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Diary: Jonathan Boardman

15 August 2014


Friendship on the rails

I COUNT Leopold Hampel my best friend, I guess, since, were I planning to marry, I would ask him to be my best man. I was the groom's witness - Trauzeuge des Bräutigams - at his and Monika Sulm's wedding in Vienna in summer 1995, and our affection for one another seems never to have faded, though we meet infrequently. Perhaps that is even the reason.

Next month will bring the 30th anniversary of our meeting in the queue for the Vienna State Opera's daily standing places - he "ein echter Wiener", I a sweaty Brit back-packer. After striking up a conversation and the exchange of some innocent confidences, he explained to me how we had to behave to secure places at the very front of the raked area at the rear of the stalls when the box office opened. This involved scuttling round to the second ticket window that was not necessarily obvious to Staatsoper virgins, and then, tickets in hand, dashing to stake our claim.

We then had to delineate our territory, i.e. the length of the metal rail on which we might prop ourselves during the performance by tying something to it. Though it was summer, and hot in a Mittel-European way, he had brought a woollen scarf for this purpose. I was cloth-less; so he lent me a (clean) handkerchief, which, though not entirely satisfactory in guaranteeing me enough room, was better than nothing.

Having done this (still a full hour before the show), we went for a drink and a cake, since it was Vienna, at the well-known coffee house Aïda. The opera was Così fan Tutte.

I sent Leo a text on 4 August as my single act of First World War commemoration, noting the centenary of a war between Britain and Austria and thanking him for 30 years of friendship. 

Colossal classic

LEO and Monika sent me a handsome edition of a new English translation of Robert Musil's novel The Man Without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften) for my 50th birthday. We had talked about it during a cosy March evening at their Danube canal-side apartment, and, despite their both being teachers of German literature, they admitted to never having read this Austrian modernist classic.

Never to be daunted by the prospect of Baroque gargantuanism, I have joyfully tackled it. To start with - and in this like Proust - it is enormously funny. Set in 1913, Ulrich, the eponymous "man", contrives to be employed as a theoretical mathematician in the context of a leisured and pampered life in the capital of the dual monarchy. His distinguished lawyer father insists on "real" employment, propelling him through court contacts on to the committee of the "parallel campaign" - the Austrian Establishment's attempt to undercut plans for Berlin to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the accession to the German imperial throne of Kaiser Wilhelm II in June 1918, with a much grander event in honour of the 70-year reign of Emperor Franz Joseph.

Engagement with such "pseudo realism" becomes the philosophical theme of the novel. Readers, painfully aware of the real reality of 1918 (the novel, written mainly in the 1920s, never achieved definitive form during the author's lifetime, and is generally dated to 1978) are invited to laugh so as to avoid crying at the pity of it. 

Fascinating Aïda

I ATTENDED the enthronement of Mgr Nazareno Marconi as Bishop of Macerata in July. Readers may remember that the largely Nigerian Anglican congregation there worships in a church put at our disposal by the Roman Catholic diocese (Diary, 17 February 2012). I do all that I can, therefore, to show the ecumenical flag in gratitude for this generosity.

So, after two Sunday-morning masses at All Saints', Rome, I drove for four hours through torrential summer storms to be in the Cathedral of San Giuliano by 6 p.m. Now, it is far more exhausting to sit liturgically still for two and a half hours than to be "performing" as a principal at these events; so I was looking forward enormously to the dry Martini and good dinner promised me beforehand by Professor Paolo Matcovich, the diocesan ecumenical officer, after the obligatory bunfight - in this case, a hog roast in the piazza.

So, there we were, outside our preferred cocktail bar, the first Martini downed, when who should hurry past but the former Bishop of Macerata, Mgr Giuliodori, and the Bishop of Città di Castello, Mgr Domenico Cancian. They had been among the new Bishop's consecrators, and had supported him at his taking possession of the see.

They were off to see Verdi's opera Aïda at the town's world-famous opera festival, staged in the semi-open auditorium, the Sferisterio, built into the town walls in the 17th century to house a local form of real tennis. After only a moment's hesitation, we found ourselves invited to join them in the directors' box, since there was plenty of space, and so off we went, dinner having now to wait till after midnight.

It was a far cry from standing places at the Vienna State Opera - the best performance of Aïda I have ever heard, and the magic and absurdity of the situation.

Feline princess

AFTER almost 15 years of my waiting for it as Chaplain of All Saints', we have been adopted by a stray cat. She lives in the garden, and seems to be having a beneficial effect on the almost cat-sized rat population.

We have not named her yet, but we could do worse, I suppose, than call her Aïda. 

The Ven. Jonathan Boardman is the Archdeacon of Italy and Malta, and Chaplain of All Saints', Rome.

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