27 December 2019

‘Enlightened reading
in dark times’

Some of my Christmas reading with a few days off (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

After the busy rounds Christmas, I have taken a break and spent the last few days in Dublin, watching films on television – including The Two Popes – and enjoying my Christmas reading, including catching up on the Christmas editions of my favourite magazines, and dipping into some books.

There are two current editions of the New Statesman: the Christmas Special, which is dated 13 December 2019 to 2 January 2020, and a special, post-election edition, dated 20 December 2019 to 9 January 2019.

The Christmas special includes profiles of Dominic Grieves, an enlightened Tory rebel who did not retain his seat at the general election, and Edna O’Brien, who recalls The Country Girls being denounced from the pulpit in Tuamgraney, Co Clare, and then being burned.

The New Statesmandescribes itself as ‘enlightened thinking in dark times.’ These are dark times politically, indeed. The extra, post-election edition, with the cover headline ‘Days of Reckoning,’ is a ‘special issue on this era of extraordinary politics.’

Writing about the ‘New Right revolution,’ Andrew Marr this not the revolution many NS readers had been hoping for. He says Boris Johnson’s victory ‘has the potential to realign British politics’ and that Johnson’s ‘opponents underestimate him at their peril.’

Jeremy Cliffe wans that ‘Central Europe’s authoritarians show where an unleashed Boris Johnson could lead Britain.’ George Grylls visits Wigan and ‘Britain’s forgotten lands’ to see how Labour lost its northern vote.

Perhaps in its humour the Christmas edition of Private Eye is being more analytical than its readers expect when its front cover claims that Jeremy Corbyn handed Johnson this election victory like a Christmas present.

The Tablet also has a Christmas double issue, with a cover illustrated a detail from a panel by Jan de Beer at an exhibition that continues in Birmingham until 19 January.

The Tablet should be essential reading for thinking Anglicans too. This Christmas edition includes an obituary of the broadcaster and author Mary Craig, who was a regular contributor to the Tablet.

Each year, The Economist produces a Christmas double issue, and this year’s special features include an analytical insight into the shaping of Ireland as a modern liberal society and an interesting look at the lives of families who were moved from the East End of London to East Anglia over the past half century.

ABC News is the very lavish annual magazine of Askeaton/Ballysteen Community Council Munitir na Tíre. In this year’s edition, published within the past week or so, my contribution is a paper on Captain Chichester Phillips, who was MP for Askeaton from 1695 to 1713, and who donated the site in Dublin for Ireland’s first Jewish cemetery.

After my visits to Jewish Prague, Vienna and Bratislava this year, I have returned to reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, which tells the story of the Ephrussi family, his grandmother’s far-flung family. Last month, I visited the exhibition in the Jewish Museum in Vienna, ‘The Ephrussis, Travel in Time,’ in which Edmund de Wall retells the story of the Ephrussi family as told in this book. Their story moves from Odessa to Paris and Vienna, then to their migration as refugees as World War II forced them to seek asylum in Britain, the US, Mexico, Japan and other countries.

I also received presents of two books by the Revd Maria Elsa R. Bragg, who is a duty chaplain at Westminster Abbey: Sleeping Letters and Towards Mellbreak.

Edmund de Waal has described Sleeping Letters as ‘a beautiful book, a remarkable, cadenced recollection of how grief lives in the body. It is poetry as a kind of dance.’

Edmund de Waal’s Irish-born sister-in-law, the writer Kit de Waal, reveals in the Christmas Special of the New Statesman, ‘I came to writing late in life.’ In the same section, Archbishop Rowan Williams writes, ‘I had settled in my early teens – thanks largely to a couple of imaginative and humane clergy that I knew – that I should be a priest.’ But he also talks about ‘the temptations of perfectionism.’

He thought once of becoming a monk, at another time of teaching English ‘as the alternative “spiritual” calling.’

He summarises what he’s wanted and tried to do as ‘something to do with learning and holding the attentiveness to God and things and words that breaks through private dramas and obsessions. Being a priest and a writer and a teacher of sorts has always been, for me, grounded in those prospects not followed.’

In her column in this Christmas Special, the Revd Lucy Winkett of Saint James’s Church, Picadilly, recalls this story:

‘I was standing in the olive wood souvenir shop in Bethlehem in the West Bank. With US Dollars in my hand, I was haggling with the Palestinian shopkeeper about the carved wooden nativity set I thought I might buy. I liked it because it wasn’t too fussy; slightly abstract. For Christian groups visiting the Holy Land, there is always a desire to support the local economy of the “little town” where Christ was born. But I thought the price was too high, especially because, while the sheep, shepherds, Joseph, Mary, and the Wise Men were all present and correct, there didn’t seem to be any Jesus. No crib. Perhaps an indication of the residual power of the dog collar, the man started to justify the fact that there wasn’t a Jesus as part of the carved set. “He hasn’t been born yet”, “it’s bad luck to have an actual baby in there” and so on.

‘What both of us had missed was that the anonymous carver had placed the baby as a bundle in Mary’s arms. He was there all right, but I’d been too keen on getting a bargain to notice. Maybe that’s my Christmas sermon right there.’

The Hotel Kyjev and
modern, visionary
street art in Bratislava

Street art on the façade of the Hotel Kyjev in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Many years ago, on a working trip to Egypt, the hotel in Alexandria was such a standard example of Stalinist brutalism that some of us began referring to it as ‘Hotel Bratislava.’

I cannot remember the true name of the hotel, and I had not yet been to Bratislava. But every time I see brutal hotels that have survived in Mediterranean resorts since the days of the explosion in mass tourism in the 1970s and 1980s, I am reminded of this sad hotel that represented the worst in cheap and functional planning.

When I saw the Hotel Kyjev on Rajská Street near Kamenné námestie in central Bratislava last month, I realised it may well have been the very place that inspired some in our group to label that sad hotel in Alexandria.

The hotel has been closed for seven or eight years now and is deteriorating into a sad state of decay and neglect. But the Hotel Kyjev is one of the boldest architectural reminders of socialism in the centre of Bratislava. The hotel was designed by Ivan Matušík and built in 1973. It was named the Hotel Kyjev after the capital of Ukraine and was one of tallest buildings in the Slovak capital, at a height of 65 metres.

Throughout the communist era, the hotel had no serious competition in Bratislava. It was often reserved for the most important guests of the state and visiting dignitaries – even the President of Czechoslovakia had his own suite there.

After the fall of communism, the hotel remained open. Because the interior was never remodelled, the retro style of the lobby, the public rooms and the accommodation became an attraction for tourists. The view from the roof was said to be breath-taking.

But after the revolution, there was no money to keep up with other hotels on the market. The hotel changed ownership for the last time in 2007, when it was bought by the British developer Lordship. But it needed considerable investment. Lordship tried several times to change the look of the hotel and to redevelop the area along with the neighbouring Tesco department store in Stone Square.

The distinctive design of the Kyjev could not keep the hotel open, and it closed its doors in 2011. Initially, developers wanted to tear it down, but they changed their minds after public pressure, although the hotel has never been declared a monument.

Most people in Bratislava agree Stone Square needs revitalisation. The area lacks public green places, and open spaces, the buildings are seen as dirty buildings and the area has attracted homeless people in considerable numbers. But a large number of people want the hotel complex designated a national cultural monument.

Now, however, the entire façade of the Hotel Kyjev has been transformed in recent years by the photographer Lousy Auber into one of the biggest street art pieces in Central Europe.

As part of a recent street art festival in Bratislava, Auber was planning and designing the work for six months. The artists received permission from Lordship and then consulted City Hall and preservationists about their design. The optical illusion was created in only a few hours by 17 mountain climbers who used colourful sprays.

The façade has evoked strong reactions, both positive and negative. Some people wonder whether it is too much of an interference with the design of a building in the monument zone or ask if it is destroying the modernist architecture.

However, Tomáš Lukačka, organiser of the Bratislava Street Art Festival, has responded, ‘If anybody is concerned that we have destroyed something on the building, this is not true – the building has already been destroyed.’

The work, which has already prompted various responses, will probably remain on the building until the site is redeveloped.

Meanwhile, although the hotel remains closed, the popular nightclub in the Luna Bar underground, with its retro style, remains open.

Will the Hotel Kyjev and Lousy Auber’s work be there, in this city of street art, this time next year?

I don’t know. I don’t have 20/20 vision.

Twigi … a shop window and façade in Bratislava inspired by the city’s street art (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)