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Dr. Bedřich Bělohlávek (1902 – 1991)

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Passport photograph of
Dr. Bedrich Belohlavek (c.1948)

My father was born in Czechoslovakia, in 1902.

His parents, Bedrich and Ruzena, were innkeepers from Pisek in southern Bohemia.

Pribram’s town square: wood-engraving;
artist unknown

When my father was two years old, the family moved to Pribram, about fifty miles away from Prague. Pribram was then a prosperous mining town, its fortune built on silver.

His parents ran a small hotel, and also the café and restaurant attached to the town’s railway station.

In 1905, they produced a daughter, Ruzena, who died in 1907 and is buried in Pribram. My father never mentioned her existence, and I was greatly surprised to find out that he had not been an only child, after all.

POVODEN HLOUPOSTI (Flood of Stupidity) Cover

The title translates as ‘The Flood of Stupidity’.

From an early age, my father showed a rather precocious talent for music, and learnt to play the piano, entertaining the café and restaurant customers with popular tunes at mealtimes. He later studied the piano and composition at Prague Conservatoire, but instead of taking up music as a career became the music critic of Rude Pravo – the leading Czech Socialist newspaper, based in Prague.

By 1924 he was supplanted by the Communist historian Zdenek Nejedly (1878-1962), and went instead to the Social Democratic newspaper Pravo Lidu as film critic.

In the same year, he set up Dobra Edice, a small publishing house, specialising in poetry, essays, and belles lettres. The books were produced with superb attention to detail, and were classic examples of European graphic design of the period. The example shown to the left Povoden Hlouposti was the result of my father being thrown out of Prague’s National Theatre. As a music critic, he had written a blistering attack  on the entrenched attitude of the orchestra to rehearsals of a new work (Alban Berg’s ‘Wojcek’) and the musicians took offence. They refused to begin the evening’s performance while he remained in his critic’s seat, and several players pursued him out of the building, fists shaking. Alban Berg wrote a heartfelt letter of thanks for the stand my father had taken. The last publication appeared in 1934.

From the published edition of the libretto, 1925

From the published edition of the opera libretto, ‘Pred Vychodem Slunce’ (Dobra Edice, 1925)

His opera libretto, Pred slunce východem (‘Before Sunrise’) was premiered as part of a double-bill at Prague’s National Theatre on 24th October, 1925. Composed by Emil F. Burian, it was directed by Ferdinand Pujman, with settings by Vlastislav Hofman. Conducted by Otokar Ostrcil, the opera was performed several times. It is set outside the Garden of Eden, with Eve about to give birth to the child of man.

The Libretto of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’
published by Dobra Edice

In 1937, my father married. His bride was Frantiska Ungerova, a native of Prague, who had been brought up inVienna. Their wedding took place in Bulgaria, in Sofia Cathedral.

With the coming of the Nazis, my father fled to England. His journey was made possible by an influential acquaintance, who enabled him to make contact with the exiled Czech government based in London.

A concert given by the Inter-Allied String Quartet with Dr. Bedrich Belohlavek at the piano.

A concert given by the Inter-Allied String Quartet with Dr. Bedrich Belohlavek at the piano. (The ‘cellist is Terence Weil (1921-1995) then aged only 20. He later co-founded the renowned Melos Ensemble.)



While there, he planned what was to be the first festival of British Film to take place outside the UK.  It opened in Prague in 1946, with a galaxy of leading actors and production personnel from both Britain and Czechoslovakia as guests.

BB 1946

Benjamin Britten’s letter to my father, regretfully declining the invitation to Prague.

The composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was otherwise engaged, and sent an elegant letter of apology. The film ‘The Night Mail’ for which W.H. Auden had written the text, and Britten had composed the score, featured among the many documentaries shown.

My father returned briefly to Czechoslovakia in 1947 but the advent of the communist government in 1948 meant a second and permanent departure. He settled with his wife in London, and bought an ill-fated restaurant, Le Tabarin, 46 Gloucester Terrace, London W.2.

Le Tabarin Restaurant
at 46, Gloucester Terrace, London W.2

It served simple continental dishes, and was much-loved by its customers. Unfortunately, changing times, and my father’s over-generous nature meant that it didn’t stand a chance.

Le Tabarin Restaurant is auctioned on the 18th April, 1950

The narrow exterior of L.Simmonds, bookseller.

He became bankrupt, and c.1951 took a job with a London bookseller at No.16 Fleet Street, where he remained on the staff for thirty years. The shop stood next to Prince Henry’s Room, a timbered survivor of the Great Fire of London, 1666.


L. Simmonds – the shop signs

The firm of L. Simmonds was well-known to the legal profession, being in the centre of that world. It stood a few doors away from Middle Temple, and supplied vast quantities of law books, as well as serving local libraries, schools and colleges with more general stock.

My father’s boss, Louis Simmonds, was a remarkable man: diminutive in stature (like his wife, Rose) but big in heart, he commanded a loyalty from his staff that is now virtually unknown.

The narrow interior of the shop after its sale. The stairs led to the rooms where books were sorted for libraries.

The narrow interior of the shop after its sale.

It seemed rare for anyone to leave, under any pretext, and this continuity contributed more than a little to the shop’s faintly Dickensian air. Dating from the early eighteenth century, the building had once been a coffee house. It was narrow and rather dusty, but an institution, and much loved by all who knew it. The creaking stairs led to the upstairs stockrooms where books were sorted for local and City libraries.

The front cover of
‘Who’s Next ?’ by
‘John Brown’
(Dr. Bedrich Belohlavek)

1951 saw the publication of Who’s Next ? The Lesson of Czechoslovakia. My father wrote the book under the pseudonym ‘John Brown’, and dedicated it to the memory of Jan Masaryk, whose murder he had always deplored. 

Dr. Bedrich Belohlavekat the beloved Bechstein piano. The photograph was taken in Deal, c.1985. (Photographer: Basil Kidd for the East Kent Mercury)

Dr. Bedrich Belohlavek at his beloved Bechstein piano. The photograph was taken in Deal, c.1985. (Photographer: Basil Kidd for the East Kent Mercury)


(Note: The British Library in London now has an almost complete run of Dobra Edice publications, and various other works associated with my father. They can be found through the Slavonic Department, and in the general catalogue.) 

Copyright © Francis Wright, 2012

Joan Wright (1914 – 1997)

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Joan Wright with HRH Prince Philip, 1966

Joan Wright welcomes HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, to the BBC stand in Oslo, 1966.

My mother had an eventful career. On leaving school, she fulfilled her childhood ambition of becoming a journalist, and went to Fleet Street. There, she worked on papers such as ‘The News Chronicle’, ‘The Daily Express’, and ‘The Daily Herald’. She was one of the founders of a sporting paper, ‘The Bicycle’, which was in production until the advent of World War Two.

(She was, I believe, the first person to employ a young photographer by the name of Bert Hardy (1913-1995) whose high-speed Leica camera was so fundamental to his  work in sports and also – during and after the War – on ‘Picture Post’. He remains among the greats of 20th century photography.)

With the outbreak of War she was invited to become a press officer for the Norwegian Government in Exile,  then based in London. In order to be able to produce press releases in English, she found herself having to learn Norwegian from scratch, and deal with the wealth of information that arrived from the underground resistance movement in Norway.

In May of 1945, at the end of the War, she was transferred from London to Oslo, where she had to cope with the world’s Press as they covered the liberation of Norway. This was followed by the trial of the infamous Vidkun Quisling, the transcriptions of which were translated into English by my mother, usually working overnight, in order to have a press release ready by the morning.

The following year, she was asked to join the British Embassy in Oslo, where she spent the next five years as an assistant information officer. The job involved the organisation of Press conferences for the large number of dignitaries and personalities who visited: Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, with the English Opera Group, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Margot Fonteyn and the Royal Ballet, Viscount Montgomery and the philosopher Bertrand Russell, to name a very few.

She also had the job of looking after Winston Churchill when he visited Oslo. His demands were considerable, but she obviously met with his approval, and received a very warm personal letter of thanks. Unfortunately, the letter was stolen some time afterwards, and was of course never seen again.

On her return to England, she joined the Foreign Office, and looked after hoards of American journalists who were in London for the Festival of Britain. She would take parties of them around the newly built Festival Hall, where the chief interest for most of them was in using what they called ‘The Queen’s John’ – the private toilet that adjoined the Royal Box.

JOAN WRIGHT in canteen

Joan Wright in Oslo, May 1966. She was representing the BBC at ‘Britain ’66’. (Photograph courtesy of ‘Aftenposten’, 16th May, 1966)

My mother joined the BBC in 1952, becoming Assistant Publicity Officer for Europe, based at Queen’s House in Kingsway, London.

Joan Wright on the BBC stand at Expo ’66 in Oslo. She is being greeted by King Olav V of Norway

Joan Wright on the BBC stand at Britain ’66 in Oslo. She is being greeted by King Olav V of Norway.

She provided information for the world’s press on BBC radio and television, which at that time was very much the envy of the world. In the 1960s and ’70s, her guided tours of Television Centre at White City in London were very popular with visiting journalists from all over the world.

After twenty years, she took early retirement in 1972, and set up a successful boating holiday business. Rather unimaginatively named Riteways, it was based on the Grand Union Canal at Uxbridge in Middlesex.

She also produced a guidebook to Norway (her second) this one published by Collins.

NORWAY Collins Guide

‘Norway’ by Joan Wright – a Collins Holiday Guide, published in 1970, and priced at six shillings – or 30 pence.

She also continued to work as a freelance journalist, writing illustrated features mainly about British television programmes for European publications. She was a very good photographer, and had the comparatively rare ability to make even the most nervous of personalities appear relaxed and informal. The Mary Evans Picture Library now looks after her archive of  photographs.

She often found herself on the receiving end of some surprising confidences, and had to assure her subjects that their secrets were safe with her!

JOAN WRIGHT with 'Bet Lynch' (actress Julie Goodyear) 1976

Joan Wright with Julie Goodyear, the ebullient actress famous for her role as barmaid Bet Lynch in ITV’s ‘Coronation Street’.

A move from London in the mid-1980s found her relocating to Deal in Kent where she ran a small but thriving business selling antique prints, maps, and vintage postcards.

Her shop, The Print Room,  was at 95a Beach Street, opposite the Royal Hotel on the seafront. It was conveniently just round the corner from where she lived, and she became a regular port of call for many of the town’s visitors and residents, who would spend time (and quite often some money) enjoying my mother’s excellent stock, and her continued ability to listen to whatever they had to say.

To be continued …

Written by Francis Wright

August 15, 2014 at 7:35 am

W & A Houben (Houben’s Bookshop – a Richmond Institution)

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I first encountered W & A Houben in Church Court when I was in my teens.

Dr Wilm Houben and his wife Anne seemed to be a rather fierce couple: he with his strong accent and very aromatic pipe, the smoke of which filled the shop in the days before a ban had even been dreamed of – and she with a cigarette holder and a businesslike tweed skirt.

Church Court in Richmond, as viewed from the Parish Church. The bookshop is 2nd and 3rd on the left, in the days when they sported a children's section as well.

Church Court in Richmond, as viewed from the Parish Church. The bookshop is 2nd and 3rd on the left, in the days when they sported a children’s section as well.

They gave every appearance of not taking prisoners, and of not putting up with timewasters. The brave got to know them, and to value their expertise, their dry humour, and their generosity. They were a highly intelligent pair – he an art historian, a refugee from Nazi Germany, whose speciality was Renaissance painting; she a formidable and very English bluestocking – a type that has all but vanished nowadays.
They knew their books and their stock and their customers, and were unfailingly helpful to those who were serious readers and book lovers. They supplied local schools, colleges and libraries, passers-by, and a legion of devoted regulars, like me. Their basement held an inexhaustible wealth of secondhand treasures, readily plundered by the keen, usually on a Saturday morning, especially if it was raining.


The shop was host to a variety of visitors, not always there to buy books. I recall an aristocratic and elderly Richmond resident with mottled skin and white hair. Engaged in earnest discussion about life, art, politics and things of the universe in general, she turned out to be Tchaikovsky’s great-niece.

She had written a book of memoirs (As I Remember Them by Galina von Meck, published by Dobson in 1973.) It’s a fascinating read about the last days of Imperial Russia as seen by a small child.

After the retirement of Dr and Mrs Houben, the shop was sold to two of its staff, Chris and Denise Dunlop, who continued to run it with much the same flare and inventiveness until recent tragic circumstances overtook them. They made sure that this small island of culture, professionalism, and friendliness maintained a very special place in the lives of those who knew it.

We will not see the like of Houben’s Bookshop again, more’s the pity. Fifty-one years in a community is a long time, and its customers owe it their heartfelt thanks.
A wood-engraving by Hilary Paynter. It shows the premises of W & A Houben, Booksellers, in Church Court, Richmond, Surrey.

A wood-engraving by Hilary Paynter. It shows the premises of W & A Houben, Booksellers, in Church Court, Richmond, Surrey.

Written by Francis Wright

August 14, 2014 at 7:00 pm

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