On the Paper Plane (1986)

On the Paper Plane (1986)

The third part of the Paper Plane trilogy ends in December 1986. Early in 1987 I spent three months in Belfast and by the autumn a majority of the original crew had gone.

What stands out more now are the odd jobs. In the autumn of 1985 I’d become involved in market gardening… picking spuds and shovelling onions. By Christmas I was an occasional milkman’s assistant, on a rural route, writing numbers in a book. Later I spent seven weeks flogging moss peat (or “peat moss” as the boss liked to call it) but it was a cold spring and the selling of coal took over again. He already had enough fellas to sell coal. Lastly I had a crack at a poverty industry course, on which I managed to get two grants, thanks to the addition of the Belfast expedition.

In December it seems ironic that I had the assistance of two professors: one as whiskey barman and one as chauffeur. The latter, as his name suggests, was the Professor of Irish, the language we spoke on the journey in his car. Maynooth left one speaking in tongues. Tír gan anam, tír gan teanga.

May … the bounty of back money

Doors nostalgia

Doors nostalgia

Dr. John Flynn

Photo © New York Times



Saw Ray Manzarek at HQ. M. got a couple of free tickets by phoning in about an Irish Times promotional offer. Vast quantities of alcohol were consumed by the crowd. The references to cosmic energy must have been over their heads e.g. going by an impatient shout of “Play us a f*cking song!

The quotient of cool was surprisingly high, as was the number of fine women. Must have been the new venue. On Jim’s father’s desire that he join the Navy: Ray asked the audience to imagine Jim Morrison in charge of a battleship (“Hey man, point those guns over there ’n’ blow those suckers up”).

There was a nice instrumental version of The Crystal Ship. A music lesson on how they wrote Light My Fire.

Man I need a beer. Can somebody get me…

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On the Paper Plane (1985)

On the Paper Plane (1985)

My late father used to say the most important thing in life was to keep going. Ten years on from 1985 he got himself into a position to get more than twenty good years out of his retirement. Then, when it came to it, I kept him out of the nursing home. It was the very least I could do.

1985 saw more messing than the year before but all that only amounted to a minor court appearance and a £4 fine for a couple of damaged saplings outside a fractious party. There is a broader tableau, from which some detailed incidents had to be omitted simply because they are things people would not believe.

PS … to be fair to my fellow veterans, the only indiscretions flashed must remain my own.

Córdoba … the Spanish one

Córdoba … the Spanish one

Dr. John Flynn

Andalucía 28/12/16

Frosty morning. B. and I headed to Córdoba after ten. The high-speed train from Puertollano was too fast for the camera. I saw a lot of olive trees down south. On arrival, Clonmel’s permanent representative in Castile-La Mancha thought it wise to ask someone how far we’d have to walk. We were then advised to get a taxi from the station to the old town. Córdoba’s charms are quite stunning. The Romans took it from the Carthaginians in 206 BC. The Moors took it from the Goths in 711 AD. The Christians took it back from the Moors in 1236. Perhaps Spain will never be one of my favourite countries but there is something awe-inspiring about the key sights down there. We didn’t go into the Alcázar fortress – the queue was long – so we missed the gardens. That was a research blip on my part. The…

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On the Paper Plane (1984)

On the Paper Plane (1984)

When my father died three months ago I said I’d in time look back at when he appeared on the page over the years. I turned twenty in the pivotal 1984, before which there is no passage that is vivid or even humorous about anything. A little younger than I am now, he is there on 12 September, where there’s an allusion to the debt and arthritis it took him another ten years to overcome before he reached his long retirement.

Now I can look back on the time with a smile for a few reasons. I was really only there for the social life and for reading books that weren’t on my course but I’d done well enough in school for a grant and didn’t cost him too much otherwise. For example there weren’t any separate budgets for beer and food. Years later he revealed that my brother, who took college seriously from the start, had been more expensive, not least in terms of hefty textbooks.

Anyway, when it came to it, I kept my old man out of the nursing home. It was the least I could do.

PS … to be fair to my fellow veterans, the only indiscretions flashed must remain my own…

Pale Shelter

Pale Shelter

Renting in Leixlip was a doomed expedition from the college town of Maynooth but that did not shelve the housewarming party. Hence there is more than one allusion to some collateral damage. The inner city reference to Sean MacDermott Street is fully explained by the link at the bottom. In the same vein “this group” was a small class on a poverty industry course. The walkout happened the day after the last November entry (see below).

On Sean MacDermott Street…


Blueshirts in Spain

Blueshirts in Spain

In May 1969 Emil Cioran considered writing a book on the Irish, having met an Irishman “qui n’avait que “Almighty God” à la bouche” in conversation. He was normally more interested in the religious preoccupations of other countries, such Russia and Spain. As it happens, a piece of the latter’s history is instructive on the difference between Ireland and the Romania of Cioran’s pre-war dreams.

Early in 1937 the prominent Iron Guard members Ion Moța and Vasile Marin were killed by a shell after volunteering to fight for Franco. Their bodies were transported across Europe by train and greeted in Bucharest by thousands of Greenshirts, as the Iron Guard liked to dress up. They were interred in Bucharest on 13 February, in a mausoleum newly erected by their leader Codreanu. The ceremony was overseen by hundreds of Orthodox priests.

Later in the year the Iron Guard did well in a general election on the back of this big production but, less a month after the solemn show, Codreanu had written to Cioran to thank him for writing The Transfiguration of Romania.

All of us, fighters and writers, are driven… by the might of this Romanian volcano which is about to break its bonds

It is one thing to think such thoughts – a mind is a terrible thing to lose, as Dan Quayle might have put it – but to say them in public or even commit them to paper is rather more serious. In the Thirties, the Irish State had its Blueshirts (the green shirts were already taken) but nothing about them concerns us here except their experience in Spain, also on Franco’s side. It may be only apocryphal that Freud thought the Irish immune to psychoanalysis but it is easier to highlight the lack of seriousness that makes such blood and soil less fertile for fascism (or Marxism).

The comic history of that escapade must be written one day: recruits armed with letters from their doctors saying that the Spanish climate would work miracles for their tubercular lungs; boys going to a dance in Dundalk… and waking up on the Dún Aengus in Galway Bay the next day on their way to fight in Spain; O’Duffy having to inspect a guard of honour without weapons in case they shot him; the money collected to defend God in Spain being diverted to found a political dynasty; and, finally, more men returning from Spain, despite the casualties inflicted on the Brigade by Franco’s Moorish troops, than actually enlisted.

In The Begrudger’s Guide to Irish Politics (1986) Breandán Ó hEithir defines the begrudger of the book’s 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. In that same book Ó hEithir also wrote

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.

A nephew of the novelist Liam O’Flaherty, Ó hEithir (1930-90) was born on Aran and wrote successfully in both Irish and English. Upon his retirement from broadcasting he and his wife got a Paris apartment but, unfortunately, to borrow a line from Beckett’s All That Fall, the poor man didn’t live long to enjoy his ease.

V. S. Pritchett’s memoir Midnight Oil (1971) includes his time in Ireland during the Civil War in 1923 and refers to laughter without mirth, “a guerrilla activity of the mind” that even “rippled over the surface of the incurable seventeenth-century bitterness” of the north-east. Pritchett describes several surreal incidents elsewhere in the country, after the British had gone, such as a raid on a house of the gentry, nominally for arms.

The servants were hysterical and a parrot imitated them, calling out ‘Glory be to God’… there was a good supply of untouched weapons but girls among the raiders had gone off with his wife’s riding clothes, and one of the men had emptied a jar of ink over the drawing-room carpet. The raiders had found a safe… but could not open it. So they dumped it in the middle of the lake. My host rang up the local military… ‘We’ll send down the Terroriser,’ the officer said. The Terroriser and his men rowed about the large lake very happily. It was a lovely afternoon.

We can but wonder in passing what inspiration Cioran might have got from that parrot. As the Civil War moved away from the capital, Pritchett got on a train from Dublin to Cork. In the midlands there was a long stoppage for the addition of an armoured engine and a troop escort.

…a few of us, including a priest, left the train and went into the town for a drink, sure of finding the train still there after a couple of hours. It was. It gave a jolt. ‘Are we starting?’ someone asked. ‘Sure, we haven’t started starting yet,’ the porter said. The afternoon faded… at Mallow it was dark… we got into cars to join another train across the valley. The viaduct had been blown up. We eventually arrived in Cork in a racket of machine-gun fire. (…) But the passengers took it for granted and a bare-footed urchin who took my case said, ‘’Tis only the boys from the hills.’

The Civil War was indeed a grave matter in which a few thousand people died but where does the overriding lack of seriousness come from? Heinrich Böll’s Irisches Tagebuch, or Irish Journal, has sold two million copies in German. Though written in the Fifties, it still captures some sturdy truths about the Irish character. The most important of these is found where he discusses a commonplace phrase. It could be worse. For Germans, he says, if something bad happens it is always the worst possible eventuality but, for the Irish, even death has something of a bright side. Stirbt man gar, nun, so ist man aller Sorgen ledig (‘If you die, well, your troubles are over’).

It also struck Böll that whenever something bad happened, humour and imagination deserted the Germans but it was right at that moment that they got going in Ireland. Mention of what he calls the twin sister of ‘It could be worse’ (i.e. ‘I shouldn’t worry’) then allows him to explain how these phrases express a fundamental recognition that it could be – and has been – bloody well worse.

und das bei einem Volk, das allen Grund hätte, weder bei Tag noch bei Nacht auch nur eine Minute ohne Sorge zu sein: vor hundert Jahren, als die große Hungersnot kam, Mißernten einige Jahre hindurch, diese große nationale Katastrophe, die nicht nur unmittelbar verheerend wirkte, sondern deren Schock sich durch die Generationen bis auf heute vererbt hat

‘…and that too from a people who would have every reason to be at most a minute without worry, day or night: a hundred years ago, when the great famine came, crop failures for several years, this great national catastrophe, that not only had an immediate devastating effect, but whose shock has been passed down through the generations to this day…’

What Böll grasped, the Irish have not lost, despite having more money and less religion than in the Fifties. Hence there has lately been the notable public response in Ireland to an appeal for financial help by Native American tribes stricken by the virus. This money is in return for a few Choctaw dollars sent over in the 1840s.

Furthermore, just before the onset of the pandemic, a public outcry of the what-the-f*ck variety forced the minority Dublin government to scrap a planned memorial service for the colonial police. It is one thing to think such thoughts but to say them in public or even commit them to speeches is rather more serious.

PS … here’s another passage from Paddy Lindsay’s memoirs (see top)

Across Hungary

Across Hungary

I’m deep in action on a secret mission

Contact’s broken down

I live my life around suspicion*

There’s a voice on the telephone

Rory Gallagher’s guitar classic Philby (1979) was partly inspired by touring Europe and having to deal with all sorts of shady characters at all hours of the day or night. When I think of seven times in Budapest, doing this and that, including a spell in dental patient trafficking, I think of the above verse, but there is more to Hungary than that.

(*The vinyl version of this line is “Time drags by, I’m above suspicion”)

Even in a landlocked country, some of its best sights overlook large expanses of water. A ten-year period of occasional exploration outside the capital began in April 2009 with a trip to Lake Balaton. The village of Tihany lies near the narrowest point of the eighty-mile-long lake. The little lake behind the village is a geological anomaly that sits 25 m higher than the real one. The stone jetty below the Benedictine abbey for which Tihany is otherwise best known is on the eastern side of the peninsula of the same name. We had lunch below the crest of the great view beside the abbey (apatság) and then we got the ferry at the tip of the peninsula over to the south shore. The water of the hazy Balaton was a light, smoothie green, from the chemical composition of the floor of the shallow lake.


Tihany 2

The Danube turns south at Visegrád, twenty miles north-north-west of Budapest. Above the small town with the ferry crossing and the creamy church stands the Vár, or castle, which offers a sensational view of the great river and the wooded hills that mark both banks, up around the bend. The evening sunshine lit up the panorama. It was after five o’clock when we got there on a June evening in 2012 and, though the man on the gate said it was zárva (closed), a bribe of 500 forints was enough to get us in.

At the other end of the decade, in the Rockline bar in Sopron, I made some new friends when invited to join the one remaining table, once the other stragglers along the counter had gone. Its online presence said, “Gastro pub” but the only edible items I saw in there were peanuts. Like in a playground, one of the first things they asked was my age. T. said she only knew L. because L. had once interviewed her for a survey. Z. told stories from his night at the Corvinus restaurant on Fő tér, the main square. I think the group expected to have to speak German to the stranger. It’s a border town, a beautiful Baroque border town, but the fact that I don’t make a dog’s dinner of Hungarian was a source of wonder. Languages are hobbies in which I don’t lose interest. The bar owner claimed Sopron hadn’t suffered too much in the war because it wasn’t on the railway line between Budapest and Vienna. He claimed it was in worse shape now, economically, on its last legs, but he was a glass-half-empty kind of chap, though kind.

At Sunday lunch Leonard Cohen was coming calmly over the speakers at the Generális restaurant on Fő tér (‘Main square’) as a man with no arms steadily and assiduously ate spaghetti at the next table. Cohen sang The Partisan with the angelic French chorus and the rhythm of a fluttering heartbeat. By then the man with no arms had gone, with his wife. A Thalidomide survivor, with small hands. Very small hands. But he managed to smoke and drink as well, while his wife was in the Goat Church across the square.

By his accent the man at the nearest table on the other side was from Dublin. He had gone pensive after settling up with a Danke blurted to the Köszönöm szépen from the waitress. On his phone again, he seemed to want to know badly if two Irishmen had died on Mount Everest in the past week. They did. Will I bother telling him? He’s about to leave. I told him. A talkative chap in need of a shave, he was in Hungary to walk from Sopron to Lenti. As well as something of his life on the buses, he told me he’d got up as far as the third level on Everest but then remembered his age (62) and had the sense to turn back and get down off it.

That evening I chose the Corvinus for dinner, having spotted my waiter friend downing a beer in a quiet moment on the quieter side of the building, facing the town hall. The venison stew was fine even though they threw some hash browns on the plate for trunking. The view from the table was free. As I left, cars were pulling up on the square and election boxes were being carried into the town hall. Those involved were all dressed up, like for a wedding.


At the Erhardt Panzió they have a good, varied breakfast menu to go with the basics laid out for the bleary-eyed. This means they don’t have to waste time and ingredients cooking uneaten food. A pretty young blonde with glasses asked me if I wanted anything off it but I just said, Ah nem, túl korán nekem (‘Ah no, too early for me’) and she smiled and went away. The next time I’ll even try the restaurant in the garden. After a chat with the same sweet girl, as I paid at reception, I walked straight down Mátyás Király utca to the station and soon left Sopron. Just an hour and a quarter later, I was back in Vienna. The same commuter train ends up in Bratislava.

In December 2019, the last time I was anywhere before the virus, I got a train east to Győr, which lies halfway between Vienna and Budapest. It was colder there, an hour and ten minutes across the deep grey plain. Part three of The Good Soldier Švejk begins with the battalion setting off across Hungary and we see a crew of friendly characters begin to assemble around the title character. These include the calmly cynical Quartermaster Vaňek, the occultist cook Jurajda and the anarchist Marek, the last of whom Švejk has known since they shared a cell in Bohemia. We are also introduced to the glutton Baloun and the idiotically enthusiastic Cadet Biegler.

The train stops at Raab (modern Győr) where the men are meant to be issued with Hungarian salami but instead get two postcards each. Another train carrying a German-speaking regiment goes through the station without stopping but one of its singing soldiers falls out of a wagon and is impaled on a points-lever, which gives the Czechs something to stand around and look at.

Before they move on, Lukáš’s superior Captain Ságner mocks Biegler’s military and literary pretensions so Biegler, already feeling unwell, gets very drunk. He then dreams of floating through the universe in the front half of a staff car that has been hit by a shell. We’re flying to heaven, General, and must avoid the comets. When he meets the Lord, the Lord turns out to be Ságner, who orders two angels to throw him into the latrines. A terrible smell fills the wagon where Biegler is sleeping just as the glow of lights over Budapest comes into view. He has contracted dysentery and is offloaded to a hospital where he is mistakenly diagnosed as a carrier of cholera.


In Budapest the theoretical issuing of cheese to the men is replaced by a box of matches, another postcard and the happy news that Italy has declared war on them. In the staff carriage, Biegler is replaced by the pontificating of Lieutenant Dub, a Czech reserve officer and informer who will soon prove to be the arch-enemy of Švejk. The men are ordered to leave the wagons a second time, only to watch their train with its piles of army bread and sacks of rice get sprayed with disinfectant. Sent off with some money from Lukáš to get something to eat, Švejk buys a hen but not before he’s arrested and accused of trying to steal it. As he explains, all he did was pick it up to ask who owned it.

The feathers thrown out of the van attracted the attention of Lieutenant Dub… He shouted inside that whoever was plucking a hen should present himself and in the door appeared the happy face of Švejk. […] Švejk held the hen’s bowels and other intestines under Lieutenant Dub’s nose.

Before eating in Győr I photographed the riverbanks. Then I had to find a bank ATM in the belváros (‘old town’). Baross út had most of the mulled wine and snack huts. Dunakapu tér by the water had the blue Ferris wheel. Fortified by Hungarian cash I went into the appealing Pálffy Étterem on a corner of Széchenyi tér and made sure I wouldn’t emerge hungry. It was half past three and the feeling was not of pangs but a dull ache in the cold. The feast needed a walk and it got dark as I headed downriver again.



The lights were on, in and around the bishop’s citadel, reflecting on the Rába before it meets the Mosoni-Duna arm of the Danube, having added its own little sister just before that. Then I wandered the calm yet active old town again but despite a cup of mulled white wine my back started to freeze so I retreated to the hotel at six. I caught up on some sleep. Out again after nine, I had another mulled wine, took some photos of the lit-up town hall and entered the McDonalds for a burger night cap.


Northeast of Miskolc, Švejk’s unit finally gets some goulash next to the Slovak border, about 40 km west of Ukraine. The station is crowded with many different units and wagons can be seen loaded with shot-down aircraft and howitzers with smashed barrels. Lieutenant Dub is telling everyone this is war booty when the wreckage is clearly Austrian. Then he spots Švejk talking to a group of soldiers nearby and goes over for a listen.

Whatever way you look at it, it’s war booty after all. At first sight it looks a bit tricky when you read here on the gun carriage “Imperial and Royal Artillery Division” but it was probably like this: the gun fell into the hands of the Russians and we had to win it back. Booty like that is much more valuable

Svejk Dub


Bohemia and Slovakia

Bohemia and Slovakia

The first meal anywhere is often the simplest and most functional. Burgers and chips (hranolky is the Czech and Slovak word for chips or fries). The first Bratislava pub was Čierny Pes (‘Black Dog’), a proper, cavernous Slovak bar where the teenage waiter was thrilled with the big tip. The bill for half a dozen drinks was no more than thirteen euro. It was down the narrow cobbles of Na Vŕšku then to the Irish Uisce Beatha, which has a reassuring “No Stags” sign on the door. The barmaid (L.) was a pretty and polite Slovak brunette with an Irish ex. Pretty and polite and honest.

Fr castle 2

After breakfast at “Re-Fresh” at the far end of the street below Michael’s Gate, the bright morning after the night before meant a sweaty climb to the Castle. At least the castle shop had a couch, to cool off on. I bought some postcards to justify the seat. I usually feel tired in galleries and museums. Like Alan Bennett, I’m always looking for a seat or glad to find one. Why is that? Is it a mixture of slow walking and poor ventilation? August 1998 involved a morning visit to the Munch museum in Oslo. There I was tempted to lie down on Munch’s bed in the basement. In the gloom it proved impossible not to laugh at the morbid captions e.gDead Mother with Child. There I bought a poster and two cards. The poster was of a cheerful painting called Weeping Nude.

Upon descending from the Castle we stopped at a place (J. J. Darvoben) beside the cathedral. The woman smilingly corrected my chléb (Czech) to chlieb (Slovak) when P. wanted some regular bread to go with the toast on the platter my two companions shared.

Fr cath lunch 1

Three times in recent years I’ve had to cancel trips to Bohemia, thanks to a funeral, a snowstorm and a virus. I’d bought the Pocket Rough Guide to Prague and continued to learn some Czech off the web, such as:

Velké pivo, prosím (‘A large beer, please’);

Zaplatím prosím (‘The bill, please’);

Už jsem zaplatil (‘I’ve already paid’);

Podvod … podvodnik (‘scam … scammer’);

Došlo k nedorozumění (‘There was a misunderstanding’);

Jídlo (food);

Voda (water);

Díky (‘Thanks’);

Žádný problém = (‘No problem’);

Přišel jsem sem kvůli Švejkovi (‘I came here because of Švejk’).

All these phrases are immediately intelligible in Slovak, with the odd spelling change. The main thing to look out for is the fact that some key verbs are different or are used differently but the upside is that Slovak doesn’t have that funny ř that’s everywhere in Czech.

The last phrase on the list alludes to The Good Soldier Švejk, a book that starts in Prague, moves through Bohemia, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia, and ends up in a part of Galicia that is now in Poland.


Complications set in, in Prague, after Švejk is told to obtain for Lt. Lukáš a particular type of dog. How exactly he is to do this is unspecified but anyway, it should be noted that both Gogol and Hašek write of dogs in a similar way. They make them members of society, with their own perspectives, fears and weaknesses.

It is only in a school reader or natural history primer that a dog is a faithful animal… allow even the most faithful of dogs to smell a fried horse meat sausage and it is lost.

An old associate delivers a stolen dog to Švejk, who has already slyly elicited its favourite food from the maid who walks the animal. He and his accomplice then tie the dog to the kitchen table so they can discuss forging a pedigree and what new name to give it. This is how Fox becomes Max.

When it was untied, it made its way to the door, where it barked three times at the handle, obviously relying on the generosity of these evil men… [then] it made a little pool by the door, convinced that they would throw it out… Instead Švejk observed: ‘It’s a cunning one, to be sure, a bit of a Jesuit.’ He gave it a blow with his belt and dipped its muzzle in the puddle

Unfortunately a colonel soon encounters Lukáš walking the dog (his dog) on the street. Lukáš and Švejk are transferred to a regiment at České Budějovice in southern Bohemia, as a prelude to being sent to the East. The second part of the book opens with the pair on a train, from which Švejk is removed after a mishap involving the emergency brake handle.


This incident recalls a story told to me by a Jewish Englishman in a Belfast pub on a snowy day in 1987, the year I first read The Good Soldier Švejk. In 1969, G. was on a train somewhere in Czechoslovakia, enjoying the luxury of a Cuban cigar, when a representative of state security slid back the door to tell him to put it out. The railways minister was in the next compartment and didn’t like the smell. After attempting to engage the minister in a fraternal socialist debate about the cigar, G. got thrown off the train at the next station.

Švejk wanders around the Bohemian countryside, encountering tramps and deserters and getting arrested as a suspected Russian spy before finally being put on another train to rejoin a horrified Lukáš, who’d hoped he’d seen the back of him. Then the battalion moves out, heading east by rail.

There were several of the pretty and historic locations I particularly wanted to see in Bohemia. These included the Prague buildings in which the Thirty Years War was hatched, both in the planning and attempted execution of the Catholic imperial messengers who were shot out a palace window, and also the balcony where, on a snowy morning in 1948, Klement Gottwald emerged to emcee the communist take-over for a massive crowd below. The latter moment provides the anecdote of the un-purged hat that opens one of Milan Kundera’s philosophico-sexual entertainments, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Gottwald was later voted the worst-ever Czech in a TV poll, which was part of a light entertainment format imported and licensed from the BBC.

I wasn’t too pushed about taking in the Kafka museum. The insect fancier Vladimir Nabokov once spent an entire essay wondering exactly what kind of beetle Gregor Samsa had turned into in Metamorphosis but the real answer lies in the equivalent of the birds-of-a-feather proverb in the Irish language. Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile (‘A beetle recognizes another beetle’).

Bratislava lacks the snotty self-regard of most capital cities, probably because it’s a relatively new one. Meandering, photo-taking, was an essay in afternoon relaxation that September. This was exemplified by the boy and girl in a courtyard playing chess with pieces that were almost as big as traffic cones.

fr courtyard 4

Three years earlier (2016) I was in a café off Hlavné námestie, the main square in the old town, with a pot of tea. The Earl Grey (“Early Grey” on the menu) was nice but the kitchen was closed and there was a terrific downpour outside.

When Smooth Criminal came on the Michael Jackson CD, I could move on, through the rain which had eased a bit at best. That song always puts pep in the step. I got some novädzi gúlaš nearby, at a place where a young-ish American with long hair slicked back behind his ears was wearing sunglasses. On a rainy night. At an unlit table. He ignored both waiters who thanked him as he departed. On the walk back to the hotel I passed an English stag party near Michael’s Gate. A couple of them were the regulation shirtless, on the rainy night, outside a pub. The trams made an eerie, whistling sound in the wet. The wheels were whining.


I got truly soaked in the morning, trying to get some more Staré mesto (‘old town’) photos. It had started so well, when I was idly peering through tall railings at the presidents of Switzerland and Slovakia inspecting a guard of honour at the palace. I’d headed off with a short blue plastic mac but it was no use in the next deluge. I had no time to take shelter.


By the time I got on the plane my pants had dried, at least. The row in front was all fat Roma but the row in front of them was a young family of Dubs who quizzed an unenthusiastic steward about chicken nuggets (“No”) and food allergies (“Just cheese then?”).


The late September afternoon in Bratislava meant a siesta. Later we ate in the book-lined cellar bar of Pod kamenným stromom (‘Under the Stone Tree’) on Sedlárska. We drank again in the same two pubs as the night before. A Chekhovian young (English) lady with a dog was sweet to me before she left Uisce Beatha. She had already told JP that having the dog was useful for getting chatted up.

It’s hard to spend money in Slovakia. It’s only a tenner for the hour on the train northeast to Trenčín. The seat numbering on the train was tricky but at least all the Slovaks seemed confused too. I got there around one so I had something to eat at a place called Speranza. It was the only place in the quiet old town that had half a crowd outside. A cheesy beef and potato dish on a menu entirely in Slovak ensued but at least I make sure to know words like that.

On the way out of the Hotel Elizabeth, to do the Castle, I saw the Roman inscription on the rock of the castle hill outside the windows. There’s a back landing used as a viewing gallery. Carved by men of the second Auxiliary legion in 179 AD, the message was only rediscovered by a local clergyman in 1852.

arr 7



The Castle was a steeper hike than the one in Bratislava but this was also after two nights on the beer. When paying in, I found the pretty woman of the pair in the ticket office seemed to take a shine to me, complimenting the effort in Slovak and then emerging quickly to help scan the ticket at the barriers outside, which had me completely baffled. I was already ready to melt but then saw the climb went on. And on. Still, after a cooling-off period, while sitting watching a wedding party get their photos, I did the top tower and all. Mátušova veža. The top of the castle.


The narrow stairways and doorways up there proved no obstacle to the young and ignorant. Twice, when I stepped back to let someone in or out, the twenty- and thirty-something tourists would pass my shoulder and drive on regardless. On the way back down, I again passed a restaurant (Pod Hradom – ‘Under the Castle’) with what seemed another wedding party. I’d paused within earshot, out on the steep, damp lane, while climbing those steps and cobbles, just to listen to a Slovak folk song (kind of Jewish, I thought), which was accompanied by an accordion. There’s a big synagogue in the old town.


It’s hard to spend money in Slovakia, even at Petržalka. From there a taxi took me to the airport for €34 in December 2019. No complaints. Petržalka station is south of the Danube and the trip took more than the unrealistic twelve minutes indicated online and he did go over the right bridge for the airport. All the drivers at the rank looked like gypsies, I was in a hurry, and my guy did say tridsat’ (‘thirty’) when I asked him, before getting in. I’d paid that before, from the airport to the old town, north of the Danube, in a group of three, of whom one remarked it was for nothing for the actual journey.

When I sat in for the airport he mentioned the meter, which turned out to be secluded between the front seats. At the airport, when he praised the effort in Slovak and added he had a brother in Kilkenny, I added a fiver for Ireland. Afterwards I thought he probably just knew of the beer of that name but I was just glad to get where I had to be, in time. So a poor man made a little extra? More power to him.

Why tolerate a little chiselling? It can mean an easier life. At Keleti station in Budapest, in the August heat wave of 2015, the machines wouldn’t give international tickets and the ticket office was slow chaos, with backpackers getting the most awkward tickets possible and people farther back in the queue having to hold open the heavy door that led into the tight space with the hatches. With the low chairs at those hatches, it was like a small dole office. A fair-haired North American chap with dreadlocks eventually came away from one of those hatches to relay the news to his two female dreadlocked companions – also white – that they would have to make five changes, wherever the f*ck they were going in the Balkans. Anyway, we got on the train with just a few minutes to spare. Within two weeks Keleti made international news, thronged with refugees, a few of whom were already there when we got out.

Journey to the End of the Bed

Journey to the End of the Bed

London, July 1989

The phone rang and it was Kim. He agreed to go and see her. He simply couldn’t refuse that beloved voice at the other end of the line. He hadn’t heard from her in a while but when he got there, her boyfriend was away. They had a good time in the pub on the corner that same evening before returning to the laboratory conditions of the flat, to flashbacks of the agony in the box garden.

The heavily scented bathroom had a noisy ventilator. Windowless, the enclosed space intensified the claustrophobia. There had been candles for the sacred rites after someone dried his hair too vigorously with a towel and smashed the light fitting in the ceiling. While the sturdy ventilator was booming, no one inside could hear a thing from the rest of the flat, no matter what was being said about him or her.

There was even less illumination after someone stayed in the bath so long that the hot candle wax that filled a glass ashtray on the upper of two glass shelves by the wall inside the bath caused a cracking, crashing, flaming cascade into the water and she screamed through her Psycho moment.

Two of her man’s brothers were now crashing there, in the main man’s absence, so she brought him into her room to continue the chat. She sat up on the bed, leaning on the pillows. She was in one of those moods again. He took the other end but her boyfriend was in real trouble.

“Right now I feel like crawling over there and nibbling your ear,” she offered.

It was a journey to the end of the bed. Was there something the world knew that he did not? At his age, twenty-five, he wondered sometimes about that.

“But you can’t, you know that.”

He felt a little unwell but he had to tell her now.

“Have you any idea at all how much I wanted you, from the beginning?”

In the beginning, when it had been just about the two of them, there might have been a double date with Adam and Eve.

“But darling, you never gave the slightest sign of that.”

“I thought you were… you know… you hadn’t.”

“I had.”

To him she’d seemed a childlike angel with a body to confuse all the tadpoles down below, with all the false alarms, but it hadn’t been as it seemed. It never was. There had been a blessed spell in the petting zoo that lasted a month, before travels on her part intervened for the first time.

When she came back the first time, she soon said the thrill was gone. She told him he was up in the air, like a man tied to balloons in an art shop print, on one of those Dublin afternoons where there was always a bus or a train to get, but he didn’t understand what she meant.

Now, in the room, she was quiet for a moment. Then she spoke up again. Though she would end up comfortable with one of her own kind, it seemed he wasn’t quite that much of a dreamer after all.

“But wouldn’t it be a mistake for us to make love now?”

He thought of three things at that instant: the knot of bitterness and the pair of righteous brothers outside the door. The bitterness could have been overcome but, like Wilhelm Reich, he at least understood the crippling effect of a lack of privacy on human relationships. He muttered an answer instead of breaking something. He mumbled that it would.

One of the righteous brothers even entered the bedroom to give her a quick little lecture while he was in the bathroom, having flashbacks. Thereafter their conversation died away, drained unnaturally after that talking cure. He left the room for good soon after she said she was tired. He retired once more to the living room.

In the course of falling asleep again on the extendable chair, it seemed to him the emotional coast might be clear. No noise came from the flat upstairs. Presumably they still blared Doris Day, occasionally. Our lips shouldn’t touch, I like it too much. He thought again of a night in February.

As he’d reclined in his sleeping bag on the dental chair, the only light came from a far streetlight through the window. All it really needed was the faint sound of jazz but beside him Donegal Dec was lying on the floor, reciting one of his poems. He was proud of the line “Vivaldi plays on hired contraption” and why not.

The room was hot because the tenants were in the habit of leaving the radiators on all night. This only added to the claustrophobia. The window was open almost a foot. Instead of Vivaldi, the music they had to listen to consisted of Doris Day records. They were having a party upstairs and shouting voices could be heard erupting intermittently, over Doris. If it meant he really had to listen, then he waited for Move Over Darling.

Waking up in July was like the relief after an operation. Then the patient leaves the hospital, thinks he’s healed, but the scars are tender for a long time and finally leave their mark. A girl friend of hers called to the flat and the three of them went down to the park, Wormwood Scrubs. The way Kim was dressed, in light pink shorts and matching tight top, with sandals with heels, helped explain the looks she got from the chaps sitting drinking outside the couple of bars on the road. Jaws were dropping away from the pints, at the tables, across the lively traffic. He saw them. He understood them. As for the feeling in the park, he felt like tearing up tufts of burnt grass instead of contributing to the conversation. By then the summer felt like a Mediterranean climate. Another feeling was one of wondering if the emotional coast really was clear. The prison stood in the distance. What prisoner, had he known, would have swapped places with him at that moment? The common or garden psycho would have had no problem with that.