17 DECEMBER 1977, Page 21


Christopher Booker

The Serpent and the Nightingale Cecil Parrott (Faber £7.50) The other Sunday morning I tuned in to Radio Three just in time to catch the beginning of a remarkably civilised and interesting talk about two Czech composers, Dvorak's son-in-law Suk and his friend Novak. The speaker seemed. not only professionally knowledgeable about their music, but also to give a much more vivid account of their personalities than one might have expected from the average music critic. He turned out to be Sir Cecil Parrott who, since he left the Foreign Service as our Ambassador to Prague in 1966, seems to have filled the years of his retirement with extraordinary SI avophilic energy, from running the Slavonic department at Lancaster University to translating The Good Soldier Schweik and writing a life of its author Hasek.

He has also written a two-volume autobiography, the first of which, largely taken up with some colourful Balkan reminiscences of the 'thirties, I have not read. But my wife enthused over it so much that I particularly looked forward to reading this second volume, which takes the Story up to the present via three years in Prague before the Communist takeover, a spell fencing with Vyshinsky at the UN, a fascinating three years as Minister in Moscow in the heyday of Malenkov, Bulganin and Khruschey, and finally his return to Prague as Ambassador between 1960 and 1966.

I must confess that the book does not quite live up to my expectations, and I could not help wondering why. It starts in a typically Parrott-like way, with him preparing for his first visit to Prague in 1945 by playing through piano duet versions of Ma Vlast and The Bartered Bride in Stockholm, with the beautiful 'wife of the former Czech Cultural Counsellor to Sweden. In those three strange years when Czechoslovakia hovered between democracy and Communism, Parrott met almost everyone of any consequence in the country, from the weak, dithering Benes to the remarkable old Countess Wallenstein, aged nearly 100, telling a lodger in her palace (who was later to become a leading figure of the Communist regime) that she did not like to go out any more because 'I am afraid of all those frightful Bolsheviks'. But somehow Parrott does not really manage to convey either the feel of the country, or the peculiar horror of that nearest thing to a Communist regime being actually voted into power (whenever I see old films of the Communist leaders on election platforms in 1947, I am always reminded of the • Labour group on Camden Council).

.By far the most successful passage in the book is his description of Russia in the mid'fifties. At diplomatic receptions (and one extraordinary Alice-in-Wonderland garden party at a country house outside Moscow) he frequently met Bulganin, Krushchev, Molotov and the rest, in sometimes curious circumstances (e.g. the evening of stupefying boredom when he had to sit as interpreter between Attlee and Malenkov. 'Is Mr Attlee a fisherman?"No, I don't fish.' 'What did Mr Attlee do in the holidays?' I went on a motoring tour."Ah, then Mr Attlee likes driving?"No, my wife does'). This is also the one place where Parrott's descriptions of the people and the countryside really come alive, as he makes various rather daring forays into remote parts of Northern and Southern Russia to see the fifteenth-century Dionisii frescoes in Ferapontov Monastery (making much of' the return journey by ancient biplane), travelling by steamer down the Dnieper with nightingales singing from the shore as they left Kiev, buying pickled apples, wild berries and chickens on remote, muddy railway stations, mediaeval hovels in the villages between Kursk and Orel contrasting with magnificent Easter services in Moscow. Here he gives a genuine whiff of that Russian life which still seemed in so many ways not to have changed since the Revolution.

The only human vignette which stands out from the rather tedious descriptions of the diplomatic round and Embassy life is that of the old butler Jelinek whom he found at the Embassy in Prague, who kept squirrels in his room, read the Guardian in a skullcap, and, after a visit from a Tory minister who liked a whisky in his room, insisted on permanently following around the next visitor from England, Sir Hugh Greene, with a brimming glass of whisky on a silver tray ('Wonderful place this,' said Sir Hugh). But the greatest letdown of the book is the way Sir Cecil simply does not do justice to the magical countryside of Bohemia and Slovakia. He goes to Kosice in search of a steel works but what about the incredible series of altars by Meister Pavel at nearby Levoce, one of the greatest (and largely 'unknown') masterpieces of late Gothic in Europe? What about those wild and wonderful High Tatras? He goes to the 'woods and fields' of Southern Bohemia to watch the Christmas carp being fished out of the great ponds, but there is no real description of those extraordinary little fairy-tale walled and arcaded towns, Tele and Trebon and esky Budjeovice. He happened to be back in Prague during the Russian invasion of 1968, but again, although as a Czech and Russian speaker, he should have been able to give a very graphic picture of those eerie, terrifying days, it is all very cursory and flat. My chief impression on finishing this book was how very little, unless one has kept a diary, or somehow written things down at the time, can remain even of the most vivid experiences of one's life. So many of the fascinating things which Parrott could have conveyed (as he begins to do in Russia) seem simply to have slipped away into oblivion. Unless an autobiographer is going to write of his inner life, the external incidents, people, places, anecdotes, can fade so fast that, without an aide-memoire to recapture that first impression, it can, alas, become a rather dry exercise.