|Voyen Koreis; Author, Translator, Dramatist, Visual Artist, Illustrator, Designer
or how it came about that this British Czech migrated to Australia
I was born on the St Valentine’s Day in 1943. Only many years later had I found out about what St Valentine’s Day meant, because in those parts of the world where I did my growing up it was not considered at all significant. Only when I reached the mid-twenties and when, after a long absence, I came back to England, on some occasion I had mentioned to someone that I was born on the 14th February. The immediate response was: ‘Why, a St Valentine’s baby!’ My look of total incomprehension brought about explanation.
The place of my birth? Very English. Very upper-class English, in fact. No 12, Pitt Street, Kensington, London W8 (left) is only about furlong away from the Kensington Palace, the birthplace of Queen Victoria, the place teeming with history, where prince Charles had lived with princess Diana, and where their son Prince William lives now with his wife Kate, theit son prince George and their daughter princess Charlotte. All this should unquestionably make me an Englishman, and not a mere “British born” person. I greatly enjoy mystifying people when, upon hearing my decisively non-English sounding accent, they ask me the impertinent question, “Where do you come from?” The expectation on their part perhaps being that I would humbly admit to coming from some ghastly place, only just this side of the Carpathian Mountains. Well, when I'm in a mood they might get what they have asked for: “I’m a “Pom,” I answer nonchalantly. The looks of total disbelief that I invariably get give me a lot of satisfaction. But I can prove this claim, I tell them. And don’t judge on appearances alone. That I don't tell them; it's the hidden message behind all this. Either they get it or they don't.
The name Koreis is not a very common one, and there are several theories regarding its origin. The one that appears quite sensible to me proclaims it ultimately to be of a Celtic origin, but there are several other possibilities, such as the Latin, Greek, even Hebrew origin. It is hard to tell when exactly and from which part of Europe the bearers of the name Koreis first came to Bohemia, but they appear to have been established there at least by the 17th century, but possibly much earlier. The time of the Thirty Year War, when there was a lot of commotion, seems a good bet, nevertheless. The name could also be found in the neighbouring Germany, and in several other countries, such as Latvia and Lithuania, The Netherlands, and even as far away as Greece. However, if we take out the "k" and substitute it with a "c", we get to names such as Corris or Corres. The bearers of the first one could easily live in Ireland or anywhere on the British Isles, while the second has a distinct Spanish flavour...
The Koreises appear to either be orientated technically (many are or were to be found in the mining industry) or they incline towards the arts, especially music, as did my grandfather. Jaroslav Koreis, soon after completing his studies at the Prague Conservatorium of Music, had an offer to join the main orchestra in the Russian Imperial city of St Petersburg as a trumpet player, with a very good starting salary. But the fate had decided otherwise. Or was it rather my grandfather’s virility? Shortly before he was due to leave for the Russian capitol, as it was then, he found out that he had made my grandmother pregnant. It was either his own decision to do the right thing and marry the girl, or perhaps his future father-in-law interfered in a decisive manner, as fathers-in-law tended to do, especially in the latter part of the nineteenth century; who could tell after so many years? In any case, the plans to go to Russia were abandoned, and my grandfather eventually took up the position in the Zbraslav (now a Prague suburb) church as an organist and a choir-master. He stayed there all his life, which was not very long, as he died of pneumonia in his early fifties. He conducted the church choir, played the organ, taught various musical instruments, and even did some composing. In between his musical related activities my grandfather managed to father twelve children. They all received names from the Czech history or mythology.
Dalibor Koreis as a young manWhen the war was declared after the shooting in Sarajevo, the fourth child of Jaroslav Kores, Dalibor, was seventeen and still at the school desk. In 1915 he was recruited to the 91st Infantry Regiment, stationed in České Budějovice, the army unit that a few years later was to be made world-famous by Jaroslav Hašek in his Good Soldier Švejk, arguably the first true modern anti-war novel. Almost immediately he was sent to the course for future officers. When he returned to the regiment as a cadet officer, the following incident took place, which my father delighted in narrating for years to come, always stressing that it was completely true. I know it from my mother.
The news arrived in November 1916 to the regimental headquarters of the death of the Emperor Franz Joseph II. The young cadet Koreis was given the task of relating the sad news to the other officers of the regiment. During the rounds he also arrived to the tent of the First Lieutenant Lukáš, the real one, who was to become a model to the writer for the remarkable tragi-comical character in his famous novel. This fact was later proven by the Hašek scholars, as well as admitted by Lukáš himself, while he was still alive. Upon cadet Koreis’ arrival, the good Lieutenant was resting on his tent bed, taking an afternoon nap. The cadet was not sure if he should wake him up, but the Emperor’s death seemed to him to be far too important an event to leave an officer of His Imperial Majesty ignorant about. Besides, his orders were quite clear – let all the officers know of the terrible news. So he stood to attention and made the formal announcement:
“First Lieutenant Lukáš, cadet Koreis here. I obediently report that His Majesty, the Emperor Franz Joseph II had died.”
In response, all he could hear was a little muttering coming from the bed near the tent wall. The cadet waited for a minute or two, but fearing that his report possibly had not properly registered, he repeated it; however this time somewhat louder while accentuating the individual words. The repercussion was only a little more lively; Lukáš turned over slowly on his bed, and in a sleepy manner he waved his hand in the direction of the cadet, who was still standing in full attention.
“Good,” Lukáš said drowsily. “You may leave.”
The cadet remained standing in attention for a while, slightly in shock, uncertain if he had heard properly. He was about to leave, when the meaning of the words that he had just heard while still half asleep had finally dawned upon lieutenant Lukáš. With it must have come the realisation that what he had just said could easily be classified as high treason. He shot up from his bed like on a spring, stood in attention as well, and ordered the petrified cadet to give him the report for the third time!
My father's British Army ID card
In between the two wars my father, while based in Prague, did a great deal of travelling, especially around the southern parts of Europe. After a failed marriage, from which my half-sister Lada was born, who was to become a medical doctor, he eventually eventually met my mother. They were both on a train to southern Croatia, he on business, she going for a holiday. A year later they were married in Tirana, Albania, where by then Dalibor held a diplomatic post. When the war came it caught both my parents still in Albania, which was about to be taken over by the German/Italian forces. Their escape through Greece, and subsequent journey through the Mediterranean to France and eventually to England, must have been adventurous. In England my father volunteered and fought with the Allied Forces in the northern Africa. Towards the end of the war he even lead a battalion of paratroopers on a secret and very dangerous mission. They were dropped over Yugoslavia, where they had linked with the Tito's partisans. On the same mission was the author of Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh, also ranked a major like my father, as I found out only many years later. Did the two know each other? They probably did. By that time I was already around. With my mother we changed our abode several times: from London, which was under frequent bombardments, we moved to Warwick in the Midlands and then, notably, to Stratford upon Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare.
After the war my father took the family back to Prague. In 1947-48 he was the trade attaché at the Czechoslovakian embassy at Belgrade in Yugoslavia. In the Embassy grounds I played with a group of children dominated by a girl, the Ambassador’s daughter, who was several years older than I was. Only decades later, after Bill Clinton named Madelaine Albright as the US State Secretary, and she became the most powerful woman on the planet, I read her biography, and found out who she was. You've guessed it, it was the same bossy girl that ruled supreme over the group of us, children, in the Belgrade Embassy yard. She must have had it in her to be a leader, even then!
After the Belgrade stint my father was named the Consular General in Berlin, so we moved to East Germany, and stayed there until his sudden death in 1950. Rumours naturally sprung up about the cause of his death, occurring at such an exposed place Berlin was at the time, teeming with spies from both sides of the divided world. Years later I was told in London by somebody who should have known that he in fact worked for the British Intelligence. Be it as it may, my father was given the state funeral by the Czechoslovakian government, and that was that.
About 17 years oldWith my mother we came back to live in Prague, and moved several times, as I grew up and went to school. By the time I turned eighteen I was very much in love with the theatre. In the introduction to my English translation of the two plays by Karel Čapek - R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots) and The Robber, I describe the bizarre incident that occured on the first night of my first appearance in a major role on the stage.
Late in 1962 I was called into the army for the 2 year compulsory service, only a couple of months before the Cuban crises came along. Fortunately for me, I had landed softly and found myself sitting in a cushy position as a singer with the army entertainment unit, which travelled the country and performed for the troops as well as for the civilians. There I met a number of young talented Czech performers, actors, singers, musicians, also future directors and composers. Most of them were several years older than myself and many have since made it to the top in their professions. It was a stimulating experience, despite some chores I had to perform that were not so much to my liking. It is impossible to resist printing here at least part of the lyrics of a propagandist song, a real gem within its genre, which was my ordeal to sing almost every night for the duration of the Cuban crises and for many months to come (my translation):
I sing my song of Havana
With Soviets the Cubans are one
Together they laugh while they’re watching
Kennedy’s troops on the run
With hammer and sickle now forming their sign
Seeing the cosmonauts fly into yonder
The Cubans are saying, there’s no end to wonder
Over Havana the red star will shine!
And, amazingly, at the time of writing this it still shines, though perhaps not so brightly any more. Meanwhile, the red star of the Soviets went out rather ingloriously. But I was thoroughly compensated for such inconveniences, for there were other songs I had been singing, some by top composers and lyricists of the period when the swinging big bands were still ruling supreme! What I am never likely to forget either is the feeling I had while standing in front of the microphone and singing like a proper crooner, with the Glen Miller-style big band and its saxophones, trombones, trumpets and percussion thundering and swinging behind my back. Even now just writing about it gives me the goose bumps! The band leader was Pavel Bayerle who died relatively young a few years later, but who still lives in several novels by Josef Škvorecký, as Benno the trumpet player.
After the two year long compulsory army service I continued my involvement with the performing arts, mostly combining singing with acting, but what I really wanted to do was go to the Prague University and seriously study the operatic singing. By then in my mid-twenties, I was already a private student of one of the professors, who urged me before the forthcoming auditions to shave off the beard I had been cultivating for some time. I ignored those warnings only to my peril. My performance was apparently well received by the committee members, but not so enthusiastically by the chairman, who was very well known for his allegiance to the Communist Party, but not particularly so for his singing abilities. He vetoed my acceptance, declaring that the “beatniks" with beards were unwanted elements at the Prague Academy of the Arts”! These turned out to be the prophetic words, as I soon proved him correct by becoming a member of the gang of other unwanted elements and undesirables, who attempted to create an opposition party to the Communists during the Dubcek’s era. The Prague Spring of 1968 was to end with the Soviet invasion and occupation of the country. I had made up my mind there and then that I was definitely going to keep my beard, but that I would forever say goodbye to the totalitarians!
Voyen Koreis – a proper crooner in the late era of swinging big bands!
With my status as “British born” I had not anticipated any major problems on part of the British authorities with my moving to London, though I had to endure a tedious process involving a lot of bureaucratic red-tape, while getting the necessary travel documents, to enable me to leave the occupied country. I eventually managed to get safely to London, with only a few days to spare, before the Czechoslovak authorities closed the border hermetically, to remain so for some years to come, as it turned out. Naturally, I had to earn a living somehow, and the opportunities were limited. I was 26, and the last time I had made any serious attempts at speaking English happened when I was about two, with the words such as "gaga, mama, dada". Many of the Czech expatriates I came to know in London went to the language schools to help them learn English as fast as possible. It did not seem to make them progress significantly faster, so I chose a different route, remembering my father's legendary method of learning languages (he spoke about a dozen). It consisted of going alone to a strange country and immediately losing himself among the natives, moving with the crowds the whole day every day, while reading the newspapers and listening to the radio in the evenings. After about a month of leading such anonymous existence filled with the strenuous activities, my father would emerge from his hideout thoroughly enlightened, with another language added to his portfolio.
Singing Mozart with Frank Fisher in London
Finding a job at the building site as a labourer was relatively simple matter for me, but mixing with the natives proved a major problem, as there weren't many to be found near the centre of London, at least not at the building site where I worked. The accents that I was hearing there were Scottish, Irish, Yorkshire, West Indies, etc., with only a couple of true Englishmen about, inevitably the Cockneys, who with their way of swallowing parts of the words were even harder to understand than the rest of them. Though I could soon form the basic sentences, my ears were not used to all those colourful accents that surrounded me. I kept asking people to speak slowly, and I listened. During the breaks at work and in the evenings I read the newspapers, and tried to make some sense of various articles, with the help of a pocket dictionary that I carried with me everywhere. And in the evenings I listened to the BBC. After a time I attempted to read my first book in English. I cannot remember what it was, probably a murder mystery, possibly by Agatha Christie.
I had tried to continue my singing career, appearing in a few minor operatic productions as a “basso profondo”. It did not lead to any significant contracts for singing the opera. The only major contract I had signed at the time was the one sealing my marriage to another Czech refugee, whom I had invited to one of the performances of Rossini's La Cenerentola (Cinderella), where I was singing Alidoro. The London weather was mostly gloomy, the bed-sitters were cramped and exceedingly cold, so longing for more open spaces and a warmer climate, we had decided to migrate to Australia and start a new life there. We sailed from Southampton to Sydney early in February 1973, with seven large trunks in the under deck, five of them containing books, most of which we had bought in London, around the Portobello Road. Interestingly, I had celebrated my 30th birthday on the same day I had crossed the equator for the first time in my life. After the full month spent on sea, having sailed through one major storm that had sent most of the passengers, including my wife, into their sick beds, we reached the Promised Land. From Sydney where the ship disgorged us we immediately went on train to Brisbane, where we have now been living for more than 35 years. We have a son, who is now close to thirty, and who had studied journalism at the University of Queensland, where he now also works.
With the Czech star singer, Eva Pilarová
I had abandoned my singing/acting career. Well, perhaps not so entirely, as in 1983 I had played the leading role in Ubu the King by Alfred Jarry, the father of the Theatre of the Absurd, in a local production in the Cement Box and La Boite theatres. I also sang with the choir and, occasionally, with some visiting artists from my former homeland. On the left, on her visit here, I sing a duet with Eva Pilarova, who was voted the top Czech female singer for many years. I went through several jobs as a public servant, salesman and interpreter/translator. During the Olympic Games in 2000 I acted as as "language expert", the grand title that was given to interpreters. I gradually moved to painting and to teaching the visual arts. I held about a dozen one man shows, at various venues, mainly in the 1980s and the 90s. Samples of my visual art can I have gathered in the virtual gallery here.
In 1978 I became involved in the public radio broadcasting. When the new ethnic radio station 4EB was given a licence and began broadcasting on the 1st December 1979, the first voice heard on air was mine. There were 20 language groups at the time (now there are over 50) and at the time our group came on top in alphabetical order. Still, it was a great honour that would forever be mine! I went on to produce the programmes in Czech, as well as in English. In the 90s I also became involved in the day-to-day running of the station, by becoming a member of the board of directors. For several years I was the vice-president, and on occasions even the acting president. I wrote some radio plays in English a the time, and one, a comedy on a Faustian theme, was produced by 4EB and made the rounds on the national public radio circuit. Another play, about the Russian philosophers Ouspensky and Gurdjieff was translated into the Japanese. For several years I was the Australian correspondent for the Czech section of the BBC London, as such I had also covered the republican convention in 1999. I also translated some television programmes for the Czech National TV, including a whole series on the history of dance. The page that lists my published works can be accessed here.
In the more recent times I had decided to make yet another career move and become an online bookseller, founding a company named Booksplendour, starting with the collection of books my wife and I have accumulated over the years, and expanding the inventory further, to more than the 27,000 that have been listed at the time of writing this blog. We believe that this currently makes us the largest online bookstore on Queensland. No doubt, more books will be finding their way to the shelves in our house, though it is getting a little crowded here.
On air in the Radio 4EB studio
I still proudly wear on my chin that same beard the chairman of the committee at the Prague Academy hated so much, though its once lively brown colours inexorably are being invaded by the streaks of grey. I am now convinced that the most important decision I had ever made in my entire life came when I made up my mind about not giving in to political correctness and not shaving it off my face, on the eve of that memorable singing audition. Who knows what might have otherwise happened? Perhaps I could have been accepted to the Academy, and perhaps I might have carved out some sort of a career as a singer or a teacher, in the stifling atmosphere that abounded behind the now defunct Iron Curtain. To survive, I would either have to become a conformist or, if it turned out that I had the necessary strength of character, turn into a dissident. Instead, I was able to embark on an entirely different career and, most importantly, keep developing as a person, while living the life of freedom in this wonderful country, Australia.
Occasionally I ask myself the question: Do I have anything to regret? The answer has always been: No, I don't!
P.S. My friend Henry Zehr, who was also active in founding the 4EB station, has written reminiscences on his life in this country, which can be accessed here. He titled it Australia Felix.
©Voyen Koreis 2012
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