziest [time]. I became the business editor when the Prague Post opened, in October of 1991. That was the period – October, November and December of that year – when investment funds first started going.
“Voucher privatisation had not yet been put into operation, but all the population were being encouraged to get their vouchers and put their points in various companies.
“We had the privilege, in I think it was January 1992, to interview Viktor Kožený, who was the most notorious of these type of investment fund managers.
“We interviewed him in a warehouse in Nusle, all alone, by himself. I asked the questions and my colleague at the Prague Post sketched his portrait and we printed that in the newspaper. It really was an amazing time, actually.”
You were telling me earlier that some of your colleagues, or counterparts, on Czech newspapers covering business were inexperienced.
“Well, all of the Czech newspapers at that time were at that time making a transition between their former staff and their new staff.
“Each of the newsrooms was a combination of older staffers, probably people who had grown up under the communist system and were more comfortable covering that kind of news, and a bunch of younger people course wanting to sweep everything away and cover things in a kind of Western way. So it was really a transition period.
“For us at the Prague Post it was probably a unique period, because now the Post’s influence with respect to Czech newspapers is practically nil, I would say, but at that time we did have some influence and leverage.
“We had some contacts at [business daily] Hospodářské noviny and from time to time they would definitely ask us how to cover some stories and what they should be covering.”
You were also one of the people who set up the Globe bookshop and coffeehouse, which I guess was one of THE English-speaking landmarks in Prague in the ‘90s. Can you tell us a bit about that experience of setting up and running the Globe?
“That was something I got into from being a journalist… I was a journalist from ’91 to ‘ 93 at the Post, getting a little bit tired, because I’d been a journalist then for six years before that, so it was seven or eight years running. I was looking for something else to do with my time.
“At that point in time there were so many English speakers, Americans, people from Britain and all around that were looking for a place to hang out. And there really wasn’t a place like that, so that was the impetus for the Globe.”
Also I guess people now wouldn’t understand how much people gathered at the Globe or a few pubs, because there was no way for phoning people [phones in apartments were not common], no way of arranging to meet people unless you did it a week in advance or something…
“It’s exactly true. One of the major positives about the Globe was that we had a bulletin board, so you could go there and say, I’ll give you English lessons in exchange for Czech lessons, or, I’m looking for an apartment, etcetera.
“It really formed the nerve centre of this social network that developed in the early 1990s among English speakers, and of course Czechs who liked English speakers or could speak English.”
I’m sure the Globe was a port of call for visiting writers who came to Prague in those days. What kind of people did you have coming through the door, or even reading there?
“We had an amazing amount of really big name writers come through the Globe. From 1993 when it opened to around 1996 or ’97, just about every big author who came to Prague would stop in at the Globe as a courtesy call, to do a reading, etcetera.
“One day, in February 1994 I think it was, my partners and were just standing around and the Globe bookstore and in walks this gentleman. He was dressed in a blazer, a nice shirt, and had author hair – he looked just like an author.
“We were looking at him very closely and…hmmm, Richard Ford – that’s got to be Richard Ford. So I went to the shelf and pulled out a Richard Ford book. I looked at his photograph, and I looked at him and said, that’s definitely Richard Ford.
“I walked up to him very nervously and said, Mr. Ford, if you’d like to do a reading you’d be more than welcome. He said, when should I do the reading? We said, when do you want? And he said, let’s do it now.
“So we walked into the café, clinked the classes to make sure everybody was quiet. There were six people in the coffeehouse, plus the people who worked in the kitchen and a couple of the owners. And Richard Ford sat down and read from his collection Wild Life. It was an amazing moment, really.”
As well as being one of the owners of the Globe, you’ve worked in Prague for Bloomberg and for Radio Free Europe. You’re now a freelance travel writer and you’ve written guidebooks to the Czech Republic and many other countries in the region. What is the secret to good guidebook writing?
“I’ve had to do lectures occasionally on how guidebook writers approach their craft, and I think the skill is very similar to journalism. Because in journalism what you’re trying to do is to discover the new in something and you’re writing for a specific person, mainly the reader.
“In guidebook writing you’re writing for the person who’s buying and using your guide and trying to see the world from their eyes. What you’re trying to do is to constantly root out what’s new here, what’s the real story in this place. I think the skills are completely compatible, actually.”
But guidebook writing is a bit different from travel writing – is that right?
“Definitely, right. When I say that I’m a travel writer I really feel like I’m trying to put on airs a bit, or trying to gild the lily, trying deceive my listener a little bit [laughs].
“If you say you’re a guidebook writer, it just sounds like you’re a hack who’s doing the book for money. If you’re a travel writer you’re sitting on the French Riviera and penning something that’s going to live forever. Yeah, mostly I’m a guidebook writer, sad to say [laughs].”
How has the guidebook writing business changed in your two decades in the industry?
“It’s changed an awful lot. I wrote my very first guidebook as a journalist in Vienna, working for The Economist. This was just a side project. It was on Czechoslovakia. Myself and my girlfriend did the book in 1991; we travelled all around
“At that time we did our manuscript on a typewriter of course. We sent everything in by post. They sent their corrections back in a physical copy. It was a completely different thing.”
How is the industry reacting to changes in technology? I’m thinking in particular about smart phones. Everyone now travels with a smart phone and can get online and access information online.
“They’re changing very, very rapidly. My main publisher right now is Lonely Planet Guides, based in Melbourne in Australia, and they’ve implemented a completely different setup now. We put our data into a data imputing system – it’s called a content management system.
“It’s hard to explain, but that data is disaggregated into various fields and that data is used across many different publications and platforms. So when I say I’m a guidebook writer, I’m not even really writing for a specific guidebook – I’m really writing about a place. And that data gets used in many, many different places.”
Is it possible now, or will it be possible, for travellers to access online bite-sized guides to particular parts of a city, or just what interests them, and they can just buy that and not buy the whole book?
“That’s coming. You can buy a city from Lonely Planet, or one of the other competing guidebooks. Whether you’ll be able to buy just part of a city or something – probably, sure, why not?”
Or some aspect of a city – like sport, or something like that?
“I think with the technology that they’re developing there’s no end to what you could buy.”
Finally, Mark, you’ve been living in Prague for over 20 years. How have you enjoyed the experience of living here through all the changes that have taken place?
“I was thinking about this on the way over on the metro, how the city has changed. When I first came here in the mid 1980s, I was always attracted by how quiet and lonely and kind of dark the city was.
“It had a very strong aesthetic appeal to somebody who wanted to kind of crawl away from the world. At the same time, it was lively and interesting and everything, so it wasn’t really an escape, but it definitely had an aesthetic appeal.
“And I have enjoyed seeing the city change and mature, grow and become more popular. But there’s a caveat. Ironically, as the city’s gotten better known and more popular, for me personally it’s become slightly less interesting.
“It’s hard to explain. I still really enjoy it. But I find myself looking for different places now, where I can find that old thrill that Prague used to give me. There’s nothing wrong with modernity, but sometimes it’s just not for me [laughs].”