A recent column in the FT made me mad as hell. The writer, Simon Kuper, calls Vienna a backwater, which is a bit like calling the Queen a busted flush because of her age. Sure, he writes how great Vienna was back when the Habsburgs ruled the roost, attracting people from all over, ‘some of them nuts’. He includes Freud, Hitler, Stalin and Trotsky. Not the nicest bunch I can think of, but then the paper is a pink one. He fears London might go the way of Vienna, and price itself out of the reach of everyone but a few Chinese, Russian and Indian billionaires. He’s right about London but dead wrong where Vienna is concerned. (Vienna, incidentally, is dirt cheap.)
Feeling myself inflate like a blowfish at the insult to my beloved city, I thought back to all those Schoenburg-Hartensteins who have been gallivanting in fancy pantaloons around those beautiful palaces since the beginning of the 18th century. These were noble German counts who moved to Austria and became princes, a smart course however upwardly mobile. The place is still full of them.
My daughter recently visited Vienna and reported back that it was the most livable city in Europe. That it is. At 1,700,000 inhabitants, Vienna is the perfect size. Yes, there are Muslims, but most of them are Turks and Bosnians, since the Austro-Hungarian Empire included parts of the old Yugoslavia. Last time I was in Vienna it was summertime and the city was sleepy. The Ringstrasse, which is lined with grand buildings, monuments and parks, was empty of cars and it felt like being back in the good old days when the Austro-Hungarians reigned supreme. The Schönbrunn Palace, located on Schönbrunner Schlossstrasse, is now let out for parties and such, a bit of a comedown, I admit, but the Brits have been selling their souls since time immemorial. (A nation of shopkeepers and house rentals, according to Napo and Taki.)
What I don’t understand is how one can call a city a backwater when the quality of life is the best by far in Europe. Vienna is the city of music and of the waltz, the city of wonderful cafés and two of the most beautiful palaces in Europe, the Hofburg and the Belvedere. The FT columnist must have been drugged by people unknown when he called Vienna a backwater. Surely nobody could be so base, and yet in this Kardashian reality-show century the worship of bigness overrides the respect for beauty and class.
Mind you, I’m being a bit tough on Monsieur Kuper. It was a throwaway line about Vienna. His column is about London becoming a place in which no normal person can afford to live in future. Neither London nor New York will be livable in ten years. Only last Saturday, 18 April, there were six shootings in the space of a few hours, including a 15-year-old girl in the Bronx. And it hasn’t even got warm yet, which is when the bullets tend to fly. In Brooklyn, houses are being sold for $6 million, whereas 20 years ago the price was less than 150,000 big ones. One house in Brooklyn Heights has a $40 million price tag. Last year I described 432 Park Avenue as an undulating middle finger to good taste. It is 1,396-feet high, the brainchild of a horrible real-estate shark I had the bad luck to go to school with. He was big and brash but wouldn’t go out for sports. His name is Harry B. Macklowe. I am sure some American citizens might end up owning an apartment there, but I am equally certain that they will be naturalised Americans, born under a somewhat bluer sky in Taiwan or India, or southern China.
London, of course, is no longer the grey, grimy city that I moved to 40 years ago because it was fun. On Friday nights one could get the best table anywhere as the Brits queued for hours on the M4 to prove they were country gentry. No longer. The Gulf Arabs have descended and there are no tables available anywhere, anytime. Property prices, needless to say, are at nosebleed levels, and even the upper middle classes are moving out. London’s state schools cannot meet the standards of private ones — too many immigrant children who don’t speak English at home — which means that only rich foreign people with children will be welcomed by London’s warm and extremely expensive embrace.
The solution to all this is easy: move to Vienna or Warsaw or Krakow. Personally, and because of my advanced age, I will stick to the sinking ship. I’ve just bought myself a jewel on Park Avenue and once it’s finished I shall be receiving my refugee friends from London in the style they’re not accustomed to. In the meantime, Vienna beckons for my 80th birthday in two years. I had my 70th in London. Do I go east or west for the 80th? Vienna or New York? Schoenburg Palace or Palazzo Taki? It will most likely be Vienna, but if Greece is still afloat, it might also be a contender. My, my. What problems.
Everyone at The Spectator will be invited, and also many of its readers, if I make it to 80, that is.