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When we are children, everything seems curious and excessively large: distances in time and space; the abilities and privileges of those older than us. With the passing years, the universe of our childhood becomes smaller, yet, just like in the real universe, the attractive force of its trivialities grows and increasingly occupies our thoughts with every passing day. It seems that, since time began, everyone who has reached a certain age, irrespective of who they are, has yielded to this phenomenon, whether consciously or unwittingly, and has done so with total consistency.

Long ago, I once thought that the process of writing one's memoirs would be instigated by the somewhat foolish illusion that comes in later years, namely that the better world which gradually fades with them is nothing short of unique. Today I am almost certain that every era has its illusions and it would be much more foolish not to acknowledge them. In any case, I'm writing this book chiefly because it brings me pleasure to do so, and the world I have experienced certainly deserves a few reminiscences.

Whether destiny takes a person all the way to Shangri-La, to the fairy-tale end of our otherwise utterly prosaic civilisation, or to some place else, where not even super-inventions can compensate for the super-emptiness of life, he prefers to conjure up an image of the maple trees in front of the Herálec magistrate's house, the sun-baked Kocanda hillside, the delightful forest glades, and the tasty mushrooms growing above the Rumpolt pond. And that makes him feel good.

I can state several reasons why my place of birth is remarkable and unique. If Čapek's over-conscientious postmaster Mr Kolbaba were to look for it, he would quickly realise that this was the Herálec, right in the middle of the Vysočina highlands, between the peaks known as Devět skal and Žákova hora.

But he'd have a hard time trying to find specific addresses. In Herálec everyone had at least two names, while you wouldn't find the most important one in official documents. Perhaps there's some conspiratorial and romantic reason for this phenomenon, in the same way it might apply to communities of freemasons, but I'm only aware of one purely practical reason: where I was born, for as long as anyone can remember, the place has been swarming with Gregors, Odváreks, Filips, Tlustýs, Polanskýs, Zelenýs, Hamáks, Bezchlebas, Valenas and Fialas, and so another, more tangible label had to be found for each individual. Little Gregor was called Gregůrek, my dad was known as Tonda Hrnčířů ("Tony of the potters", although his father was a road mender), and I was familiar to everyone from an early age as Fanda varhaníků ("Fanda of the organists").

František Sláma's grandmother with her children, 1914

František Sláma in 1935 - František Sláma and his brother Jaromír at a ball in the village of Svratka in 1939

Another great celebrity in the history of Herálec was the river Svratka - up here in the hills certainly not as great as down in the valley, but just try telling that to the Herálec bunch. Take old Slezačka (in my mum's opinion, the most silver-tongued woman in the region since time began), she'd give you a graphic depiction of how, in the spring, the floods drove them up into the loft so quickly that she didn't have time to panic. Elsewhere they would show you where the river flattened the fence this year, and where the wooden boards from the sawmill ended up after being swept away. But for those time-honoured observers among us, even for those who were just beginning to gather their wits about them, Svratka was exceptional for another reason: Resolutely and consistently, right up until the last meander, she divided Herálec into two parts: Czech and Moravian. From the very beginning, Herálec's young blood of all weight and age categories flexed their muscles on opposite banks of the river, thereby acquiring valuable combat experience: from verbal skirmishes between the pre-schoolers who had just learned to whistle with their fingers, to fierce battles between the older boys, during which clumps of earth and more solid material were sent whizzing through the air. Herálec adults chose a peaceable life in a confederation of two almost independent collectives: The Czechs, like the Moravians on the opposite bank of the Svratka, had their pubs, butchers, bakers, their festivities and anniversaries, their school, and their music bands. Quite a few innovations in one part of the village, after lively discussion in the church and down the pub, would prompt a response from the other side, which would then be followed by mutual attempts to outdo the other.

Although Herálec lies high up in the hills, the slopes sweeping down towards it from all corners of the globe stretch out so far that the village looks more like a pointed island in a sea of fields, meadows, shaggy copses and rowan-lined tracks. Even time - at least when I was a boy - passed by here silently and steadily, independently of what was happening beyond the horizon. I don't think it was measured in hours, or in seasons. From August it was filled with worries about how to ride out the winter, and from Candlemas there was the long wait until spring arrived. This moment came when the scant cluster of rheumatic beech trees on the edge of Brušovec turned violet, joyful that the day was growing longer, and when the men brought the last few blocks of ice from the Svratka river to Valena's pub so that it could be used to cool the beer and the meats in the hot summer months. As if on command, the moss-grown "pads" disappeared from the Herálec windows and then - from out of nowhere, although each year he came as regularly as the postman - the lime burner from the church came past in his cart. His cries of "Váp váp!"  ("Lime lime!") reminded one of the farmer's wife calling the hens at feeding time. In this case, however, women would come running out of their houses carrying baskets or sacks, the lime burner would pull on the reins, draw back the canvas on his cart, and carefully measure out the lime in five-crown batches. Because it was right to freshen things up, white-wash, sweep and tidy up outside the house. All the various gainful winter tasks were now generally put off until the evening; during the day people would start going off into the forest to engage in "labours of love", namely to dig out tree stumps and plant saplings in the clearings. (To this day I don't really know why this phrase, in particular, has always been used for such tough physical work; perhaps the contemplative people of Vysočina were, in fact, cunningly implying that, here, the locals toil only out of love for their land-owning neighbours - the adults for ten crowns a day and the children for half that).

"Labours of love", Herálec in 1928

"Labours of love", 1938.  František Sláma on the far right

Maybe because the people of Herálec always took greater pleasure in frosty weather than in the warmer months, and revelled more in anxiety than amusement, they enjoyed every ball and village dance to the full, as they did the processions, May Day festivities, firemen's jaunts, recruitment farewells, football matches or musical evenings in aid of a good cause. And so it's no surprise that, even in Herálec, there were always lots of reasons to celebrate throughout the year.

A Year in Herálec

The period leading up to Christmas was never particularly cheerful for our family. Above all, it meant getting up for Advent morning Masses (Rorate) very early while it was still dark and very cold, then tramping up the hill through the deep snow to the church where, in the frail light of a few candles, a smattering of the most faithful sat bundled up in their shawls, like the publican's wife, Mrs Hanušová from Hať, and aunt Jehličková from Dolní konec. While they stayed down below with the priest, my father and I had to climb up to the organ loft: one of us had to sit at the organ, the other (i.e. me) at the bellows. Treading the bellows steadily, carefully and, at the same time, with feeling, was no joke. Air kept escaping from them, so it took a long time before they finally drew breath: my every vacillation or distraction could be heard immediately. Things turned out even worse if the priest's routine declamation and the gloom up in the choir sent me off to sleep again - the organ pipes let out a few upsetting squeals and father's withering look assailed me from the organ. Even so, sometimes I needed two or three of these looks before I finally came to my senses.

Herálec in 1923 (photographs by F.A.Libra)

Another reason we didn't look forward to Christmas in our household - or, rather, we didn't have time to look forward to it - was the Christmas mass. It was one of the unwritten rules of the organist that he would select and, where necessary, write the music, and get hold of musicians and a choir. In times of the greatest staffing shortages, our family (including a motley bunch of the most distant of relatives) functioned as an iron reserve - my mother's exhaustive goodwill had her trying out any part, from soprano to bass, and if an instrumentalist was missing, my father, members of his village orchestra, or my brother and I, were called upon to fill the gap. Rehearsals were more of a problem. Most of the time we rehearsed at our house in exceedingly cramped conditions, because a large portion of our only sitting room was taken up by a hefty stove and my father's weaving loom. My mother, who usually sang first soprano, assembled the ladies for rehearsal and was continually helping out wherever she was required; she always had an appreciation for the state of things as they were, but she certainly wasn't happy about it. Fortunately we, like the majority of Herálec dwellers, never had enough money, so she was spared the worries of having to bake Christmas cookies, buying presents and similar trifles which plague other women during the festive season.

Christmas, as I remember it, was simply a time for reminiscing and melancholy meditation as we envisaged how we would manage to keep our heads above water the following year.

On the other hand, from St Stephen's Day onwards, Herálec set the scene for games and merriment. There was one ball after another, lots of dances were organised. But it was always the case of one organisation trying to trump the other: the Sokol ball vs. the Orel ball (Sokol and Orel being Czech and Moravian  gymnastics organisations),  the Moravian firemen's ball vs. the Czech firemen's ball, the slow waltz evening in Bohemia, then the one in Moravia... and so it went on until Ash Wednesday. One should point out that this traditional trumping was certainly not detrimental to the village, quite the opposite, in fact, and the villagers from both camps clearly enjoyed the tussle.

Moravian firemen, Herálec in 1927

Harvest home celebration, Herálec, 1950

Antonín Sláma's brass band, Herálec in 1947

Antonín Sláma's brass band plays at a firemen's ball in Herálec, 1940s.mp3

It was universally acknowledged that the most interesting part of the evening dance occurred around ten o'clock, when a high-spirited loudmouth would burst into the hall, ready to have a grapple with anyone, even against overwhelming odds. Although the people of Herálec were gentle-natured and had no swashbuckler in their midst, as a member of my dad's orchestra, I'd seen enough to be able to confirm this fact.

The biggest celebration during the first two months of the year was the culmination of the carnival period: from Saturday to Tuesday the pubs were filled with people dancing their way through their shoes and pouring drink down their throats and the whole clamour culminated in the proverbial masked pageant hosted by the village of Jeníkov. No village orchestra or band throughout the region had a moment to spare during this time; the musicians played, as old Jíra was fond of saying, until "their gobs and mitts started to tingle". According to church codes, all this carnival vanity was supposed to end at the stroke of midnight on Ash Wednesday. But who wouldn't want to prolong the festivities at least until morning, particularly since an endless period of fasting was about to begin!

Carnival Tuesday in Herálec  (photographs © Naďa Majorová)

The only music audible in Herálec after that were the Passions on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. The St Matthew Passion on Palm Sunday was more ceremonial and more elaborate, sung with the organ. We rehearsed for it well in advance and were meticulous about it, even though most of the performers had sung their roles for years and knew them well. In addition to the organ, my father also had to assume the part of Caiaphas and the Evangelist, until I inherited it from him in due course. My mother traditionally sang the part of the First Maid and, on Good Friday, also Pilate's wife. The Passion was always regarded as a prestigious event by everyone involved, and Kašpar's music enjoyed universal popularity. And it wasn't easy to perform. To this day I marvel at the sheer number of fine musicians and wonderful voices among the amateur singers of Herálec...

(From the book by František Sláma From Herálec to Shangri-La. English translation: Karolina Vočadlo Hughes)

Herálec during the early 1950s (photographs © František Sláma)

For more see  Herálec↗ (Czech version), Herálec in Photographs↗ (Czech version), Sound Archive and František Sláma 1923 - 2004 (PowerPoint presentation). More also on our Facebook page↗.

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