Remembering Vaclav Havel

Paul Lay pays tribute to the playwright, dissident and former Czech president, who has died aged 75.

Paul Lay | Published in 19 Dec 2011

Vaclav Havel in 1989The excellent website Arts and Letters Daily collects a number of articles paying tribute to Vaclav Havel, the great Czech statesman and hero of the Velvet Revolution, who died yesterday at the age of 75. It comes to one third of the space devoted to the polemicist Christopher Hitchens who died last week at the age of 62.

I was privileged to meet Havel, in 1988, when Czechoslovakia’s freedom still felt a long way off. It was in his favourite pub, U Rybu (The Fish), which was notable at the time for opening late and serving decent food – fish and chips – as well as the ubiquitously brilliant Czech beer. Havel was with his wife and two young fellow dissidents. On the adjacent table were two secret servicemen. He chain smoked his way through conversation, charming and eloquent in his hang dog way. Even I didn’t expect him to be president so soon after.

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