Tuscany, June 2013

Tuscany, June 2013

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14th June, Friday

Viareggio. The apartment is fine. I checked out the whole passegiata after dark. I walked down to the marina. No good bars were found.

16th June, Sunday

White jeeps and beagles: they are two things I notice. This evening, after coming back from the church on the far side of the wood, my mother described the pineta as an “Alice in Wonderland” kind of place.

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17th June, Monday

The heat was intense in Lucca. I fell for the buccellato bullshit (€18 for two grande loaves).

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We stopped at a café beside the Puccini house. She’d mentioned leaving (the house) first but I wonder if working there with constant piped music in the background would lead to hatred of the maestro. A German sat down with a Middle Eastern guy and the latter’s (elder) kid (the other slept in the vehicle). When we said we’d flown from Cork, the German knew about Ryanair but then he said he was only the driver and the others were off a cruise ship at La Spezia. The Arab’s American wife had f*cked off – shopping – but he and his kid were kind. The boy offered some Pringles to my mother. The man said, “What about him?” He meant me.

18th June, Tuesday

I went down the stairs only to meet an elderly Italian couple who couldn’t open the door of their apartment. The man had been to Belfast in the 1970s. They gave me a bottle of their own red (Chianti) after I succeeded. My father later spilled a pan of oil on the kitchen floor but at least the steaks and onions had already been removed. I went to bed not long after ten. It’s too hot and tomorrow my mother and I will go to Pisa. I gave the second buccellato loaf to the couple downstairs and they gave me bottle of spumante for my parents’ fiftieth anniversary. Their own will come in October.

I’d been down to the Principino seafront restaurant across from the Principe di Piemonte hotel, on Paolo’s recommendation (“medio”). On the terrazza to the left of the pool in there, I spoke to a guy dressed all in black and told him the circumstances but his food suggestions weren’t helped by the fact that I wouldn’t know much about seafood, even in English. My mother had already seen the sandwich board outside with the fixed-price menu so when I got back I suggested we do that after all and if there was anything they didn’t like they could just move it onto my plate. As my father said, we’ll only be out the once.

19th June, Wednesday

Sparrow nests above my room window are noisy, most annoyingly in the morning. Plus I must do something about my bed. First day, my mother took one of my pillows for my father. I’ve put a couple of towels under the remaining one but I must try again for the sake of my neck.

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Pisa went well, even in the fierce heat. The sun reflecting on the white marble paving outside the Duomo was blinding, especially in combination with the sweat in my eyes. Now in bed my head is radiating. We still have to bring my father back for a look.

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21st June, Friday

At ten past four the first bird started up but at least the nest over my window is empty. I’d had a knot in my innards from one o’clock. Something I ate after not thinking enough about my order (mixed fish grill = tuna and peppers and… what?). After I’d had a little over three hours’ sleep my mother knocked on my door at 09.15. I knew she was psyched up to go to Florence so I went.

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Unlike the ticket guy at Santa Maria Novella (church) the woman at the Medici chapels wanted “documenti” to prove my mother qualified for a concession. Then there was a security check like in the airport but it may have been worth it to see the sinister Capella dei Principi, fit for dark lords of this or that. Harry Potter? Around the corner there’s a market and the throng really started. The city was swarming, especially with Americans. I wouldn’t be gone on the barn-like entrance end to San Lorenzo or even the body of the Duomo (the Baptistery is a dirty blot) but the typical ochre elsewhere (e.g. Orsanmichele) is very beautiful. She didn’t think the day was quite as hot as the others.

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22nd June, Saturday

Torre del Lago: one stop down the line to Pisa and then we walked a km straight to the lake. The hills beyond the lake have been gouged for stone. The Puccini villa was closed to the public for the late afternoon and we could hear a recital of Madame Butterfly going on inside (piano and soprano).

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I still felt the odd twinge, like my right kidney got a punch. What was it?

23rd June, Sunday

Just after five o’clock today I was out on the balcony, on my own in the apartment, when I felt my chair move and then saw the clothes rack hopping in front of me. I didn’t realize what it was but mentioned it to my father when he came back. He said he’d experienced something similar a couple of days ago, while lying in bed, but thought he might have been dreaming. It turns out there was a 5.2 tremor on Friday, with its epicentre near Carrara, but my mother and I hadn’t felt it because we’d been on the train (12.33pm). (Today’s aftershock may have been 4.7.) He said that in his one the wardrobe had made a racket for a few seconds.

24th June, Monday

Florence: the bus tour didn’t take an hour. It tore around a shortened route (minus Santa Croce) faster than that but at least it was over before the deluge.

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My father asked for chips and the rain started during a quarter-pounder meal in the McDonalds beside SMN, where my mother produced a baby Bacardi and put it into the Coke. Then she revealed my father had expressed a wish to see the Duomo. They donned macs my mother had brought with her and I got the umbrella, which was f*cked, so she bought two more (one good) on the street but the piazza was a pond under thunder and lightning and the authorities had shut the door. By the time we made it back to the station the elements had eased off.

I wasn’t going to chance not validating the tickets again but I still couldn’t find a machine on the platform. I asked two inspectors talking at the far end and one of them waved me away with an instruction that included “schermo” and “binario” but where was the schermo on the binario? That was what I wanted to know. It turned out to be at the entrance to the platform. I’d missed it in the crowd. The same guy showed up on the train (Germanic eyes and a short beard). His first move was to eject an African hawker (“Scende da quà”) before he came to us. After punching the tickets he gave a sinister smile as he politely said “Grazie” but then my mother told me to ask him if there was a toilet because she was feeling a bit sick.

25th June, Tuesday

In Carrara: at the station I made the mistake of not asking a bus driver the story (there were no taxis). We tried to walk to the old town but I flagged down a bus two thirds of the way. I think he had no tickets left (“Finiti biglietti”). Apart from one guy looking at a map, we might have been the only tourists. Getting back went a bit smoother, once we found a bus stop and a bus finally came. The area reminded my mother of America: wide roads; palm trees; and mountains in the background.

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26th June, Wednesday

At the Campo in Pisa my father turned his baseball cap back to front and held the tower up with his stick. “Eighty-two-year-old rapper saves world heritage monument” will be the Facebook caption. A British choir was putting on a show in the Duomo. Later he got a few leaning mugs for his friends. Back at the station he wanted more chips. He’d noticed the McDonalds.

27th June, Thursday

In the evening through the wood I went down to Via Leonardo da Vinci to photograph the colours of the oleander trees for my mother.

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28th June, Friday

I’d woken before half six, an hour earlier than planned, but we were still busy for a couple of hours. Elena came with her husband who quickly reminded her to give back the €100 deposit. They took one set of keys and told us to pull the door out after us. Our taxi driver to Pisa looked like Jeff Lynne with a shaved head. The boarding gates were the scene of a throng and somebody (Ryanair staff) twisted the sign around at the last minute, reversing the poles of the priority and ordinary ‘queues’. Our flight was full.

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Lake Balaton, Hungary

Lake Balaton, Hungary

2009

7th April, Tuesday

Tired on the drive to Dublin, I missed the M50 exit near Palmerstown so I was up and down the road for a quarter of an hour before getting onto the right one. On the plane I threw my bag into a largely empty bin and a dickhead dad on the other side of the aisle, and in a row in front (the very first row), got awkward.

“Hey, watch the suit! Tsk!”

As he removed his property, the conversation developed.

“How was I to know it was your suit?”
“Because it’s a suit bag.”
“So, do you want your name on the bin altogether?”

He turned away and backed off. Thereafter he had a steward stashing his precious suit in various places, including the front toilet. His wife looked Romanian (she had a Dublin accent) – I later heard him say he went to Romania a lot – and his two kids ordered a feast from the trolley. There’s always one.

I’m staying in what might be termed overflow accommodation on a parallel street (Kút utca) to where the hotel actually is, above Margit körút in Buda, but the room is fine. This is actually a (small) apartment.

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8th April, Wednesday

I’ve been round to the hotel for the breakfast this morning and I paid up too. It’s warm here. The sun is shining but last night it felt balmy as I walked over to Pest. The breeze on the bridge over this huge river wasn’t cold at all.

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Out of Budapest by noon, to look at holiday properties around Lake Balaton, we drove south-west and then down along the north shore of the lake, stopping first at Balatonfüred.

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From there we continued along the shore until we reached the hilly peninsula that juts out into the lake at Tihány.

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We had lunch below the crest of the great lake view beside the abbey (apatság) at Tihány and then we got the boat. The hazy lake was a light, smoothie green, at least from the ferry we were on, crossing from north to south.

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The temperature got up to 25°C and my face is just a bit burnt. On the south shore we looked at properties in Balatonszemes before heading back to Budapest on the motorway.

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9th April, Thursday

If the Biblical explanation of the origin of languages at the Tower of Babel has always carried the association of a great morning commotion, then hotel breakfast rooms in Europe suggest a different reaction: the cautious, discreet murmuring and whispering of many tongues as people woke up, had some food and drink and made no more noise than the odd bang of utensil against utensil, as they got their heads together in unfamiliar circumstances.

I didn’t order anything from the trolley on the plane – the guy in the Tory shirt in front of me (Irish, of course) was shaking his (reclined) seat so much he would have dumped anything on my table into my lap. He did calm down after he got his grub but before the end of the flight he was blocking the aisle with the newspaper he’d got. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty so I said nothing.

 

From Cannes to Antibes

From Cannes to Antibes

2011

14 May, Saturday

The flight descended to Nice over pale red roofs looking more washed-out than baked. Palm trees were new to me the previous time, in May 1998. At night the monkey suits still mill around the Palais. When I got here I couldn’t contact M. so I left my bag at reception before heading off to Morrison’s, the pub I hadn’t managed to find by the night The General won a big prize in the festival, in 1998. While I was there, a text from S. told me he’d probably passed out in the apartment because that was what he’d done to him, last year.

When I gave his name back at reception the black lad found it on a sheet and brought it and me (with my bag) upstairs. He unlocked the door and looked in and around it, to the left. Then his head re-emerged. Il dort (‘He sleeps’). M. is snoring in there now, on and off, fully dressed. I looked for any food, snacks, but there’s only a small bottle of Power’s whiskey. The Irish Film Board party was on earlier. This is bullshit.

15 May, Sunday

1 pm on the balcony. He burst into my room at 5.15 this morning. “I found you!” he exclaimed. It turned out he’d walked away from wherever he was. White wine was involved. They had kept refilling his glass. Jim McDaid, our former Cabinet minister, gave that explanation for driving the wrong way down a motorway. Anyway, he, not Jim, had collapsed here at ten.

A little bottle of Stella is €11 in the bar of the Carlton. We went in there after picking up my badge and stopping off at the Irish Pavilion. From there we managed to find La Pharmacie du Festival, which then enabled M. to have three small beers in the Quay’s pub. I suggested dining on the way back to base.

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I knew he wouldn’t stir later but I too slept for a couple of hours. Then I showered again and headed off by ten.

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I climbed Le Suquet and took some photos of the night view; I got some ice cream on the side of the street below; and I went to Morrison’s. There I met an English director called Alan. He looked like he’d had a long day in his suit but I had three pints with him before he’d had enough, finally.

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I didn’t stay too long after him but on the way home I stopped in McDonald’s where a French boy called Thomas, with sunglasses (on) and some kind of movie or video camera under his arm put his talk on me, as my father would say. He was on something, I’d say. The queue was going nowhere so when some big beard came in and started talking to him I slipped away.

16 May, Monday

This morning I climbed Le Suquet again for some daylight shots. Then I got the hill from La Croisette.

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Later we went to Antibes. From there the Alps were snowy, far to the east. On the train down there a uniformed little conductress let us on last before she gave the all-clear to proceed. Her peaked cap was nearly bigger than herself but when I got a rear view I told M. that an arse like that wouldn’t be seen on CIE (Irish Rail).

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After a ritual stop at the Felix Café in honour of Graham Greene we walked around the vieux port and did some shopping. He got some dried lavender, as ordered by N., plus a couple of sailor tops for the baby. We sat down again at the Hop Store (near the Felix) for another beer.

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At the nearest table, a beautiful girl was doing all the talking, holding court like an actress, but for a gorgeous chatterbox she looked humane. “J’étais folle, j’étais folle,” (‘I was mad, I was mad’) was the end of one story. She wasn’t skinny like a model either. She was normal for one so lovely. She had dark skin, short dark hair, white teeth: she looked French but with no hauteur. She wouldn’t have passed for any other Mediterranean nationality. She was at a low table, we were at a high one, and several times she glanced up at me looking down at her. Then M. looked down to see what a pigeon was doing under my feet. It was sucking water from the grooves of a metal insert in the flagstone (a manhole). Then another pigeon opportunistically started to ride it. M. started to laugh. When the nearby beauty was leaving, her parting words to those left at the table were “Bonne soirée!” Her mannerisms reminded me of an Irish girl more than a French one.

Now a book has claimed on the basis of some Czech hearsay that the death of Albert Camus was the work of the KGB, aided by French intelligence. This assertion recalls a story Graham Greene tells about Prague in 1948 in his memoir Ways of Escape. In the midst of the communist takeover, Greene was followed and accosted by a “thin man in a dark suit with a respectable hat” who went on to introduce himself as the inventor of a guided parachute. He asked Greene to contact the British Embassy on his behalf. The Englishman took his name on a scrap of paper but then caution made him ask had the man invented anything else. I have made a machine for building walls. That too I will give to the British Government. It builds a wall one foot every second.”

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17 May, Tuesday

Lying in bed before noon. We didn’t do much last night. We had dinner in the Babord half of the Babord Tribord, down by the boats, and then had one drink on the grass at the Grand. My flight home isn’t until ten tonight.

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We went swimming at the beach nearby but later I didn’t enjoy the swarm in the hot sun down by the Palais, where the red carpet was being used for something and the CRS were blowing whistles, trying to manage both the pedestrian and the motor traffic.

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M. told me of the time he stood back in a crowd so Scorsese’s limo could noisily get through. A bearded American in shades, shorts and sandals ambled along and politely asked could he slip past, through a gap behind him. It was Coppola.

Hungary 2012

Hungary 2012

Hungary June 2012 012

2012

Sunday morning, the twenty-fourth of June, in a rented apartment near the Budapest Opera, I was waiting for a lift to go and see the Danube Bend, a Duna kanyar. I’d left an empty Beckett’s bar early the night before to be as fresh as I could for this, in the circumstances. The manager was standing outside. He said it was demoralising. In effect, the pub had seen its best days before the Crash. That and the fact that numerous Hungarian dentists had set up shop in Ireland meant the Irish weren’t coming any more. The foreign students in the city kept the pub going during the school year but the summer was a dead loss.

Budapest (esp. with a sore throat) was hot but at least at night it was nothing I couldn’t handle. Under the weather, and not in a self-inflicted way, I’d got a bit lost after leaving Beckett’s Thursday night and trying to find Jack Doyle’s, for a last one. A pretty but forlorn-looking young hooker called out to me on Rákoczi út (“Where you go?”) but I waved her away. I might have said, “Hol van a gengszter veled?” (‘Where is the gangster with you?’) but I was already lost enough by that stage.

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There was a major thunderstorm in the early hours but that was less of a bother than the sore throat. The next morning I met two girls I knew – they had lived in Ireland – for coffee at Corvin Negyed. That was a pleasant experience, as was asking two cops for directions on the way. Hungarian is the only unusual skill I have and even police officers are friendly when they witness a foreigner not make a dog’s dinner of it. Later I got tablets and went back to bed until the mid-afternoon.

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The first sniffle arrived on Saturday morning. It wasn’t just the noisy air-conditioning that had me awake at half past seven, Irish time. Before a bath later, I felt a bit stoned, naked in the apartment. It felt like I’d been there a long time. There’s a tickly cough now. Sleep more if you can. You’ve nothing else to do.

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Passing the afternoon with a river cruise turned out to be a good idea. I met a middle-aged American couple (Sam and Diana) while boarding the boat. They were some fun and I felt better after it, physically and therefore mentally. Originally from the Bahamas, Sam had enjoyed his time in the US National Guard, back in the days that were out of harm’s way, when it only meant getting to play cards and drive military vehicles.

On Sunday morning, after a Hungarian friend picked me up, we headed north out of the city with a couple of his kids on the back seat. First stop was the Roman ruins of Aquincum, before we got to Szentendre. He didn’t show me the picturesque town but instead headed for the Skanzen Village Museum, 4 km outside it. It’s a big site with village reconstructions from the country’s five regions. I didn’t get a kick out of the sun, which was still too high for the state of my head. A head cold is odd to feel in such heat.

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I took a photo of a guy asleep in a back room in one of the houses. That’s nice work if you can get it but most of the guides were old ladies, even at the house where this guy was at, on a bench by what looked like a lunch table.

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After that we continued to Visegrád where I got a short coughing fit before we bought ice cream cones.

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My nose was running up on the Vár, or castle, which offers a sensational view of the Danube and the wooded hills that mark both banks, up around the bend. The evening sunshine lit up the panorama. It was after five when we got there and though the man on the gate said it was zárva (closed), a bribe of 500 forints was enough to get us in.

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I still felt quite wrecked on the way back to Budapest but stopping for burgers started the comeback and then I had a few bottles of Carlsberg while watching the Italians make a show of England at soccer but not beat them until the penalties. Then I left Beckett’s, which had emptied swiftly after the match.

It was raining Monday morning as I made my way to a colleague’s office in Hattyu ház, opposite the Mammut shopping centre in Buda. He wanted to explore other possibilities once I told him the dental tourism thing was gone, in Ireland. I could only think of showing them tourist wonders like the Vár at Visegrád.

The rain had stopped briefly by the time I headed back to Pest (on a tram) to pick up my bag and hand back the key but it was heavy again when I got to Beckett’s to kill a few hours. I got something to eat there but a cold sweat on my neck led me to down a couple of hot whiskeys too. I didn’t fancy looking for an ATM in the rain but the manager then charged a fiver to change fifty euro into forints (business must be bad, I mused) so I slipped away and hailed a taxi. As the plane crossed over the Danube Bend I got a photo of the Vár and the bend from another angle.

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The Quarry at Mauthausen

The Quarry at Mauthausen

Austria, 28 December 2015

The train from Linz to Mauthausen took only about twenty minutes. There were no taxis at the station and I did the 5k winding hike uphill to the camp. “This is some hike, man,” I said to myself before I realized that the phrase rhymed with Eichmann. When I got high enough away from the wet Danube fog, the sun lightened the soup but I still could see f*ck all except some of the road in front. I was even wondering was it just the murk or was it the effort of the climb too. I started wiping (steam?) off my glasses.

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Higher again, the sun was just beginning to burn off some of the fog in the afternoon. The Lager loomed, finally, as a long stone fort of no great height on top of the hill. A woman at the visitors’ centre – a concrete maze – told me it was closed and she unlocked a door to get me a brochure – so I wasn’t going to see the gas chamber – but she added I could walk around the exterior.

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Past the monuments, past the wall with a moving verse from Brecht’s poem Deutschland (see below) the highest fog had cleared, there was a piece or two of metal building site fencing across the top of the path down to the Todesstiege (death stairs) and the quarry but it was possible to get around that with no trouble. This was the place I most wanted to see.

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I was the only one down there, where the fog was brightly waxing and waning. At the time it didn’t feel eerie. Oddly peaceful and even beautiful, by the black pond below the cliff, the site showed the birds did sing. I even heard a distant cock crowing but the suffering that was inflicted there was and is just unimaginable.

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Forty nationalities were consigned to hell in that place. It was like the UN of concentration camps. There is even a monument to the Albanians. Of the thousands of Spaniards who had fled to France in 1939 to escape from Franco only to end up at Mauthausen or one of its satellite camps, the lowest estimate states that 4,427 of them were killed here. All the first consignment of Dutch Jews sent here in 1942 were thrown off the quarry cliff that the SS nicknamed die Fallschirmspringer Wand, the Parachutists’ Wall. Many other prisoners saved the SS the trouble and just jumped.

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On the way back up the leafy Todesstiege I counted the 186 steps, stopping to straighten my legs on nos. 75, 100 & 130, though I wasn’t carrying any granite block and the steps are a lot neater now than they were back in the day. I took a look then around the back of the camp. Though the entrance is on the left-hand side, where I got a photo of the gravelly yard via the gap under the wooden gates of the entrance arch, the front is really the long side wall facing the road. Anyway, around the back there was no wall but a fence topped with barbed wire. The remaining huts could be seen across a wide open space drenched in sunshine. From there a short-cut made for a steeper descent into the fog that gloomily took me back to Mauthausen village.

O Deutschland, bleiche Mutter!

Wie haben deine Söhne dich zugerichtet

Daß du unter den Völkern sitzest

Ein Gespött oder eine Furcht!

(Oh Germany, pale mother / How your sons have abused you / That you sit among the peoples / A mockery or a dread).

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János Kádár in the House of Terror

János Kádár in the House of Terror

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The Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan had a routine that discussed the standard 1-2-3 division of Irish school classes. For Tiernan, group (1) consisted of those who did arts degrees; group (2) numbered those who went on make money; and, as for group (3), well, that was just where the bus brought them.

A Hungarian friend once explained the very different streaming trinity that operated in schools in the Eastern Bloc:

(1) the children of Party apparatchiks;

(2) the children of actual workers;

(3) the children of those that the parents of group (1) employed to keep the parents of group (2) in line.

On 13 February 2008, I paid a visit to the House of Terror, the Terror Háza, on Andrássy út in Pest, where the tour started on the second floor with an animated map graphic showing the ebbs and flows of Hungary’s borders in the twentieth century. The lines moved to and fro to a rhythmic, ominous soundtrack that was soon echoed elsewhere in the building by the “Hungaria” onscreen ranting of the widely supported fascist leader Szálasi, in a room lined by Arrow Cross uniforms.

Even when the SS had fled, after the Russians had crossed the Danube upriver, the Arrow Cross continued to shoot any Jews they could find on the Buda side of the city. Many Arrow Cross thugs and torturers nonetheless found new jobs in Rákosi’s post-war secret police and, indeed, there remains a sizeable fascist following in Hungary to this day.

The even more enthusiastic (Stalinist, as opposed to Nazi) puppet Rákosi appeared sinister in a more low-key way than Szálasi – he was like a bank manager, with a shaved head – but it was interesting to note that Kádár himself had received a dose of the medicine there, before he got the top job.

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A bright, likeable boy with an impoverished upbringing (his father abandoned his mother before he was born), János Kádár tirelessly resisted the various forms of fascism that Hungary endured up to 1945. Having been spirited away to Moscow during the Uprising in 1956, he was recommended for the top job by Yuri Andropov and he sided with the inevitable Soviet invasion. In accepting a Soviet garrison of 200,000 in its aftermath, he was able to divert much Hungarian defence spending into welfare.

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Today he remains the much-missed (by many) Jani bácsi (‘Uncle Johnny’). His regime proved to be the most liberal state in the Eastern Bloc, even though the communists had destroyed all independent cultural and folk institutions, leaving a deeply cynical, atomised society. Kádár died in 1989, having famously devoted his last, haunted speech the year before to the fate of Imre Nagy, the reformist prime minister tried and executed after the Uprising and virtually made a saint in the West. As it happens, Nagy was a dangerous NKVD informer while in Moscow and he also keenly administered the post-war expulsion of 200,000 Germans from Hungary.

Kádár ruled from 1956 to 1988 at a time when Western loans, Eastern Bloc protectionism and some low-key private enterprise helped maintain a standard of living beyond the reach of most Hungarians since 1989. “A krumplileves legyen krumplileves, elvtársak” (‘The potato soup should be potato soup, comrades’). Life is a compromise, he also famously observed. His favourite book was said to be The Good Soldier Švejk.

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The House of Terror dungeons were smelly and it wasn’t like a wine cellar – my companion, a dental patient, thought they might have added some audio (“screams”) down there but then added that it would surely have freaked out the many young girls we saw touring the place.

After all that, I suggested Beckett’s Irish bar, where soon we got talking to a familiar English face in the form of J., late of the French Foreign Legion and security contracting in Afghanistan. He told us that when the late bomb-maker Edward Teller, a Hungarian, was asked during an Internet Q&A session if he thought there were aliens on Earth, his answer was unequivocal.

Yes. There are ten million of them… and they all live in Hungary.

Vieux Lyon

Vieux Lyon

2015

aux-trois-maries

12 June, Friday

I didn’t get a chance last night to write more than four words at Aux Trois Maries (a very nice restaurant in the old town, in a little cobbled square, Place de la Baleine) because the pretty, friendly waitresses kept bringing me stuff. A guy took the payment – he insisted – but I made sure to tell one of the girls there was a tenner with it, between the two of them. After that I went to L’Antidote (pub), only breaking out briefly to have a look at Johnny Walsh’s back up the street. A girl from Lancashire was serving there. A bottle of Heineken later I was back in L’Antidote, telling my new French pals, “C’était merde, j’étais curieux” before I realized I’d left my red cap behind.

It’s cloudy today so it doesn’t matter about the cap. I’m in the hotel as I write, near three. A black lad at reception gave me the wrong room yesterday, he seemed a bit confused, mixing me up with another Irish name with a ‘y’ in it (“Hooley”), and I won’t see what I paid for until tomorrow. This one’s a fiver cheaper, in theory. I didn’t demand a refund. It was hot, I’d showered immediately and then he came a-knocking so I packed my stuff and went downstairs with my bag. I’d paid him by the time he gave me the receipt with no. 115 instead of no. 114 on it. I asked was no. 115 my actual room and then he tippexed out the number before writing 114 on it. The same room. I told him I’d packed my bag and all, assuming I’d be moved, to correct his mistake.

J’ai rangé mes effets.”

Mais vous l’avez déjà utilisée,” he responded.

I had felt the need to tell him about using the shower, of course. At least I still have a double bed, a bathroom and I’m away from the street. Was it cock crow when I heard the breakfast cutlery being plonked out, nearby? Outside my window, it’s like being down a well. So much for the cour I was promised by email. I suppose it’s my own fault for forgetting to print off the booking.

In the garden of the Musée des Beaux Arts I came to the part of Gentleman Thief where Peter Scott robbed Aspinall. In L’Antidote last night I realized it’s one of those books that, a quarter into it, I regret there are only three quarters left. After lunch in the museum café – the terrace was understandably réservé – I bought half a dozen art postcards in the shop. I must get dressed now for the Fourvière ascent.

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The rain came around six. By then I was having a burger and chips around the corner near Passage St. Vincent. It was what I felt like. I’d done the long, steep climb of steps and paths to the Basilica.

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Sweat was dripping from my head but on top there was a cool breeze and room to sit in peace. From there I went to see the extensive Roman ruins with the two theatres still in use, fronted by modern concert stages. Back down on rue de Boeuf, via the steep Montée des Chazeaux, I was fortunate to be passing the doorway of the long traboule just as two quite elderly French couples (also tourists) were hesitantly going in. I followed and emerged near an empty pizzeria playing Brassens’ Les passantes.

 

I’m just past the half-way point of Gentleman Thief, having finished the chapter where he impaled himself on a railing trying to escape from a break-in. It’s an extraordinary book, even allowing for the odd sleazy sexual episode. His fondness for fellow Irish people is a constant; he explicitly rejects the bigotry of his Northern Irish Presbyterian background. More importantly, the book is constantly exciting, constantly surreal, constantly funny.

When I got back to the hotel a bunch of Americans were trying to check in. A woman among them turned to me and asked was there a lift, as they had “boxes and boxes” of wine outside. I said there wasn’t but didn’t bother adding that I was in the wrong room. Transporting a sensationally heavy cellar up a winding stair was their own daunting mission, should they choose to accept it and not just leave the wine shop where they parked. It’s ten o’clock. I must get ready and go down to L’Antidote again, for a few bottles. No pints tonight. I want a clear head for dealing with reception in the morning.

13 June, Saturday

Reception clarified the matter on the way out last night. The pale girl with the red hair said I’d be staying where I am; that the room was of the same quality as what I’d booked. I wasn’t complaining. That cut down on the packing. On the way down to L’Antidote it was still raining and I cut on spec into Johnny Walsh’s where the English girl presented my cap on request. Who knows what sun tomorrow may bring? I had a drink there again. It’s nearby other half, Johnny’s Kitchen, seems to be the half with life, young life, although all the scattering in the cap place were young too. L’Antidote was almost empty apart from a birthday party in the basement but I only wanted a few bottles. Franck (the owner) and I kept each other company until one. I wouldn’t have any trace of a hangover. The most to bear overnight and in the morning was the amplified sounds in the well and on the winding stair.

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I must make an effort before dark to get up to Croix-Rousse. This morning I did the long walk across the Presqu’île (the peninsula between the rivers) to the Resistance & Deportation museum but at least it was on level ground. The sun is back. Before and after I took a look inside, there, I sat in the tree-ringed courtyard and thought it peaceful for a venue that had hosted Klaus Barbie and so much torture in the Forties. Most of the buildings are now college blocks.

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After that I returned to the hotel for a second shower and some more kip. Before eating I wandered around the Vieux Lyon quartier that was packed like ants at a picnic and threaded with long queues for ice cream.

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Though I took the Croix-Rousse métro (C-R is the hill north of the peninsula) from Hôtel de Ville, I was still melting aboard. There was nothing up there, I saw, except the view, but I sat by the statue in the square. Seated nearby, a husky mamie was teaching English words to two very small boys with roundy glasses. I gave them “mobile” and “cell phone” (“Ça dépend du pays”). Before they left she told them, “Dis au revoir au Monsieur” and they did, in unison. “Au revoir mes petits,” I replied.

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From there I walked all the way down again, stretching the legs in a different manner. A fourth shower followed before I headed to L’Antidote. The air was changing but I hadn’t been out in it enough, right then, to feel it properly and even thought the constant flashes to the south could be lights from an event at the Roman theatres. They weren’t. The thunder came into earshot around the time the first drops fell.

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I was soaked by the time I got to the packed pub, despite breaks in a couple of doorways. Clermont lost narrowly to Stade Français in the French rugby final and that emptied it like a yanked bath plug. “Qui a gagné?” asked the Lancashire girl then, of a chap beside me. She’d been drafted in for the match. The clear-out also made the wet t-shirt more uncomfortable, as the temperature inside dropped. I had to come back and change. Franck gave me an umbrella and later insisted I keep it but I gave it to two girls on the way back to the hotel, after closing time. They were searching in a doorway for something to protect them. I had a plastic mac over my head by then.

Vous voulez? La parapluie.”

Non, non.”

I threw it on the wet step. I pointed up at the mac, then down at the umbrella.

J’ai besoin de ça, pas de ça.”

“Thank youuu!” I heard behind me.

It’s the early hours and I can hear a TV. It must be the original dude, downstairs. He was watching in an annex when I got back but I’m not tired enough yet to be annoyed. I’ve closed my window, it’s a bit better. My head still boils. Read more of the book. You’ll be out of here by eleven in the morning. Without a hangover. This trip was quite a workout.

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Thomas Bernhard & Holzfällen

Thomas Bernhard & Holzfällen

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Only if you’re really independent can you write really well…. I always lived from my own initiative, never was subsidised, no one gave a damn about me, to this day. I am against all subsidies, all patronage…”

– Thomas Bernhard

This is less hypocrisy than an outright lie. In the opinion of the East German playwright Heiner Müller, Bernhard wrote as if he had been hired by the Austrian government to write against Austria. As Tim Parks has pointed out, Austria’s best known post-war writer not only accepted many awards and generous patronage but also had a sugar mammy.

Twice widowed, the wealthy heiress of a famous brand of chocolates, thirty-six years older than Bernhard, Frau Stavianicek became the writer’s protectress, mentor, substitute mother… She believed in his genius, was prepared to finance him when necessary, and was able and willing to introduce him to influential figures in Viennese society.

In 1984 Hede Stavianicek died. At least he was there at the end to care for her, to his great credit, but, in Bernhard, Austria really had a version of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, in which the first word in the play’s title starts as a verb but ends as a sinister adjective describing the central character’s fate.

Though no one would envy him his chronic illness or the cruelty of his family background, it so happened that Bernhard also had a gift for complaining, like another post-war English writer, John Osborne. Past the half-way mark in his Eighties novel Holzfällen, which means woodcutting and which is set on a day that involves both a funeral and a dinner party, I knew I’d have to return to the house in which I’d met the Mitterers (see Austria, a notebook #1).

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It meant reliving a dinner party they did not attend, in order to make a point about the universality of awful social gatherings, beyond events such as the ‘artistic dinner’ that is the main setting of Bernhard’s book.

Nightmare in Ballinterry: at five I drove up to Maggie’s. I hadn’t believed there would be quite so many Steiner types, musicians, homeopaths and general hippies there. I hadn’t guessed they’d all be coming to dinner. When I arrived at six, two Germans were busy in the kitchen. N’s off to NZ – the real reason for the party. M. (the maker of the lasagne) insisted she’s in Ireland for the climate (!?). Then Maggie asked me upstairs to look at some paperwork. Back downstairs, what felt like a horde arrived in stages. I was looking at some strange ham on the table and confessing ignorance as to its identity when some homeopathic twat called E. said, “It’s Parma. It’s a delicacy.” That was before the woman who’d brought the ham revealed that actually it was French and from a bull. In fact, several of the women were individually friendly but I couldn’t drink, with the car outside, and I suppose my tension rose in the long wait for the food. Both Maggie and I tucked into the nachos as an English guy called R. began strumming and picking across the table. He didn’t play anything. I was glad when some late arrival kicked his guitar over by accident as we all stood with pinkies entwined for the saying of hippie grace. In the finish I interrupted another homeopathic lecture in the corner to tell Maggie I just had to go. As for the fount of all this pinkie-linking– the caretaker – he’s got shifty little eyes, that’s for sure.

André Malraux defined an intellectual as anyone who tries to live by the use of reason but experience relentlessly demonstrates the surrealism of life and most of the writers I admire have an underlying, unwritten thread in common. I cannot believe this is really happening. It is a mix of horror and amusement that enables some detachment in the face of the fact that everything is, as Mario Puzo pointed out, personal.

Another time, long ago, an uncle of mine was in an amateur play, after which a celebration dinner was held in a farmer’s house, where, before they all sat down, the seating arrangement began to look a bit tight. It was then that he noticed that a subtle attempt was being made to usher one cast member, a woman who was from a mere cottage, down to the kitchen to eat, on her own, with the excuse that there wasn’t enough room to sit at the table in the parlour. He protested, indicating that he’d leave if that happened. It didn’t happen, that night, but the pathetic provincial snobberies and the insolent slights they inspire will never stop providing inspiration for writing and folklore.

Past two hundred pages in Holzfällen, there was a third of it left to read. Mostly reported dialogue by then, it had turned into a rather good play since the Actor appeared, more than thirty pages earlier, to ramble on and on about Ekdal in The Wild Duck, even while slogging through his soup. Suicide was a theme – the funeral earlier in the day was for a woman who’d hung herself, in some detail – but it had turned blackly humorous, as in when the host Auersberger asked the Actor if working at Vienna’s Burgtheater wouldn’t give someone every reason to do that. Still, the reference to Austria having the highest suicide rate at the time (1980s) asked to be checked, not least after one character (Billroth) claimed that it was most common in the the loveliest places, such as Salzburg. Nowadays, as it happens, it’s practically no different from that of Ireland or Sweden.

With ninety pages to go, Bernhard had returned to the funeral and elaborated on its grotesque theatre by giving us more of the writer character Jeannie Billroth’s antics, such as collecting money from the other mourners, unbidden, in a cigar box, which she up-ended on the table before the horrified chief mourner in the Gasthof to which they had all retreated. Nevertheless twenty pages later Bernhard had lost his way again, mired in shit about Billroth and her female sidekick whom he suddenly decided to name and introduce. Who cares if they were on the state’s payroll? These cultural apparatchiks are everywhere.

Bernhard briefly returns to the grotesquerie when the drunken dinner party host waves his false teeth in the Actor’s face but, having introduced some more of the peripheral characters, the narrator is then guilty of the patronising twaddle of a grumpy old twat when writing of younger attendees who evidently fail to take it all so seriously. Their chief offence seems to be be not to have published anything.

Having rubbished the opinions of the young, the narrator then writes off the wisdom of age as elderly narrow-mindedness that just gets on his nerves. He thinks the way the Actor enunciates the words Wald, Hochwald, Holzfällen is hellsichtig (far-seeing) but this just reflects Bernhard’s mundane ambition to be a country gentleman. His lengthy explanation of why the Actor’s outburst – at best a how-f*cking-dare-you, human protest at Billroth’s cheek – has impressed him is just tiresome. Holzfällen simply peters out. The dinner table row isn’t a patch on the one about Parnell in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where a country’s soul is at stake.

Final Solutions – Globočnik, Trevelyan & the BBC

Final Solutions – Globočnik, Trevelyan & the BBC

Photo: Sir Charles Trevelyan

The 1841 census showed a population of just over eight million in Ireland. Catholics made up eighty per cent, the bulk of which lived in poor or very poor conditions on rented scraps of land. At the top of society stood the Ascendancy class, made up of landowning families either of British descent or descended from Irish converts to Protestantism, which enabled advancement in the colonial context. Only the potato could be grown in sufficient quantity to maintain the system of monoculture that supported this class of parasites.

The potato blight first appeared in 1845. In 1846, the Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel moved to repeal the Corn Laws, which maintained tariffs on grain imports and kept the price of bread artificially high. The measure split the landowners in the Conservative Party, leading to the fall of Peel’s government on 25 June. Ten days later, Lord John Russell of the Whig Party assumed office. The Whigs opposed state interference in the economy and believed in letting ‘nature’ take its course. Peel’s relief programmes in Ireland were shut down on 21 July 1846 on the orders of Charles Trevelyan, the new Treasury Secretary.

The Irish temperance preacher Father Theobald Mathew soon wrote to Trevelyan, saying that on 27 July he had passed from Cork to Dublin and “this doomed plant bloomed in all the luxuriance of an abundant harvest”. He compared the return journey on 3 August when he saw “one wide waste of putrefying vegetation”. The priest saw that “in one week the chief support of the masses was utterly lost”. Russell’s government introduced short-lived and useless public works projects in the winter of 1846-47, the period of highest Famine mortality, when weak, severely malnourished people were forced to do hard labour to prove their destitution. Then it turned to a mixture of indoor and outdoor direct relief. The former was administered in workhouses; the latter through soup kitchens. The cost of this relief was nonetheless landed mainly on the landlords, who in turn often attempted to reduce their liability by evicting their tenants, like dead souls.

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On 16 February 1940, Odilo Globočnik declared in Lublin that the evacuated Jews should feed themselves and be supported by their countrymen, as these Jews have enough. If this does not succeed, one should let them starve. Half a million people were evicted in Ireland between 1845 and 1851. The Great Hunger clearances in just one county out of thirty-two, Clare, began at the end of 1847 and centrally involved a landlord and land agent named Marcus Keane, who quickly became known as the Exterminator General.

Of Clare’s 153 landowners, 63 were absentees and Keane controlled nearly a quarter of the county. A fanatical Protestant, though Keane is not a colonist’s surname, he promoted forced conversions and even sometimes grotesquely offered a fiver to his tenants to level their own cabins. Keane also maintained an Einsatzgruppe of forty thugs to carry out his massive eviction programme. By early 1849, 90,000 people in Clare were dependent on inadequate rations at workhouses or soup kitchens for any hope at all of survival. In 1851, the census showed a population drop of 74,000 in the county in just ten years. Globočnik killed himself after his capture by the British in 1945. Totally unpunished, the pillar of society Marcus Keane died of natural causes in 1883. His lead coffin was soon stolen from its crypt at night but it was so heavy that the funny thieves decided to hide it in a newly used grave nearby, where it lay undiscovered for many years.

In the absence of any humane state intervention, large sums of money were donated by charitable sources. The British Relief Association was formed in January 1847 by Lionel de Rothschild, a Jewish banker in London. Its international fundraising activities raised almost £400,000. Even the poor Choctaw Native Americans famously sent a few dollars to help. The Ottoman Sultan declared his intention to send £10,000 but then the British consul quietly requested that he give less than Queen Victoria had (£2,000). Victoria did publish two letters appealing for public donations. Her letters were widely criticised at the time, notably by the London Times, namely for encouraging people to throw money into an Irish bog. In 1847 the American government fitted out two ships and loaded them with food supplies. The Jamestown was commanded by a Captain Forbes who accompanied Father Mathew on a tour of the terrible sights in the city of Cork.

I saw enough in five minutes to horrify me: houses crowded with the sick and dying, without floors, without furniture, and with patches of dirty straw covered with still dirtier shreds and patches of humanity; some called for water to Father Mathew, and others for a dying blessing. Forbes also described a soup kitchen where hundreds of spectres stood… begging for some of the soup which I can readily conceive would be refused by well-bred pigs in America.

There was a stark choice for the poorest people: flight to America on the coffin ships or certain death. It is true that much opinion at the time was sharply critical of the Russell government’s response to the crisis. This condemnation was not confined to outside critics. From Dublin, officially the second city of the United Kingdom, even their own Lord Lieutenant, Lord Clarendon, wrote to Russell on 26 April 1849, urging that the British government introduce additional relief measures. I do not think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland, or coldly persist in a policy of extermination.

The British government spent just seven million pounds on Famine relief between 1845 and 1850. Contemporaries noted the sharp contrast with the figure of over twenty million pounds given to compensate British slave-owners in the Caribbean in the 1830s. When Ireland had experienced crop failure in 1782-83, the ports were closed and local food prices promptly dropped. That, of course, was before the Anschluss of the Act of Union in 1800, when the semi-independent Irish parliament, composed entirely of Protestant landowners, voted itself out of existence with the assistance of massive bribery. There was no export ban in the 1840s thanks to the Whigs and their avowed devotion to free trade. Ireland thus remained a net exporter of food through most of the Famine.

In response to the biological weapon, Phytophtora infestans, that had fallen in his lap in the form of the blight, Trevelyan described the Famine in 1848 as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence” and he was soon knighted for his Irish services. He died in his bed aged 79. As recently as 2014, the BBC felt able to publish this sickening biographical sketch. He has come to represent the British government’s controversial policies of minimal intervention and attempting to encourage self-reliance, and he remains a contentious figure in Ireland. His most lasting contribution, however, began in the 1850s with the publication of his and Sir Stafford Northcote’s report on ‘The Organization of the Permanent Civil Service’.

BBC Trevelyan

To put this snow-job in some context, a BBC viewers poll in 2002 ranked another keen exterminator of Irish civilians and prisoners, Oliver Cromwell, as the tenth greatest Briton of all time. Then again, to give just one crude example of how the spirit of collaboration is endemic in Ireland too, it was only a year earlier that a book by an Irish printer – Cromwell, An Honourable Enemy – received respectful, serious reviews in several Irish broadsheets. The same crank had another go at his theme in 2014, which at least then gave occasion to a funny demolition in the Irish Times by Pádraig Lenihan. I am not sure why Reilly includes a report that Cromwell had his penis shot off at Drogheda. But I am glad he did.

As for the academic “revisionists”, those West Brits bent on whitewashing the Famine as something that just happened – es ist passiert, to borrow the words of Robert Musil – and sneering at folk memory as ‘myth’, well, they had a much longer free run of media propaganda but that too has had its day, not least because (i) the Troubles in the North are over and (ii) the mainstream media are in steady decline. These characters are now often reduced to figures of fun, like the Trinity College Dublin professor hired in 2013 by a private TV station to dig up a 1920s IRA ‘killing field’ in Co. Laois. To the professor’s bewildered disappointment, they found nothing but at least they left the field nicely ploughed for its owner. The same professor subsequently opened Department of Justice files in Dublin to discover the skeletons he’d been looking for had been of men who hadn’t been killed at all.

In contrast to those Irish campus quislings who invented a version of Irish history that most British scholars would greatly hesitate to endorse, it was the English historian Robert Kee who more honestly observed that the Famine could be seen as comparable in its force on “national consciousness to that of the Final Solution on the Jews”. The round figures themselves are uncontested. A million people died. Another two million had left the country by 1860.

The Wittgenstein Experiment

The Wittgenstein Experiment

Wittgenstein

In September 1924, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brief career as a country schoolteacher in Lower Austria entered its final, most dramatic phase when he moved to Otterthal. Among his pupils was a sickly boy of eleven, Josef Haidbauer, whose widowed mother worked for a local farmer named Piribauer, whose daughter Hermine happened to be in the same class. Here Wittgenstein continued his strenuous mixture of curricular and extra-curricular instruction, liberally sprinkled with Ohrfeigen and Haareziehen i.e. the boxing of ears and the pulling of hair.

The English literary quack Colin Wilson later wrote that Wittgenstein was “virtually driven out… by resentful peasants” but, instead of attempting any such crude spin or justification of his brutality, the excuse most often given for him in print – that corporal punishment was all the rage at the time – has neglected to admit that by no means every teacher used it, even then.

In April 1926, there occurred der Vorfall Haidbauer, the so-called Haidbauer incident, when Wittgenstein knocked the weak Josef unconscious with three blows to the head. Having sent the other children home, he carried the boy to the headmaster’s room. Before he subsequently fled the scene, though, he was met by an incensed Herr Piribauer, whose own daughter had already suffered bleeding ears and torn hair at Wittgenstein’s hands.

Piribauer called him an animal trainer and told him he was going to get the police. The subsequent court case nevertheless proved literally inconclusive, disappearing in a fog of perjury, psychiatric assessment, Wittgenstein family money and the culprit’s speedy resignation.

The case suggests the addition of a word to his most famous quotation. Wovon man nicht falsch sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen. Whereof one cannot falsely speak, thereon must one keep silent.

In 1936, Wittgenstein returned to Lower Austria to the places where he had taught. For whatever reason, he finally wanted to say sorry to the children he had beaten. This was too late for poor Josef Haidbauer, who was by then long dead, but it seems he was warmly received at some houses. Nevertheless the most philosophical response came from a terse Hermine Piribauer. “Ja, ja,” she replied and said no more.

Even that much should have alerted the philosopher to revise his notions of the limits of language. She had rendered even more succinctly the verdict of the father of a gifted boy named Karl Gruber that Wittgenstein had tried to adopt in another village, Trattenbach. The man refused to hand his son over to “ein verrückter Kerl” – a crazy guy – no matter how expensive an education would have been paid for in return. Academic institutions and asylums are similar insofar as the normal and abnormal switch places.