Here comes Charlie

Letters from England

Karel Capek, translated by Geoffrey Newsome<em> Claridge Press, 192pp, £12.99

Karel Capek was one of the most popular figures of the short-lived first Czech Republic, and his plays and writings were admired throughout the world. For two months in 1924, Capek travelled throughout England, Scotland and Wales, and he sent the Czech journal Lidove noviny these witty letters for serialisation (they were published in the Manchester Guardian a few months later). These appreciative, even loving, dissections of the "English" national character and culture, accompanied by Capek's whimsical sketches, proved a great success. The first English edition, published in 1925, was reprinted six times in nine months, and Capek consolidated his reputation as a European writer whose work the English understood and admired. In Britain, his plays, such as RUR and The Insect Play, were performed equally on West End stages and by radical workers' theatre groups.

This delightful collection, newly translated, appears almost too artless, but in the best tradition of epistolary writing from abroad - Capek often describes himself as a pilgrim - his thoughts and descriptions remain fresh and provocative. During his visit, Capek was both delighted and appalled by what he saw: he loved the parks, the bustling harbours and seaports, the taciturn helpfulness of strangers, the heather and gorse-strewn moors, the trains, Shelley's poetry, the sheep and cows; but most of all he loved the people he met and observed, with their virtues of diffidence, routine domesticity and attachment to the law. On the other hand, in this "country of antonyms", he hated the English Sunday, the indigestible food, the slums of Glasgow, London's traffic and the desolation of the Scottish Glens, where he experienced a deep sense of "anxiety without a cause". He hoped that his fellow Czechs could, in their new republic, learn to be more English in their grudging accommodation of democracy and the law. For Capek, the end-of-the-pier stock character of the laughing policeman embodied everything against which most other European interior security apparatuses fastened.

There is an innocence in these letters, but also a delicacy of moral judgement belonging to what the Germans used to call the kleinen Kunste (the little arts), which acted as an intermediate cultural territory between populism and portentousness - think of the music of Martinu and "Les Six", or the films of Charlie Chaplin (in Prague, Capek was often greeted with "Here comes Charlie"). There was a whole world of this humane culture between the wars, which remains underexplored and undervalued. Capek's letters from England, alongside his writings from Italy and Scandinavia, were part of his attempt to redraw a "moral map of the world", elaborating on the best characteristics and customs that had survived in Europe after the First World War, and they were written at a time of great hope.

The first Czech Republic represented an extraordinary moment of renewed European confidence and vitality, and Capek's writings capture some of its wit and creativity. In his introduction, the translator, Geoffrey Newsome, writes that this has been permanently replaced by a more "negative, Hasekian sense of Czech destiny". Was humanism so easily crushed?

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A nation in panic