Monday, 30 September 2013

Split-Dubrovnik, August 2013

Neum, Bosnia and Herzegovina

The road meanders along the coast, winding at often stomach churning heights through dusty cliff-perched villages. Everybody we pass on the road is in some stage of undress, usually sun-charred red. Every couple of kilometres we stop at the waving request of a young woman in shades and crop top, hand tickling the dead air above her head. Occasionally she's accompanied by an older woman. No men get on or off.

The landscape reminds me of two places - first, the valley strewn train-ride from Sarajevo to Mostar, but more vividly the Sicilian countryside. The hills stagger upwards in clashing outcrops of woody green until, at a certain point, a yellow-grey eruption of stone ends their grassy ascent. All this huge grey mass is scribbled over with shallow-rooted, tilting shrubbery, a wire mesh puncturing its still surfaces.

As the road hunkers higher up on white-knuckle bends the cliff-face bounds up to us on the inside. We shudder past its over-hanging mouths, its hoard of thin trees whispering towards us. Scored into the mountains' many faces are the bright orangey-yellow trails of rock slides. They run patchily across its surfaces, rippling in zigzags over its bumps and grooves like the scratch marks of a falling cat. Scattered in the messy green of the foot-hills are tidy rows of olive trees, the squat, rusting shells of old Yugos, and the occasional holiday home.

We pass through Baska Voda, dangling over the Adriatic, its shimmering distance doing nothing to cool the air. Beyond it the sea and the mountains suddenly part ways and we are thrust into the first open landscape in miles. But the sea quickly rushes back. At Bratus we pelt round a narrow mountain pass and rise up and over the sparkling water.

By the time we reach the border checkpoints into Bosnia and Herzegovina, the hills have shrunk, clouded now to their peaks in green. Where the hills are less steep there are whole forests, great rows of pine sauntering straight into the bays below.

We cross Bosnia's sole 20 km of coastline, stopping near the border back into Croatia to buy cheap cigarettes and beer. Last time I was in Bosnia we passed through Croatia, so this turn of events feels fitting. We arrive at a glorified petrol station on a cliff, an under-staffed and over-priced restaurant attached to one side. The waiters charge angrily between rows of chain-smoking Italians. Dozens of coaches are squeezed into the tiny car park. People throw money - Croatian, Bosnian or Euros - at a young woman at a till inside the shop. They're buying Turkish delight, cheap beer, cigarettes and spirits, as if stockpiling for a very debauched apocalypse. 

As we cross the last of the hills into Dubrovnik, my passport checked for perhaps the tenth time in the former Yugoslavia, I wonder if the existence of border controls is a permanent or merely passing phase. Certainly the removal of checkpoints has its future as a political project pegged, for the moment, to the future of the EU. As there were none under Tito, so perhaps there shall be none under Brussels. Though this would no doubt be a great achievement (in a region torn apart by ethnic cleansing just thirteen years ago), can the people of the former Yugoslavia rely on the stability of the EU settlement any more than they could Tito's?   

Monday, 23 September 2013

"Put thine Castle in Order!": Vaclav Havel and the Ideology of Power

Vaclav Havel: Czech playwright, dissident and later president

To The Castle and Back, Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel, the great Czech dissident and playwright, attained an almost canonical status in the west. His elevation above, say, Walesa (creepingly autocratic), Gorbachev (still a socialist at heart), and Woytyla (Catholic), speaks volumes about which particular lessons we like to draw from the fall of communism. Havel, grumpy and vaguely elitist, never presented himself as a 'man of the people' (unlike Walesa, however knowingly). His wit and ironic distance from the organs of power made him an anti-ideological figurehead. This while having assumed the highest office in the land. In the words of Tim Garton Ash, ubiquitous devotee of the east's 'return to Europe', he never deigned to "examine the political surface of things" but rather lifted his eyes constantly to the transcendent.1 Havel himself described the cleaving of the world into left and right as a mystification arising from the prejudices of modernity.2 The truer mode of distinction was the ancient, moral one - that between right and wrong - which permits an escape from the absurdity of totalitarianism into an older, more sceptical world.

What could not have been appreciated at the time was the way in which Havel's deep scepticism of political ideas began not merely a demystification of the last century's morality but a laying of the foundations of the ideology of the next.

It is telling that Tony Blair, another politician dear to Garton Ash's heart, is likewise keen to stress the primacy of renewed moralism over sectarian politics. All of which bluster assumes that the old division of left and right was somehow artificial, an unnatural substitute which impeded access to this transcendent order of right and wrong. Never mind the gross hubris implied in declaring your own moral constructions transcendentally superior to all others.

The subtlety of Havel's conception of ideology, so influential since first voiced in 'The Power of the Powerless' (1979), is often missed today. His originality was to conceive ideology not as the 'instrument for the rational articulation of ideas' (to sink for a moment to the lowest level of Party jargon), but instead as a kind of "veil" which "permeates" and helps to "form" society itself. In a situation he already described as "post-totalitarian", the guarantee of social cohesion was undertaken through essentially cynical means - while nobody really believed, everybody remained within the system in order to avoid any problems. Ideology became the (cynical) legitimization of power, a way of totalizing social space, of making people accept society as they found it. Yet for Havel this desire for totality was not strictly unique to communist societies, but in fact stemmed from the "historical encounter between dictatorship and consumerism", and contained a warning to the west. After all, he asked, wasn't totalitarianism merely an "exaggerated caricature" of modern life in general? Communism, therefore, was lumped in with all the other symptoms of the condition of humanity under modernity. 

The crucial aspect was to understand how ideology was no longer adopted out of naive idealism, but had taken on the role of a cynical mode of self-justification, a sort of universal deception which allowed a debased society to function. In a conclusion which always contained the potential for mysticism, it was modernity as such that degraded truth.

Havel believed in a kind of social and political order, but in what specifically? Clearly not the order of the Communist Party, which was for him a reactionary Orleanism, a reinstitution of the old cycle of coercion and repression. Havel's order is the response to a divine injunction - "put thine castle in order!" Following this revelation of divine will, one's task is literally to give order to the clutter of the world. Giving order to the humdrum in the face of a great wave: popularly this is known as fiddling while Rome burns. It is the "structures that embody our statehood"3 - coats of arms, dinner etiquette, properly emblazoned cutlery - which obsess him. There is a certain charm to this. At one point in To The Castle and Back he damns an old cleaner who, firmly ensconced somewhere in the Castle's political heart, stubbornly refuses to let anybody make use of the good silver for diplomatic dinners. Havel's delight in heraldic motifs (the Castle itself being one) was an expression of a desire to reinvigorate a more magical side of Europe, one more concerned with exploring the occult than anything like mass politics. Hence his affection for the Rudolfine court and its vast, eccentric treasure-troves.

Havel's suspicion of political ideas stemmed from a more general distaste for rationalism. For Havel order was the creation of personal balance. His was the Truth of prophets and poets, one that could be disclosed only through revelation, and even then only fleetingly. Reason fractures the unity of the World, yet in the absence of human reason (in Nietzschean overtones) "everything is related to everything else."4  The World is thus a priori harmonious; it is in human consciousness that the violence exists. He speaks of a "hidden fabric of life"5 accessible through ruptures with linear, rational thought, such as the collage (a reference to the non-linear or rather multi-linear structure of the book). While negatively this resulted in disdain for the modern "machinery" of the state, its positive aspect was a deep nostalgia for a more heraldic, romantic past. Revelation was an act of the individual creative will, a glimpse of a mysterious unity outside of human reason. Hence Havel's dislike of honest capitalism (or "capitalism without adjectives", in the words of the ODS slogan) - too protestant and earthy to satisfy his need for something transcendent and unbothered by the merely material.

In a sense then this was a specifically Catholic method of revelation: the divine order of reality fleetingly revealed. His 'post-political' (sometimes even, in his more daring, anti-consensual moments, 'post-democratic') politics was really only a reversion to some pre-modern conception of political order as social balance, harmony with nature, and atonement in the eyes of a transcendent power.

This poetics of revelation, with its emphasis on the mysterious and alchemical, found its apotheosis in the Prague Castle itself. At once the embodiment of noble grandeur and mystical experiments, in the Castle Havel could explore the psychical depths of Central Europe, situated at the very heart of its cultural repository (one of his great diplomatic blunders was an attempt to have Sweden return the sacked artefacts of Rudolf II's famous collection to Prague). Yet as any visitor to Prague knows, the Castle refuses to 'reveal' anything besides a slightly ridiculous testament to imagined histories of power, rendering the city somehow inadequate relative to its lofty ambitions.

In contrast to Kafka's eponymous Castle, which reveals itself through the mists as a ramshackle assemblage of dull huts, Hradcany (The Castle district) dissolves into mere 'aristocratic splendour'. As people wander its odd little streets they might be heard to ask where the famous Castle actually is. From a distance it is sombrely imposing, but on the approach it breaks down into its constituent parts: cathedral, dwellings, old shops, presidential quarters. Yet, as something more than the sum of its parts, it is forever visible on the skyline, a black crystalline embodiment of a fantasy of power utterly alienated from the city at its feet. Its very pageantry, awash with the occult, only reinforces its reality for 'cynical' Czechs as a magnificent chocolate-box screen image - the benign mask of an intangible trauma, a troubling hangover from centuries of religious oppression and foreign domination.

Havel was a kind of benign mystic reactionary, rejecting modern consciousness as essentially sullied by technocratic rationalism. It was this very rejection which mired him in an impotent campaign for a fantastical revolution in the general human consciousness, a groundless religious mission which lacked (and lacks) any concrete support, and left him startlingly isolated by the end of his time in office. Havel regrets that the "political technocrats outnumber the dreamers"6: it's no cruel trick on the dreamers, however, that this remains the case. Nonetheless, the more interventionist of liberals; those, like Blair, of a more militaristic pose, have also been bloodier. For Havel's rare political quietism we should in the end be thankful.

1Ash, The Uses of Adversity, 163
2qtd., Ash, 171
3Havel, To The Castle and Back, 286
6 ibid., 295

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The Weather in Budapest: Rain-Sleet-Snow with a Hint of Sludge

When I imagine Berlin it's always June and alternating between sun and showers in that typically unpredictable northern European way. In the Budapest of my memory, meanwhile, the temperature hovers forever around zero. The constant, lazy drizzle alternates between wet snow and icy rain. Unbroken, claustrophobically dense cloud covers the whole sky for days on end. This is the world of shifting greys that I picture in John le Carre novels. It is a picture of perfect, rain-lashed streets; of weather made for hiding in big low-lit cafes and watching the pavements outside.

As I've said before, Budapest is a far cooler place than Prague. Imagine Berlin but more dishevelled, with a bombed out feeling, and perhaps more homeless people. So, Berlin as it might have been in 1989. This only adds to its sense of espionage; its atmosphere of hidden intrigue and trouble; the energy of the hyper-modern colliding with another, altogether more stilted world. Of course, in high summer, when hundreds of thousands of tanned, happy young people bundle onto Sziget island for its annual pop festival, this fantasy of danger couldn't be further from the truth. But this proves my point entirely: bunting and carnivals are not what I'd like to remember about Budapest.

I recall its brooding riverfront; the vast, intense sprawl of its craggy, half-restored facades; the incessant, driving rain. All this gave it the appearance of somewhere not yet fully accustomed to the attentions of outsiders. This is sort of the case: even as Hungary itself grows more typically entwined with the capitalist world, its politics is becoming more radically nationalist. It's a pattern as old as capital itself: the cultural vacuum imposed on capital's most recent entrants leads to violent reaction. Capital imposes no set of values in its wake, unlike state-planning, which does so with a manic, self-destructive energy. The result is that those who fought the old tyranny have ended up instituting a regime of even more extensive repression than the one that preceded it.

In the Hungary of Janos Kadar, who was crowbarred into power following the crushing of the 1956 uprising, travel restrictions were removed, space for free market style activities was carefully allotted, and a great deal of censorship was relaxed. Socialist Hungary was described as 'the merriest barracks in the camp'. This concealed its enormous indebtedness. As was also the case with Yugoslavia, its very openness to the world economy helped undo the precarious regime and the defeatist, narrowly consumerist social contract that underwrote it. There is less danger of that in sight today. Under the supermajority of Prime Minister Victor Orban new forms of media control have been devised, along with authoritarian adjustments to Hungary's constitution, even as the country brings in international investment. None of this has made much difference to the debt situation, even though it's made some people very rich. Dissent, both liberal and leftist, is being marginalised in a way the creaky old bureaucracy, having relinquished the reins of censorship, could no longer manage.

Those who dismiss the Orban regime as the latest in a long line of ugly, xenophobic post-communist governments - rabble-rousing populists who only momentarily challenge the forward march of liberal order - should be careful. For a start, he's no populist: the people, in any properly defined sense, can not be said to support him. He's a high Magyar elitist of the old school, and in that he owes more to Lajos Kossuth and 19th century nationalism than to skinhead thuggery, as uncomfortable as it is for many to admit. Yet his enduring, in fact tightening, hold on power, along with the success of the far right Jobbik party, attest to the rise of an unrepresentative, western-educated, and deeply nationalist elite.

That the government does not make the country was evidenced everywhere. Daily life continued in its half-speed winter fashion. Hipsters and tourists and Roma rubbed along fine. And rain-sodden posters from big organised protests were plastered on walls. Yet a visit to Budapest's famous English style Parliament suggested the obsessive defensiveness of the Orban state. Armed guards prevented anyone from getting near it. Big signs asked tourists to stop where they were and come no closer. The whole place smacked of petty regulation and a kind of withdrawal of government power into blissful isolation. It was how I imagined things would have been for tourists before 1989.

As the rain fell on the long curl of the Pest riverfront, melting the snow and creating big mounds of sludge, we dodged the roar of traffic to get closer to the water. Tramlines sliced through the muddy river bank, separating pedestrians from the views of hilly Buda on the other side. Still, there was something alluring about it: the river was swollen and churning - a real river, the kind on which a stern, steel metropolis could be built. The massive, unadorned chain bridge lashed itself across the two shores. Boats fought the chaotic tide. Budapest felt like the awesome centre of something, whereas Prague always feels a little marginalised by its own chocolate box beauty. Here, I felt, was a place where things were happening.

Klaus Wowereit once called Berlin "poor, but sexy". He was mayor at the time. This, for many, encapsulates Berlin's charm. It's self-deprecating, hugely talented, but somehow under-achieving. It lacks gloss. Budapest, with its pubs built into derelict buildings and its thousands of pop up art galleries, exudes a similar atmosphere. It's as if the grim, imperial splendour of the official city leaves inadvertent space for such transgressions in its own alcoves. Still, what lo-fi, indie-ish creativity there is is being quickly and smartly professionalized by an international business class who still see Hungary, and Budapest in particular, as a safe bet. Safer than, say, Poland, where everything is still creeky and risky. And more interesting than the Czech Republic, which is viewed as a sort of aspirant Switzerland. The chaos and creativity of Budapest is breeding big investment. This is no surprise, but we should recall here that opening a gallery in Budapest is very often an act of defiance, one enacted against a repressive state with oligarchic ambitions. One should not exploit such creative industriousness lightly.

The new government's whims, legally pursuable through an unassailable supermajority further guaranteed by electoral gerrymandering and constitutional alteration, have led to absurdities every bit as remarkable as those fostered under communism. A couple of winters ago Hungary banned homelessness, making it punishable with a fine equivalent to about £400. With a population of up to 10 000 homeless people (in a city of 2 million), that's a lot of fines in Budapest alone. It's also an act of outright barbarity. Yet this law also conveys everything you need to know about the government's attitude towards its own citizens: if they are unsightly or bad for business, rapidly change the law, and pursue punitive financial action. The legitimacy conferred on government through parliamentary majority is here taken to absurd extremes. The logic assumes that 52% of the vote, on a turnout of 63%, morally guarantees the right of the government to do exactly as it pleases. A purely legal majority (in reality only 30% of the voting population) becomes a weapon for massive legal reform. Orban continues to rail against international (read: Jewish) financial capital even as he gets Hungary deeper into debt. He has introduced neoliberal style low taxes on small business even as he introduces tariffs on foreign, financial capital. Here again are the echoes of the paternalist Kossuth and the high water mark of Magyar nationalism. Ideologically, Orban is above all a nationalist. But he is by no means averse to capital insofar as it furthers his goals of chauvinist Magyar expansion. One should not assume, as the advocates of liberal order within the EU do, that there is any immediate contradiction between nationalism and the interests of capital The danger is precisely that the two will coexist quite happily.

The pathetic fallacy comes full circle then: those brooding clouds over the national parliament spell trouble ahead. But the driving rain, the city's ability to get on with it, to draw creative strength from within itself, suggests there's a fight ahead.   

Monday, 16 September 2013

Kayaking: Dubrovnik

Sunset and kayaks.

I was already in her bad books because - decapitated fowl that I am - I bought everything wrong at the airport. 'Insect repellent,' she said by way of instruction. Blind with panic (our plane departing in fifteen minutes) I grabbed a bottle with an insect on it, which - my gamble inevitably not paying off - turned out to be factor 50 sun tan lotion. Incidentally don't ever use factor 50 sun tan lotion unless you're a very pale two year old or in close proximity to the sun. More like powdered chalk than any lotion in texture, it leaves a crusty residue on anything it comes into contact with.

Thus marinated and shoved into a life-jacket I gamely fall-climb-splash my way into a kayak in a bay somewhere outside Dubrovnik's Old Town. Our guide - in name alone, as we'll see - is a topless fifteen year old called Stepan. 'Everything ok?' he asks. 'Not really,' comes my reply. Siobhan calls words of encouragement from her front-seat as we thrust out the placid bay and onto the high seas.

Stepan, it quickly becomes apparent, would much rather be with his friends than in a kayak with us. They sit jeering him heartily from a beach bar which, our flyer swears, will give us free wine on our safe return. That promise disappears with Stepan, who quickly paddles out to sea in just the manner of a young man in great need of a drink. Then he sort of passively refuses to come back. Stepan's distance, it turns out, makes little practical difference, as he doesn't speak much English and prefers to mumble that little he does know. All of which would be fine were we not promised a guided sunset tour.

We make great time past the protruding outcrop of the Old Town and plough headlong into water I can only describe as choppy. Siobhan refutes that description, preferring bumpy or wavy, but the difference is semantic. We are thrown aggressively around and, worse, knocked solidly off course. The nose of our kayak turns determinedly away from the island we are circling and out towards a vast, roaring emptiness of sea. It then remains stubbornly resistant to the pleas of our oars. As Stepan finally vanishes I see nothing but great, looming waves ahead forever. "It's too strong!" I blather like a doomed, useless deckhand in a Hollywood film. "We can't make it!" Siobhan - until now the model of reassurance - tells me to shut up and row, row, row my boat, neither of which I manage. Instead, realizing I suffer from an acute fear of open spaces, I shout for help to absolutely no effect.

At last Stepan pops up on the crest of a distant wave and points in the proper direction. This strikes me as rather like giving a choking man instruction on how to chew. Thanks largely to Siobhan we follow that finger, she calling instructions like the slave-drivers of old. "Row-row-row. Right-right-right!"

The island we've been trying to orbit rises up in front of us like a solid Jupiter, an emphatic, rocky congratulations for surviving. Stepan looks bemused. And on top of the rocks, like a flock of gulls, naked men look down at us, like prophets, their beards tugged by the sea breeze. We have arrived at the island's nudist beach, and I have never been so relieved to see so much bare middle-age.

Stepan tells us it's too windy to go on the island (clearly not true) but says he wants to show us a cave. Like bats, Stepan likes caves. He haunts this one silently while Siobhan and I stand bored in the water. 'Where are our sandwiches?' we ask ourselves. 'We were promised sandwiches.'

Another band of kayakers is in the same cave. They have snorkel gear and greedily scoff free bananas and the tour guide takes them out to the shallows to give them a quick lesson in how to row (none of which we got). 'We won't go out round the island this evening because, as you can see, the water's a bit too choppy,' the other tour guide says. I shoot Siobhan a look of vindication.

'Ready?' Stepan asks.
'Not really,' I say, repeating my graceless tumble into the kayak before nearly capsizing the thing on the back of a wave.

We push out to sea, this time in the direction of the Old Town, behind which the sun is just disappearing. One thing advertised is true: it is indeed a sunset tour. As the waves blacken around us, the light splintering over Baroque silhouettes, I feel a growing camaraderie with Stepan. The waves roll higher beneath us, smashing on the rocks and blowing back, but this time we are going the right way.

'This is where TV show Game of Thrones was filmed,' Stepan calls chummily.
'We know,' comes the reply.

We pull surprisingly skilfully into the same bay we started at. Giddy with relief I ask, 'How about that wine?' Stepan, leagues ahead, has hopped out of his kayak and is well on his way to the bar. He waves me goodbye, terse to the end.

Undeterred I walk over to the kayak's guardsman - as close as I can find to a ringleader - who's propped sulkily up against the wall like a collapsed balloon. 'It says we get free wine,' I say, pointing to my flyer. He stutters over the cigarette in his mouth. A beach bum in Hawaiian shorts, standing over the guardsman's shoulder, barks something crossly at us. Guardsman shrugs, 'Groups only for that.' I look over at Siobhan and suppose in their eyes we aren't a group - though you could make a case that this distinction too is only semantic.

Group or not, Siobhan and I buy our own - the cheapest, fizziest bottle we can find - the glow-in-the-dark contents of which we pour into plastic cups on a nearby jetty in the last of the dusk light. Across the bay the kayakers we saw earlier are partying, popping free bubbly into the sea, which jostles playfully below them. Not to be outdone we sit until well after dark in the rippling shallows below the Old Town.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Czech specialities 2: Beer

My current favourite Czech beer is called Petr Vok. It comes in a brown bottle, costs 8kc (about 30p) from the supermarket, and is adorned with a charming cartoony rendition of some duke or other from the 17th century (presumably the eponymous Vok). It tastes, as Siobhan pointed out, pretty normal, until it hits the back of your mouth, when it takes on the consistency and flavour of liquified bread. Hearty stuff then. Adjectives like "earthy" and "peaty" spring to mind; all those tough associations between land, drudgery and thirst. Never mind the fact that anyone who's actually worked up a thirst wouldn't want to touch the stuff. After all, who fancies a loaf of bread after a workout? This is why beer was historically the preserve of monks and, well, alcoholics - the line between the devout and the debauched being easily crossed.

Petr Vok, this most Czech of beers, is brewed by the Eggenburg brewery in Cesky Krumlov, a town so Czech that it boasts its home country in its own name. This is the equivalent of calling Liverpool English Liverpool, or rather North western Liverpool. Or calling Los Angeles Californian Los Angeles to differentiate it from all the other Los Angeleses. I like to think Cesky Krumlov is called Cesky Krumlov just because of its impressive Czechness. It's like Prague if it had been boiled down to a hard, compact core of its most Czech features: a hill-perched stately home that everyone insists on calling a castle; a luscious bridge as the town's focal point; a glamorous town square; and lots of pubs. This latter is essential. I've written before about how little Czech pubs vary, but the point deserves reiterating. A Czech pub is like unreconstructed masculinity: the same wherever you find it. Generally it will smell of smoke and body odour, look somewhat threatening, and hold dubious attitudes towards foreigners. It will sell heavy food, heavy beer and hard liqueur to wash it down with. Like so many things in the Czech Republic, Czech consumerism is based largely on repetition without difference (to paraphrase the letter if not the spirit of Gilles Deleuze). They get that people want to consume a lot, but not really that variety can sneak into that desire. Far be it from me to bemoan unsophisticated consumerism. It probably has its environmental benefits. On the one hand, it means most things are made locally. But really, who needs seven varieties of shit Edam cheese?

Anyway, back to Krumlov - my microcosm of Czechness - where identical pubs vie rudely for the custom of tourists they all vaguely dislike. This reminds me of a review I once read of an expensive restaurant in London which specialized in bad service. The restaurant was doing rather well, presumably because there are far more masochist diners out there than anyone anticipated. The situation throughout the Czech Republic is similar, except in one regard: this London restaurant specialized in extravagantly bad service. In "the Czech" service is all about the dispassionate; the cold, disinterested, dead-eyed stare that slices straight through you; the shrug that meets your nervously voiced order; the vague amusement at your inadequate Czech (if, like me, you're a foreigner). This might be because the service sector - especially the pub sector, which is massive - is largely staffed by unreconstructed, uber-masculine middle-aged men who have worked in the same pub their whole adult lives. They prowl angrily around on sticky floors in their sandals and aprons, the model of barely contained resentment. In theory I sympathise: I wouldn't enjoy doing what they're doing either. It's just that, simply to get through the day, we Brits smile through the misery. There's nothing jolly in the British service sector smile, it's just an acknowledgement of mutual humanity and, by extension, a mutual ability to suffer. A recognition (to copy the letter if not the spirit of George Osborne) that we're all in this together - that the roles of the exchange could easily be reversed.

In Krumlov every available flat surface is cluttered with beer benches and beer umbrellas, yet strolling around you discover an odd sameness. The town's homebrew - the stuff by Eggenburg - is actually less widely available than Budweiser (the Czech Budweiser, not the American one, which, while better than its American namesake, is still a top candidate for "Worst Czech Beer"). The same is true of Prague. Pilsner - its base nearby in Plzen - dominates most street views. With the pre-eminence of the Czech pub has come the complete advertising dominance of a few Czech beers. The properly interesting beers and brewers - like Cerna Hora, Lobkowicz, Primator - are shoved to the suburban sidelines. In vaguely posh Vinohrady (squint your eyes and it could be Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin) a few small, slightly off kilter independent pubs sell a decent range of beers. I've just moved to Vinohrady and am still boyishly excited at the prospect of living within walking distance of a pub that sells something other than Staropramen or Pilsner. I can go for a walk and buy a pint of blueberry beer.

In Britain, of course, Staropramen is the odd, continental choice that most neighbourhood pubs stock. They probably sell it for £3.60 (here it's often under a pound) in what looks like a bulbous, elongated test tube. But that's not the point. Staropramen is a pretty dull beer. And nothing makes a dull thing duller than constant exposure to it. The real killer comes, however, with the realization that even my prized localish, craftish beers are in fact brewed and bottled by a mega-global-multi-national-hyper-global-corporation called "InBev". The people behind this ominously bland moniker apparently make everything from Bavarian Weiss Bier to Coke Zero. They probably run a sideline in cheese, producing the molten plastic later to become Cheese Strings in the same factory as vintage Camembert, from the same bullied cows, all using the labour of 12 year olds who are watched over at gunpoint. As we all know, there's no such thing as an ethically pure product in a world where everything is awkwardly interconnected - as the Archbishop of Canterbury will tell you. It's difficult not to buy something of iffy origins - the line between the devout and the debauched still, even today, being often crossed.