Mauthausen

Mauthausen

Austria, 28 December 2015

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

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

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Past the monuments, now the highest fog had cleared, there was a piece or two of metal building site fencing across the top of the path down to the Todesstiege (death stairs) and the quarry but it was possible to get around that with no trouble. This was the place I most wanted to see.

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

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Forty nationalities were consigned to hell in that place. It was like the UN of concentration camps. There is even a monument to the Albanians. Of the 23,000 Spaniards who had fled to France in 1939 to escape from Franco only to end up at Mauthausen or one of its satellite camps, 16,000 were killed. All the first consignment of Dutch Jews sent here in 1942 were thrown off the quarry cliff that the SS nicknamed die Fallschirmspringer Wand, the Parachutists’ Wall. Many other prisoners saved the SS the trouble and just jumped.

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

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Thomas Bernhard, Holzfällen

Thomas Bernhard, Holzfällen

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

– Thomas Bernhard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linz, Mauthausen, Steyr & Vienna (Austria, December 2015)

Linz, Mauthausen, Steyr & Vienna (Austria, December 2015)

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Two days after Christmas the sun was shining. Having not looked up where Hotel Kolping was for quite some time, I had to ask three pretty young ladies for help on Bürgerstrasse in Linz. Two were surely sisters and maybe even twins – the same black-rimmed glasses and stylish highlights. Late teens. I was on the wrong side of Landstrasse but at least on the right north-south echelon of it. The Hotel Kolping lies behind the casino. After checking in, paying and having a shower, I stopped for a hot dog at the twin of the Bosner Eck stand before heading to the river.

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Past Hauptplatz the Danube bridge crosses to the Urfahr end. The car lights shone through the murk as an icy mist blew up from the water.

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Back on Hauptplatz I found the Old Dubliner pub down a long tunnel. The pretty young blonde behind the counter didn’t know what a hot whiskey was so I had a bottle of Weizenbier instead. I had five of them, though my eyes at times were stinging with the smoke, long banned in Ireland, as the place filled up. It was small and dark but there was a lot of people then and it was quite amazing how the girl handled it all alone. She was an engineering student. Some people were coming to the counter, some were ordering from tables, some were paying up front, some were running a tab.

The guy next to me at the counter had come in with someone with short hair and glasses. I thought it was a young lad at first but it turned out to be his wife. The chap himself wouldn’t have looked out of place among the crew of U-96 (Das Boot), down with all the scraggy beards and hunted eyes. He said the informal people of Upper Austria hadn’t much use for Sie, except with Polizei und Richter (police and judges). He ordered something that looked like a grilled slice of a large brown loaf, with some pizza toppings. He told me what it was called (Holzknecht) and then I had it too. According to him, it had been a traditional meal for poor people working im Wald (in the forest).

I also got to know the barmaid’s name – Laura – and kissed her extended hand. That kind of thing didn’t please a lad – her boyfriend, I presumed – at a crowded table where she took a break in a lull around ten. I spotted her looking around at me as he started to complain but, whatever she said in response, she cooled his boots. I was old enough to be her father. Anyway, I was about to leave. I didn’t want to be wrecked in the morning. I wanted to get to Mauthausen.

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Sitting on the toilet lid in the morning just before a shower at nine brought a life first. It shattered and my arse plunged south. I’d often seen people sit on toilet lids for one reason or another in films but I’d never seen that happen there either. On the way to the breakfast room I confessed at reception. The lady said there was no need to pay for it. In other words I hadn’t blown up the mini-bar or anything like that. It was only a piece of plastic.

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The train to Mauthausen took only about twenty minutes. There were no taxis at the station and I did the 5k winding hike uphill to the camp. “This is some hike, man,” I said to myself before I realised that the phrase rhymed with Eichmann. When I got high enough away from the wet Danube fog, the sun lightened the soup but I still could see f*ck all except some of the road in front. I was even wondering was it just the murk or was it the effort of the climb too. I started wiping (steam?) off my glasses. Higher again, the sun was just beginning to burn off some of the fog in the afternoon. The Lager loomed, finally, as a long stone fort of no great height on top of the hill. A woman at the visitors’ centre – a concrete maze – told me it was closed and she unlocked a door to get me a brochure – so I wasn’t going to see the gas chamber – but she added I could walk around the exterior. Past the monuments, now the highest fog had cleared, there was a piece or two of metal building site fencing across the top of the path down to the Todesstiege (death stairs) and the quarry but it was possible to get around that with no trouble. This was the place I most wanted to see. I was the only one down there, where the fog was brightly waxing and waning. At the time it didn’t feel eerie. Oddly peaceful and even beautiful, by the black pond below the cliff, the site of course proved the birds did sing. I even heard a distant cock crowing but the suffering that was inflicted there was and is just unimaginable.

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Forty nationalities were consigned to hell in that place. It was like the UN of concentration camps. There is even a monument to the Albanians. Of 23,000 Spaniards who had fled to France in 1939 to escape from Franco only to end up at Mauthausen or one of its satellite camps, 16,000 were killed. All the first consignment of Dutch Jews sent here in 1942 were thrown off the quarry cliff that the SS nicknamed die Fallschirmspringer Wand, the Parachutists’ Wall. Many other prisoners saved the SS the trouble and just jumped.

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

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From there a short-cut led to a steeper descent into the fog that gloomily took me back to Mauthausen village where I bought a shirt and some t-shirts in a C&A, thinking I hadn’t brought enough.

Before the pub that night I got a tasty Bosner groß from the Bosner Eck. Then I walked up to the Schloss and took more photos on the way. There was a different girl working in the Old Dubliner, a slim girl with some Italian features (e.g. black hair, a higher nose bridge) but with rather exotic green eyes. Note: a couple of years had to pass before I learned that the possessor of those striking eyes wasn’t Germanic or Italian at all.

Though the place was busy again, she wasn’t under as much pressure, as the orders weren’t flying in like the night before. Letting her keep the change out of a €20 note surprised her (“Eh, danke schön”), unsurprisingly, over there, where they don’t expect much of a tip, but letting Laura keep change had already been a pleasure. I’d had four drinks, during which time I got talking to a bespectacled young darts fan called Jakob, with a shaved head and a goatee, who was only into the darts on TV because some Austrian had qualified for the last whatever of the world championship. He wasn’t the only person during this trip to ask, Warum Österreich? I quoted Christoph Waltz making a parallel between the Austrian-German difference and the Irish-English one. Jakob interpreted it as wie ein kleiner Bruder. On the way back I had another Bosner, this time from the other of the twin stands. This one was OK but it wasn’t as good as the first. I hadn’t wanted the Bosner Eck lady to think she couldn’t keep those dogs fired out to me.

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Over there, despite the lights, I could forget it was Christmas. I was by then missing the sixth Irish storm of the season (“Frank”) too, though it hadn’t stopped raining back home in the meantime. In the morning I went to the Lentos Kunstmuseum where I bought a lot of postcards, including three of Kokoschka’s Die Freunde, which up close looks like it was painted with his fingers.

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After a short stop at the Neuer Dom it was time to head to Steyr. On the train a Pakistani paterfamilias – who smelled slightly of shit, the smell of poverty – wanted to know where they should get off (St. Valentin) and change for Grein. One of his hijab-ed teenage girls told me, “Speak English” but, when I asked her if she could, she indicated with her fingers that it was only a little bit she knew. I didn’t know if any of them understood anything but at least they got off at the correct stop.

The train got to Steyr before dusk, having followed a bend like the Waterford Blackwater’s on the Enns that here meets the river that gives the town its name. This place was like a fairy tale town. I had to enter another tunnel, on Stadtplatz, and head upstairs to find the reception area of the Stadthotel Styria. The guy at the desk looked like Tom Petty. The room was quite luxurious. The two nights there were dearer than Linz. I had an hour’s kip and then a bath. There was even an armchair with a round coffee table beside it.

I had to go out and find something to eat. Wandering around, I saw the streets were practically empty. Here and there I could smell something nice but the only outdoor menu I checked, on Enns Kai, had indecipherable handwriting. It was more hurried than Gothic. Finally I read the one outside the Hotel Mader, which was almost next door to mine. The girl at the first counter directed me down the back, through another tunnel, and I saw three more dining rooms, plus a bar. There was life alright but the Upper Austrian love of tunnels kept it off the streets.

A club sandwich plus wedges did the trick, despite a nearby table of yakking Germans, and then I wandered over to Steyrdorf again. Back in the hotel by ten, I didn’t even want to go to a pub that night. Crossing back over the Steyr river, I’d climbed to the Schloss. A bird was hooting in the wood of the Schloss park behind it but sounded a bit high-pitched for an owl. Empty dark alleys around there were less spooky than dreamlike.

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After no drink, bar a single dunkel in the Mader the night before, while eating, I still didn’t sleep very well. A pair of cleaning women had the window thrown open when I got back from breakfast around ten. I went over to the spot at the end of the Enns bridge outside the Hotel Minichmayr to film the meeting of the waters. There were seagulls here, in a landlocked country. The wind off the rivers was icy. On the way there I sneaked a few snaps of a cute little female postie with glasses. She wore a woolly cap and a black and yellow jacket. She was young. She had a matching little black and yellow van. That time I didn’t stay out long. The morning was cold so I returned to the hotel for my jumper. Shirt and heavy jacket weren’t enough. Then I knew I had to get some more sleep.

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Out again in the afternoon, I wandered around to the churches. I must have got the habit. The sun was half-out. Then in the Christmas market on the Stadtplatz I ate another Bosner. I counted three elderly German-speaking tourist groups passing by. The dog was followed by two mugs of Glühwein, from two different huts. Next stop was the Café Werndl for a Fiaker (basically a rum shot that just smells of coffee) and what proved to be a small block of Sachertorte, with Schlagobers.

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Further wandering over in Steyrdorf ended at nightfall. In the murky interior of the Michaelerkirche I suddenly heard organ music but it was only the ringtone of a guy who appeared out of nowhere and who hadn’t even taken off his cap off. The wind near water felt like being out at sea. That evening again someone was setting off fireworks somewhere across the Enns. Travel is a mixture of slogging from A to B and onward but also spending a lot of time thrown in bed relaxing and even writing. That was my experience. In this country, as in Italy, or even France, there always seemed to be a lot of steps to be climbed too.

At an English pub in Steyrdorf, by the name of Sir Patrick, one also had to press a buzzer to be let in. There, an inquisitive but very inebriated Opel agent of about sixty was unimpressed by any mention of Ireland. Sepp later gave up insisting I was an Englishman, also in the motor trade (“Du bist Agent?”) for the suggestion I was from Norway. A taxi finally took him away but not before he also enquired if I was looking for a fight (“Willst du kämpfen?”), though not necessarily with him.

The place wasn’t busy and I left after three drinks. At least it wasn’t full of smoke. I tried the noisy Treff Café on Enns Kai then but (1) I couldn’t find the toilets and (2) if I wanted alcoholic Weizenbier I had to go/do somewhere/something a nice young girl behind the counter said but I didn’t catch. At a normal bar counter I shouldn’t have had to understand so I gave up and didn’t even ask her to repeat it. I was back in the hotel room by eleven. The mini-bar was going to get a little hit.

There was an ancient minibus doing the rounds outside in daylight, more magnolia than pale yellow, with “Christkindl” painted on its side, and every time it turned up in the Stadtplatz it blared the same two pairs of notes, like a ship’s horn. The first pair rose, the second pair fell. It did this again before it departed. The nearer you were to it, the more annoying it got.

In the crisp sunshine of New Year’s Eve I was heading back to Linz because it was cheaper and simpler to get to back to Vienna that way. It was gone noon. I didn’t fancy drinking that night either. Maybe I’d go to Stephansplatz later. My man from Das Boot had recommended that. When the whole Christmas season was over – it is literally a season now in terms of how long it feels – I’d be thinking back to moments like this. The sun was shining and I was travelling comfortably on a quiet train. A little bit tired (no hangovers), I got a boost from a Semmel I’d filled again at breakfast time. It was a good day to travel.

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The Westbahn train from Linz was crowded but I easily found the hotel after getting the U-Bahn to Alser Strasse. Three young Italians were taking a long time to check in but, when these other guests around reception cleared off, I ended up talking to the man behind the counter, comparing the death tolls of the Irish and Ukrainian famines. He didn’t want to pin the latter on Stalin, just “die Moskau Regierung” (the Moscow government), and I wasn’t going to argue with him about the 1930s. Not on New Year’s Eve. He must have asked me something about Ireland for us to jump on to that topic but in fairness he was curious about Irish dancing as well. He imitated the arms held down by the dancers’ sides, a style I explained was ordained by the puritanical priesthood. Das war ein Befehl von den Priestern. Sonst, zu sexy.

Anyway, I dropped the bag in the room and set off to find Berggasse and Freud’s apartment, even though I presumed it would be closed. It wasn’t. It was packed. A mixed French group pushed the street door ahead of me. Upstairs a stubbly Frenchman with a woolly cap didn’t bother going in. His wife turned to him. Tu restes au café en face? He chuckled and nodded. Il y a un sex shop en face.

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A little video of a couple of Freud’s hats in a glass case and the preserved waiting room beside them was a good memento to come away with but, before leaving Berggasse, I also took a photo from the street of the lit windows on the first floor. The people jumping the ‘queue’ to swarm around the entrance desk had been more of an illustration of Alinsky’s key psychological principle – that people only push to get on a bus which they think has limited seating – than anything Freudian. Schlange means both queue and snake in German but there, one couldn’t dream of either.

The temperature had dropped below zero and my legs froze as I kept walking, having passed a locked-up Irish pub I’d looked up, on Landesgerichtstrasse. Ending up in the Museumsquartier, I said I’d keep going and get something to eat in Flanagan’s. A hot whiskey prepared by the manager thawed me out and I didn’t ask him about food, having already stopped for a final Bosner. Though the single sausage had looked more like a Käsekrainer, it was just as well I’d had it, as there was no sign of anyone eating in the pub. After a beer to follow the whiskey, I slipped away. A place like that is too much like home and only alright for one or two at most, if you want to keep it country. Another country.

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The hotel room window, even if it had been double glazed, which it wasn’t, couldn’t compete with the fireworks and bangers. I got back around ten, having wandered through the crowds in the lit-up Innere Stadt. They were enjoying the amenities (food, drink, music). Before turning into the hotel I strolled to the far end of Theresiengasse just for a look and to kill more time. Ganz Wien was blaring from some open third-floor windows on Kreuzgasse, as I passed that junction. A Falco moment. Once more my legs were feeling the cold so I called it a night.

Talking again to the man at the desk, I found out he was from Kiev. My impression that he missed the USSR was reinforced. He was proud of Nikita Khruschev and Ukrainian generals and a nearby monument to the soldiers of the First Ukrainian Front. I’d have guessed he didn’t care much for Jews either, though all he did was express sympathy for the Palestinians. Woher kamen diese Juden? (‘Where did those Jews come from?’) He told me his two sons were soccer players but I didn’t want to peer too hard at his name tag to get the surname. Something ending in -ov, I thought. It was raining firework debris on the roofs and the racket was quite intense. There were sirens too, now and then. The curtains were closed. He didn’t look at all Slavonic. He was swarthy and reminded me of some actor, such as Lee J. Cobb (smile, voice, moustache) or Pernell Roberts or a combination of both. A group he said were from Odessa then emerged from the lift and when one of them came over to talk to him I said goodnight.

Though he’d claimed Rokossovsky was Ukrainian, that invited a later check. The Marshal was of Polish origin and spent almost three years as a prisoner of the state from 1937 until his release without explanation in 1940, during which time he somehow never signed any false statement. He later told his daughter that he always carried a revolver so they would not take him alive if they ever came for him again.

Up at half past eight on New Year’s Day, I opened the curtains. That revealed some snow on the windowsill. It was still snowing at the airport. The plane needed de-icing. Before leaving the hotel I’d asked a different chap at reception if the Christian name of the man from Kiev was what I’d thought it was. He found it amusing when I added that we’d had a long conversation, like it was nothing new.

Final Solutions – Globočnik, Trevelyan & the BBC

Final Solutions – Globočnik, Trevelyan & the BBC

Photo: Sir Charles Trevelyan

Hella Pick’s Guilty Victim (2000) states that the spin that Austria was the first victim of the Nazis was a product of Cold War collusion between the state and the western powers after the Russians had agreed to pull back to Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The book adds that, in a state where the citizens provided half a million Nazi party members, an proportionally excessive contribution to the SS and an extraordinarily high presence among the ‘staff’ at concentration camps, the principle of denazification was even less a priority than in Germany. It should nevertheless also be noted that the proportion of Austrians later deemed Righteous Among the Nations was double what it might have been, going on the comparable figure for Germans and on Austria’s share of the population of the Reich.

In a post-war climate of stability, prosperity and considerable diplomatic leeway, Austria’s long-time chancellor Bruno Kreisky (1970-83) claimed that Austria had withdrawn from history and was quite happy about that. Nevertheless, though the country had become a refuge for hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly from the Eastern Bloc, this harmless image didn’t last and Austria took a lot of international stick over Haider and Waldheim in the Nineties.

The posturing abroad overlooked the strong likelihood that at least 20% of any population is more or less fascist anyway, if that means including those inclined to worship the strong, despise the weak and inform on the neighbours. The classic eponymous study of the authoritarian personality by Adorno et al (1950) suggests that one in three of us has a taste for dictatorship and, after a few minutes’ reflection on what we hear in bars and radio phone-ins and what we see in comment sections, it is hard to argue that any of this is an exaggeration.

Do we really think if Britain retook the whole island and told the Irish, who have never been imperial, that they could freely kill certain unpopular neighbours slash fellow citizens, that there wouldn’t be many takers? The hypocrisy of some of Austria’s critics, such as the French, who were responsible for huge colonial wars after 1945, was highlighted by Tony Judt in 2000.

Until Jacques Chirac put out a… statement about Vichy in 1995, French governments had resolutely refused any such responsibility for past crimes… Mitterrand… a former Vichy official, made a particular point of denying it again and again. It was the same Mitterrand who manipulated the French electoral system to engineer the parliamentary success… of [the] National Front… Thus when François Hollande… expresses the “très vive émotion” of his party at the rise of Jörg Haider, it is hard to take his distress very seriously. And as French and other commentators fall over one another to castigate Austria as a nasty little amnesiac Alpine redoubt full of unreconstructed neo-Nazi xenophobes, they sometimes forget that… Austria has had a better record of welcoming… refugees… Moreover, it wasn’t an Austrian chancellor who conducted an American president on a tour of SS graves in May 1985.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wittgenstein & corporal punishment

Wittgenstein & corporal punishment

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In September 1924, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brief career as a country schoolteacher in Lower Austria entered its final, most dramatic phase when he moved to Otterthal. Among his pupils was a sickly boy of eleven, Josef Haidbauer, whose widowed mother worked for a local farmer named Piribauer, whose daughter Hermine happened to be in the same class. Here Wittgenstein continued his strenuous mixture of curricular and extra-curricular instruction, liberally sprinkled with Ohrfeigen and Haareziehen i.e. the boxing of ears and the pulling of hair. The English literary quack Colin Wilson later wrote that Wittgenstein was “virtually driven out… by resentful peasants” but, instead of attempting any such crude spin or justification of his brutality, the excuse most often given for him in print – that corporal punishment was all the rage at the time – has neglected to admit that by no means every teacher used it, even then.

In April 1926, there occurred der Vorfall Haidbauer, the so-called Haidbauer incident, when Wittgenstein knocked the weak Josef unconscious with three blows to the head. Having sent the other children home, he carried the boy to the headmaster’s room. Before he subsequently fled the scene, though, he was met by an incensed Herr Piribauer, whose own daughter had already suffered bleeding ears and torn hair at Wittgenstein’s hands. Piribauer called him an animal trainer and told him he was going to get the police. The subsequent court case nevertheless proved literally inconclusive, disappearing in a fog of perjury, psychiatric assessment, Wittgenstein family money and the culprit’s speedy resignation.

Corporal punishment was never restricted to Austria, of course. Nor was the fact that not every teacher indulged in it. The Augustinians were not a brutal religious order, at least by my time, but they still had their moments. In September 1978, aged fourteen, I sat in the first science class of a new school year. A vaguely hysterical priest – Father McCarthy – was leaning against the back wall at the end of an aisle between rows of desks. He was new to us. The class was settling down and another boy was sent up to wipe the blackboard. It was then that I, in a back desk on that aisle, unwisely made a routine slurping sound.

A glass lens bounced off the top of the wooden desk and broke on the tiled floor. There was a stinging cut just under my right eye. Head ringing, I looked up and back in amazement. Through the empty frame on the right, I saw the cleric swaying, with his fists clenched. His mouth was hanging open. Anybody else want some, huh? Instruction began in a pin-drop silence after that. Shocked to the core after the blindside punch, I couldn’t suppress an occasional sob.

Stop your pussing,” he soon said, writing furiously on the blackboard.
I’m not pussing!” came the reply, loudly and bitterly.

As I cycled home after school, the cleric passed in a hurry in a purple car. He was in the kitchen, all apologies to the mother when the wounded party got in. He was offering to pay for the damage to the glasses. It later transpired, of course, that he’d already told her there had been provocation, without specifying what it had been.

The blind-side fist wasn’t the limit of his arsenal by any means. Some of his science classes were held in the Physics Lab, a large classroom with long benches and some dusty bottles, tubes and burners. I was away in another world there one morning – perhaps still thinking of the cowardly, if maniacal, punch in the eye but more likely not – when called up to the front. The priest was winding a gadget with a metal spike rising out of it. The spike had a little ball on top. He told his pupil to touch the ball. My arm felt almost blown off at the shoulder. The class exploded with laughter but then the chuckling padre turned to the others and said they were all going to get the shock treatment. He made them all troop up to the dynamo, one by one, and put their hands on the ball. Some hesitated but all endured this insane ritual. Back in his seat, as the pain lessened, the first victim watched the stream of grimacing boys returning to the benches, holding their sore shoulders with their good arms.

On another occasion Father Frankenstein manufactured some chlorine gas and passed around a canister so everyone could have a sniff. That day I was watching warily and took care not to inhale anything but the barest trace when the canister was handed along the back bench. Farther along that bench, though, it was a comrade’s turn to be oblivious. When it reached him, he mindlessly inhaled a gulp and put the canister away from him with a jolt. He started coughing and spluttering. His eyes were streaming. Jesus, what the fuck is that? Welcome to the trenches.

Another sporadically violent one also hailed from West Cork. The school had a games rule that one team per match, in whichever sport, had to wear red, to help the referees. Having to play hurling one icy day in January, I came out of the changing rooms wearing a red windcheater over a jersey. Then it transpired we were not red so the windcheater had to be taken off and left behind a goal. On a day like that, no one normal could even contemplate the thought of getting a lash of a hurley stick across the legs so I stood around, prodding the frozen ground with mine. Eventually I went behind the goal to retrieve the windcheater but as I wandered back out the field the treacherous ball came my way. It didn’t matter which way I hit it, I was found out. Father Whelton stopped the game with a blast of his whistle and charged over like a bull, inflicting a heavy slap or two across my face for his trouble.

That was mild compared with an earlier experience with him. When I was thirteen, the avuncular pipe-smoker ran amok in Latin class but this episode was wholly premeditated. The crime was the chalk mark of a duster that he’d found on the back of his black habit. It was obvious he meant business at the start of the next class because he produced “Excalibur”, a terrible instrument consisting of several long strips of unbending thick leather, roughly sewn together. He said everyone was going to get two on each hand unless the person responsible for the chalk stigma owned up. The culprit was too scared so it began with the boys in the front desks. It was clear this was going to be a mass execution. It took two or three innocents to get it before shame prompted the suicidal courage to own up and spare the rest. Then I got two on each hand and several on the legs and arse. Something more than sobbing resulted from that hiding. I think he doled out ten lashes in total, practically everywhere except the head.

Corporal punishment was outlawed shortly after I left school in 1982 but, even before that, there had been a prudent though unofficial school policy not to attempt to hit anyone aged sixteen or more. Otherwise the brutality of the time meant the smaller lads remained ‘natural’ punchbags and whipping boys to those holy terrors (and lay staff) who were into savage punishment for trivial offences, whether out of sudden inspiration or cold calculation.

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

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

Vienna & Salzburg between Budapest & Munich – August 2015

Vienna & Salzburg between Budapest & Munich – August 2015

At Keleti station in Budapest, in an August heatwave in 2015, the machines wouldn’t give international tickets and the 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 them 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. The set-up might have done with a few of the goose-stepping Hungarian soldiers we’d seen up on the Vár the day before.

A guy in front of me watching them wore a t-shirt advertising Iron Maiden and The Trooper. He must have given up his dreams of martial glory for the sake of heavy metal.

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Anyway, we got on the train with just a few minutes to spare and the three-hour trip to Vienna was comfortable. Within two weeks Keleti made international news, thronged with refugees. Across the aisle on the train, some Brits and a spherical though pretty Indian girl with an American accent had some ‘psychedelic’ colouring books that didn’t keep them entertained for very long. Two of the chaps vanished to the bar carriage.

If anything Vienna was even hotter than Budapest. Every twenty minutes, late that night, I went to the bathroom to wash my face and neck. At the Westbahnhof we had gone down to the packed U-Bahn but on the Volkstheater station platform I simply couldn’t see the correct exit, it was so far away, so we emerged on the Burg Ring and passed the correct exit on our last daylight slog, up to the Hotel Admiral. That night we made it back over the Ring, down through the dark Burggarten and up the steps to the Paumen Haus with its red neon sign. There we sat outside and got things we needed such as chairs, drinks and food.

After each of two brief stretches of sleep I had a shower in which I turned the tap from lukewarm to cold. Then I went back to bed again, my ears full of water from that and from sweat rolling into them. Even my shoulders were sweating. I’d been turning the old air conditioning unit on the wall on and off and sometime after dawn I just left it on and finally managed to sleep properly until nine.

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We spent the whole day walking around the Ring and the Innere Stadt. There was no way we were going to any outlying palaces with vast gardens of low hedges and shrubbery that offered no protection from that sun. My companion really liked the Café Central and we got to hear a young string quartet on Kärtnerstrasse (“They’re not gypsies, they’re conservatory students”). I’d still like to know the name of this tango.

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We did the walk I’d mapped out:

(1) up the Ringstrasse to Schreyvogelgasse (Harry Lime’s doorway);
(2) down to Freyung to the Ferstel Passage;
(3) a pit stop in the Cafe Central;
(4) along Herrengasse to the Hofburg and a detour through the arches to Heldenplatz;

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(5) back through the arches to Kohlmarkt and Graben (we lunched in the vicinity);
(6) down to Stephansdom (in and around the cathedral);

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(7) Kärtnerstrasse (incl. a detour to the Loos bar where I tried a mojito, because I recognised the name, but it was like mint soup);
(8) back to the hotel via the Opernring.

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At eight in the evening we went to the Witwe Bolte, which was practically around the corner from the hotel. After a garden supper, during which the skin of my head still felt a bit prickly, we were back in the hotel by ten.

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My head continued to melt. The dissolution restarted as soon as I lay on the bed. Cold water from the tap gave brief relief but then a rivulet rolled down somewhere. I filled the sink so I could have a dunk now and then.

There was a slim, dark girl doing long hours down at reception. She was wearing a white garment with buttons, that evening. It made her look like a nurse. She had matching dark frames for her glasses and she kind of embodied the female cool around there, even though most were typically, for Austria, solid and well built. She’d checked us in the day before. By then my head was already melting, unconnected to this hotel, given the time it took to sort out the three-stop journey on a packed U3 line from the Westbahnhof and then make our way on foot. I explained we had just come from Budapest and she looked at me quite sympathetically before remarking on the weather (“Das ist heiss”).

A Hamburg gentleman of about sixty spotted me at breakfast, applying a serviette to my face, and he came over, hoarsely repeating the German word for hell (“Hölle! Hölle!”). His wife was Danish, a quite tasty blonde, twenty years younger. She appeared at reception as we were checking out and asked about the fire alarm that was going off, only to be told it was nichts, nur das verflixte Telefon. The woman at the desk was waving the receiver as she spoke.

On the way to Salzburg we got talking to a retired American couple who’d sold their house in upstate New York to move to Florida. I think Bob sold his mass of Waterford glass in the house on ebay. His wife had fallen off the train that had brought them to Linz. I didn’t ask why they had come by Linz. They were thinking of squeezing in the Sound of Music tour, despite the lack of enthusiasm of the holiday planner, their daughter.

We were in Salzburg by 2pm and though it was a hot if reasonably short walk to the hotel, my companion wanted to make the most of the afternoon, in case it pissed rain the following day. We got the no. 3 trolley bus as far as Mirabell. On entering the gardens we passed two very dark chaps with a clarinet and accordion, playing Stranger on the Shore. “Now they are gypsies,” I said.

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Another reminder that US citizens always like to catch a show came from a woman who keenly spotted a marionette theatre poster as we left the gardens. We walked to the Dom and then dined outside at the Zipfer Bierhaus, where two wasps had to be killed, one by me, one by the waiter (“Raus!”). My companion became convinced that Salzburg was the best, with the most stylish clobber. “Have you noticed how soft-spoken the people are?” I asked. We retreated to the hotel early. The rooms had electric fans.

Though I didn’t hear anything, it rained for much of the night. The breakfast at the Guter Hirte was the best, with scrambled egg, scrambled rashers, little sausages, and then we did the Festung. These mist-covered mountains were all now to see. Anyway, across the river we climbed the Kapuzinerberg steps, though the greenery that hadn’t been there that snowy February curtailed the view.

Down from the hill, I had a look in the Shamrock and my February wingman, Daniel, was there on his own. He told me about his most recent abstract paintings that might soon get some café exhibition space. After there it was a trail of churches plus the sight and sounds of a jazzy procession of bishops, skeletons and devils on their way to put on an Everyman (“Jedermann”) show for the crowd gathered on the stand that had been erected on the enclosed Domplatz.

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I had a few more in the Shamrock that night. At half past eight my pal had to leave. It seemed they had to put up with a lot of tourists messing, in and around the pub. Only recently, he said, he’d opened the door onto Rudolfskai well after closing time only to be greeted by the sight of an American girl rolling around on the ground, fighting another girl of indeterminate nationality in front of cops and onlookers.

After a hot dog at the Heisse Kiste Würstelstand across Staatsbrücke, I walked up Steingasse, which was spooky in the dark. The warm red light was on but there was a restaurant, clinking and nattering, right across the alley, though the few diners al fresco were shielded from the sinners by some plants. I didn’t have a theoretical hour to spare.

We left the hotel at ten the next morning. This time I had heard heavy rain but it was only gloomy out by then. In the station a black vintage train pulled up at our platform. Uniformed serving staff jumped out to unravel short rolls of red carpet below each carriage door. Who could these passengers be? They were Australian casualties from Linz. These war wounded had to be practically carried off. One old lady was handed down a set of wheels like those that belong in a nursing home. The next woman out that door was a bit younger and had better pins but she sported a broken arm.

I managed to sleep a few minutes on the train to Munich. We dined across the street from the Hofbräuhaus, which was very hot and mental, on the evidence of a few seconds inside. What is it, though, about Bayerstrasse? This day I saw two beggars there without feet. One at least had knees, which kept him upright, like Toulouse-Lautrec.

Salzburg, Innsbruck, the Munich triangle – February 2015

Salzburg, Innsbruck, the Munich triangle – February 2015

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The easiest way to get from Ireland to western Austria is via Munich but at Dublin airport in February 2015 the flight was overbooked until three people took an Aer Lingus bribe to stay behind: €250 plus a free hotel night. I didn’t try to sleep on the plane because I had to eat something i.e. two sandwiches. The Munich airport train seemed to take an age before reaching Marienplatz. The Neues Rathaus looked great in the fog but there was a hint of snow too. It was the most Gothic-looking thing I’d seen.

At the Stachus hotel the room was fine, it had a heated floor. I had a shower and went down to the Augustinerbräu for a couple of steins and a bowl of soup. From there I sought out the Hofbräuhaus but at midnight it was closing. The odd fleck of snow landed on my lips as I called it a night. Stopping for a burger on an almost snowy evening, I’d soon try to catch up on the letter z. Miles to go yet.

A lot of the Saturday morning journey to Salzburg was spent talking to two young couples on the train. The Basque girls were from Bilbao, the Spanish boys from Madrid. They were all pleasant but there was something really mignon sweet about the dark girl who sat directly opposite. She smiled like we had a private joke, then she ducked her eyes or looked out the window. There was snow everywhere outside, though the sun was shining.

In Salzburg I walked to the Vogelweiderhof but there an Indian woman said that it, too, was overbooked. She blamed the Internet and mentioned a place called Elvido. She then called a taxi with the assurance that the hotel would pay for it. In the car, of course, the driver said that such wasn’t the case. He offered a receipt but even if she had been telling some kind of truth, what was I meant to do? Walk all the way back with it to reclaim six euro?

The Elvido on Rainerstrasse was a mystery joint that denied any access. Down by the Salzach, I thought of going to the hotel where I had a Monday booking to see if they could help. At the Staatsbrücke bridge two cops were checking their submachine guns and one popped a bullet from a clip out onto the ground. At the Goldenes Theater, out along Linzergasse, a girl with glasses got me into the nearby Hotel Mozart and I gave her a tenner, with thanks. At the other reception counter I gave the guy a fiver. When I came back down from the room he told me he’d been talking to the girl at the Goldenes Theater again on the phone about the weirdness of my story and how bad that kind of thing made Salzburg look.

On the way back to the river I slipped curiously up the narrow Steingasse to locate an address from the imagination of the Grimms. The house, in business since Mozart’s time, belonged deep in a wood and some day the red button beside the heavy door might have to be pushed but not this day. Douglas Adams may have found Innsbruck dull but it was there, full of beer and lying on the ground, looking up at the stars, that he thought of writing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One of the few things I ever found funny in Adams was the scene where the chap on the spaceship could not resist pushing the red button.

Needing something to eat, I crossed the river and went into the Zipfer Bierhaus for a grill and a drink. That was at four. Around five I went down into the imaginatively named Shamrock pub to watch a rugby match. The barman was from Cork and before he finished his shift at eight he asked would I still be there if he came back later. I assured him I would be. I was.

An afternoon customer who returned was a man from Yorkshire but anyway his night would end badly after he got into an argument with a little Arab at the counter. Over a stool, I think. One of the other barmen told him he’d had enough and, outside, he took a swing at a bouncer with a shaved head. That only earned him a bloody nose, which then necessitated an ambulance, which could be observed on the quay through the high windows.

The fact that a strawberry blonde in her early thirties came over when I was full of drink in the by-then crowded bar (live band, Valentine’s night) must have meant that she liked the cut of my jib or else thought I was kind for helping a disabled girl get through the crowd to the toilets. My arm was around her and her hair was in my face. She asked why I didn’t just speak English to her, when German aphasia was setting in. I can’t have been that bad, though, because when it was all over I stopped at the Würstelstand across Staatsbrücke for a bottle of water. It was very late. The next morning, wired or not, I got a train to Innsbruck.

The landscape on the way was even snowier and I tried the email address she’d provided along with a phone number. She had a six-syllable name, like that of a ski jumper or an opera singer. Or both. In the mail I explained my German was a bit better today and asked her to meet on Monday for dinner or a coffee oder etwas zivilisiert. I’d made a mess of her number the night before by putting the code for Ireland in front of it. She replied to the mail sometime in the afternoon. Das ist wirklich sehr charmant von dir but she was already on her way back to Vienna. It turned out she was a shrink. Up to their necks in bulimics and anorexics, who knows?

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I was in bed early in Innsbruck after heading up Maria-Theresien Strasse at nightfall, with a royal blue sky reflecting off the white Nordkette. No camera can convey how the mountain towers over the city, where shop fronts glowed though all were closed.

After a quiet Sunday evening meal near the Goldenes Dachl and a walk in the dark around the Altstadt, it was time to do nothing.

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The hotel receptionist was young, a blonde, pleasant and looked a bit like the girl I’d met the night before, if that wasn’t the work of hangover goggles. After a restless, thirsty sleep, the Stadtturm was quite a tough climb the next morning. Up there the wire mesh prevents any jumping. The Olympic ski jumping slope lies to the south.

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People who go to Austria to go skiing generally aren’t interested in the country, they are interested in the skiing, but the sight of a pair of stylishly suited and booted German-speaking women, in their sixties, nimbly boarding a city bus with their skis was a different matter. They were cool.

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When I went back to the hotel for my bag, another girl was at reception. This one, with long dark hair, a sweet white smile and a great big rack, saw me away. Austrian women are solid. I read somewhere once that Alpine people were stocky. There was a lot of shapely girls in this neck of the woods who wouldn’t have been the first to die of starvation, god bless them.

The train passed through some thick fog before Salzburg but the sun still shone back there. The hotel was busy and after checking in I ended up back in the Zipfer B., for the same grill. A young shoe salesman sat down at the big wooden table. By the time he’d decided to stay and find a hotel, I’d noticed he was very keen on the beer. He said he’d driven over from Bavaria that day to get away from Fasching. He also explained that one piece of their folk wisdom was enough if one wanted to understand Bavarians – the view that if something wasn’t a complete disaster then it should be looked on as a success.

I left him there after three hours but said I’d be in the Shamrock later. After another shower, back at the hotel, I fell asleep for an hour. On getting to the pub I didn’t notice him at first but then overheard the Bavarian Al Bundy nearby, putting his oar into a couple who seemed to be English. He was locked by then and I wanted him to drink some water but I ended up with it. Leaning over the counter to tell the Austrian manager that there had been a misunderstanding, that the water was my recommendation for him, helped to clarify the situation.

“Es gab ein Missverständis. Das Wasser war meine Empfehlung für ihn.”

The manager then leant forward too.

“He’s an annoying prick who won’t get served anymore.”

After Al left, quietly at least, I got talking to that couple. The guy was English. He asked if I wanted to have a drink with them somewhere else and she nodded and smiled, so we went to O’Malley’s, which was right next door. These are the only places with any life, at least midweek.

Though from Swindon, he looked Middle Eastern but the top-heavy and good-looking blonde was from the Dutch-German border. He got harmlessly drunk while moving his arms to the likes of Oasis and Stereophonics on the speakers and she told me she’d had a stroke eighteen months earlier, as a result of which she’d put on twenty kilos and lost her job. I told her she was lovely and added she was lucky she wasn’t dead. Or worse.

He was with BMW and had a problem learning German, although, he claimed, knowing Turkish would have been more useful at work. Together eight years, she had two kids and they lived in Munich. This night was their anniversary. They were nice people. I drank very little.

In the morning nonetheless, Kapuzinerberg felt an even tougher climb than the Stadtturm, even forty-eight hours after waking up wrecked after Valentine’s Night, and even after the scrambled egg and scrambled rasher breakfast at the hotel, over which I could hear an Irish table, older than me, talking about hangovers.

Then I crossed the river and took the funicular up to Hohensalzburg. The heights were even brighter and we seemed to be above the zero-degree haze. Salzburg had a lot of well-wrapped beggars hunkered down; most but not all were gypsies but all seemed to call out cheerfully “Hallo!” or “Grüss Gott!” to passers-by. By the sound of them at least, they were the chirpiest homeless I’d ever come across.

In Munich Hauptbahnhof I got a spicy Vietnamese meal before the hotel. Later I had a couple of steins at the Hofbräuhaus where Fasching (carnival) was coming to an end. In the city centre a mechanised army of bin-men was clearing up a major mess. Overcast Munich was very cold the next day so I made it to the airport by half three. The flight was at five past eight. One guy on the street had asked for €2 for a coffee and then asked had I a heart but he was well dressed and he wasn’t even parked in a spot. I did give a euro to one with one leg, on Bayerstrasse.