Spring offensive

Bohemian lake: Unsplash

On this somber first anniversary of the war in Ukraine and anticipating a spring offensive, I expected to read historical reflections in the media about the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet tanks and troops in 1968. So I am filling a gap with a brief memoir.

With two undergraduate friends, I crammed into a mini car to drive from London on a winding route through Warsaw Pact countries for a vacation on the island of Crete. As two biology students and a medic, we stopped in Brno to pay homage to the abbot who pioneered the science of genetics.

Curiosity drew us to a loud disco playing Western pop music in Horni Pena, Bohemia. The local youth gave the rare foreign visitors a huge welcome. They were eager to learn about Western lives they hoped to emulate after recent reforms by the First Secretary of the Communist Party, Alexander Dubcek, gave hope for a more liberal regime.

We heard ominous noises under the bonnet (hood) of our car during our onward journey. Thankfully we manage to limp to a campsite beside a beautiful lake and met a Prague family in a neighboring tent. They acted as our interpreters. They advised us to hitchhike to Vienna to buy a new front wheel bearing. We took the part to an automobile repair shop in the village. Our car fascinated the two mechanics who examined every corner and communicated through hand signs they had never seen front-wheel drive before.

The next morning, they had replaced the bearing, evidently after working all night. Then they refused payment, no matter how hard we tried to force banknotes into their palms. The gentleman from Prague sent us on our way with a farewell I never forgot: “Remember Czechoslovakia!”  

We drove east through Moravia into Slovakia and crossing the border into Hungary we entered a cheerless country. Later on our travels, we heard that Czechoslovakia was invaded the day after we left. Another friend didn’t get out in time.

The people fell under a grim regime that crushed hopes of reform and democracy. They waited more than twenty years to gain lasting freedom.

Parallels between the former state of Czechoslovakia and present-day Ukraine only go so far. Ukrainians enjoyed freedom for longer before a brutal invasion. They have suffered, far, far more from loss of life and property destruction than in the Prague Spring. May their bid to remain free and choose their destiny be confirmed much sooner than the Czechs and Slovaks had to wait.

Bonchurch through Time

Bonchurch, Isle of Wight
G.H. Thompson, 1920

My great grandma bought this watercolor by a minor artist of an Isle of Wight scene a century ago. It has hung in our family homes ever since.

A housemaid carrying a basket is walking up a winding lane scoured by cart tracks. The English Channel peeps above trees and shrubbery turning gold in autumn. Although I know most corners of the Island where I was born, I couldn’t identify the scene and began to doubt it existed except in the artist’s head.

But walking up Bonchurch Shute with my cousin, she turned back and exclaimed, “This is it!”

Bonchurch Shute
Bonchurch Shute, Isle of Wight

Her artist’s eye matched the scene to the remembered painting—the angle of the bend and old walls on either side, although the sea is now obscured by vegetative growth. The revelation stirred questions. Who was she? Did she work as a servant for local gentry? Was she known to my family?

If the maid came back to life, I doubt she would notice much change in the scene. Grand Victorian villas still grace a road previously the residences or lodgings of great literary figures. Charles Dickens wrote part of David Copperfield in Winterbourne House, the poet Algernon Swinburne lived in East Dene, and Tennyson visited from his Farringford home. John Keats and Lewis Carroll had local associations too.

I’m sure they all visited the ancient church nearby, supposed to be founded by St. Boniface in the 700s. Outside the church, a noticeboard announces to the occasional tourist who ventures down the road that it was rebuilt in 1070 and still serves the community. Yes, Rebuilt!

Old Church, Bonchurch, IOW
The ancient Church of St. Boniface, Bonchurch

Standing alone in the churchyard, I only heard a gurgling stream and the murmur of the tide working pebbles on the shore beyond a screen of trees. It’s a place to feel cast back in time in a setting that has hardly changed in a millennium. Even the stone church looks resolute against decay, although the Norman frescoes inside have faded, as happens to every human artefact.

Forty generations have passed through the porch, from anonymous medieval peasants to a Stuart king to local gentry and their servants up to the present day. There is satisfaction in knowing where you belong, or at least in sharing a scene known to generations of family and friends.

In another century, I expect the old church will look much the same because places of great antiquity or rarity deserve strenuous preservation. If my descendants visit they might find the setting helps to imagine us.

But elsewhere the world rushes ever faster, transforming landscapes and rebuilding ‘better.’ The acceleration seems unstoppable. Although sometimes grumbling about development, we are reluctant to oppose progress, knowing how it has benefited prosperity, health, and security. But there is always loss in gain.

If in a hundred years family members turn the scrapbook of photos we took at the Shute last month I guess the location will be harder to pinpoint than when we identified where a maid posed for an artist in 1920. I guess the old houses and expansive gardens will be gone, the seashore crept closer, vegetation altered by a warmer climate, and traffic we can’t yet imagine. There won’t be the same moment of revelation for a great, great grandchild to exclaim, “I know where they took that photo! Let’s see where our ancestors stood and what they saw.”

The loss of that kind of connection seems trivial, but an example of a broad and common experience. A poverty of belonging. We become strangers, even in our own land.  

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