John Walsh: Barbarians at the library gates

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A scandal of monumental proportions is about to erupt in the university world. A terrible injustice is about to be done, in the name of money. The high ideal of free enlightenment for all is being sidelined by claims of financial necessity… But no, I’m not talking about the increase in student fees. I’m talking about the imminent dismantling of the Warburg Library.

On Tuesday, at the Banister Fletcher Award for 2010’s best art book, organised by the Authors Club, I listened to half a dozen academics and art writers protesting, almost tearfully, about the fate of this crucial, indeed legendary, collection. Legendary because the institution that’s threatening its future once saved it from the Nazis.

The original was the private library of Aby Warburg, a cultural historian based in Hamburg: the Institute named after him was devoted to the study of European civilisation and its debt to classical antiquity. When Hitler came to power in 1933, the library was smuggled out of Hamburg with British help – and during the Second World War, Rab Butler, president of the British Board of Education, decided it must be kept in England, by being made part of London University. And so the Warburg Institute was given a home in Bloomsbury.

It’s a damned eccentric place. Half the 80,000 books on the shelves are too rare or too recondite to be found in the British Library. The collection isn’t arranged by the normal Dewey classification but by a system Warburg called “good neighbourliness”, in which related subjects are arrayed near each other, so that while you’re looking for a book on, say, heraldry, your eye will be drawn to books on secret codes, emblems, iconography and, er, shorthand. Abstruse volumes on alchemy, black magic and long-forgotten lore – the kind of tomes you’d find Peter Cushing perusing in the old Hammer horror films – are available to the modern scholar. Medieval popular almanacs, learned treatises, texts and images from the ancient East jostle with a treasure trove of photographs on every subject from astrolabes to zoomorphism.

And this spectacular resource is now under threat from the university itself, which is demanding, like a bullying landlord, huge “space charges” from the Institute that it can’t possibly pay. Like every academic institution, London University is desperate to make economies and maximise revenue where it can. But if they threaten to evict the Warburg Institute, and move it to smaller quarters, the great book collection will become incorporated into the university’s own library, and its priceless volumes sold off like the family silver. As a recent article in the New York Review of Books put it, crushingly, “A centre of European culture and a repository of the Western tradition that escaped Hitler and survived the Blitz may finally be destroyed by British bean counters.”

It’s a cause that’s now being taken up by academies and scholars across Europe and America, and it’s embarrassing to feel that any British university should be regarded as a redoubt of clueless philistines. Is it time that middle-aged graduates, who remember in what high regard we used to hold libraries and books themselves, took to the streets in protest at this particularly heinous piece of de-funding? I look forward to seeing the massed ranks of the British intelligentsia waving banners, storming the Cenotaph and being kettled by police in the corners of Parliament Square.

Liz Hurley and her 30,000 invisible slaves

That Liz Hurley, she’s a dark horse. When I interviewed her earlier this year, there were few indications that her marriage was in trouble, though she hardly mentioned Arun Nayar when talking about her family, her farm, the school run or the fruit bars she was currently marketing. The only husband she mentioned was in the sentence: “I’m reasonably good at organic stewardship, but not as good as my German husband.” (German? I thought he was Indian. But she was talking about her farm husbandry expert.) For a dark horse, though, she’s been reckless about letting the world in on her growing tendresse for Shane Warne.

Would you conduct a flirtation on Twitter with someone in front of 30,000 “followers”? Why would any famous person with a crush on another famous person?

It puzzled me until I remembered the words of Mary Beard, the classics professor who investigated Pompeii on Tuesday night’s TV. “Masters and slaves in Rome lived on top of each other,” she told me. “And slaves were invisible. They could be sleeping at the end of your bed and you wouldn’t notice. You could eat in front of them. You could fuck in front of them. You could converse as if they simply weren’t there.”

I think that’s probably it. To the enraptured Ms Hurley, her thousands of followers are just slaves.

The art of telling a rap star he’s had too much bubbly

The London Ambulance Service has accused nightclubs of “allowing” their customers to become excessively drunk. Royal favourite Mahiki and other popular drinking holes like Funky Buddha and Movida have been ticked off for letting patrons get sloshed until they need the attentions of St John’s finest. They have a point. Every nightclub should instruct staff in the delicate protocol of saying: “Don’t you think you’ve had enough, Your Royal Highness?” and “I’m afraid we can’t let you have any more Cristal, Mr Cent, in case your entourage become intoxicated.” The newly convened Association of London Nightclubs has hit back by saying such criticisms are “not relevant” any more since they’ve introduced “harm-reducing measures” in clubs. They’re proud of what they’ve achieved. In fact there’ll probably be a prize awarded every year to the Club with the Least Drunk Clientele. Just before it closes 24 hours later.

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