The Fifth Column: June 2013

Soft Treat in Safe Hands?

Good news, maybe, that a company owned by Julius Meinl V has at the last minute stumped up €5million to buy up the bankrupt, century-old family company Niemetz. Its troubles, and the fire-sale of its factory, struck at the heart of Austrian identity; in particular its chocolate, coconut-covered Schwedenbombe (“Sweden bomb”) evokes the past as powerfully as Proust’s madeleines, or indeed the brand name Julius Meinl itself.

Julius V’s lurid entrepreneurial adventures have ended a great family tradition; having trained as a banker in London and been a close associate of colourful ex-finance minister Karl-Heinz Grasser. Enough said? All that is left of the once-ubiquitous, imperial grocery chain is one shop in Vienna, the tourist mecca Julius Meinl am Graben, with the rest reborn as Spar Gourmets.

Over the last few months the troubles affecting Schwedenbomben have brought Austrians closer together than almost anything apart from the corrupt politicians.

Graz casualty doctor Petra Baumgartner led an Internet campaign to save Niemetz, attracting over 41,000 supporters and boosting production to a million bombs a week.

“I grew up with Schwedenbomben, and I thought such a great, unique quality product shouldn’t just be allowed to disappear,” said Dr. Baumgartner. “People ought to be ready to pay one or two cents more.” A keen musician, she also composed a song in praise of the Austrian sweetie on YouTube.


Niemetz’ Schwedenbomben is an age-old brand | Photo: Niemetz

Niemetz’ Schwedenbomben is an age-old brand | Photo: Niemetz

Twilight of the Apparachniks 

Hunting art subsidies is a maddening distraction from the creative process. And Paulus Manker, actor, writer, director and all-round, if slightly-ageing (53), enfant terrible of the Viennese arts scene, has had enough. His feud with Vienna’s culture tsar, Andreas Mailath-Pokorny, has gone public.

Mankel’s “project” Wagner-Dämmerung – Eine Reise in Wagner’s Gehirn ohne Visum (“a trip around Wagner’s brain without a visa”) to mark the second centenary of Richard Wagner’s birth, cost him €200,000 of his own money – not a cent from the “apparatchik” Mailath-Pokorny.

“Unfortunately I don’t have a [mad Bavarian] King Ludwig, who understood Richard Wagner’s famous phrase ‘The world owes me what I need’ and settled Wagner’s debts.” Instead he had Pokorny, Mankel said, “who is unfortunately crowned [only] with ignorance.”

I for one am convinced that the charming and patient Mailath-Pokorny, also 53, will find it in his heart to forgive the outburst of his brilliant contemporary. But will it be soon enough to attend the opening, in the cellars of the old K&K telegraph office on the Börseplatz, on 18 July?

Manker toured three continents with his sensational 1996 production of Joseph Sobol’s “polydrama” Alma – a Show-Biz ans Ende about the life and loves of Alma Mahler, showing scenes from Alma’s life played out simultaneously on all floors and in all rooms of a house. It was a huge success.

Wagner-Dämmerung is likely to be memorable too. N.B.: Manker is picky about audience behaviour, and has been known to seize ringing mobile phones and hurl them into a corner.


Natural Liars 

Death can be an astute career move, as it surely was for the rascally former governor of Carinthia, Jörg Haider (car crash, October 11, 2008). The huge corruption trial now in progress, involving, inter alia, ad-man Gernot Rumpold, Haider’s Freedom Party tough-guy and federal manager, suggests the boss used simple, Mafia-like methods.

Contracts for Rumpold’s company would “make me happy”, Haider apparently explained to Austria Telekom’s ex-chairman Rudolf Fischer. He had felt uncomfortable, Fischer told the court, but the papers were duly drawn up, to the tune of €600,000 for non-existent services. The Austrian political class, Fischer complained, saw the company as a “self-service store”.

Austria Telekom has claimed damages of €30m over the scandal, which ended the career of former Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel in 2011. How much of Telekom’s money really disappeared – €40m, even €50m? – or where it went, is unclear.

Vindobona suspects that this and related trials still will quickly become so mind-bendingly complex and absurd that, as with the Lucona affair that bedevilled Austrian politics for 20 years, it will soon be all but impossible to understand what on earth was going on.

Haider would have enjoyed this. There was a confident, agile enjoyment about his mendacity. Interviewing him years ago, I met a natural liar able, at will, to believe whatever he wanted.

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