There is an ominous wind blowing through Europe. Ukraine is still mired in the stench of Russian Maskirovka accompanied by the sound of small-cocked saber rattling from yet another paranoid, tin-pot dictator. Greece, the profligate distant cousin, granted another eleventh hour reprieve from the Eurozone with the understanding things will finally change (they really mean it this time). And in the middle poor Germany wondering where it all went wrong and who will pick up the tab.
Here in neutral Austria, a status enshrined in the 1955 State Treaty at the behest of the departing Russians (boo), geo-political relations remain on a pragmatic footing. Neutrality is a useful concept, of course. Everyone else is bad and everyone else is good. Which means everyone is the same. As long as everyone keeps coming to Austria to ski and buy its Mozart Balls. Yet over in Vienna things are equally fraught. I have run out of craft beer. I have to pay my quarterly social insurance bill by the 28th February although I haven’t earned any money so far in 2015 (no company has settled its invoice yet). And poor local politician, Heinz “I am definitely not gay” Strache – well-groomed, unmarried, clubbing-loving leader of the right wing FPÖ – has had to repeatedly squash any rumour that he is a homosexual.
But let us not be deceived. These winds of discontent bring with it a whisper of foreboding. Will NATO blink? Will the EU eventually buy Greece a one-way ticket to Grand Moscow Hotel Putin and a suitcase full of roubles? Will Austria be able to emulate the bearded wonder of Conchita? It is a sense of apprehension the like of which I haven’t experienced since I last heard the words “FAHRKARTEN KONTROLLE!” on the tram.
But these wind related concerns are inconsequential compared to the weather which hit Vienna the Monday before last (9th February). A Siberian inspired climatic ambush which served as an unsettling reminder we are often diminished in the face of natural forces which can be arbitrary and cruel. (Anyone who has queued for ice-cream in Vienna with small children will nod in recognition at such a thought, assuming they feel mentally strong enough to relive the event.) But as the Kinder and parents from Vienna returned from the Semesterferien or Energiewochen – the best English translation might be half-term holiday – the city was bombarded by a chillness in weather not seen since our friend Vladimir was offered, in all its gay pomp, a VIP ticket to the Life Ball.
It is fair to say that the speed, intent and relentlessness of this meteorological intrusion caught everyone with their snow pants down. Not even the impeachable MA 48 (snow-shovellers to the Gods both ancient and new) could keep up and unusually for a city in an alpine republic where snowfall is not inconceivable in February – at least for the last two thousand years when Roman soldiers first pitched up camp – the city appeared to have a nervous breakdown. Aside from the underground trains which were largely unaffected by virtue of being mostly underground, the normally resilient and well-prepared transport network struggled. Trams couldn’t run, buses, Bermuda triangle style, mysteriously disappeared and taxis were about as obtainable as a Viennese waiter when you seek that second glass of water in a coffee house. In a word it was headline grabbing, world-ending chaos.
I am not used to this. Well, I am, in London, where it is not unknown for single snowflake to trigger infrastructure meltdown. But this is Vienna. We know about strategic snow management. We know about ice and its removal or mollification with small stones designed to ruin your shoes. We know about wrapping our faces in multiple scarves and battling through the winds of dispassion. But on that Monday, in my frozen delirium, reincarnated as the wretched Captain Oats who had just popped outside for a few moments, I was left stranded at two bus-stops for more than an hour shivering with other extras from Doctor Zhivago. Cursing in that Viennese way of not really speaking but shaking heads, exchanging portentous glances and making clicking sounds with our tongues.
By the Tuesday things had returned to normality but not before an evening of news dominated by snow-drifts and freezing interviews with some rather shamefaced “managers” whose job was to oversee the clearance of city paths, roads and tram tracks. If such scenes had played out in Japan these “supervisors” would have been a willing participant in their public humiliation and most likely resigned live on television (shirtless and with a large snow shovel strapped to their back). But in Vienna, where I admit such civic breakdown is mercifully rare, it was played out with a real sense of comic defeat and resignation, as if the weather was part of some despicable conspiracy to upset the delicate interaction between the state and its icicle laden people and the city was powerless to intervene (which ultimately it was).
Normally, like me at that freezing, wind-ridden bus-stop, I would have left it there. But the next day Renate Brauner took to Twitter for a bit of Vienna inspired PR blitz in support of the MA 48 and Vienna Transport. Renate Brauner is one of two vice-mayors of Vienna and currently the city minister for finance, so hopefully she is not losing too much sleep about those foreign currency loans with the ever honorable Swiss. Also, and I didn’t know this, she is the former girlfriend of her current boss and mayor of Wien, Michael Häupl. Not that the incestuous sexual shenanigans of the people charged with exercising our collective will in the number one city is of importance per se. Certainly not if you have seen the two. In any case, Renate tweeted:
“DANKE! an Winter, Störungsdienst & MA48, die unter widrigsten Bedingungen ihr bestes gegeben haben, um Öffi-Verkehr aufrecht zu erhalten“
This translates as a big thank you to the MA 48 and the winter crew for doing their best to keep public transport moving in very challenging conditions, although I admit writing DANKE in capitals could be misconstrued as borderline sarcastic. Be that as it may and clearly under pressure after the previous day’s near transport collapse, she then obliged us with two further interventions (what we call snow-plough PR). First a tweet about record numbers of public transport passengers on the city network (nearly a billion) alongside mention of record sales of annual travel cards in Vienna (650 thousand). This was then followed by another about the 400 million Euro investment in the new U1, modernisation of the U4 – both underground lines – and bendy buses for the most conflict-ridden bus line in the city, the accursed 13A.
Taken at face value I am of course a huge advocate of such developments. I adore the potential for public transport in Wien in spite of the people who use it and I have a huge amount of respect for Vienna’s civic organisation. There is very little that will convince me that such city investments are the best shot we have in my lifetime of achieving a utopia that benefits the most citizens. A society where collective loyalty and mutual dependence are central values. A city where the condition of my fellow citizen is intractably my concern. A urban arena which embraces “the first person plural” (an expression of national identity which I freely attribute it here for the city borrowed from Oxford academic Roger Scruton). This should be the dominant philosophical aim of our times and in these messages I fleetingly acknowledge such intentions.
But when our elected officials use such inconveniences as a smokescreen for supposed “city-wide” success alongside a cynical opportunity to push their own self-serving agenda, I get a bit tetchy. Instead of praising the guys paid to keep things moving (when they truly didn’t) they should by praising and thanking the people of Vienna for being so patient and not marching on the town hall with pitchforks and oil lamps. Instead of trumpeting how much money is being invested, they should be putting their hands up and be shot, sorry, accept that sometimes the weather will trump financial and organisational muscle. Instead of waving from the relative comfort of the press office downtown pretending everything is just spiffing, they should have the political intelligence to admit there was a bit of a balls up in spite of their best efforts (which we applaud nonetheless. )
However, this reliance on politically spun bullshit is a cancer in the heart of modern politics. It is no wonder that electorates feel disengaged and abused. We are spoken to like infirm, easily upset relatives (true) who can no longer handle a trip to the toilet alone. Almost as if we couldn’t possibly cope with an interjection of straight talking for fear of confusion and befuddlement (and demands for milky tea). A little bit of humility goes a long way in public life at critical moments and it would earn my perpetual respect if it was an invariable part of the political mission. If nothing else it would reveal the one thing that modern politicians should understand more than anything given the contemporary predilection towards mistrust amongst elected leaders: prevarication brings immense risk (just ask the Greeks).
© RJ Barratt 2015