I was terrified, but there was no going back, there simply wasn’t time.
I looked at the piece of paper in my hand and had second thoughts. No,
the die was cast and whichever way it landed was going to cost me my
job, possibly accompanied by some big public show of humiliation. My
boss, the wonderful Right Honourable Martin Jennings, Minister for
European Co-operation and possibly the most bloody minded man on the
face of the earth, has been gunning for me from the moment we embarked
on the trade mission to Prague. His ire had worked up to a peak five
“I don’t care what I said two days ago, I want to do grace in Czech, and
if you don’t know any, they you ain’t much good on a trade mission to
Prague, are you”, he bellowed. I felt myself starting to sweat
profusely. “I’m just about sick of you, Smith,” he continued, “get me
grace in Czech in five minutes before I have to get on my feet or
you’re out, understand.”
On that, he turned on his heels and started towards the function room
where assorted Czech heads of industry were waiting for their guest of
“That’s four minutes and fifty seconds, Smith, get moving,” he added.
The assembled throng turned to greet him as he entered the room and
adopted his best smarmy diplomatic smile. I heard him continue, “Mr
Blodek, delighted to meet you again.. About your next trip to
London.....my wife and I would be thrilled to see you .........”
How could anyone be so chameleon like?
“Yes of course, the restaurant in Godalming is keen to greet one of
their countrymen, Czech cuisine is really taking off in the UK......”
Give him a good audience and the Minister was in his element, pressing
the flesh, being the centre of attention in a field of admiring faces,
turning on the charm.
On the previous night in the hotel bar he had entertained a fair
proportion of the British business community with tales of previous
visits to Eastern Europe, and how this had endowed him with the ability
to pronounce most Slavonic alphabets to a reasonable extent. He freely
admitted that although he fully understood the modifying actions on
individual letters of the various accents and knew how to make a
reasonable shot at pronouncing them, he didn’t understand a word of any
of it beyond the usual “Thank You”, “Yes”, “No” and “Beer please”.
Typical of his arrogance!
The Minister was not an easy man to work for, very few of his personal
aides ever lasted beyond a few months before either resigning or
getting sacked. Not that he cared at all, he had all of the pressures
of state to worry about. It was said that being the world’s most
belligerent person was something he had enjoyed ever since the senior
school at Eton. “You’ve got to keep the lower classes on their toes, a
good flogging always reminds them of their place in life,” his father,
Major General Hubert Jennings, was once heard to say.
I knew that whether or not I made the deadline would make little
difference. To get the push in some public show of disgrace would
really make the Minister’s day, and put a bullet over the heads of
everyone else on his staff.
The five minutes expired some ten seconds before I managed to press the
bit of paper into the Minister’s hand.
“èampon s provitamínem, normální vlasy pro kazdodenní pouzití,” it said.
“ Just about made it, sir, I think.....”
“Too late, Smith, you’re fired. Get the first flight back to the UK
tomorrow morning, and clear your desk before I return to London,” he
I opened my mouth in a vain effort to remonstrate, but was cut short.
“Don’t argue, just go! Vamoose! Scram! My mind is made up and I don’t
believe in U-turns.” spat out the Minister through clenched teeth,
“Damn upstart, who the hell do you think you are??”. His voice was
shaking with venomous emotion. I said nothing, there was no point, as
my career in the Civil Service evaporated in front of me.
I left the room and went to collect my overcoat from the cloakroom as
protection to the biting cold on the short walk back to our hotel. As I
returned to the foyer outside of the function room where the dinner was
taking place, the proceedings were just about to start. I watched
through the glass panel in the door.
“My Lords, Ladies and gentlemen, ....” started the toastmaster, first in
English and then Czech, and the guests started to take their places.
The Minister moved up to the top table and stood to attention behind
“I would like to call upon the Right Honourable Martin Jennings,
Minister for European Co-operation to read grace,” said the toast
master. The Minister cleared his throat.
“èampon s provitamínem, normální vlasy pro kazdodenní pouzití,” he said,
and smiled at the assembled throng, clearly very pleased with himself.
I could see that he was somewhat surprised at the reaction that greeted
him as his hosts stood silent and motionless, their mouths open in
almost surreal bewilderment. He looked rather uncomfortable as a barely
suppressed giggle could be heard from somewhere in the room.
“Ahhhrm, thank you Minister for a very original grace” said the Chairman
of the Prague Chamber of Commerce and broke the spell in an instant.
The throng sat down and within ten seconds the room was filled with
chatter and waiters serving the first course.
Time to go, I thought, and started back to our hotel, two blocks away.
I went back to my room and started to pack. A phone call to the airport
confirmed that my ticket could be transferred to the following mornings
flight back to London and, as usual in times of stress, I decided that
a deep hot bath would soak away the days pressures and give me time to
think. I poured the bath, slipped into the soothing water and soon it
didn’t all seem bad. I reached for the shampoo bottle and idly scanned
the label, written in several languages.
“Shampoo with vitamins, for daily use on normal hair;” it said, followed
by the same sentence in Czech.
“èampon s provitamínem, normální vlasy pro kazdodenní pouzití.”