Friday, 29 June 2012


When you are very old only your dimensions travel. I have grown shorter, my mouth has shrunk and in consequence my dentures wobble.

The compensation is that the the body only does Ageing on the Spot. The furthest I travel is to the garden to feed my Koi.

Sadly that will mean I will never return to my favourite cities. I won't miss Paris which is a vastly over-rated collection of the worst traits of the French. Nor Venice, a raddled old Queen of the Adriatic where everyone suffers terminal catarrh. But I will miss Vienna. I think if I lived in Vienna I would be smiling all the time. It must be the loveliest and least aggressive city in Europe with the most helpful population. Its joys are many.

Ringstrasse, a circular boulevard of palaces and galleries, ends at Schonbrunn where can be seen the gowns and toiletries of Empress Elizabeth, the Princess Diana of her 19th century day, whose beauty and twelve inch waist were the toast of Europe.

Grinzing, a wine-making village that links Vienna with its woods. Within half an hour of leaving the palace, we were toasting Elizabeth in Heuriger, the new “green” wine, which costs 60 pence per half pint, is recommended for diabetics and tastes deliciously like a frosty October morning.

We tried four Heurigen, the taverns where the wine is sold, and finally dined at the best, Martin Sepp’s. Bettina, our waitress, still smiling at the end of a busy evening, advised us that my order, a Heurigenplatte of assorted warm specialities including smoked pork, dumplings and sauerkraut, was sufficient for two, warned us that the local Cabinet Sauvignon pudding wine was expensive at £2 a glass and suggested we finish the meal with an ambrosial schnapps, a local speciality distilled from the must of the grape.

Mayerling, the hunting lodge where Crown Prince Rudolf enjoyed venison and champagne, whilst Bratfisch, the fiacre driver he hired by the year, sang and whistled Austrian folk tunes. The same night the Crown Prince murdered his teenage girlfriend, Maria Vetsera, before committing suicide. A Viennese aristocrat told us what he claimed was the real story. Vetsera could not persuade Rudolph to divorce and marry her so whilst he slept drunkenly she castrated him. Understandably when he awoke he murdered her.

In what must be the ultimate spin doctoring, Franz Joseph demolished the room in which the couple died, replacing it with a Carmelite chapel. When the bodies were discovered, two uncles of the girl lifted her corpse to a carriage, propped it between them, with a broomstick keeping it erect, so that passers by would think she was still alive and drove to a burial chapel at the Heiligenkreuz Monastery, a superb medieval building which was the next stop on our macabre tour.

I doubt if it is possible to find a bad meal in Vienna. We ate splendidly in the grandeur of the Rathaus, after a visit to the superlative National Art Gallery; magnificently in the scarlet damask dining room of Hotel Sacher, rightly billed as one of the world’s great restaurants; stylishly at Noodles, a chic Italian restaurant next door to the Musikverein, where, in the Golden Hall, a New Year Concert is televised round the world; and where we heard a Mozart concert by musicians in 18th century costume.

But the taste that lingers was a delicious Berne sausage, coated in egg, which the night porter cooked for me over a portable stove in our hotel, the Deutschmeister.

We saw the vivacious statues to Strauss and to Mozart, the inn where Schubert wrote The Linden Tree, the house where Beethoven composed his Ninth and Pastoral symphonies and the dance hall where the Strauss waltzes were first heard. We drank delicious punch at a rustic booth to raise funds for St Stephen’s Cathedral, we took coffee and Torte in fashionable cafes and wondered how Viennese women can eat so much cake and stay so slim.


Mostly I will miss Bruges.

What bacon is to the butty, Mandelson to mortgages, Bruges is to the beer house.

If you gave up sleep you could probably do a comprehensive pub crawl of the city in just over year.

The oldest pub, the 16th century Vlissinghe on Blekersstraat, has a lovely garden, though people who went on opening night 500 years ago are probably still waiting to be served. L’estaminet, Park 5, has delicious food and great jazz. The tiny, elegant De Garre, off Breidelstraat, serves beer specially brewed for it with generous saucers of cheese. Then there is ”t’Brugs Beertje” across the Kemelstraat from the Hobbit Bistro. The “Little Bear“ has furniture you would be stuck with at a boot sale. The walls are a delicate shade of nicotine, though rarely visible for brewery adverts, the seats are hard, the floors innocent of carpet. And I have got it backed as the top beer house of the Western world. It serves 300 brands of beer, including a special ale brewed for Christmas. With 295 of them I have no quarrel but there are five others you have to drink in the company of adults and even then you would fail a breath test for walking upright.

The Fearsome Five are brewed by Trappist monks who live in perpetual silence. They will tell you it is a vow. Rubbish. Prolonged exposure to their beer has robbed them of the power of speech. Two sips and you arrive at that state where conversation is easy but pronunciation difficult. It is like being mugged with a velvet cosh. Your mind walks in ever diminishing circles, whimpering uneasily.

What can I tell you? When I was last there, the amiable landlord Jan de Bruyne and his wife Daisy ran a Beer Academy in the back room where they shared their vast knowledge of beer and quantities of their stock with the customers. I think I attended it. I even have a certificate to prove it. But there is no name on it, nor is it signed. I do not know what “heeft deelgenomen aan een Seminarie Belgisch Bier“ means and I cannot remember a thing I was taught.

If they had sprayed Afghanistan with Trappist beer the Taliban could have been taken by the Vienna Boys Choir. If you spilt any in the garden you would face green fly the size of horses and butterflies with bomb bays under their wings. Here is ale would make a cat speak.

Alas, I missed the pub with 160 chamber pots but I'd like to stay in Marian Degraeve’s Kazernevest guest house which offers “clean hot shower and musical toilet”.


PRAISE to the Duke of Edinburgh who neatly sidestepped when the IRA Head Butcher attempted to speak to him.

BLAME to Paxman for bullying the youngest MP Cloe Smith, an inexperienced broadcaster. Paxman is in the wrong programme. He belongs in the tabloid fringe of the entertainment business with bear baiting, dog and cock fighting and public hanging. An excellent quiz master he is out of his depth in a serious news magazine. A raised eyebrow is no match for intelligent questioning and it is time that his colleagues on the programme taught him the art in which they excel.

Or he might with profit be sent to fag for Martha Carney, John Ley or Libby Purves. Even that dreadful Dame on Woman's Hour could teach him how to elicit information. He made his name by asking the same question of Michael Howard fourteen times. Only later did we discover that he was covering up for a production fault.

He tried it again on William Hague, asking him over and over again if he was certain the Tory deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft was resident in Britain for tax purposes. Hague repeated the same slightly evasive answer without a hint of a squirm. Like many short men he constantly strives without success to achieve the same height as his opinion of himself. He is a tissue paper bully, easily defeated. Angela Eagle, a Labour politician behaved as if he wasn’t there, refusing to be deterred from the speech she wanted to give. Visibly shocked, Paxman backed off. A senior economist from Plaid Cymru made ­Paxman read out a statistic from one of his own briefing documents to prove that the charge he was making was statistically false. Respect MP George Galloway discomfited him when he told him: “Don't try your tricks on me”,


The Northwich Guardian headlined “Mystery of headless monkey found in street” . The paper has now published a story online saying the RPSCA investigation had revealed the “monkey” was actually a squirrel .

Italy has its Mafia. In Wales it is the TAFIA. Both countries are ruled not by government but by families. In my day both HTV and the BBC were run by three generations of the same family, The shadow Welsh Secretary is the son of the Chairman of the Welsh Arts Council. The daughter of An earlier Arts Council Godfather married the Secretary of State for Wales . In Cardiff as in Naples keeping it in the family has a special dimension.