An Iron Curtain Romance

Everybody enjoys a good love story. What better uplifting tale to tell than one about a wee Blantyre lass, traveling off on adventures, falling in love and marrying behind the Iron Curtain! This is a story of exploration to foreign shores, of a Blantyre romance built to last and what’s so special about this couple, is that the story belongs to my own parents, Janet Duncan and Joe Veverka. Their story was so remarkable at the time that the National newspapers retold it in some detail. I can go a step further and retell it, in my mother’s own words with their contemporary photographs to illustrate. Although my parents are not living anymore, they were immensely proud of how they met and their long and loving marriage. They were also extremely proud to be Blantyre residents. The following is their story, using many of my mother’s own words from the newspaper articles of the day. I hope you enjoy.

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1966 Janet , age 18

Janet Duncan was the youngest daughter of John Duncan and Mary Danskin. Born in November 1947 in Stonefield Crescent, Janet was lucky enough to have 5 other brothers and sisters and by all accounts was certainly the tomboy of the family girls! She was a clever child, regularly attended Sunday School and was an accomplished pupil at High Blantyre Primary and Calder Street Secondary schools.

By the time she was 18, she had left school and was working as a secretary at local Blantyre Builders Yard, ‘Braidwoods’, next to Logan Street. For the first time in her life, she had a wage and was able to save up to do something she had wanted to do for a long time. To travel abroad to Austria, to see her female penfriend Dasha.

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Joe, aged 20

So, by Summer 1968, with enough saved up and despite some concern from her parents about traveling alone, Janet set off to Austria for a Summer holiday. She instantly got on well with her pen friend and Dasha made her feel very welcome , showing her around Austria, introducing her to friends and family. To a wee lass form Blantyre, this was all very exciting and new! One of the friends Dasha introduced Janet to, was a cheerful, handsome and small soldier by the name of Josef Veverka, who had just completed his compulsory Army Service. Despite being in Austria, Joe was actually Czechoslovakian and was on holiday also in Austria with his friends. Joe and Janet agreed they would correspond by letter.

Later recounting the story to the Sunday Mail newspaper, Janet said “The fact that i knew no Czech was no obstacle for somebody as cheerful and outgoing as Joe. His English vocabulary consisted of 2 words, hello and goodbye. Despite that and seeing his good character and humour, it was love at first sight. Armed with phrase books, we translated items pointing and saying their equivalent words. If he hadn’t been so patient, that could have been the end there. I was introduced to him by Dasha my pen-pal and we all went to a theatre. I saw a lot of him before my holiday ended. He started writing to me when i came home, but my parents didn’t take the relationship seriously. They thought the whole thing would bore us, but strangely i was finding everything very exciting.”

Joe Veverka was born in March 1947 in Prague. He could not speak English and had two sisters. With a strict city upbringing, he had a flair for all things technical and liked to travel. Throughout the remainder of 1968 and into 1969, he wrote very often to Janet back in Blantyre. They would spend countless hours each learning English and Czech and being able to correspond more as each month went on. Joe’s talent for music spilled over into singing and recording songs for Janet putting them to tape reels, which he would post to Blantyre. As the song goes, Summer of ’69 proved to be a defining moment of their romance. By this time, he had finished his army service and they had saved enough for Joe to come to Blantyre for a holiday. It was a warm Summer and the 22 year olds enjoyed the sights of Blantyre at David Livingstone Park, the Public Park, Arran and Loch Lomond. In almost every picture is a camera, a Czech Translation dictionary and a notepad. It was clearly a time of learning new words and being able to correspond better. Here are some of their photos of that holiday. Remember, Joe’s vocabulary was only limited to a handful of English words at this time. I’m always impressed about how well dressed they both are in these photos and glad to see how happy they looked. Dad once told me he was so charmed that Summer by the beauty and cleanliness of Blantyre and how gloriously warm the country was. (That always puzzled me on both counts!)

Janet told reporters “It was a wonderful two weeks we spent together. I was so excited about seeing him, i didn’t even realise at the time how deeply i was falling in love with him. Studying each other’s language throughout 1969 had done it’s job and by the time he came to Blantyre for a holiday, we were able to talk quite freely to each other in a mix of English and Czech.” Summer holidays gave way to Autumn and on Janet’s 22nd birthday, she received 22 red roses from Joe , back in Prague. Around that same time, she knew she was now deeply in love with Joe and told her parents, she wanted to marry him. In fact, she had said yes already! Indeed, quite some time ago. Joe had proposed at Glasgow Central Platform Station when we had been leaving his earlier Summer holiday! Again, Janet’s own words to reporters recalled “I needed no consideration before saying yes. All the way home, i had debated whether to tell mum and dad. I would put it off from day to day, not even telling friends. It was a huge secret i lived with and all the meantime Joe continued to write.” With some initial reluctance, Mary and John, (Janet’s parents) gave her their blessing. They had come to like Joe and could see their girl being being very happy. They wrote to Joe in private saying this was on condition that he made an effort to live in Scotland, as they wanted Janet nearby. Correspondence with the British and Czech Embassies was frequent as the political scene in Czechoslovakia was very unsettled at the time. Indeed, a frightening situation arose shortly after the marriage proposal, where Russian tanks rolled into Prague, immediately changing laws and with a full Communism lockdown on almost everything. To their dismay, Janet and Joe were told, that would need to marry, not in Summer 1971, but very quickly before the end of 1969 otherwise Joe would not be permitted back to see his family! Back in Blantyre, Janet’s wedding banns were read in the Church. Mary Duncan told the press “We were told by the local registrar we should put them (the banns) in the local offices too, as some Communist countries did not recognise Church marriages. But everything turned out fine”.

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Joe and Janet Veverka, 1969, aged 22

On 19th December 1969, Janet set off alone on the plane, to leave for Czechoslovakia , this time to be married! Although her parents could not travel the distance for the wedding, Mary and John were kept very busy making sure their daughter was going to be safe and arranging many details of the wedding itself. Janet had with her a turqoise wedding outfit, packed in her luggage and on the plane seat, carried her own wedding cake in a box, made specially by her aunt. Along with her passport, she carried a visa, only permitting her 11 days stay in Czechoslovakia and on condition she spent the entire amount of money she brought in with her!

As she arrived in Prague, Joe’s sisters made her feel very welcome. This was the first time she had met them and indeed Joe’s parents! A large snow storm engulfed Prague in the next few days with plunging temperatures. On 22nd December, Joe and Janet were married in a Prague registry office. Janet told Lanarkshire press “As i stood by Josef’s side in the registrar office, in this foreign country, with none of my own family beside me, only his loving and encouraging smile prevented me from breaking down and i was still so happy when the familiar , recognisable Wedding March started. As the registrar began to speak, a tall man appeared and stood by my side and translated every word, very clearly. i was thankful for that. I discovered later he was a Czech lawyer who spoke many language whom Joe had hired to make things easier for me.” As a laugh, one of Joe’s friends clamped a “real ball and chain” on to his arm immediately after the service and put the key down a manhole. Joe had to walk around until his wedding reception with this heavy iron ball attached to him! You can see a 4 minute highlight of that very same day right here.

They later went back to Joe’s parent’s house where the wedding reception party lasted well into the small hours. Honeymoon was 3 days out of the city at the family farm. The countryside was white with snow and some Winter clothes had to be bought in preparation. Janet’s mother, Mary later told press “We received a telegram from Janet shortly after the wedding, to say everything was well and how happy she was. She wished us Merry Christmas and asked if her and Joe could stay at the house in Blantyre for a couple of months, until they managed to get a place of their own. Josef is an Engineer and would ideally like to work in Engineering in Scotland.

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Honeymoon out in the Czech countryside

Before long, it was time for Janet to come back to Scotland. BUT, the problem was emigration would not permit Joe to come to Scotland until his extensive paperwork was sorted out. So, with a heavy heart, Janet kissed Joe at the airport and flew home to Glasgow and back to the family home at Blantyre. The Newyear day party 1970 was also a wedding reception, this time with all her family around her, but uniquely with no groom present!

Joe, eventually was allowed to come to Scotland on 30th January 1970. Janet told the Weekly Newspaper “As i ran into his arms on that bitterly cold day, I felt wonderfully happy. It spite of all the (political) difficulties, we were together again and would never be apart from now on.” As he had emigrated, the Czech authorities only permitted Joe to bring out just £2 from the country, meaning he had to find ways for his sisters to forward him on the rest of his savings via post and under the scrutiny of the Iron Curtain. It meant the couple were starting from scratch. Rev John McKendry of Anderson Church gave them a church blessing shortly after Joe arrived in Scotland. Joe found a job during 1970 working as an Electrical Engineer, something looking back which must have been very difficult as he got to grips with foreign power systems and tackling the English language. He also took up driving lessons, passing his test on the Blantyre Ferme road. I arrived on the scene very quickly mumanddadin early 1971 and Joe and Janet went on to have a large family with further children, Joanne, Ivan and Lorna. We were all so close and had such a happy family home life. I’m thankful these people were my parents whose ideals, i can only strive to copy. Joe and Janet are buried together on the Isle of Tiree, a place close to their heart after passing away respectively in 2007 and 2009.

I know, i know. It’s my family’s tale, but it’s one worth sharing and i hope you found interesting.  I’ll leave you with this. In April 1970, 3 months after Joe arrived in Scotland, Janet wrote, “Josef’s English is improving rapidly now and although i thought he may be sad to leave his beloved Czechoslovakia, he keeps telling me how happy he is to live in Blantyre. We have our whole lives ahead of us and so much to look forward to.”

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  1. Brilliant story Paul, and, by the way, you are the living image of your dad

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