This time a week ago (29.07.2016) I attended an event at Derby Cathedral to mark fifty years since England’s triumph at the World Cup Final.
During the event there was a PA system rigged up playing the sounds of 1966 in England further to evoke the atmosphere of the day. One of the songs in question was The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’. Like happens so many times when a song familiar to liseners in this country gets played and has connections with the world of GOTGE I experienced one of those cases where I thought to myself, “I wonder how many thoughts in this building are turning to a town in the far east of Slovakia (England’s opponents this coming September) right now?”
I say this because, in 1968, in the year in which she’d have turned sixteen, Valérie Čižmárová appeared on the talent show, (broadcast from Jihlava) ‘Talent 68’ singing a version of that song, in Czech. I knew that originally through watching a Czech TV documentary on her life and work (available on-line) that was originally broadcast in September 2011, some six years after her untimely death at the age of just 53. Here is a subsequent, studio-recorded version of that song.
Inspired by these events at the Cathedral, virtually as soon as I’d returned home that evening I re-watched the video of the documentary and in the course of attempting to switch on the ‘full screen’ mode accidentally turned on some Czech-language subtitles. This turned out to be a very happy accident, because there are things in a language that is still very new to one that one simply cannot pick up simply by listening alone and some accompanying text does help make sense of some things that would otherwise pass one by. The initial benefit was being able to copy down, by stopping and starting the video, the actual lyrics of Valérie’s rendition of ‘Sunny Afternoon’, which revealed, quite comically, that she actually sings, at one point in the song, about ‘breakfasting on a kilo of bananas’!
Here are those lyrics, with my best attempt, given my still-limited knowledge of Czech, at translation.
Ta zima mě tu umučí
(This winter is torturing me to death here)
Tak hodně hrej me náručí
(I’m warming myself up so very much in my arms)
A je miz tvého tepla k potřebí
(And I need your warm touch)
Jinak čaj ti dám
(Otherwise, I’ll give you tea)
A uteču ti zpátky tam
(And I’ll run you back there)
Kde je horký slunný podnebí
(Where is the hot sunny weather?)
Dej mi, dej mi, dej mi, dej mi plán
(Show me, show me, show me, show me a schedule)
Já jsem dítě zvyklý na horkou pláž
(I am a child accustomed to the hot beach)
Kde se slunce, koupe po ránu
(Where is the sunshine, bathing in the morning)
Snídá kilo banánů
(Breakfasting on a kilo of bananas)
Kde je horký slunný podnebí
(Where is the hot sunny weather?)
The other more crucial matter revealed was that Valérie was of mixed heritage – her grandmother being an ethnic Hungarian and the family partly speaking Hungarian at home, which adds a further layer to the already-fascinating ‘cake’ that Valérie was. This life experience greatly assisted in actually singing in that language, of course. It also occurs to one that it is strange that such an ‘English’ song as ‘Sunny Afternoon’ was covered by one of such exotic parentage!
This dual heritage inevitably brings to mind the historically strained relations between the Slovaks and the Hungarians and how difficult it has been, at times, being ethnically Hungarian in Slovakia/Czechoslovakia. One does ask oneself if this might have led to any trouble at Valérie’s school, featured early on in the documentary. It was quite evident, from the photos of Valérie as a schoolgirl, that the future Pop pin-up showed every indication that she would become such in later life, so there is no doubt in my mind that she might have been the butt of envy from fellow schoolgirls (which might not have helped in this respect), even though I’m sure she’d have been very popular with the schoolboys! (Guess who’s going to be the star!)
Readers of GOTGE might be interested to learn that other great interests of mine are (a) lesser-known theatres of the air war during WWII (b) forgotten conflicts involving aerial action of WWII-like vintage and (c) WWII aircraft of Italy, France and the lesser-known aircraft industries of that period.
Valérie’s dual heritage has brought to the fore the short war that broke out between two of Hitler’s allies in the run-up to the larger and wider conflict (March 1939) – the newly-independent (but effectively puppet) state of Slovakia and Hungary. (I have heard it said that some parties consider this to be the true beginning of WWII, rather than the Invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany the following September). During this conflict, the Italian- and German-supplied air force of Hungary was pitched against the Czech-supplied Slovak air force…and would you believe that (a) one of the towns that is a stop between Bratislava and Košice, where I travelled, was a target for a Hungarian air force bombing raid and (b) the skies over Valérie’s hometown of Michalovce were populated, at one stage of the conflict, by Czech- and Italian-built fighters engaged in a dogfight with each other, making the fact that I have actually visited there all the more personally fascinating. I wish I’d have known that back in March when I was there. I love the subject of some of the last biplane-on-biplane dogfights that were happening in the late-193os and the early stages of WWII and that would have been one of them.
In the build-up to that conflict, a considerable swathe of Slovakian soil had been occupied by Hungarian troops and it is quite evident from these videos that the city of Košice (or ‘Kassa’, to the Hungarians) welcomed them as liberators…likewise the Hungarian Dictator, Miklós Horthy (interesting to see the Teutonic-flavoured uniforms and the crowds waving the Swastika-emblazoned German flag, indicating Nazi Germany’s support for this exercise). From the video on the fate of the Hungarian population of Czechoslovakia after WWII (where, ironically, Jihlava gets a dishonourable mention) it is clear that just being picked on at school, possibly, might have been the least of the worries experienced by some in Valérie’s family. It seems incredible that one with a background like this should end up being such a popular, well-loved star in the Czechoslovakia of the 1970s (being the junior-most of what I call Czechoslovakia’s ‘Golden Generation’ of female Pop Music artists and a petite blonde I sort of think of her as the ‘Baby Spice’ of the crowd).
The discovery of the aforementioned subtitles also enabled me to make sense of Valérie’s ‘Magyar Rock & Roll’, which was sung (in a New Year’s ‘special’ from 1977) in Hungarian, complete with R&R dancing in platform shoes! I have also subsequently discovered that there was an original version (differently-titled) some three years beforehand by the Hungarian star, Kati Kovács (so that’s another name to look into!)
In 1973, at the incredibly-young age of 21, Valérie’s services as a singer were called on in commemoration of the deaths of fifteen Czechoslovak mountaineers some two years previously in an earthquake during an expedition to the mountain in the Peruvian Andes, Huascarán (incredible to think that those who conceived of the idea chose such a young thing to bring the requisite gravitas to the occasion). This was the five-minute long and very reflective B-Side to Valérie’s Soul ‘stormer’, ‘Důkaz mi dej’, making a real contrast between one side of the record and the other, showing off Valérie’s versatility, along with singing in Hungarian and dancing in platforms! In the page concerning the lyrics of ‘Huascarán’ one can see one of my favourite images of Valérie…in full cry at the recording studios (so one knows that something special must be going on!) with cascading locks of her magnificent blonde hair and done up to the nines. It’s one of those many images I have encountered over this past year or so that look about as ‘un-Communist’ as one can get.
In the Summer of 1941, in Peru and Ecuador, as it happens, another one of those short, forgotten conflicts involving aerial action broke out between the two nations. As one can see, Italian-built aircraft were used in that war too….and Czech-built tanks!
It seems that a future Valérie Čižmárová-related journey might take me rather further afield than Michalovce…to the top of a mountain…where a talent of Valérie’s calibre belongs. (and another place where Italian aircraft flew, to boot!)