In praise of the local heroes and anti-heroes.

As a forces brat, my upbringing was one where moving around a lot (on average every 2-3 years) meant it was difficult to put down roots anywhere, and also my memories were very sketchy about a lot of the places we lived. About 15 years ago, my brother and I went back to one of the towns we had lived near, and tried to retrace our route from the train station to a place that had been a public house we had been to in our youth (he just over-age and me under-age). Where we thought it was had been built over, along with three houses by it, with a new supermarket and car park on its site.

Recently I trawled the Lost Pubs Project website, in the hope that there might be a story about it, and about one of its most colourful locals, who used his glass eye to mark his drink. He was a local hero, and told anyone who would listen about “the Jerry that shot my eye out”, but between us my brother and I (my brother being my only drinking companion after another disruptive move) we couldn’t remember his name. He was a definite local hero. We tried The Knowhere Guide too, in the hope that he might have been honoured in the “Cringing cult of celebrity” page on the town’s Knowhere Guide, in case his eyeball trick was still doing the rounds until he was in we reckon his late 80s. Sadly it didn’t give us the answer we sought.

The memory of that local hero (known in German as a Stadtoriginal), reminded me that Vienna has its fair share of heroes, anti-heroes, and villains. The scale of celebrity is an interesting one – there are the headline hoggers, who command “A” list status – former Presidents, Chancellors, Ministers, banksters, through to “Z” listers – perma-tanned reality TV stars and “Adabeis” (“socialites” or “it guys/girls” would be too kind a description). Vienna has a lot of niches – e.g. the cabaret scene – which fans fawn about the shows given by the doyen/nes of the scene. As I have been in Vienna for getting on towards half my life, although I have not embraced all the niches that it has to offer, there have been a number of people who have been heroes/anti-heroes/villains often due to their eccentricity, as well as some very mainstream characters.

With the trial of Karl-Heinz Grasser now finally in court after years of speculation about the teflon-coated Sonny Boy, who was “too young, too beautiful and too clever” back in the day, and one of the fellow accused suddenly went all “kiss and tell”, and so Karli the antihero is now relegated to the status of villain, and the chances are that he may really have no money, given the amounts he must have paid his lawyer to be more or less a permanent publicist.
As 2018 starts, we see two Viennese political heavyweights due to take their respective bows. Michael Häupl has always been Mayor of Vienna as far I as can remember, although Uncle Google has in fact told me that Helmut Zilk (husband of Dagmar Koller, who no spring chicken herself at 78 is now shacked up with a man half her age – that’ll be the Wienwasser for you) was still Mayor when I arrived in Vienna all those years ago.
The avuncular Häupl, who has a ferocious appetite for liquid lunches, has always been there. Not in the sense of giving you a couch to sleep on when you missed the night bus and didn’t have the money for a taxi like I did (the much-missed Sepp who was the life and soul of the party), or lent you 1,600 Schilling when you had spent your phone bill money on Rubbellos and your Australian mother needed to reach you and your phone needed reconnecting (a half-Austrian, half-Australian friend from my early years in Vienna), but regardless of your politics, his staying power was pretty admirable. My wife was moved to write a letter to him after his claim that if he worked as hard/little as teachers did he’d start his weekend on Tuesday lunchtime, but Vienna remains an incredibly comfortable and well-serviced city, despite rumours of massive budget deficits.
More locally, there is Adi Tiller (yes, short for Adolf, giving you a slight hint of around when he was born), a pillar of Döbling life, and who will apparently stand down in 2018 after almost 40 years (!) as Bezirksvorsteher. The “Tiller Factor” is behind his longevity in office. He left school with Matura and was first a bank clerk, before taking over his father’s petrol station, which subsequently did spare parts and servicing of cars. Like Häupl he will probably have a big say in anointing/appointing his successor, and I expect that there will be a street in Döbling named after him below long.
So having chosen some politicians, maybe it is worth pointing out some non-elected individuals, who have been very political over the years. Bus shelters still are not safe from the Zetteldichter, also known as the “Rapscallion of the Rotring”, the “Pain with the Prittstick” or the “Menace with the marker pen” among my two English-speaking friends working in design. The Zetteldichter started off (apparently in the mid-1970s) with “Pflückgedichte” sellotaped to scaffolding, and managed to convince the courts that they are art, although he has also been fined a few times. His photocopied “poems” attack consumerism (well done that man!), corruption and capitalism, and make valid points, but I do wish he’d stop writing on U-Bahn stations in pen, or defacing posters. But Vienna would be a less “colourful” place were he to hang up his marker pen, sellotape and photocopying card – I do realise the irony of the statement given that his work is in black and white. He is now discovering social media.
Another, although whose star has, I believe, fallen is Hermes Phettberg. He had fallen off my radar – since he is no longer as prolific or headline grabbing as in his halcyon days in the 1990s, but he re-entered my consciousness recently with the talk of the “130 Tonnen Fettberg” in London’s sewers mentioned in the papers. Phettberg was, on the two occasions in the late 1990s I saw him in the sixth district (I understand he lived/lives there), a man mountain. A recent interview in News sadly confirms that having lost 100kg, he is living in misery and is practically housebound, aged 65. The loneliness of old age and dotage is something that also seems to grip Vienna, with some of its faded stars. The recent demise of Keith Chegwin also reminded me of the way that many performers have battled disease and illness and old age and in other cases penury is dreadful.
For a number of years, the Zetteldichter was outstripped by a graffiti artist/tagger known only as Puber, who sprayed his tag everywhere. A friend who professed to have been a covert “stenciller” in the late 1990s (think small-scale Banksie) lamented that Puber was a jumped up, arrogant and conceited prig, due to his not respecting the graffiti of others by spraying over it. At his zenith it was incredible, that his tag was seemingly everywhere, as the pure number of “Puber” tags, many of which are still visible, made me wonder whether there was really only one person behind the tag. Apparently when he was arrest he was wearing a nappy on his head with a decidedly homophobic message on it. I never understood was Puber was all about, but the most bizarre tag that appeared on trams and in bus and tram stops in Vienna for a number of years was “4berger 4ever” – and when finally apprehended, the tagger apparently explained that Frau Vorberger was a much loathed teacher of his in Floridsdorf. His marker pen efforts have more or less faded at many bus stops.
To avoid a charge of being short-termist, I’ve also gone for some Wiener Original (A Stadtoriginal is a local celebrity) who are now long-departed. I’d not arrived in Vienna when Helmut Qualtinger died in the 1980s – a legend of the cabaret scene, but another Stadtoriginal was Waluliso, who was a preaching peace activist, and who died in 1996 – my wife educating me about him when he died, I having only seen him in his trademark toga once in the city centre. Local friends still mention him with a wistful smile – in this day and age so many events from 20+ years ago are deemed ancient history by the young. When I have put Queen on at home the Nephew has asked “Aren’t they dead?” and I remind him that I was in London when Freddy Mercury died, but that the rest are alive and well.
A Stadtoriginal of the U4 is the “Bierkavalier“, someone I have only seen once live, but who I have heard about from a lot of female friends. Sadly, his once seemingly harmless question, of inviting female passengers to go for a beer with him, has turned more aggressive, but he has been the subject of much debate. He used to have near cult status, but now his advances seem to invoke less fond memories for those approached. He used to walk off, tale metaphorically behind his legs if rejected, but last summer was apparently becoming more aggressive and the Wiener Linien withdrew his annual transport pass.
Hopefully their like will seen in the next generation, although with politics now a battlefield for the young (HC Strache being like the old uncle overseeing the childrens party), and not a place for life (maybe “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots” as my grandfather told my dad actually does ring true. Sadly the eccentricity of old has been superceded by the quick fix of youtube video blogging instant celebrities and people paid to mislead the impressionable young – these Internetoriginal nowadays though don’t hold a candle to some of the names above. Proof, if required, that celebrity has been very ephemeral, even in Vienna, with its reputation of everything happening much later, is the fate of the Fensterbär. During the Sommerloch of 2012, I used to see a large teddy bear in the window of a flat by the U6 on my commute. The lonely Fensterbär (also known as the Gürtelbär) briefly became massive news (it was a slow news period) but disappeared from his window having exhausted his 15 minutes of fame only about 4 weeks later.

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