This post was meant to be typed and ready for the 1st of July, on the 3rd anniversary of Vernon’s death. I didn’t manage to finish it, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I do not wish his birthday to pass without publishing it. I hope our friends like it and those who didn’t know him much enjoy his stories and learn something, as I always did with Vernon.
How Vernon’s visit to the Iron Curtain in 1973-74, my memories of myself and Spain at the time, and the Julian Calendar led me to Ukraine.
Vernon visits some countries behind the Iron Curtain
Ten years or so have gone by since the last story. This is now 1973-74 and by then Vernon has divorced, lived in Europe while working for a Sheffield’s Steelworks company, gone back to Sheffield and, at the time when this story takes place, he’s back in Germany with Muriel, his girlfriend at the time.
He also has a job as a market research manager for the Steelworks company, a company car, and paid expenses. This would allow him to save money and then go to Uni as a mature student to do French and Spanish. But this is another story.
A visit to then-Czechoslovakia
While in Germany, Vernon & Muriel take the opportunity to visit different countries both in Western and then-Eastern Europe. One of those Eastern European countries was Czechoslovakia, later two countries: The Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Vernon tells in his memoirs, written in 2018, how they got the visas to go there and drove to Regensburg, where they stayed the night. Then, they drove on. But let’s Vernon tell us about it:
“As we stopped at the Iron Curtain, my most lasting memory was barbed wire, uniforms, machine pistols, controls, checks. There were two fences with a heavily mined area between them, all watched over by guards in towers. I’d read a few John le Carré novels but actually being there and experiencing this gave me a sensation of palpable fear and oppression.
And deep depression and foreboding.
The contrast between the prettiness of Bavaria, brightly-coloured murals, balconies festooned with flower, and the drabness of Bohemia, a kind of shitty beige hue everywhere only relieved by the ubiquitous red flags, was an impression that was to stay with me the rest of my life.
[…] Heading towards Prague, we saw a sign “Pilzn”. We were interested in having a beer in the place where Pilsen beer was invented, but one look at the drab, dreary ugliness of the place and we decided to give it a miss. On a bend in the road just outside Prague, which bore a sign giving us priority, we were stopped by the Czech police, I asked why. “You did not indicate”. “But we had priority”, I protested. We were fined 100 Krona on the spot, with no appeal.
Going round the next bend, a huge, grey hammer and sickle on a concrete plinth loomed out of the fog and drizzle, this monument so sinister I almost shook with foreboding. We forged on towards Prague and once there went straight to the tourist office to find accommodation but, as it was Easter, the hotels were full. We were offered the chance of sleeping in a disused railway carriage. We decided to head on for Brno: the old town was pretty, but the air stank of the fumes of sub-standard petrol and diesel.
In Brno, on asking where the “action” was (i.e., where students went for a drink), we were directed to the “Bar Cosmopol”. Sitting at a large table and drinking beer and schnapps, we started chatting with the Czech engineering students around us, all of whom spoke fluent German. When we told them that we were English, not German, the following conversation ensued:
“English? We know all about England. The millionaire capitalists driving Rolls-Royces, smoking best Havana cigars, throw all the workers into the street to starve to death.” I gave Muriel a look more quizzical than sneaky, then we both explained to these charming students that they were wrong.
“We were born and raised in England and can assure you it’s a very pleasant country where most of the people are quite content.”
“No, you’re victims of capitalist propaganda”
Now, this really frightened me as not only had those boys never been to England, but they weren’t allowed to go there either. And yet, they were telling us what life in England was like!
We moved on to Slovakia and headed for Bratislava (Pressburg in German). On my travels I’d seen some pollution, but this was beyond the pale. We drove into the town centre.
All the buildings were black, but blacker that some parts of Sheffield when I was a kid. You could taste the chemicals on your tongue as you breathed. The only colour, as usual, was the ubiquitous red flags. As we got out of the car, in the central square, we just wondered what devil did that.
Many more years later, in Madrid with Paloma, we met a young couple who lived in Bratislava. I told them of my experience, and they explained that the chemical works had been closed thirty years before, but it would take two generations to clean up the soil pollution.
Past and present came together.
The academic year 1973-74 was, for Spanish students on their first year at university, a funny year, which came to be known as “año juliano” (Julian Year).
I had moved from Toledo to Segovia because that’s where my eldest sister and her family lived, so I could start Uni there, which would be cheaper than Madrid.
I got my very first job as a dishwasher and cleaning girl at a restaurant in Segovia. Working 6 and a half days a week and earning 5,000 pesetas a month. My free “half-day” was Thursday, once we had cleared up after lunch, for it was market day and those attending the market from nearby villages had lunch at the restaurant.
I stayed there for one month. Originally, because I would start classes in October. But some time in September it was confirmed that the “Julian calendar” would mean that classes for 1st-year university students would not start until January. I left in October, anyway, to work as a housemaid in the mornings, which would allow me to attend classes in the afternoon and evening.
I wanted to do languages, probably because I felt that everything and everybody interesting came from outside or had gone away, very often to France, but also to Germany or England. Plus, my other sister was living in London and my uncle in Switzerland. However, languages were not to be that year for —due to the changes introduced in the education system— that option was not available in Segovia.
The family whose house I was cleaning in the mornings were very nice to me. I think that a key factor was that I was a “Uni-student”. In December 1973 Carrero Blanco, the top man under Franco’s regime, was killed by a bomb planted by ETA. And then, I learnt about “garrote vil”, which would mark me for ever.
After the Christmas holidays, I started classes at a university college doing Geography and History, which would allow me to do languages later on in Madrid. It was there and, I suppose, also on TV that I started hearing about this guy, Puig Antich, who was going to get killed using the aforesaid “garrote vil”. I kept wondering what that might be…Would they be using some kind of club or bludgeon? For, as far as I knew, that’s what a “garrote” is in Spanish. And if so, how? …And why “vil”?
Until then I had not been much concerned with “politics in Spain”. But that “garrote vil” kept bothering me. So, I asked the lady of the house. She was a nice and gentle, upper-middle-class lady. And she explained to me what garrote vil was. I found it so horrid, so brutal, so inhuman, so despicable. And that Franco, who attended mass and took communion every day would not only sign the sentence for such a heinous deed but would also refuse to commute it for something more “humane”… That’s when I started to ponder about Spain’s political system and religion. But let’s not stray too far off the track.
And the track I am following is the “Julian Calendar”. Or rather, “the Julian Year”.
The “Julian Calendar” leads me to learn a bit about Ukraine’s history and understand better its unfortunate present
The “Julian Year” I was referring to before was obviously named after Education Secretary Julio Martínez (Julio the Brief, as he came to be nicknamed) who introduced the “funny academic year” intended to last from January to December, but which in effect lasted from January to June.
And that made me look into the origins of the real Julian Calendar and the reasons for its change.
Serendipity led me to a publication in Spanish called REOP- January-March 1973 and, more specifically, to a section in it penned by José Sánchez Cano and entitled “La nacionalidad y la consagración conciliar en la Iglesia ortodoxa Ucraniana”. Its starting point, according to a footnote, was his doctoral thesis.
It explained why and when the Julian Calendar was substituted by the Gregorian calendar and how it did not happen evenly in Europe. In fact, Sociologist José Sánchez Cano indicates that Russia adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1919, which accounts for the disagreement on the exact date of the communist coup d’état or communist uprising (Some say it took place on 27th October, while others set it on 7th November, he says in the footnote).
The article, though, is not about the Julian or Gregorian Calendars but about Ukraine as a nation, its origins and the role played by the Orthodox Church in its history. And Ukraine is, unfortunately and for the wrong reasons, a highly topical subject.
Past and present come together again, as Vernon reflected when he was telling us about pollution in Bratislava and how long it will take to clean it up.
It seems that the world’s leaders have already forgotten the lessons we all should have learnt. Let us hope for a better future.