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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

P.S.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Finnegan’s Švejk

Finnegan’s Švejk

The real sequel to Ulysses

During a NATO summit in late 2002, a man dressed in a First World War uniform and waving crutches turned up at a Prague protest against the impending invasion of Iraq. Na Bagdád, paní Müllerová! His demand to march on Baghdad echoed an early scene in Hašek’s novel The Good Soldier Švejk. The version used here (1973) is by Cecil Parrott, who can be forgiven a certain English stiffness in translation and even the phrases in iffy Hungarian that remain scattered through the text.

In 1914, the interminable storyteller Josef Švejk gets the charwoman Mrs Müller to wheel him through Prague in a bath chair while he shouts, ‘To Belgrade, to Belgrade!’ The enthusiasm of this disabled veteran is still met with suspicion by the authorities. Corroboration of the barbarism Hašek next describes, even more comically, is evident from a Robert 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.

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 (p. 63). 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 shamIn 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...

When the dissolute atheist priest and army chaplain Otto Katz takes a shine to Švejk for weeping sympathetically at one of his sermons, Katz gets the judge advocate’s office to hand him over. It’s all a bit Brexity. Every state on the brink of total political, economic and moral collapse has an establishment like this. The aura of past power and glory clings to its courts, police, gendarmerie and venal pack of informers (p. 79). While Švejk is kept waiting at an office door for his transfer, he has a chance to look around.

There were photographs of various executions carried out by the army in Galicia and Serbia. They were artistic photographs of charred cottages and trees with branches sagging under the weight of the bodies strung up on them. Particularly fine was a photograph from Serbia of a whole family strung up – a small boy and his father and mother. Two soldiers with bayonets were guarding the tree, and an officer stood victoriously in the foreground smoking a cigarette… in the background a field kitchen could be seen in full operation. (p. 93)

After Katz sells a sofa for a song, to help fund wine, women and more song, he and Švejk have to track it down because the chaplain forgot he’d used its drawer to store an army field altar manufactured by a Jewish firm in Vienna. The paintings on the altar invite some detailed art criticism (p.131).

By and large the painter had been unable to ruin the dove. He had painted a kind of bird which could equally well have been a pigeon or a White Wyandotte [i.e. a chicken]. God the Father looked like a bandit from the Wild West… The Son of God on the other hand was… draped in something that looked like bathing drawers. Altogether he looked a sporting type. The cross which he had in his hand he held as elegantly as if it had been a tennis racquet.

Before long Katz gambles Švejk away at cards so Švejk becomes the batman of Oberleutnant Lukáš, who is described (p. 166) as a typical regular officer… The cadet school had turned him into a kind of amphibian. He spoke German in society, wrote German, read Czech books… He equated being a Czech with membership of some sort of secret organization, to which it was wiser to give a wide berth… He enjoyed the affection of his men because he was unusually just and was not in the habit of bullying anyone.

Complications set in after Švejk is told to obtain for 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 (e.g. pp. 190-200) 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 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.

After the fuss dies down and he buys a few beers for himself and a Hungarian with one good arm, Švejk has no money for a ticket and he can’t get a train pass because Lukáš has gone on with his documents. He 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 hoped he’d seen the back of him. Then the battalion moves out, heading east by rail. The first stop is Vienna (p. 348) where a welcoming committee waits on the platform.

But it was not the same as it had been at the beginning of the war… Fatigue could be seen on all these faces. Troop trains passed through day and night, ambulance coaches packed full of wounded every hour… This went on from day to day and the initial enthusiasm degenerated into yawning…. Soldiers peered out of cattle trucks with an expression of hopelessness like people going to the gallows.

Švejk wangles his way into the staff carriage with Lukáš and the train moves on to the old border of Austria and Hungary (p. 351). In both towns… gypsy bands were playing, the windows of the cafés and restaurants gleamed with light, there was singing and drinking. The local burghers and officials brought their wives and grown-up daughters to the cafés and restaurants… Bruck an der Leitha and Királyhida were nothing but one giant brothel.

Full of drink, Lukáš gives Švejk a letter to take to a married woman in Királyhida. He has earlier observed her objecting to an obscene performance of an operetta in the town’s theatre. On his way the next morning Švejk meets the sapper, Vodička, whose pathological dislike of Hungarians sharpens over a few drinks. Švejk unwisely lets the sapper accompany him to the lady’s address, where the letter is handed to the maid. The outraged husband emerges but is thrown out of his own home by Vodička, in whose coat pocket the letter luckily ends up. A mass brawl erupts on the street, involving passing Czech and Hungarian soldiers. In the fight Švejk bravely wields a walking stick lifted from a civilian bystander.

Col. Schröder interviews Lukáš in the aftermath. Schröder dislikes Hungarians too and recalls the shambles they caused with their friendly fire at Belgrade. That was when they interrupted a nice lunch with vintage wine from the cellar of a local wine merchant hanged the night before. He explains the army has arrested the editors of all the Hungarian publications that named Lukáš in the affair. He also promotes Švejk to company orderly for claiming he wrote the letter as a joke and then eating it when asked to reproduce the handwriting. Nonetheless he and Vodička still have to appear before the divisional court (pp. 388-89) to have their cases quashed.

A volume of the legal code lay before him… On the table… stood a crucifix made out of imitation ivory with a dusty Christ, who looked despairingly at the pedestal of his cross, on which there were ashes and cigarette stubs… Ruller was at this very moment flicking the ash from another cigarette onto the pedestal of the crucifix. With his other hand he was raising the glass of tea, which had got stuck to the legal code. When he had freed the glass… he turned over the pages of a book which he had borrowed from the officers’ club. It was a book… with the promising title: Research into the History of the Development of Sexual Morals… He only pulled himself away from the reproductions when Vodička coughed.

Part three begins with the battalion setting off across Hungary and we see a crew of friendly characters begin to assemble around Švejk. 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 (the new batman to Lukáš) 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 (p. 493). 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 Captain 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 (p. 552).

Northeast of Miskolc, the unit finally gets some goulash at Sátoraljaújhely next to the Slovak border. This town also lies 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. In eastern Slovakia the next day (p. 573) there are signs of fighting on the landscape.

When… they reached Humenné… the men in the transport could in the meantime catch a glimpse of a public secret and observe how, after the departure of the Russians, the authorities treated the local population, who were related to the Russian armies in speech and confession.

Here Hungarian gendarmes beat and toy with civilian prisoners at will. In the staff carriage, most of the officers condemn this and only Dub fully agrees with the brutality and cruelty. Lukáš tells Švejk to go get him a bottle of cognac from a Jewish hawker behind the station, though this is officially forbidden. Dub follows Švejk and when the latter insists that the bottle visible inside his tunic is full of water, Dub tells him to down it all in one go. To Dub’s amazement Švejk drinks it all and flings the bottle into the pond across the road. Though he soon has to lie down for a few hours, he evades Dub’s clutches once more.

The train continues north towards Medzilaborce near the modern Polish border. On the way the signs of fighting get worse. The Carpathian hillsides are lined with trenches and there are huge shell craters on both sides of the railway track. The men see forests shredded by artillery fire and the gleaming white crosses of new army graveyards. In the rear wagons, the Germans from what history remembers as the Sudetenland stop singing.

Beyond the Lupkov Pass they reach Galicia, then the poorest province of Austria-Hungary but today divided between Poland and Ukraine. Frustrated at his inability to catch Švejk out in any way, Dub beats up his own batman, Kunert. In retaliation Švejk leads the dazed Kunert to the staff carriage to make a complaint. Captain Ságner assigns Kunert to the battalion kitchen as compensation for the beating.

As they near the Polish town of Sanok, ruins of villages became more and more common on the landscape. The sight of a wrecked Red Cross train at the bottom of an embankment is a topic of much discussion among Švejk’s crew before 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 on the train, Robert Musil is again instructive when his diary describes a transport of wounded. If anything, this 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.

At Sanok, Ságner goes to report their arrival to brigade staff. There he meets a Captain Tayrle who shows him how well they are geared for debauchery. He brings Ságner to a café that turns out to be a brothel, where Tayrle demands “Miss Ella”, who turns out to be busy upstairs with the drunken Lieutenant Dub. Ságner goes back to his men. New orders mean the battalion has to march east before nightfall. For a conference of officers, Lukáš tells Švejk to go and find Dub. Švejk knows exactly where he is and has to fight his way upstairs in the brothel because only officers are allowed up there.

The march to the east begins along dusty roads in summer heat. When they stop for a rest, Lukáš tells a small group including Švejk to drop their equipment and go ahead to find village billets for the others. They commandeer sleeping quarters from the well-off and the local clergyman. Only the poor have taken in other poor people who have lost their homes. From a crafty Jew they also buy an emaciated and un-cookable cow, on which Baloun breaks a tooth.

The next day just Švejk and Vaňek are sent ahead at midday to look for billets. At a crossroads they disagree on which way to go to their destination. Two ways are marked. They separate and Švejk comes to a small lake where he finds an escaped Russian prisoner bathing (p. 666). The prisoner flees naked.

His Russian uniform was lying underneath the willows and Švejk was curious to know how it would suit him, so he took off his own and put on the uniform… Švejk wanted to see his reflection in the water and so he walked such a long way along the dam of the lake that he was caught by a patrol of field gendarmerie, who were looking for the escaped Russian prisoner.

Part four begins with Švejk in a transport of Russian prisoners. In charge of their registration is a sergeant-major whose only qualification as an interpreter is that he once learned broken Slovak as a salesman of religious paraphernalia. In a conversation in broken German he mistakes Švejk for a Jew and gives him the thankless task of writing down the names of all the other – mostly Asiatic – prisoners.

In Przemyśl in south-eastern Poland it is discovered that Švejk is a Czech. The major who finds out wants to hang him at once but a captain present insists on a court-martial. At the court, General Fink von Finkelstein wants to hang Švejk without red tape too but one of the other officers suggests checking with Švejk’s unit with a view to rooting out perhaps a whole nest of spies. The next morning a telegram comes from Švejk’s unit with the instruction to send him to brigade headquarters without delay. General Fink von Finkelstein is enraged by being deprived of an execution. At the brigade staff headquarters, Colonel Gerbich is now in command. Gerbich suffers from gout.

At meals it was his favourite occupation to tell everybody how his toe oozed and continually sweated, so that he had to keep it in cotton wool, and that these exudations smelled like sour oxtail soup. (p. 719)

Otherwise he’s a jovial commander who doesn’t bother about discipline. When Švejk is brought before him, Dub happens to be in the office. Dub is only there due to a touch of concussion after being thrown from a horse, which greatly amused his fellow officers. At those times when Gerbich’s toe is quiet, his office is always full of various ranks to whom he likes to tell very old and dirty jokes.

Dub is ranting at Švejk when Gerbich’s toe suddenly acts up again. They all rush out, except Dub. When he says something, Gerbich throws an ink pot at him. When peace is restored, a relieved Gerbich gives Švejk a new uniform and sends him back to his battalion, which is now in a small Ukrainian town beyond Lviv. That place is full of artillery and baggage train encampments and soldiers of various regiments come out of every house (p. 724).

Like an elite among them all, Reich Germans were strolling about offering the Austrians cigarettes from their lavish supplies. In the Reich German field kitchens in the square there were even whole barrels from which they tapped beer for the men, who fetched rations of it for their lunch and supper. The neglected Austrian soldiers with their bellies distended by filthy concoctions of sweet chicory hung around them like greedy cats.

The thunder of distant guns can be heard. At the main headquarters at any hour of the day, this or that Jew is being battered on suspicion of spreading rumours. After Švejk tracks down his comrades, Vaňek tells him his old uniform was found at the lake so he’d recorded him as having drowned while bathing. Now the existence of two Švejk uniforms will cause an accounting issue, which may mean an inspection.

After 750 pages both Lieutenant Dub and Cadet Biegler have also returned to the battalion, this time at each other’s throats, but it is there that the novel ends, unfinished. Already seriously ill, Jaroslav Hašek died on 3 January 1923.

Graham Greene in Kenya

Graham Greene in Kenya

Graham Greene went to Kenya in 1953 to report on the Mau Mau revolt. Is anyone else repelled by the turd-polishing of British colonialism evident in the Kenya chapter in his 1980 memoir Ways of Escape? It wasn’t as if he didn’t have enough time to reflect on the experience. Would he ever have similarly glossed over the activities of the Americans or the French?

Just look at this selection of quotes (with emphasis added for clarity):

“The liberal administrator… had been honestly planning a land in which the position of the African would gradually, very gradually, improve…”

“…the old settler… surrounded by sixty thousand acres of his own ranching land…”

“The Kikuyu were not savage, they made good clerks and stewards…”

“Now the margin of profit was threatened… The Mau Mau stole and slashed, the best labour disappeared.”

“They had been settled, in some parts of Kenya, a third as long as the Kikuyu.”

The British land grab in Kenya had begun in the 1890s. The nature of this invasion prompted Winston Churchill to write privately in 1908 … “It looks like a butchery. If the House of Commons gets hold of it, all our plans… will be under a cloud. Surely it cannot be necessary to go on killing these defenceless people on such an enormous scale.”

“…unused land would one day have to be sequestered…”

“Even though the extreme conservative farmers were dying out they could not avoid all responsibility for what had occurred.”

“…somewhere… there must have existed that archetypal figure who would slap his servant’s face if he replied to him in English.”

The white settlers in Kenya were notorious for flogging their employees, as was their judiciary for turning a blind eye to it.

“… neither the trigger-happy East African Rifles, the European police nor the Home Guard came out of the struggle unstained.”

Even the right-wing Daily Mail (12/04/11) can elaborate starkly on this last Greene quote.

“The British crackdown was brutal and almost certainly what today would be termed a disproportionate response. Thousands of Kenyans died in the guerrilla fighting. A thousand were convicted of capital offences and hanged. Many more – perhaps up to 300,000 – suspected of being Mau Mau or even just associating with the insurgents were detained in camps where sanitation was rudimentary, food inadequate, and discipline often brutal and unrelenting.  Beatings are said to have been a daily occurrence. According to evidence in long-concealed official documents now being produced for a compensation court case in London, inmates were tortured, castrated and raped.”

The true moral of colonial war is only hinted at once by Greene, perhaps as flippantly as when he likens the conflict to Jeeves taking to the jungle, having sworn to kill Wooster. He touches on it when he quotes a priest being asked an awkward question by an African. Didn’t God… put the sea between us so that we shouldn’t interfere with each other?

The same moral is unfortunately absent from the American Apocalypse Now with its ending that echoes the way Thucydides in The Peloponnesian War makes Pericles sound like Hitler. It is because your resolution is weak that my policy appears to be mistaken.

At least it is crystal clear in one of the Rambo films, of all things, where Richard Crenna tells it like it is to a Russian in Afghanistan. It’s like us in Vietnam. You shouldn’t be here.

In other words, get out.

The Last Days of Albert Camus

The Last Days of Albert Camus

A lorry driver brought me to the bridge in Waterford. He used to go down to Algiers for a couple of years and he was talking about it as we drove along the Quay in the sunshine. “It’s a dirty city,” he said. “The place might have been good, if the French stayed.” When he brought a football down it was a precious gift for the youngsters.

12 April 1988

That was just six months before the October riots that first hinted at the impending civil war in Algeria. Now a book has claimed on the basis of some Czech hearsay that the death of the former goalkeeper Albert Camus was the work of the KGB, aided by French intelligence. At first this assertion recalled 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.

Then the salient fact preceding the Frenchman’s fatal crash came to mind. Camus had two days earlier packed his wife and children off on a train to Paris so he could enjoy a long spin in the luxury fast car owned by Michel Gallimard. His demise seems regrettably derived from something as juvenile as that.

Notwithstanding his unforgettable passages such as the grotesque opera scene in La Peste or the poignant school fight and its aftermath in Le Premier homme, it is fair to say that L’Étranger is, as much as anything, a parable of colonialism. Meursault’s casual brutality to an Arab (it was a hot day) and farcical trial are revealing in ways the author by his own commentary clearly did not intend. Otherwise, of course, it remains a masterpiece of passivity, right from its opening line.

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.

La Chute is the most famous book set in Amsterdam, “a capital of waters and fogs, girdled by canals, particularly crowded, and visited by men from all corners of the earth”. Camus also wrote of it “asleep in the white night, the dark jade canals under the little snow-covered bridges” but, in 1997, a BBC documentary ended with the camera on the warm, sunlit trees along the empty French road where he died in January 1960.

His last four love letters, read in a solemn voice-over by the actor Brian Cox, were unintentionally funny. None winged its way to his wife. Each time, the only changes to the artist’s passion were the woman’s name and the day or time they were to meet, after he got back to Paris. How did he get time to write a line?

PS The letters start at 1:21:21

The Low Life Highs of Jeffrey Bernard

The Low Life Highs of Jeffrey Bernard

I was walking along Cleveland Street the other day in a cold drizzle when I suddenly came across an amazing collage on the pavement which just about summed up the human condition to perfection. It comprised a pool of vomit, an empty beer can, some dog shit and a sprinkling of confetti.

– 3 January 1987

My favourite English writer finally got his name in lights in 1989 with the hit play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell that was largely based on his long-running column for the Spectator magazine. That column was also published in three collections – Low Life (1986), More Low Life (1989) and Reach for the Ground (1996) – though some notable omissions mean these are not the collected pieces.

In these books the style changes over time in one important respect. The earliest is perhaps the most uneven. Presumably written in more of a hurry, it still contains more high points of utter quotability than the other two. By the last book, his various ailments have slowed him down so much that he inevitably has more time on his hands, as incident gives way to reflection.

No matter the year, though, Bernard (1932-97) still gives the reader a reassuring feeling like the one he himself had about Turkish baths. You can walk about and have a chat and all sorts of oddballs loom up in the steam. The main subjects remain the same. Booze, women, horse-racing, hospitals, the peculiarities of the rich and famous, getting away from it all, and the Coach and Horses pub in Soho, with his comic foil the gruff Jewish landlord, Norman Balon. I overpaid him with a penny for his thoughts.

In more ways than one, as Bernard reminds the reader, drink gets you somewhere you wouldn’t otherwise be. I have even woken up in a drawer at the bottom of a wardrobe. That was fairly frightening. Trying to open a drawer from the inside. It’s quite tricky. 

His real boozing set in during the Sixties. There is a vignette of the comedian Tony Hancock (1924-68) falling in a heap on the floor of a London cab, after a ten-hour session with Bernard, but still reaching up and handing him his card. Phone me if you get into trouble. I think you may have a drinking problem. Nevertheless it is doubtful Bernard was ever in the eating-is-cheating camp, as is evident from this one-liner.

People who drink wine without food smell like drains.

Drink was always the other woman, he eventually grasped. What I know about women could be put inside the head of an ant. This of course was not true. With seriously dangerous women you can hear them thinking in the dark. He had reached the point of low to zero expectations – All I expect is that they wake me up when the waiter brings the bill – but it was there he could make a vintage brew from emotional and literal car crashes.

I remember once being given a severance kiss in favour of a property dealer who turned out to be impotent. There was also a woman… who… jumped into her car and drove straight into a wall, blinded no doubt by crocodile tears.

I just heard a terrific bang and smash followed by screams, and ran out into the street to find that someone had driven a car right into the Draper’s Arms. It was sitting there oozing smoke in the saloon bar. Luckily the occupants were… simply shocked. Whether they were shocked by the crash or shocked by the fact that it wasn’t quite opening time is debatable.

On life’s episodes of jumping into bed, un-followed, though he was married four times, Bernard focuses on the effects of pre-coital (or non-coital) tobacco consumption.

Sadly I’ve never had a footman to summon and have these people thrown out before they smoke all my cigarettes. I resign myself to the situation, take a Valium and then fall asleep and burn the bedspread… I now have a fire extinguisher by my bed but I never really know whether to aim it at my privates, the lady or the bedspread.

On hospital patients, his conviction did not quite match the old theatrical metaphor that the characters may change but the play remains the same. For him the characters alas did not vary either.

my three companions are dead ringers for any and all the other trios I’ve ever served time with in hospitals. It’s a bit like being in rep.

Sadly the patients never change. Are they provided by some sort of agency? Is anyone worth talking to ever hospitalised?

… it is the patients who get up my nose the most: readers of The Sun, football fans, moaners and men who would take an oath on Reader’s Digest. I sometimes wonder if it is only the ugly and mindless who get sick.

To be fair he does not care for medical students either, with one or two “who couldn’t diagnose a decapitation” but all exuding halitosis.

Norman is a kind but sometimes embarrassing hospital visitor, paying calls as he does to every bed in the ward and then announcing in a loud voice gloomy prognoses on the doomed inmates. ‘He hasn’t got long,’ is his usual verdict. He should wear a black cap on his hospital rounds.

In honour of his hero Admiral Nelson, Jeff recounts the highest point of his hospital career in the style of a naval battle in the days of sail but, in the excitement and fog of war, he also lobs in land-based allusions to Shakespeare, horse-racing and the English Civil War. The incident took place at dawn, while he was trying to sneak a cup of tea, outside the surveillance of a West Indian kitchen tyrant.

This mere sloop, as redundant as a dinghy at Trafalgar, was suddenly about to be engaged by the… Santissima Trinidad, the biggest warship afloat. Vainly I swung the wheel hard to port but her first shot knocked the cup out of my hand and sent boiling water everywhere… ‘Dis my kitchen. Get the f*ck out.’ Now she was wrestling the kettle away from my grasp and… the last thing I could afford was a Rastafarian boarding party. I backed away and dropped anchor by the fridge… There are… moments of inspiration that have changed the course of history and as my right hand suddenly felt the comforting lump of a half pound of butter I knew she was but a Rupert to my Cromwell. I had offered my kingdom for a horse and got Shergar. The butter hit her on the left shoulder with such force she spun round and dropped the kettle… I could hear her in the distance… ‘… Mister Bernard, he f*cking mad. Try to kill me. He cut my arm wid butter…’ It was a momentous victory.

Regarding those historical figures he did know personally, in little more than half a page elsewhere he touches lightly on Germaine Greer, Mick Jagger, George Best, Michael Parkinson and the writer of Chariots of Fire, one Colin Welland, whom he labels Smelly Welland. But the Stone is the most vivid.

I went on the piss with Mick Jagger and… he suddenly burst into tears. Solicitous as a spider to a fly, I enquired as to the cause of the dreadful stream of tears and mucus ruining my lapels. ‘I can’t take it,’ he howled… ‘The success. The money and all those birds.’ At the time, I happened to be short of both… and suggested a transfer of both cash and crumpet into my safekeeping. He soon stopped crying and left without paying. My turn to cry.

Laurie Lee, however, proved even more bizarre and miserly.

Last year I sat next to him and he shovelled four lamb cutlets into his jacket pocket without even bothering to wrap them up in a napkin. I said to him, ‘I didn’t know you had a dog.’ He said, ‘I haven’t. They’re for me. I shall heat them up again tonight for my supper.’ I should have thought that the royalties from such works as Cider With Rosie would bring in enough to pay for food instead of having to wash old chops covered with fluff and bits of tobacco from a jacket pocket.

As for getting away from it all, Samuel Johnson is enlisted to frame the context of it all.

that daft utterance about London and not getting tired of it (a man, like him, who has an opinion on everything can be a bore).

Sitting beneath the palms… I can hear the fizz of frying prawns, the dying hiss of a lobster and the rattle of a cocktail shaker and, with luck, the scream of a German tourist treading on a sea urchin.

The only foreigners he liked and had real sympathy for were the Irish. With the understandable exception of Terry Wogan.

I expect strange things from Americans but this nut introduced himself and then said, ‘You write for the Psychic News, don’t you?’ I told him I didn’t and held out very little hope for much entertainment after death which is why I was holding on to the bar with such tenacity.

For the reader, his best holiday is his most nightmarish, in Egypt, where he battles diarrhoea cramps in forty degrees, with no hat. But, like Indiana Jones, our hero escapes in the nick of time.

I found a lavatory with as much wonder as Carter experienced in 1922 on opening that tomb.

Jeff is nothing if not a philosopher, whose imagination is not of the fantasy variety but that of the man who can grasp connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena. Note how a glass of vodka in the sun causes him to reflect on playing the Good Samaritan.

the ice melts away as quickly as a man you’ve helped.

Nonetheless, where such a man may disappear to can still surprise him from time to time.

A couple of Sundays ago I was watching Songs of Praise, which was coming from Maidstone prison of all places, when to my amazement I spotted a man in the congregation of the chapel who owes me £50. He was standing there and had the gall to be singing Abide With Me.

Another example of his philosophical talent is shown after he has a bag nicked in the pub and he extrapolates on theft.

Most blessings are heavily disguised… I vaguely remember having left a chunk of cod fillet in the carrier bag with the sweater and by this time the thief will have come to acknowledge that it is better to give than to receive.

His powers of sociological observation are also considerable. Though, with the amount of geography thrown in, it is only fair to give credit to both his social and spatial awareness.

Today’s spiv is a smoothie more than anything. He is to be found in advertising, television, Fleet Street and, by the score, in the House of Commons… Most Soho spivs work at producing television commercials.

… journalists are simply shit-stirrers paid to drink on expenses. 

A lot of people in Islington have been hinting at potential talent for at least fifty years. Most of them end up as rip-off antique dealers

Name me a gossip who has been snatched away too soon. You can’t. (…) There’s a nasty grin that plays around their wet lips when nothing whatsoever funny or amusing is being said… they understand the human condition, which is something the village idiot can’t comprehend… The village idiot is the man who mentally jogs through life.

The key to Bernard’s black comedy is that it hinges on the sinister side of life, his philosophical consideration that something bad has either previously happened, could still happen or might just as easily have happened. The more surreal the better.

His life in the Coach and Horses included the day he was stared at and then chatted up by a beautiful black woman who turned out to be the tax inspector who was on his case. The pub also landed him famously in court for operating an illegal gambling book for his friends on the premises.

My lawyer made a really excellent speech to the magistrate but my friends in the gallery who came to lend me support, and in some cases write about it all, laughed too much and the beak didn’t like the levity.

By 1990, the phone revolution was underway and his biggest remaining problem in the Coach was gaining attention at the counter.

A man came into the pub the other day carrying one of those awful mobile telephones. I asked him if I could use it and he kindly obliged and asked me what number I wanted. I gave him the number of the pub. Norman was standing no more than six feet away and when he answered the call he barked, ‘Coach and Horses! Hallo!’ I said, ‘Is there any chance of being served a bloody drink in this ghastly pub?’ My language was a little stronger than that…

At that point Norman just called him a bastard and gave him a vodka. Bernard goes on to link this moment to a racing reminiscence.

… I remember once being served by an Irishman at a Derby lunch in the Dorchester when I spotted Sally, the Begum Aga Khan, a couple of tables away. I asked the man to deliver… a note without a word in her ear. I had written on it, ‘Although I am only a humble Irish waiter, I think I am in love with you.’

Though the play conveyed with pathos the happiness of lunchtime sessions in the Coach and Horses with many old friends by then dead, Bernard’s columns also captured the sadness of the pub life, as in the last days of the year, of any year, as Christmas goes on too long, like the patron who should just go home.

The crowd in the pub is a human left-over soup of a kind… A cheque is cashed, a round is bought and Chorus enters stage right declaiming, ‘You should have been in here last night.’

In his introduction to the first volume, John Osborne remarks on Bernard’s eye for physical detail. This is perhaps most evident in two passages from the late Eighties in which Bernard looks back on good times, out in the country, where, despite the failed attempts to settle down with various wives and despite the various spats with vicars and rural gentry, he was evidently happiest, at least when he was on his own.

(The first spell was ruined when he unwisely invited two rowdy house guests to join him in the sticks.)

There was a cold winter that I did enjoy though… [X] lent me a cottage in Suffolk and I got a job from the neighbouring farmer. For two months I worked at hedging and ditching and it was tremendously satisfying… After every twenty yards or so I made a little bonfire with what I had cut and sat down and had some tea from the thermos. The country was crystal clear. Cloudless pale-blue skies and the cold brought everything into the sharpest of focuses so that a frozen blade of grass was as a needle. Blackbirds and squirrels followed my progress along the edges of the frozen meadows, and then just as I was beginning to feel like St. Francis of Assisi the spell was broken. (…) No more log fires, bonfires and blackbirds eating the crusts of my sandwiches under the frozen blue silence of that sky. I could have killed them but they managed that themselves in their own good time. I miss them a lot.

– 5 November 1988

But the thing I thought mostly about during this sleepless night of remembrance was walking my dog… at dusk on autumn and winter evenings. She was a very pale Labrador – the pallor native to East Anglia … I had a very good gun… and when the sun began to dip below the trees of the wood we would walk along through the mist that gathered above and beside the river. She would go along ahead of me, stopping from time to look back and see if I was still following, and I would be looking out and listening for pheasants, wood pigeons and rabbits. I was poaching but… the farmer didn’t spend money on breeding game. It was just there, like the trees that had been there for hundreds of years. An all-too-rare treat we had was to see the barn owl gliding down along the river. He was so powerful that one that one languid flap of his great wings would carry him about a hundred yards. Freewheeling majesty. Then, when the sun had really sunk, we walked home through the wet grass, the smell of gunpowder lingering, cold and hungry towards the log fire.

– 21 January 1989

As for an epilogue, I choose the passage most apt for these Brexit times, which Jeff would have seen as the predictable evolution of the grossness of this age.

The English man-in-the-street… is largely envious, vindictive and punitive. (…) He knows little about himself, would not even understand the recent Budget but, by jingo, he knows what is best for other people. It is a mercy that there aren’t more referendums in this country. They would be hanging children.