The Stamp

The Stamp

Photo (c) Paris Match

A parable of Irish unity, with apologies to Félicien Marceau…

After spending two years behind a bank counter in Drogheda, his home town, Victor had just been transferred to Belfast for further training at head office. This meant he could be initiated into the secrets and all the other ins and outs of high finance. To all appearances he was a serious lad with a future and perfectly capable of one day becoming at least an assistant manager.

We don’t need to dwell on describing his happiness. Although he was, as we have said, a serious worker, capable and appreciated by his superiors, and therefore a person of some standing at just twenty-three, he had until now lived with his parents and, in some way, lived in their shadow. It wasn’t that he’d suffered from this arrangement. Besides, he loved his parents. As we’ve said more than once, he was a serious boy.

The cinema every Saturday and a café bar every Sunday afternoon, these were enough for him, socially. For the rest of his free time he spent all his evenings between his father and mother. In summer, he’d be on the doorstep chatting with the neighbours or looking at the cars that were going down to Dublin. In winter, he’d either be reading or arranging his stamp collection that was supplemented with the help of his uncle who was a driver on a bus that regularly crossed the border.

But in the end, of course, freedom is another thing altogether. On leaving Drogheda, Victor was still only a lad, overwhelmed with advice, woolly socks and vests. On his arrival in Belfast, under the big roof of Central Station, he was no longer a boy. Something of the adventurous soul of his uncle had just awoken in him. Proudly, he took a taxi, the first such trip on his own in his life. This taxi was the wave goodbye to his childhood.

The same day he busied himself with finding a studio. The first place he viewed didn’t please him. The owner clearly had a big mouth. The second didn’t tickle his fancy either. At three in the afternoon the owner was still in her bathrobe and, from Victor’s point of view, she looked like she wasn’t into keeping the building clean. He chose the third place he saw because there he was met only with indifference. Victor had already figured out that the indifference of others is linked to freedom.

His stuff put away, he went out, impatient to inspect the charms of Belfast. After a blip when he took the wrong bus that thankfully didn’t take him to any parts where his southern accent wouldn’t have been appreciated, he strolled along wide avenues, well built but otherwise undistinguished, and ate two sandwiches in a neutral city centre bar before returning to his new place.

His room was immersed in the night, in the silence. For a minute he missed the peaceful chit-chat of his mother and the outbursts of his father, a religious man who couldn’t read a newspaper without getting angry. This homesick feeling only lasted a moment, though. Lying on his narrow bed, he felt himself still lifted by the hubbub that had welcomed him when he left Central Station.

Eight days later, as soon as he had got to know his way around, he was in love. It’s a constant: free a man and he thinks of love. Until now, Victor had always shown himself shy around young women but the fluttering wings of freedom tend to lessen one’s timidity. At the bank he often joked with some of the female staff. They liked his southern accent and remarked on it. One of them told him she was going to a nightclub with some friends on Saturday.

There he made the acquaintance of a girl called Iris, a cousin of the fiancé of the lady who’d invited him along. Iris had dark hair and big dark eyes and her long lashes fluttered when she spoke in what he soon recognized as her sharp, assured manner. She spoke a lot but during their first dance, Victor complimented her eyes. Next it was her dress. By the third dance they were practically in love. She told him she didn’t drink but was learning the tango. In general, serious boys are made for the tango.

He suggested a visit to the cinema. “It’s an idea,” replied Iris, deliberately. Wednesday was fixed. Iris wore a lovely sandy coat with a wide belt; the film was funny; and she laughed. It relaxed the normal composure of her face. The next cinema visit took place on a Tuesday. Love is impatient.

Soon he was invited to meet her parents, out in Holywood. She said she’d told them about him and they wanted to meet him. He had almost a week to think about this visit. He loved Iris. They would get married. They would live happily ever after.

Both her parents were dressed in black on the day. The mother spoke more than the father, who was an accountant. It was a rainy afternoon and rather than go out anywhere they looked at photo albums. Mother and daughter talked about shared memories. The men said nothing. It would have been difficult for either to get a word in. By the end of the meeting, Victor had been invited back for dinner the next week.

When they got engaged, Iris’s father expressed a desire to get to know Victor’s parents. To that end, he requested that Victor ask his own father to write him a letter. To Victor it was just a tad formal, if not odd, but in a spirit of conciliation he said he’d take care of it. He sent a text about it to his father, adding, “These people are from the North, please humour them” and his father’s reply gave an immediate assurance on the matter.

The next time he called round, though, he was met with parental long faces. Iris herself was not to be seen.

“Your father wrote,” said Iris’s father.
“I know.”
“A very nice letter,” he continued.
“He’s very happy.”
“Mmm. So how is it, young man, that it came without a stamp?”

He held out the envelope, for which he’d evidently had to pay the postage.

“Oh. It’s a miracle it got here at all. Here, I’ll give you the price of it.”

The elder man lifted his hand to indicate stop.

“I’m not rich but nonetheless I can cover the postage.”

Embarrassed, Victor said “Of course” and then tried to explain that he only wanted to make up for the nuisance. The other man lifted his hand once more.

“It’s not about that. It’s more serious. I know the people of the South. When they don’t want something and they don’t want to say it, they write that they’re in agreement but they don’t bother with a stamp.”
“No stamp?”
“No stamp,” the other repeated gravely. “The way they look at it, a letter with no stamp doesn’t mean anything.”

The mother here interjected a quiet sob. Victor woke up.

“But that’s absurd. I’m from the South and I’ve never heard of that habit.”
“That does you credit, young man, but the habit is dishonest. When people disagree, it’s better to say it openly, like we do in the North.”
“That’s what my father would have done,” retorted Victor.
“Then why didn’t he put a stamp on this?”
“He must have forgotten.”
“Forgotten? For a letter of such importance?”
“Or else the stamp fell off.”
“Young man, I’m fifty-three. There are two things I no longer believe in. Letters that get lost and stamps that fall off.”
“But suppose he did forget the stamp. His letter remains the same.”
“No, that changes everything. He doesn’t want to be involved. The people of the South are like that.”
“What if he writes you another letter? With a stamp, of course.”
“The message remains the same,” came the solemn reply.

Then the mother intervened. Allowing for her husband’s feelings, she still suggested that a new letter just might make for a new start. In this way she talked her husband into agreeing with a few silent nods. Then Iris made an appearance and she and Victor went out for a walk. When Iris observed that a stamp cost very little, Victor got angry and so they parted on rather bad terms. When he got home, though, Victor immediately got in touch with his father.

Unfortunately Victor’s father was one of those men who are happiest when life gives them an excuse to get up on a high horse and wrap themselves in their pride. He wanted to know what right people in the North had to suspect the integrity of people in the South. Moreover he was sure he hadn’t forgotten the stamp and thought it must have fallen off. Anyway, he had written once and he wouldn’t give his honest opinion twice. His dignity forbade it.

Victor began to be worried. He pleaded with his father to write again and, in the meantime, assured his prospective father-in-law that the new letter was on its way. The latter remained quietly sceptical, while Iris just became sarcastic about the price of a stamp and how busy Victor’s father had to be, given the delay with this second letter.

Victor was beginning to be turned off. He thought of writing to the letters page of the Irish Times to ask if anyone knew of a tradition in the South of omitting a stamp to convey displeasure. There was no immediate feedback and still no second letter. The next time he visited his parents he found his father still put out over it.

“These people up North, I know them. He doesn’t want you to marry his daughter. He’s only looking for an excuse.”
“If he hadn’t wanted it, he’d have told me.”
“Is that what you believe? Anyway, I wonder if it wasn’t a sign. You’d be unhappy with people like that.”
“It’s not the father I’m marrying. It’s the daughter. And he only wants a letter.”
“He got his letter.”
“But without a stamp. He thinks it’s a slippery custom down here.”

Then Victor had a brainwave. He posed the hypothetical situation that the other father hadn’t received the letter. When his own protested that he had, Victor pointed out that he didn’t know that, as there had been no reply. In that light, it wouldn’t be undignified to send the same letter again, on the presumption of the loss of the first one. Grumbling at first, his father agreed, secretly pleased by the astuteness of his son. He wrote another letter and this time it got posted with two stamps affixed.

In Holywood, Iris opened the door to Victor without any obvious show of warmth or tenderness. Her father then appeared with a copy of the Irish Times in his hand. He was upset.

“You have me insulted in the press now.”

He showed Victor the letters page. Somebody had finally replied, basically urging Victor to tell his future father-in-law that he was an ass and insisting that there was no such custom in the South as had been proposed.

“But sir, if you’d read my letter, you’d have seen it was completely respectful.”
“And this reply? Who provoked this reply? I’m an ass. In the paper. Me.”
“Nobody will know it’s you.”
I’ll know. Now you’d better leave, young man.”

Iris went to the window and looked out on the street.

“Iris…,” said Victor.

She didn’t even turn around. There would be no wedding. A year later, back in Drogheda, Victor married a local girl who was nice, voluptuous and not inclined to lay down the law. At the reception, his father leaned over to him at the top table.

“No need of a stamp here, eh?”

Victor smiled. For a moment he heard the sharp voice of Iris. No, he wouldn’t have been happy with them but that destiny wasn’t meant to be.

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The Ideology of Discipline

The Ideology of Discipline

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Dublin

26 June 2002

M. called here at 9.30 and we went to the Employment Appeals Tribunal on Adelaide Road. There we trawled through five years of unfair dismissals cases. He’s doing some diploma in human resources to accredit his hatchet-man role with Dell. Some of the stuff was hilarious.

There were two cases of “very serious” fighting in the workplace. One guy had a broken collarbone after the use of an unwanted nickname, while another was chased through a factory with an iron bar. Then there was the young barman whose troubles began when in his wages he received a dud twenty with his name (“Carl”) written on it.

Overall, there was no empirical support for ideologies of right or left. In other words, there was probably an even split between injustices and employees simply taking the piss. The company that figured more than any other was Dunnes Stores*

*Irish chain of department stores

imallrightjack_terrythomas_sellers

Tales you can take to the bank

Tales you can take to the bank

1976
Willie Sutton’s autobiography denied that he’d ever explained why he robbed banks by saying “because that’s where the money is”. Though the apocryphal quotation became known as Sutton’s Law, he dismissed the story but, at the same time, admitted that, had anyone ever asked him, he probably would have said it.

Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life.

1711
To reduce the power of the privately-owned Bank of England, a plan was hatched by Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford, for a group of merchants to assume parts of Britain’s national debt in return for an annual payment of three million pounds for a set period and a monopoly of the trade to the South Seas i.e. South America. The group then assumed the title the South Sea Company. Extravagant notions of the available riches in faraway fields were fostered and the company’s stock flourished until, in early 1720, it offered to take on the entire national debt. The British state’s creditors were encouraged to swap what they were owed for company shares and speculation then carried South Sea stock to ten times its nominal value. Then the chairman and directors sold out, the bubble burst and the stock collapsed. Thousands were ruined.

south-sea-bubble-william-hogarth

Companies of all kinds had been floated to surf on this tidal wave of interest in South Sea stock. They soon got the nickname of Bubbles, the most appropriate description that the popular imagination could invent. Some of them lasted for a week or a fortnight, while others were only around for a day. The most preposterous of all showed the complete madness of the people sucked in. It was started by an unknown adventurer who is definitely a candidate for the title of the unknown soldier of cynicism. His venture was entitled a “company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is”. The genius who mounted this bold and successful test of public gullibility merely stated in his prospectus that the required capital was half a million, in five thousand shares of one hundred pounds each, with a required deposit of two pounds per share. Each subscriber, paying his deposit, would be entitled to one hundred pounds per annum per share.

How this enormous profit was to be obtained he did not inform them at that time. Instead he promised that after a month full particulars would be announced and a call made for the remaining ninety-eight pounds of the subscription. The very next morning, at nine o’clock, this entrepreneur opened an office in Cornhill in London. Crowds flocked to his door and when he shut up shop at three o’clock, he found that the deposits had been paid for one thousand of his shares. He was thus, after five hours, the possessor of two thousand pounds. Content with his day’s work, he set off that same evening for the Continent. He was never heard of again.

1715
With the death of Louis XIV, the finances of France were in a bad state but the Duke of Orleans became Regent and this meant everything to a Scottish gambler called John Law who was a friend of the Duke and a man convinced that no country could prosper without a paper currency. In May 1716, a royal edict authorised Law to establish a bank. He made all his banknotes payable at sight and in the coin current at the time they were issued. This was a masterstroke and immediately made his notes more valuable than precious metals. The latter were constantly liable to depreciation by the tampering of the government.

john-law

Law publicly declared at the same time that a banker deserved to be put to death if he issued notes without having sufficient security to answer all demands. It was not long before the trade of the country felt the benefit and branches of his bank were established in several cities. In the meantime, Law started the project that has handed his name down to posterity. He proposed to establish a company that would have the exclusive privilege of trading to the Mississippi river and the province of Louisiana, where the country was supposed to abound in precious metals. This company was set up in August 1717.

It was then that the frenzy of speculation began. Law’s bank had brought about so much economic good that any promises for the future were swallowed but, when the bank became a public institution, the Regent ordered a printing of notes to the amount of a billion livres. Law helped inundate France with this paper money, which, based on no solid foundation, was sure to cause a crash, sooner or later.

Law otherwise devoted his attention to the Mississippi project, the shares of which were rapidly rising in spite of the opposition of Parliament. At least three hundred thousand applications were made for fifty thousand new shares. Every day the value of the old shares rose and new applications became so numerous that it was deemed advisable to create three hundred thousand new shares so the Regent could take advantage of the popular enthusiasm to pay off the national debt.

From the tremendous pressure of the crowds, accidents continually occurred in the narrow rue de Quincampoix where Law lived. A story goes that a hump-backed man who stood in the street made considerable money by lending his hump as a writing surface to the speculators. The great masses of customers and spectators drew all the low life of Paris to the spot and constant riots and disturbances occurred. At nightfall, it was often found necessary to send in a detachment of soldiers to clear the street.

Thus the system continued to flourish until the beginning of 1720. The warnings of the Parliament that this massive creation of paper money would bankrupt the country were disregarded but, despite every effort made to stop its exodus, the stores of precious metals in France continued to be smuggled to England and Holland. The little coin that was left in the country was hoarded until the scarcity became so great that trade could no longer be conducted. An edict then forbade any person to have more than five hundred livres (then the equivalent of twenty pounds sterling) of coin in his or her possession, under threat of a heavy fine, plus confiscation.

It was also forbidden to buy up jewellery, plate and precious stones. Informers were encouraged by the promise of getting half of any amount they might discover.
Lord Stair, the English ambassador, said that it was now impossible to doubt the sincerity of Law’s conversion to Catholicism, as he had established an inquisition after having given ample evidence of his faith in transubstantiation by turning gold into paper.

All payments were then ordered to be made in paper and even more notes were printed – to the tune of more than a billion and a half livres – but nothing now could make the people feel the slightest confidence in something that was not exchangeable for metal. Coin, which the Regent aimed to depreciate, only rose in value on every fresh attempt to reduce it.

The value of shares in the Mississippi stock had also tumbled and few people still believed the tales that had once been told of the immense wealth of that region. A last trick was therefore tried to restore public confidence in the Mississippi project.
A general conscription of all the homeless in Paris was made by order of the government. More than six thousand of the poorest of the population were press-ganged, as if in wartime. These unfortunates were provided with clothes and tools and told they would be shipped off to New Orleans to work in the gold mines. They were then paraded day after day through the streets with their picks and shovels before being sent off in small detachments to the ports to be shipped to America. Two thirds of them never reached their destination but melted into the countryside. There they sold their tools for whatever they could get and returned to their old way of life. In less than three weeks, half of them were back in Paris.

1907
Sometimes cynicism is wrapped up in a man simply knowing his strengths and limitations. Take JP Morgan in the 1907 American financial crisis, sitting alone in a room in his home, smoking cigars, while all the ordinary bankers were huddled in the next room, presumably with ties loosened and pencils perched over their ears. When a servant entered and ventured to ask him if he had a plan, he said, “No.” By way of reassurance, he added that he knew someone would come through the door with the right plan and then, he also knew, he would be the person to know it was the right one. Who knows that much today?

jp-morgan---panic-of-1893

1940
W. C. Fields made The Bank Dick. In this film, Fields plays a drunk named Egbert Sousé who trips a fleeing bank robber and becomes a security guard at the bank as a result. Upon being introduced to his daughter’s boyfriend, Og Oggilby, an official at the bank, Egbert remarks, “Og Oggilby… sounds like a bubble in a bathtub.”

Egbert talks Og into embezzling money from the institution. In order to divert a bank examiner from discovering the theft, Egbert takes him to his favourite bar and asks if “Michael Finn” has been in yet – a signal that the barman, one of the Three Stooges – is to spike the examiner’s drink. During Fields’ career, Hollywood standards demanded that good be rewarded and evil be punished but, in The Bank Dick, Fields’ character lies, cheats and steals and yet at the end is rewarded with wealth and fame.

the-bank-dick

 

Assault on Precinct Gombeen

Assault on Precinct Gombeen

February 1984

At the time the strapped Irish government had abolished free student medical cards and our (union) president was cooling with a few more in Dublin’s Mountjoy prison for defying a protest injunction. One of the other martyrs was the eventual talk radio star Joe Duffy, whose photo (above) shows him being dragged out of a hall in Trinity. A professor who liked to see his names in the papers had, in a not-so-progressive outburst, labelled such protesters “subsidised brats” for invading a lecture given by the Taoiseach (prime minister).

As part of the national campaign, three cohabitants were surprisingly keen to fulfil a promise to help occupy the health administration in the Kildare town of Naas. Nevertheless just thirty-one students got on that bus that morning, so my address alone contributed four. That was more than an eighth. The thought crossed more than one mind that if this went badly one could always hitch the fifteen miles back, as many had often passed that way.

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We entered shortly after noon, climbed to the third level and tied ourselves with thin ropes to the legs of desks in the large office space that was all women. We refused to leave when asked by the manager, a man in a grey suit. Soon we had our names taken by the police, who set up a siege around the building, leaving anybody out and nobody in.

The women typed away at their desks once no further disruption was evident. The students then untied the ropes for comfort. At five, the women all left and the management turned off the heating. The numbers inside had by then dropped to seventeen, as anyone who wanted a J1 summer visa to America had split, just in case.

The nearest pub was called the Wolfe Tone and a few brats hanging around on the streets below slipped in there after dark. It had a fire. When the pub heard what was going on, it was all for the revolution. It gave out free sandwiches to anyone who wanted to go across and throw them up on the roof. The windows of the top floor led onto a gravel roof with a large atrium in the middle. Half the republican sandwiches and several of the brown bags of burgers and chips that were bought nearby overshot the gravel and flew into the hole.

Kipping in our coats should have been second nature to us, otherwise, but it was a very cold night inside. Miserable. Cigarettes were in short supply but at least we found a couple of large, industrial rolls of brown paper in the cabinets and then noisily wrapped ourselves in it on the floor.

In the college canteen in the arts block the following lunchtime, the next year’s president made her name by standing on a black table and telling the crowd that seventeen comrades were holding out and needed their support. That news filled a few buses and a couple of hundred turned up in the afternoon. The ropes were let down into the crowd so sleeping bags could be attached. For the law, pushing and shoving at the fringes, this was just taking the piss.

The crowd below couldn’t understand why the heads above suddenly disappeared from the roof’s edge but, up top, cops with batons drawn were pouring through the windows on the far side of the atrium.

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We ran for the nearest office windows (see photo). Back inside, I ducked aside, behind a filing cabinet, but anyone holding a sleeping bag was chased down and battered. The women at the desks were horrified. They stood up and protested and then refused to leave, despite keen Garda encouragement to do so.

Understandably the ladies wanted to know who would mop the walls if the cops were let mop up. The man in the grey suit then got involved and, after everybody calmed down, it was the police who left, eventually. The seventeen remaining then emerged with the staff, to loud cheers. It all seemed heroic and exciting, especially as I had avoided a baton.

Being Michael McDowell

Being Michael McDowell

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

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

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

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

Eh, what does your mate work at?

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

Are you the Minister for Justice?

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

Do you want to be thrown into prison?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF at Jack wedding 2009

Der Herr Karl, a begrudger’s guide

Der Herr Karl, a begrudger’s guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Markus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quasi Falco