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CULTURE MATTERS

Searching for common ground

TWO seemingly unrelated events in the news caught my attention this week.
The first was Pohoda, the huge music festival at Trenčín's military airport. Tens of thousands of people, mainly Slovaks, but many from across Europe, gathered for the two-day happening.

TWO seemingly unrelated events in the news caught my attention this week.

The first was Pohoda, the huge music festival at Trenčín's military airport. Tens of thousands of people, mainly Slovaks, but many from across Europe, gathered for the two-day happening.

The second was the sacking-before-they-started of a group of Slovak cleaning and "food distribution" staff from a hospital in Basildon, England. The Slovaks apparently did not turn up with the money needed for deposits on accommodation. A spokeswoman for the recruitment company complained that the Slovaks were hungry and tired and couldn't do their jobs properly. The hospital has cancelled its contract with the recruitment company because of the Slovaks' "behaviour".

For me, the two events relate in this way: the one is testament to the open-mindedness and positive mood that there is currently in Slovakia, while the other points to the narrow-minded stinginess so prevalent in modern Britain. To ask workers to make a deposit of the equivalent of Sk25,000 (€640) on accommodation in advance of their first wages is really a bit steep.

I doubt very much whether British workers are asked to pay such a high deposit on accommodation when they come to work over here. And I also doubt that a Slovak employer would sack British workers - English teachers let's say - with such short shrift.

The incident shows that, despite Slovakia's much-trumpeted EU entry, Slovak people are still treated as second-class citizens, and essentially parasitic. But the success of Pohoda, and numerous other cultural events across the country this summer, proves that at home Slovakia is travelling very much in the first class compartment.

Enjoy yourselves while you can Slovaks.

For Slovaks and Slovakia to gain the respect they deserve, perceptions are going to have to radically change. More and more foreigners will have to make extended visits to this country: get to know the people and learn to appreciate the way of life here. Such cultural exchange is sorely needed.

But the really shocking event of the past couple of weeks was the London bombings. The bombers were all British, three of Pakistani and one of Jamaican origin. Multiculturalism has, it seems, failed. Or has it?

The response by Londoners, led by Mayor Ken Livingstone, has been to reassert in the strongest possible terms their city's multi-racial, multi-lingual character. But London, like Bratislava, is very different from the rest of the country and the mood in the capital is not necessarily the same as elsewhere.

Only time will tell if the extremists can be stopped and if a measure of tolerance - meaning genuinely respecting others' right to hold and practise different beliefs - can be created.

My guess is that the London bombings will result in more fear of what is different, culturally and politically, with greater police and political repression, an ever narrower range of public debate and far less contact between different cultures.

We could all learn a thing or two from events such as Pohoda in that regard and at least try to find some peaceable common ground.

The inclusion of literary readings at the festival is very welcome. Literature helps cultures grow, and it helps them survive. Despite the dominance of television, reading thrives: the new Harry Potter had them queuing round the blocks again. I haven't read any myself, but my wife is mad on them, reading the last 10 pages of the last one standing on the pavement in the pouring rain. Harry Potter is a phenomenon I welcome, even if I don't quite get it.

However, I do think I am starting to understand adults' thirst for "children's" stories. Perhaps it is a turning away from the sort of meaningless gore served up as entertainment in many Hollywood movies? Hence the popularity with adults and children of the recent Finding Neverland, the story of J M Barrie's inspiration for Peter Pan, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, based on Roald Dahl's story. These and other stories, including Harry Potter (I have seen one of the films) have an innocence, an imaginative core, that adults crave and children take for granted.

Of course, I am referring to Anglo-American culture, the one with which I am most familiar. Perhaps other cultures do produce whimsical, meaningful, non-violent films about and for adults? It seems a bit much to have to revert to children's stories to get your imaginative desserts.

Maybe, what I and many like me should do, is attend more events like Pohoda, and get my cultural satisfaction that way.

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