Nineteen percent, Brno – IV

Monday 9 Sept 2019:
Flying from M’cr to Prague we spotted another plane moving like a rocket through the sky, leaving behind it a thin black smear on the crystal blue.
Beneath us, far away, the clouds were like sheep, like candyfloss, like marble buttocks frozen in the sun, like the whipped cream that we would enjoy two days hence in a very smart café.
Saw a motorbike with number plate “00 – KAFKA” chained to a lamp-post.
Went all the way up the hill to the Presidential Palace, only to find that the bar has been replaced by a branch of Starbucks.
We got lost and wandered past the Czech Ministry of Defence (a small town by itself) and then discovered the winged lion, a memorial statue to the Czech airmen who flew with the RAF during WWII.
In the hostel I relax by browsing carelessly through ‘The New Poetry’. Perhaps the dust of my much younger self lies trapped between the pages of this book I purchased forty years ago.

Monday 16 Sept 2019:
Yesterday, after having spent about seven hours splashing around in the thermal baths at St Gellert we made our way across a green-painted bridge, dodging the occasional lunatic cyclist.
The hot spring baths are wonderful – turquoise tiled palace, sculptures, pillars, sauna and cold plunge pool, a bar and restaurant, and hot water gushing from carved faces on which the decades have deposited splendid mutton-chop whiskers of limescale.
Went to a nice restaurant and had extremely good spaghetti carbonara and a couple of beers – nearly nine thousand Forints. A violinist was performing at a nearby café, and we listened to him play The Birdie Song and Yakety Sax.
Dozens of young people climb up onto the green bridge and sit there drinking and smoking. And enjoying the sunset over Castle Hill, utterly marvellous.
The following day, since we were both sunburnt from being too long in the outdoor pool, we took shelter in a smart bar and played cards for two hours, watching the wealthy tourists make their way onto the Viking Cruise ship docked nearby.

Sat 14 Sept 2019:
On train from Brno to Budapest, huge expanses of farmland. Some scrap metal processing plant (power station?) and electric pylons, some of which look exactly like the UK versions while others have a different design – squat and double barrelled. The wires carry large red-and-white marker balls, and the insulators resemble a mass of bristles in stripes of black and white, like the legs of some enormous tropical spider.
There was a huge ABB factory and a car transporter carrying dozens of vehicles, each wrapped in pristine white plastic. Every so often in the fields we would see a huge metal spire topped with a vast sphere. Water storage?
When we left the hostel this morning, we found a procession of middle-aged people wearing blue copes and carrying the Moravian flag, all singing their national anthem.

Nineteen percent, Brno – III


On the Building Site of a Hostel, by Miroslav Holub (1923-98)

Among pools of earth,
in a chain reaction of bricks,
between the decaying milk-teeth of concrete blocks

has just been hatched
a grey, two-phase
coffin. (Wipe your feet)

a dignified museum
of the gall stones
of emptiness. (Quiet please)

Fingers of piping explore the hollows
and the Monday morning howl
is everywhere. (No spitting)

Above the bunk
a single bulb rages
from a concrete sky.

And on a nail
driven into flesh
shipwrecked socks and brassières
are drying. (No sliding in the corridors)

We met
staring girls’ eyes,
wandering like bugs over the plaster
and we asked,
what is love
shall we soon be young?  (Transl: Ian Milner, Bloodaxe Books)

Monday Night, Strange Room

“No smoking is anywhere allowed”
Says the sign above the reception desk. We drag
Our cases up (there doesn’t seem to be a lift)
The brightly-coloured concrete stairs to a dormitory

Whose doorway is eight feet tall. What sort
Of travellers did they have in the past?

Girlish laughter percolates from
The other rooms, and the corridors creak
With possibilities; one night I will encounter

A sturdy young chap, holding a toothbrush
And wearing a towel; I don’t know where he plans
To lay his head tonight. Am I in luck?

Another sign helpfully reads “Quiet please
When coming late at night – be consider
For your fellow guest”

The unseen hands arouse me; I pretend
To be asleep. Square grains of quantum light
Begin to shudder in the dark.

In the morning, breakfast in the cellar bar
Surrounded by film cans, spilling celluloid linguini
Framed posters and dead projectors. Movie stars
Don’t die in Budapest. The other guests
Are foreign, and I can’t translate their smiles.



Nineteen percent, Brno – II

Sunday 15 September 2019

The View from Becsi Utca

I wonder how
Different things will
Look a year
From now

Tomorrow it will all begin again;
The workmen yelling, the welding lances,
The growling pumps with diesel fumes
And cutting gear whose hollow whine
Reminds me of a spacecraft coming in to land. But

Today is Sunday;
The building site in Budapest is cold and grey
Cranes retreat beyond stillness
And the spire proceeds to cast
An elegant silence on the scene, a crowded site
Where nothing moves except the shadows left
By passing birds, a field in flight.

 Journal entry, Fri 13 sept 2019

Most of the youngsters in this café weren’t even born when Blondie released ‘Call Me’ which is currently playing on the radio. On the train from Prague to Brno we didn’t manage to get the seats we’d booked in time.

Dramatic wooded hills on either side,
Young people playing with their phones
Or drinking something dry and white; a bottle shared
So I take refuge in my book, and find a mention
Of Miroslav Holub, a footnote that I’ve never seen before
Although it’s waited patiently for forty years.

Journal entry, Tue 10 Sept 2019

This youth hostel has a selection of board games and some books (in a range of European languages) including ‘Grey’ by E L James.

I thought it was an elegant abstract print in neutral shades of brown
But instead it turned out to be
The reflected fake wood panelling
And water pipes above the bunk-beds in our room.

In seventy-nine I bought a street map
For a town I wasn’t sure I’d ever see
Or even recognise when I arrived.

We’ve been to Prague
And not heard any Mozart or Dvorak
We’ve been to Brno
And not heard any Janacek
We’ve been to Budapest
And not heard any Liszt or Bartok. I need
To check this street map once again; I think we’re lost.


Nineteen percent, Brno – I

Nineteen percent in Brno.

It’s early evening; the main station was closed so we had to make our way from Dolni. The streets were busy with bored commuters. My mobile phone indicated that we should follow the route straight ahead, and all seemed okay until we encountered a huge shopping centre. We followed one of the side roads and passed beneath a railway bridge; then the online map began telling us to turn left, but the street names on the screen did not correspond to the signs around us.

“Where do we go now?”
‘Not sure’, I said. ‘This thing is trying to work out our route.’

We carried on. Eventually I said ‘We might need to ask directions; the battery is down to eight percent.’
“What! I thought you were going to charge it up while we were on the train!”

I pointed out that the charge had only gone up to nineteen percent by the end of our journey.
“Nineteen percent! That’s no good!”
I was anxiously watching the reserved power level steadily diminish. At last, Paul spotted the name of our destination in bold red letters on a building straight ahead.

I had no idea what to expect from the city of Brno, and was very impressed by the quality of our room; spacious and elegant, overlooking the church square. Soon after we arrived, a crowd of good-natured youngsters had gathered in the square to drink beer and listen to driving techno-dance music – think of Depeche Mode performed by Rammstein.

We wandered through the town centre and found a café serving massive burgers – the meat was very rare, but it was all perfect. Hidden beneath a towering pile of cheese, bacon, and fried onions.

After Brno, we caught another train to Budapest; a long, long journey through woods and fields dotted with electric pylons. At one point I thought that I was seeing exactly the same church in the same field for the third time.

Before Brno we spent four nights in Prague; architecture, food and beer. The youth hostel had brightly-coloured stairs and a cellar bar that served as a breakfast room. We ate our simple meal of bread and cheese surrounded by ancient posters and film-club memorabilia.

‘I’m in love with a German film star…’ (Barbara Gogan, Polydor Records 1980)

We had arrived in Prague just after dark; a bus journey took us to the Metro, where we travelled for seven stops and emerged from a lift to find the museum, a floodlit baroque fantasy, floating ahead of us.

We went to the hotel – passing a few sauna clubs and adult cinema shops – where we found a very nice room – with a couple of single beds pushed together, and – on the wall was a splendid geometric abstract print.

A week later we travelled to the Liszt Ferenc airport; I was disappointed. Where were all the statues and profiles and cufflinks and corkscrews and cigar-cutters? I was expecting the place to be ornate, with frosted Lalique-style glass doors and twisted marble pillars and an abundance of keyboard-themed drinks counters.

Instead, it was a perfectly normal airport. With planes. And delayed departures. The pilot took off in an insane hurry but gave us the smoothest landing, like diving onto a champagne eiderdown.

From the window of our hostel in Budapest I could see a building site; once upon a time, all the fabulous structures around us would have been similar scenes of disruption. The locals would have complained in furious renaissance Hungarian about the noise and chaos. And five, or thirty, or eighty years later, they would be able to enjoy an epic concrete confection with swarming cherubs. 

Four days later, I decided to go to the library and explore the output of Miroslav Holub. He was a champion research microbiologist, but also wrote award-winning poems, one of which concerned a building site.