My baguette with Václav

The ex-president, poet and playwright approaches, apologising profusely that he lifted my sunglasses

I am in a Tolpuddle frame of mind. Due to attend the Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival in Dorset, I find myself not getting there, but spending the weekend thinking much about it. From school age onwards I have spent years passing through the thoroughfare that is Tolpuddle Street in London N1. Running close by is Copenhagen Street, the site, I now discover, of a 19th-century demonstration, 150,000-strong, held in support of the martyrs shortly after their deportation 172 years ago. I drive up and down Copenhagen Street several times at the weekend, as if attending the Dorset festival in spirit.

The Tolpuddle medal

On Saturday I sit with Anna, close family friend and my anointed godmother, in her garden, and we try to imagine the Van Diemen's Land of that time, the single-ticket destination for the six deported Dorset farmworkers. The Tolpuddle medal for trade-union organising and bravery is rarely awarded. One recipient was Anna's father, Bob Darke, an east London socialist, honoured for his galvanising, charismatic unionising of East End sweatshops, large-scale manufacturers and Ford's of Dagenham. Darke was active in Hackney, Tower Hamlets and famously Cable Street; he worked often alongside Hugh Lister, a prominent Methodist minister of the time.

I drink tea, Anna G&T, and we muse on the connections, the 1930s company board man who had posted Black and Tans to Ireland, and the trade unions whose membership and collectivism was an urgent alternative to Mosley's Black Shirts for much of the working class.

Film, drink and dancing

In the Czech Republic to attend a film festival in the spa town of Karlovy Vary, an hour and a half from Prague. Having visited previously, I remember it to be a place of late-night drinking and dancing where all the action takes place in one, Harvester-style-decor basement bar. Here, in the stunning town surrounded by pine forest, where Goethe, Mozart and Beethoven all lived, some 250 films are screened, applauded by a largely student audience.

Diminutive Václav Havel and his tall actress wife hang out at the hotel café and my travel companion, my mum and I are introduced over a cheese baguette. The next morning as we get into the car to head back towards London, we are told that Mr Havel would like another word. The ex-president, poet and playwright approaches, explaining that he lifted my sunglasses from the brasserie table the previous day, apologising profusely, shaking my hand. We make for the airport, and I ponder the idea of Tom Stoppard living in Downing Street.

Battle for inspiration

In London the next day, I am due to introduce the award-winning 1965 film The Battle of Algiers to an audience at the Institute of Education, and furiously e-mail a friend to find anecdotes about the director. I watch the film again on my laptop while cooking, writing notes, checking the venue, getting the time wrong, and pondering the film-maker Gillo Pontecorvo. The use of music is brilliant, but the score, credited to both Ennio Morricone and the director, was not easily worked on. After many dispiriting joint sessions, Pontecorvo woke from his bed having found three tunes in the night. He sprinted to Morricone's house, ascending the stairs still humming the tunes. At which point Morricone played something identical on the piano, astonishing Pontecorvo with the synchronicity of thought. Not until they won the Golden Lion at Venice did the composer reveal that he had not conceived the themes, merely heard them rising up the stairs hummed by the excited director.

Lucky boy

In the midst of these hot days my family holds a summer party, and my brother, one of the fortunate few male A-level students at Camden School for Girls, performs jazz with his friends in the garden. I am pleased to see, in this climate of undercutting of state education, that the level of playing is so very high. Clearly, the pupils are excelling, both at school and extra-curricularly.

Saffron Burrows's next film is "Klimt", with John Malkovich

This article first appeared in the 24 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, War - Who can stop it now?