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Vienna's empty streets
December 2018 / January 2019


St Michael's church, Vienna ( Mstyslav Chernov CC BY-SA 3.0)


The Sappho Prize is an award given annually by the Free Press Society of Denmark, and as I remarked on receiving it recently, it has sometimes seemed as though I am the only person I know who hasn’t received it. But it is a terrific honour, awarded by a very brave and stalwart group of Danes who got together to uphold the principles of free expression in their country after these came under attack in 2005. One of the upsides about free-speech wars is that you can never particularly predict where your heroes will break out. And for me a whole collection of them showed up in Scandinavia.

Apart from being friends, the list of previous recipients is also a list of some of my favourite people. Mark Steyn received it some years ago and gave a brilliant speech, the only downside of which was that he used up every available joke that a chap can make on receiving a prize named after history’s most famous lesbian. When Flemming Rose and Roger Scruton received the award they made no lesbian jokes, Melanie Phillips even fewer. But since the award was named after Sappho for her voice as a poet, I was proud to quote her own words during my acceptance speech. As it happened, I had picked up a copy of her works between visiting refugee camps during the migration crisis. Since I had inscribed my copy “Molivos, Lesbos, 2016”, and the award was in part a recognition of the book I wrote as a result of those travels, the ceremony in the Danish Parliament really did feel meant. As there was a cash component to the prize, I quoted Sappho’s fragment 120: “Wealth without virtue is / a harmful companion; / but a mixture of both, / the happiest friendship.”
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This past month also took me back to Vienna — one of my favourite cities, in part because of the mixture of emotions it provokes. The first is obviously the layer of feeling that nowhere is better than this, and that this is as good as any built city can get. Then there are the whiffs of the scene that was once there. A couple of years ago I was going with a friend around an exhibition with some Schiele, Klimt and others. Did she ever wonder, I asked, whether things couldn’t get as good as this again? I remember her almost laughing. Of course they couldn’t. A city which had Mahler, Freud and Zweig around at the same time — just for starters — seemed unlikely to be bettered in any conceivable future.

But there is the other side of Vienna too, of course. Which is that, to this outsider at least, it remains a ghost town. Walk along any but the main streets at any time of day or night and you cannot shift the feeling that there just aren’t enough people here. Where are they all? It isn’t only that it isn’t a world city like London or New York. You cannot help thinking that it is because they killed all the Jews. How does anywhere ever recover from that?
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observer
December 7th, 2018
12:12 AM
I too was in Vienna recently (September this year to be exact) and the city seemed far from empty. In fact one of the staff at the main tourist information centre actually used the words "Vienna is full". This is in marked contrast to my last visit to the city in 2001 when it was possible, for example, just to drop into the Cafe Central for a coffee without having to stand in line waiting for a free table. In 2001 the art galleries were peaceful places visited by art lovers. Now they are plagued with tourists taking selfies as they stand by famous Klimt or Schiele paintings. Away from the tourist spots multicultural "enrichment" has given Vienna drab streets lined with tatty little shops and ugly snack bars (just like so much of multicultural London). Native Viennese are scarce in these areas and it is easy to get the impression that the Middle East is pushing further and further West.

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