The competition was first held in 2002 and is now in its 19th year – over half the lifespan of the BCSA itself. The wide range of subject matter in the entries has proved a boon for the BCS Review and through it we’ve met so many interesting people and their imagination and their ideas.
It was originally intended to be an essay competition. But it soon spread into the creative writing genre. We’ve had a happy mix of essay, memoir and short story – instructive, amusing, moving and stirring. It is gratifying how many Czech and Slovak entrants take part. The judges know to read their submissions in the light of English not being their first language.
The prescribed subject matter for all entries has been either (a) the links between Britain and the Czech and Slovak Republics, at any time in their history or (b) society in transition in the Republics since the Velvet Revolution. These subjects reflect one of the aims of the Association, to raise public awareness in Britain of Czech and Slovak life in all its aspects. In recent years, to concentrate entrants’ minds we’ve announced suggested (but not compulsory) themes – in 2015 it was migration; in 2016, the EU; in 2017, Brexit; in 2018, Anniversary (think 1618, 1648, 1848, 1918, 1938, 1948, 1968); in 2019, 1989; and in 2020, the world of sport.
Our first winner was fittingly good: Susan Halstead with ‘The most splendid city in Germany’ – George Eliot and Prague, an essay on how much George Eliot was taken with Prague, and of how she put much of her impressions into her disturbing story The Lifted Veil. We hasten to state that putting Prague in Germany was George Eliot’s doing, not Susan’s – that’s not an error Susan, the translator of KJ Erben’s Kytice, and contributor to the BCS Review, would make.
The winner received £300 (now £400), plus publication in the BCS Review. In 2004 we introduced a second prize, of £100 (now £150). The fact that money was involved caused a little difficulty in 2004, when the first prize went to Barbara Peacock. We soon realised that to allay suspicion we had at every stage to assure people that she and the administrator were not related at all! Her winning entry was, as you might expect from one of the founders of the Friends of Czech Heritage, entitled Romantic Gothic Castles in Britain and Bohemia: it was a study of travels in Britain in the 19th century by rich noblemen such as Jan Adolf of Schwarzenberg and Count František Harrach, and of the influence these had on the design of their castles when they got back home to Bohemia.
The internet now dominates the competition’s promotion rather than the printed media or posters in a library. Its reach is of course truly worldwide, and we now get entries every year from south Asia and the Far East. This can bring dividends – in 2017 second prize went to Anmol Anmol, of New Delhi, for his essay Brexit – Accompanying Uncertainties and Diverse Opportunities – but also several stories with no reference at all to our three home countries.
We have had so many great entries, a list of some of them follows below.
In the essay genre
Milan Kocourek’s Paul Craw 1433, a dramatic account of the martyrdom by burning in St Andrews in that year of the Czech preacher, Paul Craw (1st prize in 2011);
Ivan Margolius’ Honzík & Yorke: How a Czech Architect Became the Prime Mover in the Ascent of Modern Architecture in Great Britain, an account of the career of Karel Honzík, and of the influence he had on modern British architecture from the 1930s onwards (1st prize in 2017);
Clarice Cloutier’s A Scottish Harvest in Bohemia – Edwin Muir’s Return to Hope, an analysis of two beautiful and thoughtful poems, set in the Bohemian countryside, by the Scottish poet Edwin Muir (1st prize, 2008);
Jarmila Hlávková’s Home Cooking in Britain and Slovakia- Traditional or International? An account of some of the high points of Slovak and British traditional cuisine, from the dumplings, sheep’s cheese and bacon of Slovenská bryndza, through the thick soup of kapustnica to orange marmalade and the full English breakfast. The essay also reflects on Slovak and British responses to the advance of fast food (runner-up, 2006);
Julie Garton’s Ivan’s Room An evocative account of a derelict mental hospital in Ipswich and of the exiled Czech poet, Ivan Blatný, who had spent many years there (1st prize, 2014);
Rupert Brow’s Britain and Bohemia: five-and-a-half Stories Celebrating the Czechoslovak Centenary
A look at links between those countries over the centuries – from John Wycliffe’s influence on Jan Hus, to the remarkable novel Utz by Bruce Chatwin. In between we visit the court of Rudolf II, we look at the giants of the Czech and Slovak cultural flowering in the 19th century, and we fly with Josef František in the Battle of Britain (1st prize, 2018);
Martin Hochel’s 1989 – the Transformation of the Czechoslovak Federal Ministry of the Interior A description of what happened when the staff in this Ministry in the era of normalisation had to cope with the world post-1989 (runner-up, 2019).
Our First International Meeting in Prague, by the late Gerta Vrbová-Hilton, a moving account not only of a physiology conference held in Prague in 1956 but also of the author’s own first meeting with her British husband (runner-up in 2010);
Driver Beware! by Pearl Harris, an outsider’s entertaining observations of Czech driving habits and road manners (runner-up in 2009);
I’d Like To Get To Know You Better by Deborah Richards, an account of the author’s discovery that her family roots lay in what is now the Czech Republic, roots in a German-speaking world that had ended after the Second World War, and of her confusion and excitement as she discovered the culture of her ancestral homeland today (runner-up in 2005).
Zuzana Demčáková’s The Leander Bud A short story that mixes personal reflections with the running of a Communist-era-themed restaurant in London (runner-up, 2008);
Jitka Jenkins’ A Night with the Vixen The musings of a man of 70 as he listens to The Cunning Little Vixen in London, and thinks back to an idyllic visit to Olomouc in 1962, and to a meeting with a woman who was lovely but out of reach (1st prize, 2010);
Dr Gabriel Paletz’s Running Away with a Revizor A story set in Prague immediately after the 1989 revolution. It imagines the first time in post-socialist Prague that a passenger on a tram decides to run away from a ticket inspector (runner-up, 2012);
P J Vanston’s The Prague Violin This traces the career of a violinist, who starts as a child prodigy, and it movingly parallels the political and social changes in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic from 1964 to the present day (runner-up, 2012);
Radovana Jágriková’s Journeys A story that describes the repercussions three years later of a British stag weekend in Bratislava (runner-up, 2013);
Janet Savin’s It Has Nothing To Do With Me A disturbing glimpse of the situation of the Vietnamese community in Czechoslovakia shortly after the Velvet Revolution (1st prize, 2015);
James Fairfoot’s The Slovak Discovery of Pluto An interplanetary probe lands on Pluto and discovers that the Slovaks have got there first (runner-up, 2015);
Jennifer Moore’s Ms Bernhardt’s Brexit A Czech student’s evocative account of a party in London on the night of the EU referendum and what it might mean for her future (1st prize, 2016);
The late Jack Mullin’s The Pig, the Cupboard and the Reichsprotektor A comic account of a true incident that took place in Bohemia in 1942, in which an ingenious Czech householder goes to great lengths to prevent his pig being requisitioned by the occupying Germans (runner-up, 2016);
Slavka Bila’s A Czechoslovak Odyssey The story tells of the reactions of someone who left Czechoslovakia in 1968 when they return in 1991. It captures some of the tackiness of the early flourishing of the market economy (1st prize, 2019).