A Spectator

Every once in a while you read a book that prompts you to rethink your own ideas that you have about a subject. I’ve just read Joe Kennedy’s Games Without Frontiers from Repeater Books. It’s made me revisit an old essay of  mine which I have been sitting on for a while. I wrote it while living in Prague and spending my time following my local club there, Bohemians 1905. Following Bohemians for little over a season helped mme understand better my ideas about football and its social function. It also helped me better understand my own fandom,  and what it means to be a supporter of a club when you live away. That means finding a new club but also they way it reinforces and changes your relationship with your home club. As Kennedy concludes “football is only ever a microcosm of whatever exists in our broader social settings”. I am still developing and changing my ideas of what fandom looks like here in Norway, but this essay captures a moment when I was trying to find my place in Prague and also at the same time, understand what role, if any, football has to play in social formation. So here it is, the essay, unedited and unupdated as I wrote it almost a year ago. I am sharing it now because I thought and still think it was well written even if the ideas expressed are no longer directly relevant to my lived experience at present. 

As an outsider in a foreign country, all you ever are is a spectator. It is how you are oriented to everything, everyone else, in the city. You have no compass but the one given to you by others. Prague runs east to west, not as I am accustomed, north to south in its orientation. This is a deep form of orientation. Ingrained. Though in their minds this is Central, not Eastern Europe, I am Western. This is resolute. In the map of the city which I am granted by those who live here, those who I talk to, I am always approaching from the west.  This is an orientation I am unable to escape.

I live on the east side of town. Crimea. Sevastapol. Kharkiv. The River Don that runs southeast to Voronezh. My home lies on The River Don, on Donská. From my apartment window I look up the hill Kozácká, named for the Cossacks. Around the corner, runs The Black Sea. The Crimea bleeds seamlessly into Moscow, before it, in turn, encompasses the Caucases. These are my immediate borders. My streets. At my tram stop, the Crimea, there is graffiti which read Včera my, Dneska ty. Our yesterday, your today. It is painted blue and yellow. The colours of the Ukraine. There can be no mistaking the meaning. It is punctuated by a yellow heart. Here, in Vršovice, all of my surrounding streets are named for countries. Estonia runs parallel to Norway runs parallel to Finland. At the foot of each of these is Copehagen. Armenia. Moldova. Murmansk. Deeper into this part of town there is Ulyanov street. A street for the Altai mountains. A street for the Bashkir peoples of Turkey. For the 28th Regiment of the Red Army. Magnitogorsk. Yalta. Lvov. Carpathia. Yerevan. Cuba Square. Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan. Kazakhstan. Kirgizstan. Here, in Vršovice, these streets all flow from one great avenue, Russia. These streets a map, of Communism, of the East. Their yesterday. Something of which they were once a part. Their addresses a daily reminder of the greater project. It’s ghost lingering in red street signs with white lettering and blue borders.

Prague must be one of the most mapped cities in Europe. There are countless mapped versions of Prague. Cartoonish ones for tourists with giant drawings of the major landmarks, bordered by ads for pub crawls, ghost tours, casinos. In these, the limits of the city are stark. There are maps for the discerning tourist with cool, clean lines. It assumes a certain amount of knowledge is already held by the reader of the map. It is about getting off the beaten track. The unbeaten track is still mapped. There is the map of Prague on my phone, dazzling with the stars of saved places. I am always its centre. Its heart. I am my own tiny blue dot. Each yellow star forming a criss-crossed constellation of my eating and drinking habits. Of haircuts and work. You could with this map trace and traverse my life in this city. You could live as I have lived. It would double over on itself a dozen times, like the accordion folds of any map. You would know my borders, my limits.

My favourite asterism is the starry plough. When I first started seeing Miriam, I would visit her in Tábor, an hour and half south of Prague. As we walked one night around the illuminated, still-standing walls of this medieval city, I noticed the stars in the sky. It was a clear night. October. I mentioned my love of the starry plough. The big dipper she called it. No, the starry plough. Our aims most modest are, we only want the world, from the plough to the stars. When I think of the starry plough, I think of home. In those eight stars, whether on a field of deep blue, or green, I can map a history of Ireland.

The certainties I had about Prague, about the Czech Republic, have dwindled the longer I’ve lived here. Still I am trying to get a grip on it. I watch football from the terraces on Saturdays. There I am a spectator. But every other day of the week I am still one. I watch as this city, this country, my new home, also changes. From afar, I am a spectator of the changes at home. It is election week in Ireland. I wish I could vote from where I sit. I can’t. Instead I watch. I spectate.

One of the many things I love about Prague is its nearly inexhaustible number of antikvariats, or second-hand bookshops. In each one I visit I feel I am a deep-sea diver. There are corals of ex libris cards, discarded photos, postcards, medals, maps, and diaries. I swim through them, the water feels familiar though the language, the colour, is not.  Their stock in trade is second hand Czech books, which I cannot read, but occasionally I buy these if they are sufficiently interesting to me. Among the books I have bought are a range of different translations of 14th Century French poet and troubadour, Francois Villon, evidently considered sufficiently ideologically sound to be translated at the height of pre-Soviet invasion Czech communism.

Just before Christmas, the American poet Steven Rodefer died. I was lucky enough to have heard him read and to have even spoken to him at various times when I lived in Cork and he visited for the annual Soundeye poetry festival. I know the work of Francois Villon entirely because of him. His translations of Villon in the 1960s, under the moniker of Jean Calais is one of my favourite books of poetry. The week he died, in Prague’s Old Town, killing some time, and keeping out of the rain, I spotted on the poetry shelves of one particular antikvariat with which I am especially familiar, a whole slew of different translations of Villon from the late 1940s and the early 1950s. When I heard of Rodefer’s death I was cursing the fact that among the poetry books I brought from Ireland I didn’t bring his Villon. I wished I had.  I saw these three books and thought I had to buy them. They cost maybe a combined total of 150-,Kč. Though I couldn’t read the Czech, I could recognise something of Steven Rodefer’s own versions of Villon in the typography, the artwork of the books. It was a close proximation, across language, time and geography.

My only other substantial purchases in an antikvariat have been two photography books. One, which I got for 50Kč-, was a photographic history of Czech sport from the 1860s to the beginning of the First World War.  The other was a photo essay of the city of Prague. I bought this photo essay book early in my time in the city, when I was still in an exploratory phase and wanted to imbibe the city in as many ways as I could.

In his 1962 collection of photographs capturing Prague and its people, Praha a Pražané, published by the main publishing house of the Czech state since the period of the First Republic, Orbis, Václav Jírů included a number of photographs of sporting scenes. Along with the touching image of a group of young boys walking toward the open-air ice rink with their skates slung over their shoulder for some hockey in winter, there was also the power of the spartakiad, of speedway racing and more besides, but the most resonant images for me are those of football. As was surely de rigueur for a book of more or less vernacular, or at least social-realist photography taken in early 1960s Czechoslavakia, the images of football included almost obligatory jumpers-for-goalpost snaps.

The book of photographs covers a year in the life of the city, beginning in spring and ending in winter. As well as the jumpers-for-goalposts images of the summer months captured by Jírů, there are two other images of football that capture the game in that era in Czechoslovakia. On one page we see a fence, about ten feet in height, riddled with gaps and along the fence there are men, boys and women with prams, all looking on at the footballing action through the gaps – unable to get in either because of cost or because too many had already been let in. Here we have people straining to watch football. On the facing page, we see what appears to be a gate, but with no turnstile, wide open, and a single man standing, briefcase in hand, watching on as the action unfolds on the pitch. We can see, just barely, the packed stands of the stadium. Part of the book’s “autumn intermezzo” the image on the left is titled “One eye on the game” while that on the right is simply titled “A spectator”. In this last title there is the ambiguity of who is spectator and subject, from the camera lens, to the view that Jírů’s spectator sees of the players on the pitch, and the potential view of a spectator at the far end of the ground looking at Jírů’s subject, and finally, at Jírů as he takes the photograph himself. Borders on all sides. Framed, and framing. The page. The picture. The city.

Aside from being a beautifully poised image, constructed and captured so well, this image has helped me understand Czech football and the country at large as I have lived here. If the photography of Jírů showed the sport of the people with the people clambering to get a view – then it would be nearly impossible to compose a similar picture of the game, and of the Czech people, in today’s climate.

So what is the reality in Prague? In a city where the major ideological battles of the twentieth century have been played out – democracy, fascism and communism all creating a palimpsest here through which you can walk, the history mapped and mappable, the city is one that now embraces the neo-liberal consensus. Yet there are in places a resistance to this.

Sparta Prague, the Czech Republic’s biggest and most successful club, play their home games at Letná Stadion, or the Generali Arena as it is officially known. For a club supposedly the darling of the old Communist regime and the worker, the nasty truth is that in a post-Communist state this is manifested in a decided rightward shift of its hardcore fans – the right-wing tendencies of the Sparta ultras manifests itself all around the local area. As you walk around the leafy Dejvice and Letná area generally you are likely to be met with stickers with taglines like “Good Night Left Side”, a play on the usual antifascist slogan of “Good Night White Pride” in part no doubt a result of the large student population in the area, typically the holders of the city’s liberal flame. Thus Letná is a contested zone between on the one hand the hard-right ultras of Sparta and those opposed to an increasingly nationalistic, right-wing, anti-immigrant culture typical of many post-Communist states in central and eastern Europe.

Ironically, Letná, Dejvice and Holešovice, which make up the catchment area of the club are each popular with expats, usually older more settled ones who have been in the city for between fifteen and twenty years in some cases. Happy to take their money at the gate, nonetheless one wonders how welcome these interlopers would be among the Sparta faithful.

When I first moved here, I saw Bohemians as the natural antidote to this as a football club. The bigger question remains for me however: are Bohemians, their fans, and their stadium a space for the exploration of alternatives to the orthodoxy of neo-liberalism that prevails in the Czech Republic or is it like many such alternative clubs – still fundamentally about the football first and the culture second?

The hope has to be that the culture is of real significance, if not the primary raison d’être. It is my suspicion, having attended Bohemians games for most of this season that most fans are just there to follow their team and have a good time while doing so. For many, politics probably doesn’t come into. You sense there is a degree of apprehension among some Bohemians fans in seeing themselves as the vanguard of an increasingly under-threat alternative culture in the Czech Republic’s capital. But for other fans following the club itself is a political act.

In recent times, the last official squat in Prague was forcibly shut down by a heavy-handed police operation. Following the major floods in the city in 2002, the regeneration that was required was used to gentrify a previously vibrant working-class community making it a centre for new office buildings. Karlín, which had been cheap and thus a good place for many in the city’s artistic community, including artist collectives, was increasingly overrun by new office buildings and subsequently by developers looking to build apartment blocks to house the area’s new office working population. This change has seen the spaces available for artists to work in diminish. The best example of this is the destruction of the former factory that housed the Trafačka collective – occupants of the former industrial site for a number of years until the owner of the building decided that the offers being made to him to demolish the site and build new apartments in its stead became too tempting. This has meant the dispersing of a collective that has operated for eight years.

The end of Trafačka means not alone a reduction of these artists’ collaborative potential but the end of one of Prague’s most celebrated artist groups of the past decade – a real loss to the cultural life of the city. This shows that the values driving Prague forward as a city are hostile to such collectives – be they squats or shared artistic spaces. Even the inoffensive Karlín Studios, which has been around for about ten years, is due to close in 2016. This exhibition space is in a former factory warehouse that has been gutted but developers have decided that it ought to be turned into either offices or apartments or some kind of mixed development. It will be erased. Removed from the physical map of the city.

In the suppression of the city’s small number of squats, the demolition of spaces like those occupied by Trafačka in order to make them into profitable developments for business, one notes the same processes at work as the education provided by the neo-liberal tutors identified by Benjamin Tallis. In two recent essays appearing in Abolishing Prague, Tallis reassessed the paneláks which house the majority of the city’s citizens and also the communist-era architecture spread throughout the city.

The view of panelák housing (think late 60s early 70s social housing flats) held by westerners is unremittingly negative in contrast to the actual lived experience of those in them here in the Czech Republic. Likewise, the brutalist architecture of Prague that Tallis argues is occasionally the equal of Berlin goes against increasingly restricted ideas of what Prague as a city ‘is for’; the city as the tourist sees it is only to operate as a kind of real-life Eurodisney devoid of the things that make such places worth living in in the first place. In how read Prague, its architecture, it history, we are told to keep within the well-defined borders of the cartoonish maps your hostel or hotel furnish you with. The beauty of the Baroque is undeniable, objective. Anything else is heretical, subjective, awkward, a posture. No one, we are told, can really love Kotva.

Despite the demolition of places like Trafačka, other spaces are emerging that at least have the potential to act as engines of a subversive culture, in particular Paralelní Polis – a Bitcoin only café, and educational open office space that plays host to Prague’s crypto-anarchist community of hackers and others who are determined to build an alternative culture in the city. It will remain a clique-ish oddity, but its continued existence is a reminder of broader possibilities. It gives us a different way to read the contours of the city.

What does this have to do with me, with my little constellation of stars, my limits, my borders? The fans of Bohemians and the club are widely seen to share an antipathy for modern football’s pursuit of profit over other concerns. Through its development policy and absolute adherence to the logic of the market Prague may be seen to be preventing the emergence of alternative art spaces and squats that have the potential to help establish the city as a receptive one to creative people operating beyond mainstream culture.

It might be fair to say that in fact Bohemians’ home ground, Ďoliček, the dimple, is an alternative space. Not through a conscious cultivation of a politicised alternative but because in a culture largely uncritical of neo-liberal orthodoxies, any space that offers alternative approaches and culture is welcomed, encouraged and celebrated. When I stand watching Bohemians, I like to think of the club, of its fans, as Jírů’s lonely spectator – watching the game, wondering if it might be better. It too offers itself as a map. Perhaps I will save it and make it part of my constellation.

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