If you were brought up in Britain and on the left, like me, the Vàclac Havel of Soviet-era Czechoslovakia was an exotic and quite difficult figure. By the time I became aware of him, at the tail end of the cold war in the 1980s, it had long been impossible to defend the Eastern bloc regimes – even the hardcore (we used to call them ‘tankies’) had moved on to a sort of queasy “yes, but…” accommodation with ‘actually existing’ Communism. But Havel didn’t make it easy, even for soft lefties like me. He was an artist and a humanist and… well, a bit decadent.
His lyrical and humane and non-doctrinaire breed of subversion was impossibly glamorous – I seem to remember an enthusiasm for floppy haired American art rock and French situationists – especially in contrast to the humourless posturing that passed for opositional politics in Britain at the time and it was obviously real and brave because its context was the cruel and arbitrary and lethal Czech Communist regime. Then, in 1989 – almost over night – the most amazing, spell-binding thing happened. They made him President. In The Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash remembers six meetings with Havel spanning his years as a persecuted dissident and prisoner and those utterly unlikely thirteen years at the top of Czech political life.