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City of new ideas

29 August 2014

by David Winter


THE spotlight in recent weeks has been on 1914, but Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A tale of three cities (BBC4, Wednesday of last week) focused attention six years earlier. Dr James Fox showed what a crucial part events in Vienna that year played in the genesis of the Great War.

Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was vibrant with new ideas. Modern architecture challenged the classic decorated styles. Young artists such as Schiele and Kokoschka caused a stir with works that were born of a dark realism. The composer Schoenberg plumbed similar dark depths in his atonal music. The thousand coffee-shops were centres of artistic and political argument. And, hard at work in his consulting-room, Sigmund Freud was trying to map the unconscious psychic life that, he believed, drove human behaviour.

At the same time, there was another Vienna - a city of prostitutes living in crowded brothels, and of such poverty that thousands of people found nowhere to live but the sewers of the city. Unrest grew, but the mayor found a scapegoat in its influential Jewish population. Wealthy Jews were denounced. Jewish schoolteachers were sacked.

At the same time, a budding artist, Adolf Hitler, was rejected by the Academy of Fine Art, and, instead, turned his attention to the politics of power.

To cap it all, the Austrian Empire annexed the neighbouring Balkan state Bosnia-Herzegovina, setting in train events that led to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 and - well, we all know what. Within ten years, the old Europe had gone for ever.

Britain's Compulsive Shoppers (BBC1, Thursday of last week) was a sympathetic exploration of the world of the addicted purchaser. The presenter, Jasmine Harman, explored the experiences of three shopping addicts: a young woman, Dipna; a mother of two teenage boys, Ebony; and an older man, Dene. The only thing they had in common was the "rush" that they got from completing a purchase - an experience that an addiction consultant compared to drug-taking.

Dipna, who spends £8000 a year on shopping, reckoned that she had perhaps 3000 handbags, and more clothes than she could ever wear. Ebony could not resist a bargain of any kind: boxes full of toys and household items filled her small house to overflowing. "The pleasure is the purchase, no matter what it is." Her current debt is £15,000.

Dene's addiction was to online purchases, mostly through eBay. His wife said that he was often up until four in the morning trying to complete a bid for an item. His house is also full of unwanted goods, because, once they are bought, he loses interest in them.

Harman's approach was sensitive rather than judgemental. Guided by the consultant, she proposed various possible remedies, but Dipna could see no problem (she is subsidised by her wealthy parents). Ebony tried working to a shopping list, but gave up after a fortnight ("It's boring"). But Dene did take positive steps, cancelling his eBay account and, with it, all online shopping. But then he wasn't buying handbags.

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