Nov 2009 Journal

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George Weidenfeld at 90

Publisher, politician, peacemaker, promoter of the arts and the humanities in general, having celebrated entry into his tenth decade in September, his lordship is still at it – indefatigably so say some, over-zealously say others.

He has certainly made an art of celebrating and being celebrated. There were at least four birthday parties, the largest given for him by Lord Foster, he of Wembley Stadium and the wobbly bridge, in Switzerland; a smaller one in Germany, for which Angela Merkel took time out from the Wahlkampf; a very select gathering for a mere 20 of the Austrian elite hosted by the Bundespräsident; and then a party for family and close friends in his mega flat in Chelsea, book- and picture-lined as a perfect settting for entertaining the haut monde, making deals, conspiring to do good.

The glamour sometimes blinds us to the good works. His commitment to Israel has been unwavering since the days when, in his early twenties, he worked as an assistant to Weizmann. Through his publishing business he has provided a platform for many politicians, particularly of the left, to lay out their wares; Harold Wilson became a close friend. Today his links with Labour are not as close and his horizon has widened. While the affairs of Israel and reconciliation (Jew/German, Israeli /Arab) are probably still at the top of his agenda, he is now engaged in bringing into life an ambitious programme of study of arts and humanities in Oxford and Cambridge, which, it is hoped, will take the form of Visiting Chairs coupled with symposia in different branches of the humanities. This can be seen as a broadening of the series of lectures given annually by the Weidenfeld Visiting Professors of European Comparative Literature, which began in 1995 and has included such stars as Amoz Oz, Umberto Eco, Nike Wagner and Mario Vargas Llosa. George Weidenfeld has been fortunate in being able to repay, by enriching the cultural life of this country, a debt that he and all of us owe. May he long be spared to do so.


 


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