Vienna’s empty streets

‘Walk along any but the main streets of Vienna at any time and you cannot shift the feeling that there just aren’t enough people’

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.”


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?


The massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh is one reminder that this evil is not as far behind us as we all wish. But on top of the unimaginable stories and the horror of what happened in that attack, there seemed something additionally needless about the way in which politics began to intrude from the moment the killings had happened. America is so divided at the moment that it is as though people are waiting in every wing trying to notch atrocities up for their or their opponent’s side.

Perhaps it was to be expected, so close to the midterm elections, but people saying that the massacre was a reason why people should vote either Republican or (more often) Democrat seemed very near sacrilegious. Of all the things that are wrong about the thinking of our time one of the worst — covered in Jonathan Haidt’s excellent new book (see this issue’s Underrated) — is that life is a straightforward fight between identifiably evil people and identifiably good ones. The idea that “pro” or “anti” Pittsburgh was on the ballot paper is a monstrous delusion.


One thing that seems to be throwing a lot of people at the moment is trying to work out what is happening as opposed to what is being said. And then working out what is more important — the words, or the deeds. We seem to have agreed that words matter more, probably because they are easier to absorb. That was certainly one conclusion I took from the reaction to President Macron’s speech warning about the perils of nationalism. At the same time that the French president was giving that speech he was reintroducing national service in his country. What is national service for, if not the nation? And where is the line between nationalism and, say, national service? There may well be one. But they cannot be in complete opposition, can they?

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