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In the last week of January 1897, a crew of workmen turned up at a central square in Vienna and set about gutting an old café for redevelopment. Its customers set up a citywide outcry. Mock obituaries of the café appeared in morning newspapers and the developers’ vandalism was denounced as ‘the demolition of literature’, for it was in the Café Griensteidl that Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hoffmansthal and Karl Kraus - young lions of stage and page – infused and exhaled some of their best ideas.
A Vienna Café Festival, opening this week at several London locations, will seek to demonstrate why a city needs such watering holes, and how a culture can die without them.
In Vienna, coffee and apple strudel were what remained after the Turks retreated in 1683; the café was their dispensary. The Griensteidl, also known as Cafe Megalomania for the rapacious ambitions of its literary clientele, was originally part of a medicinal pharmacy, offering optional opiates with the coffee to soothe a stressed-out inner city.
Men and women came to cafes not just to sip and talk but to read all of Europe’s newspapers, hanging on a rack beside the door, and to conduct their daily business. The poet Peter Altenberg gave the Café Central as his postal address; he was usually to be found scribbling aphorisms at a corner table.
Richard Strauss had his favourite haunt beneath the eaves of the Opera; he liked to finish rehearsal early so he could play a game of cards with members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, who were expected to lose small sums of money to the great composer. The café was both meeting place and melting pot, a social leveller as effective as state education and universal suffrage. A penniless exile like Leon Trotsky could plot revolution in the Central all day long for seven years for the price of a daily kleiner Brauner (the carafe of water, then as now, came free).
Even Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler, too busy to chat away at a marble-topped round tables, played consciously to the cafe gallery. There is an account of Mahler and his wife walking slowly down the Wallfischgasse while, in the Café Parsifal, conversation stopped and every nose was pressed to the window to watch the tiny figure who had reversed the city's musical stagnancy.
If Vienna at the turn of the last century was the incubator of modern civilisation, the café house was its oxygen tube, a funnel where ideas were allowed to breathe, trends were encouraged, and the pressures of survival could be held at bay. This week’s Vienna Café Festival centres on an exhibition at the Royal College of Art, with musical recitals at the Austrian Cultural Forum and a series of scholarly lectures at the Royal Academy of Music and the V&A.
It would be a mistake, though, to take the cafe phenomenon with an excess of academic severity when its essence is escapist and trivial. The makers of modernity sat in Viennese cafes in order to avoid going home to a lonely hovel or a miserable marriage. The cafe shut out the world with a curtain of beaded irony. The classic Viennese aphorism is the one coined by some café wag as defeat loomed in October 1918: ‘the situation is critical, but not serious.’ The cafe was a relief from reality.
London has not needed the social safety-valve of a café since the days of David Garrick and Doctor Johnson, largely because its geography has differed from the rigid grid-lines of madeover capitals. Paris and Vienna have cafes on every corner because citizens live in crowded apartment blocks and have nowhere to go for fresh air and company. Londoners tend to live in suburban semis with long narrow gardens, or occupy city boxes and visit the country for the weekend.
London’s artistic movements may take their names from Bloomsbury, Fitzrovia and Camden Town, but Virginia Woolf and Maynard Keynes did their best work on the Sussex Downs, where they cross-socialised with Walter Sickert and Augustus John of the Camden Townies. City dwellers repaired for its refreshment to the fug of the local pub and, while few boozers could be described as hubs of great ideas, there were places like the George, near Portland Place, and the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street where modern movements were born and died. In the days before ‘intellectual’ was a dirty word at the BBC, composers, poets and producers stood each other halves of bitter at The George and laid the foundations of our post-war renaissance.
Today, The George is a pavement spillage of financial sector workers and late-night Oxford Street shoppers. The Fitzroy still keeps a Writers Room downstairs, but you’d be unlikely to find Ian McEwen, who lives round the corner, buying a round in there for Howard Jacobson and Zadie Smith. Pubs are no longer fashionable or particularly sociable. Many have morphed into the oxymoronic monstrosity known as gastropubs. Others have been replaced by internet sipperies and international chains where 'baristas' sell branded beverages in paper cups.
The London pub is dying under the combined onslaught of demographic change and a speeded-up, takeaway century. The government ban on smoking may be its final death knell.
Cultural consequences are inevitable. There are still West End clubs like the Groucho and the Garrick where the culturati meet and private salons where the pre-crunch rich put on intelligent soirees in chandeliered ballrooms. But London is losing its habitat for idle chat and the exchange of ideas and there is no obvious space where the next renaissance can be plotted over the rim of a glass or cup.
This is a vacuum that needs to be addressed. Someone, perhaps in one of our public-funded theatres and galleries, needs to designate a drinking space for free ideas, a bar of unmediated public opinion where the creatively restless can gather. No culture can thrive without the equivalent of a café. It is an essential creative amenity.
As for the Viennese original, it is as much at risk nowadays as the London pub. Where there were 500 cafes in Mahler’s Vienna, there are now fewer than 200. Some of the grand old premises are occupied by branches of McDonalds and, while a great song and dance was made in 1990 over the reopening of the Griensteidl on its original site in Michaelerplatz, there were no writers in residence when I last looked in and the café’s only claim to modern fame is that it is the first in Vienna to ban smoking. I can’t see the next Schnitzler puffing his cigar on the street corner.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]