To Vienna, to Vienna

What would we do without the Austro-Hungarian Empire to reflect on?

I think of what then seemed, in an age of travel on horseback, its great expanse; of the good abbé, Ferenc Liszt, travelling from town to village to play his piano transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies to people to whom tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum’ ti tum would otherwise have always remained an unsavoured musical delight; to heroes of stories by Stefan Zweig racing by horse to Vienna to intrigue, marry or die; to Joseph Haydn on the Esterhazy estate, far from anywhere that a man of culture might find congenial, composing his opera The Farewell:

The Farewell, where in the last and most affecting scene the three sisters – all, daringly, cast as contraltos – sing, ‘To Vienna, to Vienna’.

I think of poor old Gustav Klimt ladling gold onto his clumsy paintings, little realising that in a hundred years’ time they would appeal precisely to the new rich of our age, who like all their appurtenances (or what they regard as their appurtenances) – jeans, pictures, food, women – covered with gold. I think of his talented friend Egon Schiele. I think of Dr Freud thinking the unthinkable and, worse, telling it to his couch-bound and corseted patients.

Given my experiences over the last week or so I also think of the bottoms of the citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These were racially and culturally diverse but as we now know remarkably similar. In the Twenty-First Century we commonly refer to certain bottoms, by way of shorthand, as being of the Austro-Hungarian type. But this similarity became known only towards the very end of the period of the Empire, possibly because of the earlier difficulty of access, in turn due to excessive corseting. Until, partly thanks to Dr. Freud, the people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire became relatively uncorseted, the clinical similarity of their bottoms was a fact known only to a small number of Viennese libertines.

It is difficult to believe this nowadays.

I have never been able to verify the following story, although I was told it in Vienna. It is that the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef, when an old man, noticed a young girl working in his kitchen garden. She was bending over, just as my neighbour had. His majesty became inflamed by lust, and, used to having his imperial way, forced himself on the young gardener, who in due course gave birth to the future Frau Schönberg, the wife of the composer. I compared – to his disadvantage – the emperor’s goatish behaviour with my own, which had been cool and scholarly, as Amy and I approached my neighbour’s house intending to tackle the sensitive subject of her bottom, that of Egon Schiele’s model, and their uncanny similarity.

The initial stages of our discussion were made easier since Ijaz had sent her a link to the story on this blog. He sifts my posts with regard to which are most suitable for my various neighbours. Then he puts small notes bearing the appropriate links through their letter boxes. The comments on Anthony Powell he regards as suitable for all, but others he thinks are too smutty for women, for instance. The Jesus and the Rabbit series, on the restricted area of the blog, is embargoed for all. Given that my neighbour featured personally, he sent her the link, so that when we called she already knew what our visit was about. This was a relief.

My neighbour is called Maria, a name that is common throughout Europe, indeed throughout the World. She comes, she said, from Romania. This was discouraging, since Romania was never I believe in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There is, however, an intriguing connection as regards language. Because her English is weak we sought a way of conversing. She told us that in her family, for reasons now forgotten, they talked German when outsiders were not around. So we spoke in German and I summarised occasionally for Amy in Mandarin or English: the former if I wished to speak to her privately. As with many people who adopt a foreign language for family speech, Maria’s German was formal and old-fashioned. But at some point I asked her if she was aware of something or other.

Ichh waaas nit,” she replied.

I smiled to myself. ‘That’s not conventional German, which would probably have been ‘Ich weiss nicht‘. That’s pure Viennese,’ I thought to myself.

Cunningly, I did not say so.

“The time of reckoning is arrived,” said Amy. “Time for our comparison.”

Maria allowed herself to be led away into an adjoining room. I thought again how accommodating she was being about the whole business, which must have struck her as at best bizarre and at worst intrusive. I found the image on my iPad of the Schiele work and Amy took it with her. Thirty seconds passed.

There was a commotion as of something being knocked over. Amy rushed back into the room. I had never seen her so flustered. She was white.

“双胞胎!”she exclaimed.

Maria shuffled through the door, also flustered. Her trousers were around her ankles and she held my iPad in front of her to preserve her modesty.

“Ng?” she said.

Zwillinge,” I said. “Amy says that you could be twins.”

We all sat down, Maria adjusting her clothing first.

“Well,” I said. “We do have something. My gut feeling was right.”

“We have an adventure,” Amy said.

“Will I be famous?” Maria said.

“It’s a lot to take in,” I said, “all at once. Do you have any green tea? It always settles the emotions.”

“Only PG,” said Maria. “I’m sorry.”

“I have,” said Amy. “Emergency supply. About my person at all times.”

And from her jacket she produced an envelope full of the leaves. I found a teapot, cleansed it and brewed up. We were all silent and thoughtful.

“What next?” said Maria. “Will I be famous?”


A Lads’ Night Out

My friend J texted me in some distress. He had tickets for a concert at the Wigmore Hall, which he referred to with the informal affection permitted to one of his status as a season-ticket-holder as ‘Wiggies’. The Doric String Quartet was to play Haydn, Bartok and Schubert. J’s wife A, whose job I believe involves bringing high fashion to poor people, or possibly just telling them about it, was unlikely to be away in time; would I like the ticket? I was at Worthing Crematorium at the time, so I replied briefly and in the affirmative.

We arranged to meet fairly early in the bar, and I arrived first. Goodness, what poor social skills the Wiggies patrons have. Some of course are elderly and cannot help lurching around but even the younger ones tend to stand right where you want to go breathing heavily and gazing into the middle distance, as if anticipating their coming treat and already assailed subliminally by the music of the early Nineteenth Century.

In front of me in the queue was a German couple. They spent ages discussing in German the delights on offer, breaking off to issue instructions, or as it might be enquiries, in their perfect English.

I will take, please, a teapot full of peppermint tea and a glass of cranberry juice ‘on the side’, as you would say…

And then there was the endless matter of cakes.

The nice lady behind the counter served me over their heads as they plunged into a lengthy tortetraum. As she passed me my glass of red wine the German man lurched hard in its direction, but I was too quick for him.

There were four in our party, all lads, and in we went.

They played the Haydn quite nicely. I think, as the Doric Quartet apparently don’t, that Haydn requires a certain dispassionateness and that when he writes little runs you should play them as written and avoid cuteness. But it was well worth hearing.

The Bartok was terrific. I remembered loving it years ago but I have recently revisited Bartok’s orchestral music and been terribly disappointed and I feared the worst. I needn’t have done.

We trooped out for half time. We were unqualified for a smoke in the street and we decided against the bar. This was just as well. A number of patrons lurched into the doorway at the same time and some of them were trampled under foot.

Or so someone said: I didn’t see it myself.

We found a comfortable place to perch, but a nice old couple lurched up and displaced us, staring at us as they did so with a look of insatiable malice.

The second half comprised Deaf and the Maiden by Schubert.

Goodness, what childishness. Dear woolly-headed old Franz and his Feelings. I did my best to sympathise, but it was too much – or rather not enough. If Schubert were here, I thought, I would say to him: If you want me to sympathise with your Feelings, you’ll have to make them a lot more interesting than this.

But of course one wouldn’t. He was not such a bad old stick and shouting at him only made his syphilis worse.

The quartet went at Deaf and the Maiden with gusto. They all tossed their hair, except the viola player. The cellist waved his bow in the air in the intervals when it was not required to agitate the strings. He must have told the Wiggies management that he intended to do this, as sufficient space had been left between his chair and that of the viola player for him to do so without causing more injury.

Seconds before each particular passage of gusto, all eight eyebrows went up. This is specific to classical music of the early Nineteenth Century when it is being played with gusto. In my experience it is nearly always a bad sign. With proper music the musicians’ eyebrows go down not up, even when gusto is about to be employed.

As all this washed over me I mused about the background: as so often more interesting than the piece itself. The inspiration for the music, and indeed the title, was an amitié between Ludwig van Beethoven, Schubert’s great hero, and a young woman, little more than a girl. Beethoven had a landlady at one time called Braun (the dedicatee incidentally of a number of important works, such as the two Piano Sonatas Op. 14) and she was the mother of this person.

Beethoven wrote one of his more commercially successful songs for her, entitled, Mrs Braun, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter. More controversially when he was creatively stuck while writing his third symphony he persuaded the girl to pose on the other side of his fortepiano stripped to her underwear. I don’t know enough about the history of Viennese dress in the early Nineteenth Century (J’s wife A would certainly know) to say what this might have comprised. I believe that drawers had not yet been invented, nor the brassiere, so it was probably a shift of some sort, modest enough by the standards of today. Anyway without the sight of the landlady’s daughter in her dishabille posterity would have been deprived of his immortal Erotica Symphony.

There is no suggestion incidentally of Savilian activity on Beethoven’s part vis-à-vis the girl. He never touched her. Had it been Schubert it might well have been different. He didn’t after all contract his syphilis from a lavatory seat.

This may explain the wistful quality of some passages of Deaf and the Maiden.

I made a mental note to discuss this with the producer of my film company’s masterwork Van!, which is now in preproduction. Should we include this touching story in our movie? Could we get Goldie Hawn for the girl, and maybe Julie Christie for her mother? Maybe it was Schubert that killed the man, and not Mozart after all…

Anyway, it came to an end. The audience rose spontaneously as one to an upright position and recalled the musicians again and again to the stage. Eventually they obliged us with an encore. It was one of the sections from Haydn’s Seven Last Words, and they played it beautifully.

Being four lads we went (or as people often say – I can never understand why – ‘repaired’) to a pub and J called for ‘ale’. This turned out to be very tasty; quite like beer. J told stories of the enduring qualities of the dog, whom the other two had sadly never met. There is no end to these stories, but J, who is a psychologist, says that you have to ‘move on’, so we talked variously about Leonard Cohen and cricket instead until the landlady enquired whether we had homes to go to.

Apotheosis Deferred

So many stories are working their way through to their conclusions: so many people are working their way through to their apotheoses.

The rain falls constantly. It feels uneasily like the approach of the end of the world. Maybe it’s the coming mid-winter solstice: maybe one of the minority cults is right after all and it is the end of the world. Like Karl Marx on speed, tragedies repeat themselves as farce and then back again to tragedy, all spinning by.

Last weekend we went to the cremation of Evelyn Williams, about whom I wrote recently. It turned out that that meeting was to be our last. The ceremony was enormously dignified, as befits her. God played no part in her imaginative life and didn’t get a look in here, but the occasion resembled more than anything a Quaker meeting, as members of her family and friends stood up to bear witness to the huge influence she, her love and her work had had in their lives.

Unlike most of us, who rely on the memories of others after we’ve gone to provide some sort of half-life, in Evie’s case there is her work. I hope that someone will show it: soon, often and into the indefinite future. Shamefully she was spurned in her lifetime by the Tate, which has different priorities – though it is difficult to guess what they might be.

The dog’s losing fight with cancer ought to be a case of stepping from the sublime to the ridiculous, but of course it isn’t. We commit so much emotionally to our animals that these things do matter, and in the case of this particular animal he is, on any objective assessment, a very good dog.

Others will attest to this.

As I write, he is stretched out asleep beneath a particularly monumental painting of Evie’s. He sleeps a lot these days. He still dreams and, to judge by the fluttering of his paws, still races in his imagination across the huge beaches of Dornoch Firth (his favourite place of all) even though the same paws now fail him when he attempts the stairs, a failure that he bears with dignity, even when he clatters down the bottom half of the flight and lands on his nose.

One effect of his illness is an absence of music in the house. In fact the house is entirely silent, as my beloved better half is away in Germany. When the dog needs to go outside he needs to go quickly and if the sound of Haydn (as it tends to be these days) drowns out that of his toenails tapping on the front door by way of warning to me, the consequences as regards the hall floor are horrid.

I first discovered the consolations of the visual arts over thirty years ago when daughter one as a baby made so much noise that listening to music, for different reasons, became impossible. Now those consolations are still available. So too, when Haydn is not there to divert them, are the fancies that tug unbidden at my sleeve.

Sometimes literally: I was in Ridley Road Market the other day. I was on my way from the bus stop to TLC, the Turkish supermarket which I have mentioned before. My attention was distracted by an Amazon, magnificent, haughty, kallipygous and clad in a dress of a colour and material both of which improved on the beneficence of nature. She was too good to be true. I stared greedily at her back (though also, I am glad to be able to report, appropriately, respectfully and excluding all possible elements of patriarchy, discrimination or condescension). To my astonishment she turned round and approached me.

She was too good to be true. Her face was sketchy, suggesting that after the attention bestowed on her bottom the imagination of her creator had flagged.


Come at once! Your uncle is in dire peril.

One of the lessons of Evie’s life, it has occurred to me over the past week, is that idiot distractions must be avoided if one is to achieve what actually matters.

Furthermore, I was depressed, and zombie-fighting demands a certain élan.

You know what? I’ll get back to you, I said, and strode on to the shop.

P2 disappeared with an exclamation of irritation and a slight but nasty smell, although the latter may have been the fishmonger’s stall with his pile of catfish which I was then passing.

There would be time enough for Uncle Edgerton.

If it was serious, I thought, as I entered the vegetable department in TFC, there was always Aubergine Small. I gazed unseeing for a second at a tray of the succulent purple creatures for which Small’s mother had presumably named him, unlikely close relations of both belladonna and the potato, so glorious to look at and so unpleasant to eat. No doubt it had sparked the recollection of my friend and comrade in arms.

It also mocked my cowardice.

But I promised apotheoses. There have been two, neither easy. I think however that they will be another story.

the dog and the postman

The postman thinks that the dog hates him. This is true but only up to a point. What the dog really hates is the intrusion of post into his house – or, as we say these days, into his space. But he is not stupid and he has worked out that the appearance of the postman is anterior to the intrusion of the post and furthermore that the distant glimpse of an orange vest is likely to precede the arrival of a postman.

So he behaves as if the postman is his enemy, and indeed once had his trousers off him, a circumstance that the postman treated with Christian forbearance. It’s not the trousers that I mind, he told me: I thought he was my friend.

To make things worse, the dog regards it as his role in life, the thing that gives meaning to his existence in our mews, to keep it free of post. Every morning – except of course Sunday – he is early awake and alert and watching the gate to the main road. He is alive to subtleties such as the second post. Only when that has been delivered will he settle to his day’s rest.

Sometimes events conspire to defeat him. One of the subtleties to which he is alive is the postman’s habit of bringing his sack into our mews and leaving it. The postman props the sack up by the shed in the entrance to the mews and goes off. Maybe this is to deliver post elsewhere in the street without the burden of the sack on his shoulders. Or maybe he goes off for a fag which decency prevents his enjoying in the mews itself. Anyway, he returns and then he delivers the post to the houses in the mews.

Recently, since it was a Friday, the day on which the refuse collectors take our rubbish from the same shed in the entrance to the mews, the postman left his sack and a dustman took it and put it into his lorry. We guessed quite quickly what had happened and phoned the Council to ask that the postman’s sack be removed from their refuse lorry and returned to the august bailment of the Royal Mail, but they said no, citing health and safety.

The refuse lorry, incidentally, would rather not be a refuse lorry but would prefer to be a recycling lorry. It says so on the side. I’m not entirely clear on the difference, since our bins are colour-coded and presumably their contents are treated with discrimination so that they can go on to fructify our planet in their different ways.

Anyway, on that occasion it recycled the postman’s sack. We had a day free of encouraging letters from British Gas and little offerings from Amazon and the dog stalked around the house frustrated and unfulfilled. Just as Elric’s hell-blade, the name of which I forget, in the great novels by Michael Moorcock, gets tetchy and dangerous if, unsheathed, it does not taste blood, so the dog, having got out of bed but been deprived of the opportunity of slavering over and sinking his teeth into the post, the letter box and preferably the postman’s hand, returned to his basket thoroughly out of sorts, and did not sleep for some minutes.

Being slavered over and chewed adds something to the encouraging letters from British Gas but detracts from the little offerings from Amazon, and when we expect the latter we have to devise strategies to keep the dog from the door. The other day I was fairly certain that a two-CD set of string quartets by Haydn would arrive. It was the six quartets that comprise Opus 64, played by the Buchberger Quartet. I had found it on Amazon for the amazing price of £1.25 + P&P and was feeling quite pleased with myself. The postman had left his bag by the shed and gone off, and I reckoned that if I took the dog for a walk around the block the post would have been delivered by the time we got back.

So it had. There was a clutch of encouraging letters from various organisations that thought that my money was better off with them, all pristine and free of tooth-marks. I took the dog’s lead off him, confident of a job well done. Of course I had reckoned without the second post, which on this occasion followed immediately on the heels, as it were, of the first. There was a sudden flurry of legs, a gobbet of spit struck my hand and the dog sank what remains of his teeth into the letter box and its contents. There was a whimper though the door but I don’t think that he had encountered flesh. He shook Opus 64 vigorously from side to side so as to break its neck and then allowed me to take it from him.

My first inspection of the packaging suggested that all was well, but when I opened the case it was clear that one tooth (like the single bullet that so often dashes premature hopes in war films) had got through. The surface of the CD was bruised but not broken. I played it. It’s fine except that the slow movement of the second quartet sounds like something written by Frank Zappa at his most obtuse.

I was furious: two hours of sublime music (and the Buchbergers’ accounts of the Haydn string quartets are entirely wonderful and I think underrated: fresh, fast and free of early-Classical hair-tossing) spoiled by one slow movement with an idiot dog’s tooth through it. What are you supposed to do: programme the CD player to leave out the slow movement? And of course it was no longer available for £1.25 + P&P.

I reprimanded the dog severely.

Ha, ha, I hate string quartets, he said, quite irrelevantly, all swoopy violins and dramatic pauses. I only like Shostakovich, of the classical masters.

You’re quite wrong, I replied, getting drawn into the wrong argument despite myself. The Buchbergers play without vibrato or unnecessary rubato and with great urgency and dramatic intensity.

And besides, I added, even if it was the Aeolian bloody Quartet you shouldn’t put your teeth through the slow movement.

And I hate that Jessica Ennis, he said as he scuttled out of the room before I could throw something at him.

He kept away from me – in shame I thought; but later I heard him intoning this truculent little verse in the next room. It was to the tune of Steve Miller’s The Joker:

Oh I’m a pisser
And a shitter
I’m a slow-movement splitter
Take my music on the run….

Cocky sod: something will have to be done.


I may have mentioned that I am a non-executive director of a film company. I go into the office once a week or so. They like me to consider the pitches that they receive from prospective film-makers. It was through this company that I met The Jibjab Woman, who is now both a dear friend and a valuable franchise.

The other day I was at my desk there. Nothing was happening so I was sitting grading my collection of Mont Blanc pens in order of second-hand value. They (my people, not my pens) put their head round the door. Could I see someone who had come in? He had an appointment with the CEO, who had an unexpected lunch.

Twenty-five words or less, I told the young man, who was sweating in terror. Maybe I was his last hope.

I try to encourage them, or at least to be kind. The allusion to Robert Altman and The Player, which I always make, is intended to put them at their ease. Would they imagine to look at me that I would willingly use ‘less’ rather than ‘fewer’ in that sentence? But I am afraid that old Bob Altman, like so many of us, has slipped over into the category of heritage.

Anyway, he pitched.

Beethoven, said the sweating young man. Genius. His voice fell a major third to indicate reverence. Impossible man, passionate, a maverick.

Deaf, I interpolated helpfully. He ignored me.

Made enemies among The Establishment. They were jealous. Had him killed. Triumph of mediocrity over, um…


Yes, genius.


Who who?

Who was jealous and killed him?

Ah, said the sweating young man, gratefully back on track and consulting his notes. Joseph Haydn.

He sat back looking insufferably pleased with himself. For a moment the single word ‘Amadeus’ hung in the air between us. But never mind that, I thought to myself; we don’t even get to the point that plagiarism becomes an issue.

Do you have a title, I asked kindly.

Van, said the young man. With an exclamation mark. Van!

Good title, I said.

Thank you, he replied.

You could reuse it.

He jumped.

I sat there kindly for a moment. I put the tips of my fingers together, as thoughtful and avuncular men do in Hollywood films of the Golden Age.

I have two tiny problems, I said finally.

The first is that Haydn died in 1809 whereas Beethoven lingered on, an increasing embarrassment to his students and friends, more last quartets that Sinatra had farewell tours but nonetheless clinically alive, until 1827. How did you plan to deal with that? Time travel? Slow-acting drugs?

The sweating young man would not meet my eye but pretended to consult his notes.

The second is that Haydn was a musician of lucidity, humour and humanity – yes, genius. Beethoven by contrast was a bombastic self-satisfied old fraud whose idea of a tune was dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dee-dum. The idea that Haydn might have been jealous of him is laughable.

Your story is entirely misconceived, young man. I wish you luck with your approaches elsewhere.

You have to be cruel to be kind, I thought to myself as he left the room. Thank God.

Of course then the itch of speculation started in my mind. Any musician of any discernment would have wanted to put the old fool out of his misery. Not Haydn, of course. Far too decent a man. But Mozart? Died even earlier, 1791. Not a decent man – certainly if Amadeus is anything to go by. More importantly, a Mason. See Magic Flute. Could have hopped forward in time to do it. Must check on his level of adepthood to see if feasible. Ask Uncle Edgerton next time I see him: he’d know. Maybe helped.

I had covered my pad with scribbles before I knew where I was. I am creative, first and last.

There was a proposition here. I could see a movie. Not the ludicrous treatment I had just disposed of, with Beethoven murdered by Haydn. It was Mozart did it!

I wrote at the top of the pad: ‘An À la Blague Production’.

Van! Good title. I’d keep that.