London diplomat to exchange attach case for squeegee

Forced to work as a window washer following the 1968 Soviet occupation, the Czech ambassador seeks to ply his former trade at a capitalist icon.

Some people might think the post of ambassador to Britain is lofty enough. But Pavel Seifter, who represents the Czech Republic here, is setting his sights higher. Eight hundred feet higher, to be precise.

He caused a flutter among London's diplomatic dinner-party circuit by applying to join the gang of spidermen soaping, rinsing, and polishing the windows of Canary Wharf Tower, a 50-story building in a rebuilt commercial district of London's dockside area.

"I want to test myself. Cleaning these windows will test two things: my sense and feeling of freedom, and my attitude to fear," he says.

It's not a question of making ends meet. The position would be unpaid, more a nostalgic hobby than a second job. As well as being a career diplomat and an academic historian, Dr. Seifter has two decades of experience as a window washer.

Canary Wharf is a legacy of the Thatcher political era and something of a monument to capitalism. But to Seifter, it's a poignant reminder of one man's release from the straitjacket of communism.

In 1968, Soviet tanks rolled into what was then Czechoslovakia, extinguishing a brief flowering of political, press, intellectual, and cultural freedoms that came to be known as "Prague spring."

At the time, Seifter was a lecturer in modern history at Prague University. "I had just started my academic career when the Soviet tanks arrived. And for people who refused to applaud and welcome this invasion it was very difficult," he says.

Like thousands of other dissidents, Seifter lost his academic job and was forced to seek manual work. He eventually became a window washer. To his initial surprise, he found that he liked it. "It was a great feeling. You are somewhere between the earth and the skies, between the earth and heaven. And there is nobody who can tell you what to do or say or think, what is forbidden."

DURING the 20 years he spent cleaning windows, Seifter was among some of the Czech capital's most distinguished company. "Other people working with me included a future foreign minister, defense minister, ambassadors, and a future archbishop. There were poets, literary critics, dramatists, sociologists, historians, philosophers.

"It was supposed to be degrading for an academic to be reduced to cleaning windows," Seifter says. "But it was not." Only in one sense was it degrading: that was "for the whole nation."

It was dangerous to be associated with such dissidents and an act of considerable courage to employ them. At the same time, to be unemployed was officially a crime known as "parasitism," punishable by a possible jail sentence.

Seifter's window-washing came to an end with the bloodless "velvet revolution" in 1989, when he was able to resume his academic career. He has been ambassador to Britain for the past three years. Prompted by a newspaper article about window washers suspended in special "cradles" hundreds of feet above ground at Canary Wharf, Seifter contacted the owners of the building, offering his services.

Martin Fitch, sales and marketing director of New Century, the company contracted to clean Canary Wharf's windows, says he was "very amazed" and invited Seifter to apply. While cold-war-era concerns of espionage opportunities are not a factor, the offer will be subject to the company's stringent safety conditions.

"You can't just walk in off the street and jump in a cradle on any building, let alone the tallest building in the UK," Mr. Fitch says. "There is an in-house training program on health and safety, working from a cradle, working from ladders. Applicants need to show they have some skills at actually cleaning windows."

The assessment and retraining will take place when Seifter returns from vacation in September.

The ambassador says he is curious to see whether he still measures up to the demands of the job. "When I was 30, I had no problem with heights. But 30 years later we will have to see. If my knees tremble, then I won't repeat it."

At the Czech Embassy in London, the ambassador's attempt at moonlighting drew a suitably diplomatic response. While no one will say how long he might continue, if approved, a spokeswoman privately expressed the hope that Seifter's curiosity about his old job would be satisfied with an afternoon's practice session.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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