Boyd Tonkin: German gifts and British benefits

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In his great polemic Culture and Anarchy, published in 1869, Matthew Arnold naturalised a German term and – immortally – branded the hard-headed, down-to-earth, arts-averse British middle class as "Philistines". It took two world wars, social upheaval and several revolutions in the head to change their scoffing resistance to every pursuit that fails to buttress the bottom line. But change it did - for a while. Now the Whitehall cleaver stands ready to swing deep into the budgets available for higher education, libraries and arts. Philistine boots tramp the corridors of power again. Heaven forfend that we should want to live in a state that valued learning and culture for themselves. What sort of bankrupt basket-case of an economy would you call that? Germany, perhaps.

Britain gave Germany Shakespeare, for two centuries its most popular dramatist – as this autumn's "Shakespeare is German" season reminded us. In return, Germany and the wider German-speaking world of Mitteleuropa gave Britain – far more than we ever acknowledge, above all by vastly enriching our stock of human capital. This week, the German ambassador hosted a dialogue between Alfred Brendel, that peerless pianist who now writes poetry of (almost) equal subtlety and grace, and the scholar of English literature Klaus Reichert. This giant of "Anglistik" has translated into German not merely Shakespeare's sonnets but even Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Maestro Brendel – born in Moravia, raised in Austria, but a settled Londoner since 1971 - turns 80 in March. Their conversation morphed into a sneak preview of the collected edition of his wittily offbeat, gently surreal poems that Phaidon will issue then.

Brendel and Reichert paid warmly amusing homage to the virtues of the England that both discovered as curious incomers. (Reichert, as a student, lodged with Rabbi Lionel Blue while picking up Cockney from Smithfield market porters.) They fondly recalled the libraries, the concerts, the actors, the BBC, the beer - yes, really - and the negligent tolerance of a country with, in Brendel's moving phrase, "very little talent for fanaticism".

Yet the chill wind of today's austerity measures blew through this cosy nostalgia. Reichert fears for the future of the Warburg Institute in Bloomsbury, one of the London landmarks that first drew him to the city. Its fate may sound marginal in relation to the carnage that confronts so many universities. Yet, as a symbol, the place has a tremendous power. The eccentric Aby Warburg, art-loving son of the Hamburg banking dynasty, amassed his unique library devoted to the Renaissance and the ancient traditions behind it as a private passion. It offered then, and now, a boundary-busting, interdisciplinary approach to the study of art. The Warburg vision has exerted a huge and transformative influence on ideas of Europe's cultural legacy.

Prior to Aby's death in 1929, his collection had gained official status within Hamburg University. Then came 1933. In flight from Nazi barbarism, the library and its scholars moved to London. In 1944, the Institute – in Woburn Place – became part of London University.

Hitler's priceless gift to Britain arrived in the form of a host of German-speaking refugee writers, doctors, scientists, scholars, publishers and entrepreneurs. From Sigmund and Anna Freud through to Karl Popper, Max Perutz, Ernst Gombrich, Elias Canetti, GR Elton (Ben's uncle), George Weidenfeld and thousands of others, famous and humble, they created or enhanced so much of what was finest in Britain's postwar public culture. Phaidon Press itself was born in Vienna in 1923, and fled to London in 1938 in the wake of the Anschluss. The Warburg stands as a monument to the exiles' astonishing contribution to our national life.

Will it now merge, or lose its cross-border autonomy, under the pressure of cuts? The University of London's vice-chancellor denies any such plans. But the university does wish to alter the 1944 Trust Deed, which safeguards the institute's independence, "to make it more appropriate to the current circumstances". Ominous words.

This storm in a Bloomsbury square may sound like small beer to marching students and sacked lecturers. But symbols matter, as Warburg-style art history tells us, and this one more than most. From Brendel's notes and lines to the Warburg's shelves, Britain owes an incalculable debt to German culture in the broadest sense. Never let the new-wave Philistines close our eyes, or block our ears, to it.

Woody turns the page to Arcadia

To call Woody Allen's literary rom-com You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger star-studded would be an understatement. In his new film, Allen has cast Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Freida Pinto and Josh Brolin. But, for British bookish types, the publishing house that features in the plot will outshine them all. It is Arcadia Books, the splendid indie run with such debonair dash by Gary Pulsifer and Daniela de Groote. Pulsifer reports that Allen's team found the Arcadia ethos to be "a perfect fit" for the firm in the film, even if their actual office proved "too modest". The crew filmed elsewhere, but let's hope that the credits, and cash, roll for Arcadia.

The man who played with fire

Reality can not only echo fiction, but massively amplify it too. Readers of Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and their many Swedish partners in crime must have felt the distinction between fact and fancy blur almost by the hour as this week progressed. A campaigning investigator who lifts the lid on official lies and transgressions; shadowy blows against his work struck by dark forces of the state; a tangled yarn of bedrooom adventure, and misadventure, rooted in a very Scandinavian kind of anguished sexual politics; and, at the core of the plot, legal manoeuvres by the Stockholm prosecutors. Whether or not any sort of crime is involved, and whoever may or may not have committed it, the Julian Assange mystery outruns, and outguns, any of the extreme conspiracy scenarios dreamt up by Sweden's bestselling novelists. Pragmatists and politicians tend to treat such stories as escapism. As WikiLeaks has played with fire and kicked the hornets' nest, they now read more like the pale reflection of an incredible truth.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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