Thou shalt know thy neighbour


Regular listeners will remember a recent Radio Prague report about singing mushrooms. Let me explain to those of you who missed that programme. Vaclav Halek is a Prague-based composer and also a mushroom expert. Not only does he pick mushrooms and cook those which are edible but he also says he can hear them sing. Each fungus, Mr Halek says, has a distinctive tune which he can hear and write down. An unusual talent, you may think.

For me the whole thing is all the more interesting owing to the fact that Mr Halek and my family have lived in the same apartment building for twenty odd years. He lives on the fifth floor, we live four floors below. We would meet in the elevator, at the dustbins or at the bus stop, but we hardly ever said more that hello to each other.

I had always known that Mr Halek was a composer. I even had a chance to play one of his compositions for children. It was called "The Puppet" and our small recorder ensemble found it complicated to understand. It was very "adult", we thought. The fact that Mr Halek is a passionate mushroom picker was impossible to miss. On Saturdays and Sundays, he would be seen walking towards the bus stop, wrapped up in very warm clothes, regardless of the season, and carrying a wicker basket.

Czechs are a nation of keen mushroom pickers and every summer and autumn they raid the forests and forage for edible mushrooms. Most people know only a few varieties of which they are hundred percent sure and they stick to them, because mushroom poisoning can be very serious and often fatal. When there was a bad season for mushrooms, most people would come home in a bad mood with only a few tiny mushrooms in their baskets. Not so Mr Halek. Being an expert, he confidently picked all those mushrooms which at least to my eyes certainly do look poisonous. Whenever people would be lamenting over a bad mushroom season, Mr Halek would come home with his basket overflowing with suspicious-looking blue, green, purple and orange fungi. Seeing our misery, he would sometimes share what he had found with us. All we could do was trust his expertise when we chewed on the multicoloured meal.

That was all I knew about my neighbour Mr Halek. But I had no idea that Vaclav Halek composed music inspired by mushrooms or that he published a musical mushroom atlas. That I found out just like everybody else in this country - from the media. Mr Halek, too, was surprised to find out I worked for a station that interviewed him. "How sad that we have been living in the same building for so many years, yet know so little of each other," he said.

That has been put right now. But, alas, there are still around a hundred neighbours living in our house of whom I know even less than I used to about Mr Halek.