What is it that they know?

I’m rarely prone to panic, and despite the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, I pass through railway stations and airports without anxiety. It’s true that if I’m on a train, or on the Tube, an unaccompanied bag or box will nag at me until I see it repossessed, and I admit that I glance with a little apprehension at backpacks. I try hard to avoid racial stereotyping when I’m assessing the suicidal intent of my fellow passengers. But most of the time I’m entirely blasé about risk, not bravely uncaring, but unconscious or it. After all, the more we give in to fear, the more the terrorists are winning. And, as we all know when we do the arithmetic, the risks are greater from road traffic, mad cows and falling masonry.

That said, I don’t like to see well-armed soldiers patrolling in a shopping mall. Our LLP Group offices adjoin the seldom-visited Harfa Shopping Mall in Prague. The mall, built around four years ago, has been, I suppose, a commercial disaster, and as I pass through it every day between the metro station and my office, I note that yet more shops have closed and others, selling ever trashier trash, have taken their place. Tragically, Marks and Spencer closed a couple of months ago and I miss their biscuits terribly. Shoppers are sadly few and far between, except on those evenings when there’s an ice-hockey match in the O2 Arena next door.

So, why, suddenly are there gun-toting soldiers on the prowl? What do they know? It’s hard to imagine that Prague’s Harfa Shopping Mall would make a good target for terrorists. Or perhaps, that’s its very attraction. It’s such a soft target that it’s a perfect one. But if not terrorists, then what is there to fear? Even rival shopping malls have no good reason to provoke an outrage here. They’ve nothing to gain.

harfa soldiers

Far from being reassuring, the presence of soldiery makes me nervous. If they’re needed, then something must be wrong. It’s like seeing the cages and walls that surround US Embassies all over the world. If they’re needed, then something must be wrong. I walk on the other side of the street whenever possible.

And on my way home on the metro yesterday, six soldiers on patrol at Florenc station, boarded my carriage at the very last moment. They didn’t seem especially alert. I stood next to them, almost crushed up against a semi-automatic rifle, terrified that an inadvertent movement might be misinterpreted. Everyone tried to look relaxed about their presence, without entirely succeeding. I studied their uniforms (parachute regiment), weapons (real, and each of them with two) and demeanour (cheerful).

Perhaps they’ve been put on the streets to reassure us, but they have the opposite effect on me. If anything they make me more anxious. It’s the thought that we need protection as close as this. And it’s the knowledge that if a terrorist gang sprang into action, there’s little these brave soldiers could do about it.


When the Sirens Sound

As I pressed the Publish button on yesterday’s blog, comfortable in the kitchen of my flat in Prague, sirens began to wail in the streets outside. I checked the time. It was precisely twelve noon on the first Wednesday of the month. Nothing to fear.

It is a curious anomaly of life in Prague that so long after the end of the Cold War when so little evidence of it survives amongst the Gothic, Baroque and Cubist glory, the sirens still sound to test our preparedness for disaster. After a couple of minutes, as the sound fades, a deadpan voice reassures us that it was only a test. I confess I never wait for that reassurance in fear and trembling, and I’m quite sure that if it didn’t come, no one would actually notice.

Prague, and every other town and village in the country, is riddled with public address loudspeakers. Look up and you’ll see them strapped to lampposts here and there. In the bad old days they broadcast the inarticulate nonsense of the incumbent Communist leaders. Except, perhaps, when they announced the arrival of shipments of basic commodities, they were then, as now, ignored.

I’m not sure, actually, what we’re supposed to do if the sirens sound for real. I know that Prague’s Metro was built with fall-out in mind. You can still see the vast doors that are supposed to seal off the system in the event of nuclear war. And I understand there are huge troves of tinned sardines to feed 400,000 for four or five days, and cisterns full of water (still, not sparkling)  But I also know that when they closed the doors to seal out the floodwaters of 2002 the doors simply failed and the water gushed through. Rather you than me. Expiring underground with the taste of sardines in the mouth doesn’t attract me in the least.

I lived through most of the Cold War, but never in fear, and never sensing that incineration was imminent, or a lingering death from radiation sickness, or, worst of all, a descent into barbarism as survivors fought over what remained. Was fear justified? It always seemed unlikely to me that anyone at the top would actually press the nuclear button. And so it transpired.

Perhaps, if I remember accurately, which is unlikely, I sensed a frisson of fear in the adults around me (by which I mainly mean my parents) during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. I was just five. As when the announcement of Kennedy’s death came some months later there was a gravity of tone to the television newsreader that seemed out of the ordinary, even disturbing. In any case, politics and war were out of nearly everyone’s hands. It would be just one man or woman, our Prime Minister of the time, who would actually, metaphorically, press the button.

This sense of the ordinary man or woman’s dislocation from dangerously threatening events was never better or more poignantly captured than by Raymond Briggs in his graphic novel When the Wind Blows (1982). Its protagonists, Jim and Hilda Bloggs, are an ordinary elderly couple coping inexpertly with the aftermath of nuclear war, dying helplessly and hopelessly, and bickering affectionately to the last. (It’s hard to believe it comes from the same crayon as the joyous and more famous The Snowman.)


When the Wind Blows (the beginning of the film version).

The Government broadcast in the event of nuclear war that begins the story is completely realistic. Until the early 1990s most Governments around the world developed elaborate plans to deal with the aftermath. I worked in the Presentation department of BBC Radio 3 in the early 1980s and my colleagues, the announcers, knew exactly what to do in the event of war. There was a cabinet in every continuity studio containing the Government’s ‘Protect and Survive’ instructions (alongside what to say in the event of the death of the Queen Mother) which they were to read out as calmly as if announcing a symphony by Mozart. Of course, in reality, the BBC’s studios in central London were likely to be liquefied by thermonuclear explosion long before any announcer could reach the bottom of the first page. But I never saw the text. Perhaps all it actually said was ‘Pray’, instructions no less futile than any others.

Protect and Survive

Members of the Government, I understand, would scuttle away to a deep bunker in Basingstoke. A fate worse than death, you might think.

In retrospect, we are told, 1983 was a dangerous year. The KGB feared Reagan’s more aggressive stance towards the Soviets, and mistakenly interpreted a vast NATO exercise as preparation for a preemptive nuclear strike. The Soviet Army, it seems, had better sense and cautioned against mutual assured destruction. And there was a tricky moment in the same year when the Soviets’ early warning systems erroneously detected an incoming missile. The good sense of Stanislav Petrov who had a hunch that his equipment was at fault, saved the world.

It seems odd that after so much danger has passed the sirens of Prague still suggest we live on the precipice. I think we don’t (discounting the arrival of meteorites or other ‘Acts of God’). There are dangers, but I fear they are not of the kind that any siren will save us from. In any case, when the sirens sound in earnest, what are we actually supposed to do that would make the slightest sense?

Taking Part – Civic Virtue on the Prague Metro

The excitements of life in Prague come thick and fast. Yesterday I took part in a vast survey of passengers on the Prague Metro. It had been trailed for days by notices at the entrances to Metro stations all over the city in both Czech and English and I’d been looking forward to it with keen anticipation.

I’d expected a questionnaire, but when it came to it, it was a lot easier than that. All we had to do was to carry a small slip of paper from origin to destination. The only requirement was that we should not fold it or crumple it (‘crumple’ is a wonderful word to find on an official document in a non Anglophone country) .

Teams of young volunteers were there to give out the slips at the point of departure (though, not, as I discovered, to explain in English what the survey was for) and other teams were there to collect them at the point of arrival. It was all very politely and graciously done. The entire team must have numbered many hundreds across the 54 stations of the network. The paper slips themselves were reminiscent of the punch cards we used in the early days of computing and presumably destined for machine readers.


I’d thought I’d get a chance to share my thoughts on colour schemes, on the rule that says you may not eat or drink, on public transport, and to commend Prague’s Metro culture which, unlike in other cities, sees the young give up their seats to older travellers. I was sharpening my ballpoint pen in eager anticipation.

But it seems they were after just one simple thing, where each passenger was travelling from and to. That’s such a basic and unsophisticated fact, and it seems so counterintuitive that it should be obtained only in this simple and crude way. It feels as old-fashioned as Theseus paying out Ariadne’s thread as he enters the Minotaur’s Labyrinth, but it’s hard to think of any better way.

As far as I can tell, this little slip of paper bears very little information in machine readable format. Origin probably. You’d think that perhaps there would be a time stamp too, but I don’t think there is.

From this the analysts can simply determine the length of journey, and the number of passengers changing lines, but probably not how long it took (they must know this already), or density of traffic at any particular time of day (they must be able to determine this simply from the number of passengers passing through the ‘turnstiles’).

But what will they do with this information? What benefit derives from knowing what journeys passengers are taking? Will it determine the frequency of service or does it help traffic planners decide whether to invest in alternatives such as buses, trams, cycle paths or roads? Perhaps we will never know.

I looked in vain on the website listed on the paper slip. The English language version, at least, doesn’t provide any clarification of purpose.


But it was lovely to be doing something civic, even if in complete ignorance of its purpose, and it was lovely to see how seriously the citizens of Prague were taking the task. I only saw one discarded slip on my 20-minute journey from Ceskomoravska to I P Pavlova. It reminded me of the wonderful sense of civic virtue that characterised Republican Rome. I’m sure the Romans would have tucked their survey slips into their togas with an equivalently gracious sense of responsibility whilst taking a chariot from the Forum to the Field of Mars.





Foresight and the Lack of It

In retrospect, it’s easy to see where foresight was lacking. Retrospect is always the best seat in the house. How often do we think, ‘Why didn’t they think of that before they started?’ and how rarely, ‘How clever they were to think of that!’


On the one hand…

How I hate airport departure gates without power sockets. You end up crouching near the one that’s used for the vacuum cleaner, if someone else hasn’t got there first.

How I hate hotel bedrooms without extra power sockets, too, as if they were built before the notebook PC or the mobile phone were invented (sometimes they were). You crawl under the desk to disconnect the minibar or the television.

(I can’t live far from a power socket, obviously.)

And on the other hand…

How brilliantly the London Olympics of 2012 were planned. They thought of everything.

In Prague I’ve come across both foresight (on a massive scale) and the lack of it. Both concern the airport.

On the one hand…

How brilliantly the Prague Airport Authority has planned for future expansion (or did they just get their sums wrong?). Terminal 2, opened some years ago, has space for at least twice as many check-in desks as are currently in use. There’s a vast empty space that isn’t used at all, not even for badminton.

Prague Airport

And on the other hand…

How could they have forgotten to build an escalator at the recently opened metro station that joins up with the airport bus? Passengers arrive with masses of heavy luggage and there’s just a long flight of steps to the bus.

Prague’s transport planners are currently a laughing stock. It has something to do with limited EU funds, apparently. The solution? Prague Airport pays two porters to help you with your luggage. See them here.