Being Michael McDowell

Being Michael McDowell

Graham Greene’s memoir Ways of Escape contains a final chapter called The Other. This title, from a poem by Edward Thomas, heads an epilogue that deals with the writer’s long and unfulfilled search for at least one conman who had passed himself off as Greene on several continents.

The current Senator Michael McDowell was first elected to the Irish parliament in 1987. Some years still had to pass, though, before people began to mistake a harmless nobody called John Flynn for him. That can be put down to the lookalike spending more time in Dublin and less time combing receding hair. It all began late in 1993 with a tap on the back from an old lady on a bus. She was echoed one night on Dorset Street during the noisy nearby convergence of an ambulance and some squad cars. It was then that another old dear approached him on a street corner.

Sorry, love, I thought you were Michael McDowell and you’d know what was going on.”

By 1999, McDowell was Attorney General. That August, a pal and I were in a pub on Camden Street that is known to be popular with the police. A new barman went out of his way to be nice. He even brought the pints down, unbidden, to where we were sitting. He then set them down with an attitude of reverence. Later another barman did a background check, while I was in the toilet.

Eh, what does your mate work at?

McDowell had an even better result in 2002. During the election campaign a homeless man approached me at a bus stop but I didn’t have any spare change. As he walked away he looked back for a moment. You look like Michael McDowell. Following the election the great man was appointed to the Cabinet. This extra power was soon reflected in the same bar when another chap asked the lookalike to settle a bet.

Are you the Minister for Justice?

When people ask such questions often enough, you can get into character.

Do you want to be thrown into prison?

The man hung his head and said sorry. He was shrinking away when granted an exasperated reprieve.

No, I’m not him. Would you ever cop on?

In February 2005, as his crowning absurd achievement, McDowell ordered the payment of €30 million for a north Dublin farm at Thornton Hall, which was to be the site of a new super-jail. By the summer of 2010, more than €42 million had been spent there, including seven million on professional fees, three million on “site preparation” and half a million on landscaping. No brick was ever laid.

In 2018 a different Minister for Justice admitted there was no plan to do anything with the site. By then the project had cost well over €50 million, while securing and maintaining the property still required tens of thousands of euro every year. The only prisoners to come to the Thornton Hall site had been those on probation and community schemes. They planted fruit, flowers and vegetables on nine acres, with the food then donated to charity.

Shortly before Christmas 2007, it was a dark morning when I rose in a Waterford city hotel. There was no bottled water at reception (“But you can have all the drink you want”). The night porter then suggested asking at the nearby McDonald’s.

Two deaf guys in t-shirts had got to the locked door of the outlet first. They seemed to have had a long night and were indifferent to the frost. It then turned out that one of them could speak because he translated some giggles and sign language going on behind my back.

I’m sorry, my friend thought you were Michael McDowell.”

As for Greene’s quest, he never came closer than a couple of photographs and a letter from an impostor who had got himself into some trouble in India. Greene himself was later accused of being the fraud by a newspaper during a visit to Chile. It was then that he was assailed by metaphysical doubt as to which was the real impostor all along. All he was left with was the Edward Thomas poem’s ending.

Even though the Baron of Thornton Hall had seemingly left the political scene, back in late 2007, these lines could ever only sound a bit sinister, given that I always knew he was out there, waiting.

He goes: I follow: no release
Until he ceases. Then I also shall cease.

JF at Jack wedding 2009

The Vampires of Parson’s Street

The Vampires of Parson’s Street

“…I have not received anything quite like it and I was very pleased to get it. I am still researching diaries for an anthology and am not certain what form it will take – so can I keep the manuscript you sent… What has happened to you since? I hope you are warmer and richer and illuminated. Oh those golden days of youth… I like the little incidental things you throw in like the tip of your nose being cold and the lack of light bulbs…”

– Melosina Lenox-Conyngham (editor, Diaries of Ireland, 1590-1987), 01/06/95

That letter from the late Melo was retrieved lately in reaction to stumbling upon an issue of the Hello of the groves of academe: the alumni mag. The cover star, an ambassador, had always been busy networking, even as a fresher, but there had been even worse issues of this Pollyanna tripe. The one devoted to shameless boasting about charity work and how they could afford their ostentatious contributions was a particular low. Overall, though, such stuff that gives kitsch a bad name makes me think of the inspiration for Lord of the Flies, which involved William Golding finishing Coral Island and turning to his wife… I wonder what English boys would really be like on a desert island.


5 January, Tuesday

Conor Mac had enquired about experiments in clinics. Four thousand for a six-second heart stop. Dermot picked a mouse up off the bar floor in the Roost. He had won seventh prize in the Roost Xmas draw. It included a bottle of port, which we drank hot. I slept in my clothes so I wouldn’t freeze to death.

6 January, Wednesday

We now have two light bulbs for seven rooms, including both jacks but not including the Rock ’n’ Roll Kid’s room, which is locked. (He has a key.)

7 January, Thursday

There are some good records popular at the moment – Terence Trent D’Arby (Sign Your Name) and George Michael (Father Figure). It is so like a squat now that there are three mattresses laid out in one room with the television. It is a squat.

8 January, Friday

A rejection slip came from the Irish Times (“We are greatly overstocked with poetry contributions”). Dermot offered some advice. Next time, send them a letter bomb.

10 January, Sunday

When I got back to the house, Pearly had a f*cking crossbow, which his girlfriend got him for Christmas. A bedroom door was all shot through.

11 January, Monday

As a new beginning I cleaned the kitchen and got Dermot to help me clean the front room. We got briquettes too and lit a fire. The college opened again. Zig and Zag have attained cult status.

12 January, Tuesday

Typing a couple of pages in cold early hours by the light of a new bulb at last (150w) in a house on the edge of darkness. Starving in a garret.

15 January, Friday

Dermot, Pearly and I remained awake until 7.30 AM in order to wake CB for his weekly day’s work. “These boys are like vampires,” said Joe Caulfield later in the day. Dermot’s possessed tape recorder spewed out my Joy Division tape.

17 January, Sunday

All-night radio is on. The coal in the fire is reddening away, slowly. The Rock ’n’ Roll Kid made the statement of the year so far, to Pearly (“…and in the morning, we made love”).

18 January, Monday

Pearly came in and started to trash Dermot’s room. He smashed the crossbow when I wouldn’t help him load it. After much hassle, I ended up talking to him by the fire and he finally agreed to go to a doctor tomorrow. He fell asleep on the chair and I listened to the radio and ‘read’ Mayfair. By missing the daytime I am so much less bored.

21 January, Thursday

Joe Caulfield, CB and I stayed up talking until five o’clock. In the afternoon in bed I decided not to go home. Joe and I later sat talking in the cold. It began to snow later still. Back in the house we burned a chair and a shelf for heat.


22 January, Friday

It’s after 5 AM. Dermot insisted on making and playing with a ouija board. Dan K. and Pearly joined in so I decided to teach them a lesson and pushed the glass around for hours. Both the fact that I had to stretch my imagination and the effect it was having on the boys proved quite draining but it was an interesting psychological experiment for a good cause. I don’t want to do it again.

23 January, Saturday

Brilliant ideas are essential for fiction. If you make up ‘ordinary’ people and situations it is a bland recipe for boredom.

27 January, Wednesday

Afternoon session. Talking about mysteries. Sean kicked Downes out of the Roost, saying he couldn’t listen to any more. At a table quiz in Celbridge we lost a sudden death play-off but came away with a fiver each. They also forgot to take our entrance fee, so it was really £7.50! M. and J. are now separated. We sat in the car outside this house talking and smoking. She feels rejected by the academics. It was a good day for Dermot. He shifted a nice girl and flashed the pocket telly scandal on PF, who had accepted one as a bribe.

29 January, Friday

A letter from my mother. She keeps telling me I’m lucky to be away because of the weather. CB broke up another sign to light a fire. We are surviving on a four-stone bag of spuds.

31 January, Sunday

Rose at 5 PM. Showered, ate, cleaned kitchen. The tube went in the television.

4 February, Thursday

The tip of my nose is very cold every morning. A shower in the college puts me right each time. In the Country Shop, M. said something about a factory job in Munich if I wanted to go right away. Last night I’d to ring the landlady. The phrase “legal action” was mentioned in her first sentence but through a mixture of buck-passing and semi-grovelling I got her to hold off for a while. This house wouldn’t get me down if it were clean more often. I feel better after washing up, for instance, but it pisses me off that I’m the only one to do it. I get at the others to light a fire and clean the front room. Joe is moving out very soon. His gloomy nervousness has been unsettling me lately but he’s better off out of here. Pearly will probably kill himself before the summer. It’s a pity. He can be very witty. I must write to keep sane. I read All That Fall on a 66 bus.

8 February, Monday

Rag Week. On arriving I started with a flagon of Strongbow and a naggin of vodka. I got mouldy. On waking at teatime I saw the Union was in a mess and no people were left. I thought I’d missed the whole lot and felt ready to slash my wrists. I stood on my glasses in a toilet cubicle in the Roost and cracked a lens. At the bar ex, N. sold me a ticket for a raffle in aid of a woman who’s dying. “What’s the point in buying a ticket so?” I asked. I shifted but I couldn’t get it up. I missed a sitter.

9 February, Tuesday

Pearly came in and saw that we’d had his quilt the whole time. On the couch he’d only had two jackets. Outside, there’s a hurricane. If I really wanted to, I could finish the book in a fortnight but typing a chapter a day isn’t too bad. I discovered that by putting on two jumpers and wearing my pyjama bottoms under my trousers I don’t feel cold in my room.

10 February, Wednesday

In the afternoon in Dermot’s room we drank sparkling cider and joined the dots in a pornographic picture book. I’m a blind man. On leaving the bar ex early again I was cheered a bit to find almost a quid in change on my windowsill. It means I can eat something tomorrow. Someday I’ll get out of here. I’m in a poverty trap.

11 February, Thursday

A shower did a great deal of good. After four burgers on the end of the gas I washed up and cleaned the downstairs. It’s not for anyone else, it just does me good. Empty flagons are good for lighting fires. Nothing gets wasted around here except time and money. We listen to Bauhaus – Bela Lugosi’s Dead.

12 February, Friday

Coping with the welfare state is a Kafkaesque experience. The new guy behind the desk in the Health Centre said he didn’t think I should have had to reapply for rent allowance. Wait about another two weeks. I get the feeling that those people delight in delaying you even if it is only for one week. So maybe you’ll give up.

Parson’s Street is getting to be like Beasley Street. Beauty problems are redefined, the doorbells do not ring. Even Tom H. wants to move out and he hasn’t officially moved in. My achievement was to achieve creative fulfilment and a preparation for death at such an early age. I just missed out on a partner and economic viability.

13 February, Saturday

The landlord’s brother called, saying he was going to collect fifty quid a week from now on. I suppose I could go home if need be. Without the radio the silence would drive me insane. It would be like Leixlip.

16 February, Tuesday

Bed for the day. The tip of my nose being always cold is fairly irritating. It’s chronic. Just what is under the yellow tarpaulin in the field behind?

17 February, Wednesday

The landlord’s brother agreed to give us a breather.

19 February, Friday

AM: there seemed little point in writing something now but things feel bad so I thought I’d better record this moment. In silence in this room you can always hear two sounds: the running of an engine or a boiler somewhere and the tapping of a pipe, probably arising from the water which drips away out of the wall at the back. They are mysteries.

At the weekend I hope to get some peace. Every day is a blur without my glasses and poverty grinds on my faith in a future. I can’t stay at home, I know that, but where can I go? I need a good break to come my way fast. Nothing I write could convey the jumble of boring nothingness. Everything sounds like bombast in print. Fourteen hours in bed and I wake up to find my last tenner lost. Suicide is out of the question, as are violence and self-mutilation. Whatever I’m going through is not as bad as adolescence. It’s just irritating to a large degree. A lot of banal difficulties are getting in the way.

When I break clear from here, when I break clear from here, there must be something about to turn up. It’s like getting bad hands of cards all night long. The lack of money to buy typing paper has been a simple obstacle in recent weeks. I don’t mean to sound self-pitying but I worry about the hopes and fears of my parents. It’s like being a cuckoo chick. The parents aren’t designed for the monster in their midst.

As the cold air begins to reach up my legs the only therapy is to write down sentences. The feeling of wanting to piss is increasing but the cold fingers of my right hand continue in the hope of re-entering a stylish vein of thought. A cup of tea and the radio are the best things life has to offer at this time of night, apart from an attractive girl who doesn’t talk shite. The world of Parson’s Street is one of icy temperatures, empty flagons, queer smells. I am like an old man here.

20 February, Saturday

Dermot and I had no luck thumbing so I attempted to cash my rent cheque. I tried the Roost, Kevy’s, Brady’s, the Leinster Arms and the petrol pumps outside Quinnsworth before trying Barry’s as a last resort. Robert cashed it, in part.

21 February, Sunday

CB woke me at four to get money. Robert gave me the remaining fifty. You couldn’t wait, huh? Spent it all? It’s relaxing to have money in my pocket.

22 February, Monday

There is one shelf left in the downstairs bedroom. Pearly’s tape recorder died.


24 February, Wednesday

The landlord’s brother came again but no one answered the door. Old Luke emerged from next door and gave him an opportunity to give out loudly.

25 February, Thursday

Upon discovering that my coat had been missing for an indefinite period I asked in the Roost. The barman just said it’s out there under the flap in the cocktail lounge.

27 February, Saturday

Now that the problems of material existence have taken over from those of adolescence I must try to decide which are worse. So far I prefer to be the way I am but as I sink deeper and deeper it may all change. Listening to people on buses at the weekend would make you give up hope for the country. Apart from the bog primitiveness, which is one cause of hopelessness, there was a couple in front of me who pissed me off too. She was Spanish and he was a dry, clean-cut, Gaelic footballer type of student or something. When she asked him to explain a piece of Irish on the inlay card of a Sinéad O’Connor tape he couldn’t even make an attempt to do so.

I think Parson’s Street is the really bad aspect of life. It is only sinking home how bad the house itself is, even before our way of life e.g. the hole in the ceiling in the downstairs bedroom caused by a broken toilet pipe. That’s not really meant as an excuse for me drinking my rent cheque. I wouldn’t have done so had the place not been so intolerable, or at least I wouldn’t have guzzled it all. At least I’m home tonight in a decent house. The comforts of home are appreciated at a time like this. You know, when read in the light of the conditions in Parson’s Street, the letters from the landlady are quite comical.

Sexually my run of misses must come to an end. The ball is going everywhere except into the net. The bonk in November is approaching mythical status.

28 February, Sunday

We are wrinkles from another age. Our lives would not fill a problem page.

2 March, Wednesday

On the phone the landlady told the Rock ’n’ Roll Kid to tell everyone to get out by Monday. Look, can I just keep my room?

Best news: Dermot got the two of us a room in Beaufield.

9 March, Wednesday

We broke into Parson’s Street to retrieve my letter. After trying to fish it out with coat hangers, Dermot thought of removing the new windowpane where the putty had not dried. The temperature had dropped after the rain, which had fallen for hours.

10 March, Thursday

A free film and being skint drew us to the Arts Block. It coincided with the surprise visit of Minister Mary O’Rourke to a uni high society night. We blocked her car on the way out and the Special Branch horsed in, swinging girls by the neck.

15 March, Tuesday

Dermot told me he tried to torch Parson’s Street at the weekend. He smashed in through the back but the lighter wouldn’t light the damp blankets.


5 August, Friday

When I got to Parnell Square they just introduced me to everyone, told me what days to be in etc. I just wanted to acclimatize myself to the feel of the place. I ran into B. on O’Connell Street. He had twisted his ankle so he was on crutches again. It was very warm in the city and he struggled as the two of us went to find Dan M’s flat. We had a few pints and, after B. left to meet his father outside Trinity, Dan mentioned the time he had come to Parson’s Street after we were gone. On hearing the knocking, Old Luke came out of his house, waved his arms and said, “It’s over!


It’s the last house, with the smoke.



Robert Musil’s Diaries

Robert Musil’s Diaries

Robert Musil (1880-1942) is best known for Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (‘The Man Without Qualities’), an unending, unfinished novel, of which the first volume appeared in 1930. I tried to read it once but found it too essayistic (Musil’s diaries agree) and boring and thus gave up. The first funny thing reminiscent of Jaroslav Hašek that I came across in the diaries was the farcical account of the seduction of a seventeen-year-old pal of his. Let us call the story The Cougar of Brno, as narrated by the pal and recorded by the teenage Musil.

I had an intuition that something was closing in around me… I was vaguely aware that something was going on and in my youthful anxiety I asked my friend to accompany me. I stationed him in some bushes… we found a quiet bench and read the letter. My friend… explained to me I had to visit her… She received me in her nightgown and was charming… Then she was going with her husband to visit her son at the school for cavalry cadets… ‘You’re coming with us, or rather not with us but after us.’ … When I got to W., the train in which her husband was travelling was just departing… she locked the door behind me and went straight back to bed… There was a frightful sensuality in her eyes. We had lain in bed for three hours when there was a knock at the door. It was her son… She quickly locked me up in the adjoining room… I heard her telling her son to be quiet as his father was asleep next door… I had the impression that the son had some inkling of what was going on. During our meal we drank champagne… This was how our affair started. We rented a room in Brünn… Finally, for the sake of my health, I had to restrict our relations to once a week. This was evidently too little for her for soon afterwards she was unfaithful to me with another one of her son’s friends.

Musil’s early years were strange, to put it mildly. The sleeping rule (hands outside the covers), the presence of ‘Uncle’ Heinrich in the house and Musil’s deal with Herma Dietz are just three of the oddities.


Musil was small but combative and from early on he exhibited the small-man syndrome. Herma was a servant girl who looked after Musil’s grandmother but was let go after the old woman died. Musil, then a student in Berlin, offered her a place to live on condition she became his ‘mistress’. His flat description of her reaction (“She doesn’t say yes nor no nor thank you”) seems repulsive to modern eyes. He later gave her syphilis, she had a miscarriage and she died in 1907. Soon afterwards he married a Jewish widow (Martha) seven years his senior and they stayed together until his death from a stroke in Switzerland in 1942.

Reading Musil’s account of his ill friend Alice’s crazy adventure (1910) that ended with her being locked up in Venice, I made a note at the end. This is mental, in more ways than one. It appears in a context where he expresses an interest in sodomy and incest. Raised an only child, he was long obsessed with a sister who had died before he was born. Musil was a bit of a perv (i.e. prurient) and only occasional passages are worth reading until the seventh notebook (1913). The translator says Musil was “at the height of his receptive powers” then but he probably means most observant, with less navel-gazing.

Musil is quite morbid too. A brief passage about dying consumptives in Rome exemplifies how morbid, while his description of a tour of a mental asylum there reads like a thriller. In that light, Musil’s wartime notebooks are also well worth reading. He was an officer on the Italian front before his transfer to a desk job in propaganda. There are touches of everything from The Good Soldier Švejk to Apocalypse Now in his war experiences.

In the sanatorium hut of the Prague garrison prison, Švejk explains to the other inmates that he’s got rheumatism. Even the dying consumptive, who was shamming tuberculosis, joined in the laughter. It’s already a war in there between the malingerers and the medics. All the tricks and rehabilitation tortures are outlined, leading to few firm conclusions.

All those illnesses where you have to foam at the mouth are difficult to sham…In Vršovice there’s a midwife who for twenty crowns will dislocate your legThe best thing to do… is to inject paraffin… My cousin was so fortunate as to have his arm cut off under the elbow...

Corroboration of the barbarism Hašek describes is evident from a Musil diary entry written in Prague in 1916.

Faradization. Suspicion of shamming, the young lad is faradized [i.e. shocked] every day. “Hu, hu, hu, hu, ayaya, ya,” he wriggles. One warder and four nurses stand around him laughing, holding his arms and legs and pressing the contacts to his body. He pulls faces as if he were laughing.

The sight of a wrecked Red Cross train at the bottom of an embankment is a topic of much discussion among Švejk’s crew in the East before the occultist cook Jurajda produces a bottle of cognac he stole from the officers’ mess. Then they get down to playing cards, at which Marek quotes Scripture and proves invincible. Up to this, as battalion historian, he has spent most of his time in the wagon inventing heroic deaths for his comrades. Just in case anyone might think Hašek exaggerates the fun, Musil is again instructive when his diary describes a transport of wounded. If anything, his diary suggests Hašek may actually have toned down the surrealism.

Coming from Poland… a goods wagon with cots carries the most severely wounded who are not expected to survive the journey. A man with a severe bullet wound in the lung, and another whose hip joint is smashed… One is Tyrolean, the other Viennese. The Viennese insists that the Tyroleans were no good at all in the war. The Tyrolean gets worked up about it. The Viennese with the bullet wound in the lung is constantly chipping away at him. Often the whole wagon can’t stop laughing. […} On arrival, the Viennese is dead. […] When the train stops most of them start to bellow like animals, feel unbearable pain, and relieve themselves. Officers and men.

A scene that could be from Apocalypse Now unfolds from a ridge in Slovenia, from which lines of men snake slowly downward. Below, flares rise up, rockets, the river lights up, trees – a fireworks display… the air is warm. Drugs the senses. With this the stubborn feeling: you are stepping into your grave. Single, melancholic rifle shots; occasionally heavier fire – melancholic in the night.

In the Thirties he’s again very interesting, this time on the Nazi takeover, which happened while he was living in Berlin.

Three days ago the Reichstag went up in flames. Yesterday the emergency regulations to eliminate the Communist Party and the Social Democrat Party appeared. The new men don’t wear kid gloves… all the liberal fundamental rights have now been set aside without one single person feeling utterly outraged… It is seen as a spell of bad weather. The average individual does not yet feel under attack… a police car with swastika flags and singing officers, speeding down the Kurfürstendamm. It is alarming that Germans today possess so little sense of reality… the streets are full of people – “Life goes on” – even though, each day, hundreds are killed, imprisoned, beaten up

Usually, otherwise, these are not really diaries at all, more often just notebook ráiméis, to use the Irish language word for rambling nonsense. There isn’t a huge amount of comedy and not much observation outside of key historical and personal moments.

Der Herr Karl, a begrudger’s guide

Der Herr Karl, a begrudger’s guide

On 15 November 1961 Austrian television broadcast an hour-long dramatic monologue set in the basement store room of a Viennese delicatessen. Therein a middle-aged character called Karl talked to an unseen younger colleague while intermittently replying to the voice of his female boss upstairs and helping himself to samples of the stock. The public response to the play was uproar but the hour had made the performer – Helmut Qualtinger – immortal.

Der Herr Karl was no invention from scratch. Another actor, Nikolaus Haenel, had worked in such a deli and with such a character just after the war. The establishment stood on the corner of Führichgasse and Tegetthofstrasse and the chap was called Max, though Haenel forgot his surname. Nevertheless he later drew a picture of a bespectacled and rather thin-faced figure, aged about fifty, with a moustache a little wider than Hitler’s. While going through the motions at work, stocking shelves and mopping the floor, this Man of the Crowd had told Haenel his life story.

Years later, Haenel became aware that Qualtinger was in search of a character with a Nazi past so he approached him with the idea of Max. Though Qualtinger was still in his early thirties and much heavier than the original, he was intrigued and the pair met in a restaurant over three or four days, wherein Haenel told him all he remembered and Qualtinger took copious notes, which he later turned into a script with his writing partner, Carl Merz.

Karl’s voice seems to have been based on that of Hannes Hoffmann, from 1947 to 1969 the owner of Qualtinger’s favourite bar, the Gutruf. Hoffmann was an interesting figure in his own right and the transcript of a lengthy interview with him from not long before his death in 1988 is included in Georg Biron’s book Quasi Herr Karl (2011).


Married three times, Karl seems amiable at first but bit by bit, in a mixture of Viennese dialect (what he really thinks) and imperfect standard German (for what he thinks his audience wants to hear), he reveals himself to be a Mitläufer (a camp follower) and opportunist who rode each wave as it came.

Until 1934 he was a socialist but it didn’t pay. He demonstrated for rent-a-crowd right-wing groups because there was a bit of money going (fünf Schilling). Karl then vividly describes the arrival of Hitler in Vienna, the rapture of the multitude on the Ring and Heldenplatz and the police all wearing swastika armbands. To Karl the intoxicating atmosphere felt like the buzz of a wine tavern. Qualtinger’s impression of the blue-eyed Führer passing close to where Karl stood and simply grunting Jaja! at him is blackly comic. Da hab i alles g’wusst, wir haben uns verstanden (‘Then I knew everything, we understood each other’).

A Jewish neighbour in his apartment block – sonst a netter Mensch (‘otherwise a nice guy’) is forced to wash the pavements. Karl describes the block’s Hausmeister laughing at this, though, as a Nazi party member, it is Karl himself who supervises the cleaning. When the neighbour (somehow) returns after the war, Karl raises his hat and greets him in a simpering fashion but the neighbour won’t even look at him. This hurts Karl’s feelings. He argues that someone had to clean the pavement. I war ein Opfer. Andere san reich worden, i war a Idealist (‘I was a victim. Others got rich, I was an idealist’).

When the Russians came, people rushed to throw their Hitler portraits on the nearest dung heap but Karl kept his on the wall and deliberately encouraged some Russian soldiers into his apartment. He tore down the picture and trampled on it and then, satisfied with this gesture, they left him alone. Karl subsequently got the chance to suck up to the Americans, whom, he notes, had good food. Wangling a job as a civilian guard, he had ample opportunity to chase away hungry compatriots now that he was a self-styled defender of the West.

An excellent introduction to Qualtinger and Der Herr Karl is available in Georg Markus’ Wenn man trotzdem lacht – Geschichten und Geschichte des österreichischen Humors (2012), which has Quasi, as he was known, as the main figure on the cover.


Both a history and compendium of Austrian humour, this book begins with a chapter on Wiener Schmäh, which Markus links to Vienna’s ethnic mix and then defines as including melancholy, sarcasm and a little malice. Nevertheless, in the very first paragraph the author makes a rather dubious claim. Das Lachen ist hierzulande von geradezu existenzieller Bedeutung und die Heiterkeit mit der anderer Völker nicht vergleichbar (‘Laughter is, in this sense, of an almost existential importance and the amusement is not comparable with that of other peoples’).

The Begrudger’s Guide to Irish Politics (1986) is a book by Breandán Ó hEithir (1930-90) that traces the political evolution – even thirty years on from publication, development may still be too strong a word – of the Irish State and its adjoining northern statelet over sixty years, from the early 1920s to the mid-1980s. The writer defines the begrudger of the title as the most common type of Irish character. Such a person is usually cynical, snide and hungry for the next unflattering story about an official role model or public event that won’t bore anyone else in the retelling.

Image Ref. No. 0161/085

Ó hEithir describes most Irish people as time-serving sycophants but, to be fair, the begrudger is often justifiably cynical, as the author also points out. One may easily be short of a job, a house, regular sex, drink (rarely) or food in Ireland: one is rarely short of a bitter belly laugh.

The book begins with an anecdote from the morning after the signing of the Treaty (1921) that partitioned the island and created the Irish Free State. A passing priest asks a blacksmith why he looks so glum.

It was the gentry that kept me going and what’s left of them will leave the country now. I’m ruined.

The priest assures him that freedom will mean the Irish will have their own gentry but this only causes the blacksmith to mutter darkly in his wake.

Our own gentry!? We will in our arse have our own gentry.

The blacksmith was right. Instead, we got opportunists, the post-colonial class whose innermost vocation Frantz Fanon saw as remaining part of the racket. The success of the Irish in America magnifies the awareness – learnt from the Brits – that electoral politics is the safest form of organised crime, where privileged access to the trough of opportunity is tolerated thanks to successful patronage. Incidentally, charity-sector fiddling has emerged in recent years as a type of scam at which the Irish in-crowd have proved themselves world-class.

In a nation of embezzlers, though, this phenomenon of camp-following and opportunism isn’t just restricted to politics and those with political connections. To give a simple example, there was a party for the elderly in one rural parish at Christmas in 1999, the year the Irish prime minister had issued a national apology in the wake of the States of Fear TV series, which had documented our children’s gulag. Just imagine, the number of children in institutional ‘care’ in the Irish State between the 1930s and 1970s had been, in absolute terms, greater than that in Britain, while our population had been little more than 5% of that across the water.

Of course it became fashionable and convenient to blame the Church alone for such horrors but what of the society that gave the Church such power? In 2017 the latest such scandal is that of the mother-and-baby homes, those institutions where unwed mothers were put and where their babies – if they didn’t die and get thrown into unmarked graves – were often secretly sold for adoption. These places were never secret, the people knew the score, that’s how things were done. 2017 is also the year that Brunhilde Pomsel died. She was Goebbels’ secretary and lived to be 106.

‘The people who today say they would have done more for those poor, persecuted Jews… I really believe that they sincerely mean it,’ she said in interviews for A German Life. ‘But they wouldn’t have done it either.’

On a lighter note, the Christmas party committee had asked a relative of mine to help out at the event. The members had already gathered a lot of good food and drink in the form of donations. At the party in the parish hall, a retired nurse advised that some hot whiskey punch would be the best drink for the old people in the winter but that suggestion was shot down. Instead, the committee gave them sherry. They had plenty of sherry. Soon there was a crash. An old lady had keeled over. After that the guests only got tea and sandwiches. The wine, the chocolates, the brandy and whiskey bottles and the beautiful cakes remained untouched. Soon the old people were packed off on a bus.

What happened to the goodies? The cars reversed in, loaded up and drove away. “Never again,” said my relative. What happened to Max? According to Markus, all is known is that he got fired from the delicatessen after he was caught trying to take home some bottles of vermouth in a small case.

P.S. … Article 40.2.1 of the Irish Constitution says, “Titles of nobility shall not be conferred by the State.” In 2006 Felix Mitterer told me that aristocratic titles had been banned in Austria since 1918, so Austrians compensated for this deprivation with excessive use of academic ones. Some people even used a different calling card (e.g. one that used “von” in the name) when dealing with Germany, where such elaboration remains legal.

Quasi Falco