Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Out Soon - The Venice Lido

This book is an unashamedly personal view of the Lido, coloured by my prejudices and enthusiasms. These were kindled when I first came here nearly thirty-five years ago, at the end of a school trip to Venice. We were staying at the Pensione Seguso on Zattere, then a fairly reserved establishment, a favoured retreat of James Lees-Milne. The trip was led by the genial and worldly Drawing Master at Winchester, Grahame Drew. Everyone was to fly back to London except two of us, me and a friend, Oleg de Baikoff, I destined for Athens, he for Vienna. Grahame’s kindly but firm parting shot was memorable. “You’ve one more night at the Seguso. You’ll be absolutely fine so long as you don’t do three things. Avoid them with the ends of several barge poles. Don’t go to Harry’s Bar, don’t drink Grappa – and do not go to the Lido.” Later that night, after martinis at Harry’s, we rolled along the Riva degli Schiavoni and caught the vaporetto to the Lido, clutching our bottles of Grappa. We ended up in the brightest looking bar on the Gran Viale with a gang of friendly young Italians who invited us to a party. We crammed ourselves into their dangerous Fiat and tore off towards the pine forest and beach at Alberoni. There we roasted fish on hot stones and drank wine until dawn, finally falling asleep amid the trees and dunes. I awoke in the blaze and breeze of mid morning, stripped and flung myself into the warm shallows of the Adriatic where, in a specifically spiritual sense, I have remained ever since. This book is an attempt to communicate my boundless love for the Lido and to encourage all its readers to head for its warm and glamorous shores.

The Lido isn’t just about a glamorous past, though this is what I’ve tried to recreate in the book. Go there today and you’ll find it no less colourful and alluring, in or out of season, than it was in Byron’s day. Carpets of shells crunch underfoot; tractors arrive on the beach at dawn to clear away the seaweed, dead fish and crabs; rollers follow them, smoothing the tousled coverlet of sand. Here are the boys who rent out pedalos and sailboards; there go the Dravidian kite-sellers and Nigerian handbag-merchants, patrolling hungrily back and forth along the beach. There are the bronzed lifeguards, the children leaping from piers and pontoons, the artists who colonise the murazzi with their ramshackle driftwood shelters. Away from the beach, along the Gran Viale and in the surrounding streets, there are the Liberty villas, their gates and facades alive with wrought-iron, stone or ceramic lions, lilies, nymphs, tritons, butterflies, dragonflies and spiders, their pilasters, ogee arches, gardens and statuary shaded by palms and cypresses. The capanne, the beach cabins of the Excelsior and the Hotel des Bains, are rented by Italian families who save up for this summer treat, for either the timber cabins favoured at the Excelsior or the straw-topped variety known at the Hotel des Bains as tuculs. There, glamorous old ladies, grandmothers the rest of the year but now self-appointed countesses or film stars for a week, play cards and drink prosecco under the candy-striped awnings. Out of season the hotels remove the straw tops from the tuculs, revealing the naked, skeletal frames beneath. Then, the beach at low tide, strewn with driftwood, is combed by families collecting vongole for lunch, clutching the distinctive bright-yellow plastic bags of the local Billa supermarket. Flocks of goats invade the murazzi; baby flounders are stranded in the shallows; dogs of all shapes and sizes leap and bark for joy along the endless, endless strand in the glassy February sunshine. This is the Lido I love and that I invite the reader to share.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Close Encounters

Corbett: the embodiment of charm
How many chance encounters have you had with famous people? Genuinely chance encounters? I mean bumping into them in supermarkets, pubs or railway stations rather than meeting them at controlled, carefully-planned events such as openings, prizegivings, fetes? What are the odds against bumping into first Ronnie Corbett and then, years later, Robert Morley, outside the very same Duke Street St James's entrance of Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly, London? Massive I'd have thought, but this is exactly what happened to me. The two men's reactions were markedly different. Corbett was the embodiment of charm, even though the collision was entirely my fault for not looking where I was going. "My dear fellow," he said, clasping both my hands in his. "I'm so terribly sorry!" Morley was a different proposition, very sour about the whole thing, even though it was he not I who had barged carelessly out of F&M. "Whill you look where you're going?" he testily cried (note the 'h'), before pulling a sort of horrified Frankie Howerd-type face at a group of mystified Japanese passers-by. And then there are pubs. Once, some fifteen years ago on a Sunday evening, I called in at The Hour Glass, on the corner of Walton Street and Brompton Road in Knightsbridge. Very quiet, no music, open fire, clock ticking, dusk. That dates it. At a table in the corner near the fire sat a man entirely hidden behind a copy of the Sunday Times. I ordered a whisky and soda and, barbarically, a packet of crisps which I began to try to open, noisily and ineptly. Down came the newspaper - and there, animated by the flickering chiaroscuro of the fire, was the expressionless but terrifying face of Donald Pleasance. I've never to this day messed around with crisps in a quiet pub. Returning to collisions, my son Sebastian (10) is showing some promise, as witnessed by an episode in Tesco in Hampstead a few years ago. He was - I should never have allowed this - tearing around the aisles on a scooter. He ran headlong into a tall, strapping, Teutonic-looking figure who had been carrying (and had now dropped) a case of Evian water. "My dear fellow," I said. "I'm so terribly sorry!"  "No worries! No worries at all!" beamed the big-hearted Arsenal goalkeeper (and now also, I see, film actor), Jens Lehmann. That's about it. "I bet there are some famous people we could bump into in the London Library, dad." says Sebastian, helpfully and hopefully intending to engineer a few memorable collisions. I know what he has in mind. Didier Drogba and John Terry poring over Illustrated London News match reports featuring Stanley Matthews. Cheryl Cole mugging up on the social history of Vaudeville. Lady Gaga feeding her an insistent inner craving for Cicero. We live in hope, but our stack-prowling to date has been to no avail.

Walkopedia - the world's best walks

An excellent and well-named site, Walkopedia, an online encyclopedia of the world's best walks. Here is a very wholesome and confidence-inspiring photograph of the founder, William Mackesy, who has tried out upwards of 70 of the 100 world's best (according to Walkopedia) walks. You can tell the weatherbeaten hero really has walked to summit of this mountain or whatever it is, not just been plastered with orange make-up and airlifted in by a 50-strong television crew. The core treks are intrepid GAP year or mid-life crisis stuff: Ayer's Rock; the Drakensberg Escarpment; Leaping Tiger Gorge in China; the Shikoku Pilgrimage; the Diamond Mountains in North Korea. But site followers are encourged to feed in their personal odysseys, so there is a growing number of less ambitious but no less uplifting walks to be discovered. They haven't got as far as mapping some of my personal favourites yet, St James's Square to Queen Anne's Gate, or the first nine holes of the Alberoni golf club on the Venice Lido. But that will come. Meanwhile, an important point. However long or short, easy or arduous a walk might be, it should surely be undertaken for pleasure and not, as it were, at gunpoint. Is this scenario familiar? It certainly is to me. You come to the end of an agreeable Sunday lunch at a friend's place in the country. You postpone the trip back to town until Monday morning. Your fifth glass of claret sparkles like a rare Burmese temple ruby in the late afternoon sunlight, stealing flecks of viridian, blue and gold from Turkey carpets and Brabazon water-colours. Humphrey, the family's amiable golden retriever, rests his lustrous, doting head on your knee. "Whassup, Humphrey? There's a good chap... There's a good chap... You're my besht friend, aren't you?" A gentlemanly longcase clock, the dial alive with sporting Keatsian nymphs, measures away these long, precious, pleasure-loaded minutes. Then suddenly your host brightly announces that everyone is to go for a 'walk' - and he's drawn the map of hell well in advance. "We'll go as far as Madman's Folly then cut off down into Plague Field... Follow the Flooze back as far as Temple Priesthole... We'll have an hour or so to spare before the pub opens so we'll scamper up Wild Sally's Fell and take a look at the Devil's Ring"... and so on. Four hours later you're back, out of the chill, drizzling twilight, drenched, aching, miserable. I say all this not because I dislike walking - I don't - but because walking is one of life's greatest pleasures. It's like opera. Break in the virgin with tender loving care rather than attempt to relive the retreat from Moscow. Send your favourite walks to walkopedia.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Rabbit Hell of Keifer Gray

I wonder if pet shops sell thousands of rabbits in the run-up to Easter. I suppose they do. I've just come across an enthralling article by Thomas 'Keifer' Gray, an engineer from Houston, Texas. In it he demythologizes the long-eared layabouts once and for all: "Although some people and organizations, such as the House Rabbit Society, might like you to believe that rabbits make great companions, I have determined that, while bunnies might look cute and cuddly, in reality they are ill-tempered, destructive, boring, unrewarding animals which, in my opinion, make poor pets." The article, well worth reading (see below) if you're thinking of keeping a rabbit, triggered a fair amount of hate mail, some of it, according to Gray, "undecipherable". But whatever Gray's detractors might say, there is no denying the suffering the Gray family endured at the hands of these creatures - and for so little reward. Caveat emptor, some would say; but it takes a brave man to challenge a mindset so widely held as to be nearly sacred, and this is what Gray has done in the case of unquestioning knee-jerk bunny-love. As for me, we never had rabbits when I was a child - cats, dogs, a chameleon, parrots, but never a rabbit. I quite enjoyed Enid Blyton's version of Brer Rabbit, but I loathed Peter Rabbit. And I successfully resisted Watership Down. Read Thomas Gray's article here. And here's a selection of 25 rabbit recipes for every occasion, supplied by Sheila Crompton of the Bolton Ferret Welfare Society. It's a brutal world, isn't it.

Thursday, 24 March 2011


Preparing to give a talk on English comedy (they're not laughing now...) End up watching a South Bank Special in honour of Stan Laurel. I'd forgotten how funny he was - when I was six I'd howl and roll about. Later in life you respond to rather more than the slapstick - one of the funniest scenes is in Beau Hunks when they've joined the French Foreign Legion. Stan asks the commandant if he and Ollie may be excused and "go home". They've had enough. But this clip is the very best. It overturns all that nonsense about not acting with animals - if you're good enough, then you can.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Gaddafi wrecked our holiday arrangements

Holidaymakers up in arms as dictator wrecks
no-refund Med getaways.
Papers full of the Libya crisis - and pictures of Gaddafi. He's aged badly, in more ways than one. I wonder how many of us in Britain actually know where Libya is? At the beginning of the Falklands War, a great many Britons believed the Falkland Islands to be somewhere off the coast of Scotland and were understandably outraged at the prospect of an Argentine invasion. With the Gulf, and more recently with Afghanistan, popular perceptions of the geography remain pretty sketchy - try at random in the pub asking someone to draw a map of where he supposes the theatre of war to be. In the end, people probably felt that Kuwait and Helmand, wherever they might be, were sufficiently far away from Berkshire or Alderley Edge for it not to make too much difference to everyday life if we went to war there or not. So why not go. But Libya is a rather different proposition, right on our doorstep and within striking distance of all our favourite holiday spots in the Mediterranean. Part of me is thinking, "I'm shoulder to shoulder with the anti-war protesters who'll be congregating over the coming week in Parliament Square. God bless them. And God bless our boys too, who selflessly fight and fall in fields of conflict the world over, regardless of the right and wrong of it all and often not fully understanding what it is they're fighting against". And part of me is thinking "What about the summer holidays? Will I be able to borrow Zach and Miranda's place in the Med this year? What about flights? Will the no-fly zone apply to Easyjet? Thank I God I don't own a holiday home within 2,000 miles of Tripoli. I told him he should never have bought it..." So much for me. I wonder how mixed everyone else's feelings will be as the terrible beast of war slouches closer and closer to home?

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Distinctly not 'Fluttering and dancing in the breeze'...

We have a selection of ties...

Invited for mid-morning coffee at the Ritz but barred entry by a gratuitously noisy mid-European Rosa Klebb type on the grounds that I was wearing a cravat, not the obligatory tie. "We have a selection of ties you can choose from..." she said huskily, her muscles rippling beneath the livery. So we decamped to the ever congenial Franco's in Jermyn Street (more of which shortly). I take the point - dress codes should be observed - but what became of the old school deference, discretion and kindliness an incorrectly dressed person would certainly have encountered at the Ritz a quarter of a century ago? And - another sign of the times - it seems faintly absurd to insist that non-residents pole up dressed like tailor's dummies in a golf club when guests who are actually staying at the Ritz (particularly Yanks, it has to be said) think nothing of shambling through the lobby in North Face anoraks and Uggs. Other areas require attention too, in particular the extremely scruffy window boxes outside the Rivoli Bar in the Ritz's Piccadilly-facing arcade. It doesn't take a Wordsworth to work out that daffodils look awful in planters. Their charm is very much of the 'here today, gone tomorrow' stamp: ablaze in a distant landscape they're one thing: in a window box they do little more than evoke a suburban roundabout. So get with it, Ritz. Fire Rosa Klebb. And get a decent, thoughtful, poetry-reading gardener to tend the boxes. Over at Franco's, the usual immaculate service - and an agreeably bizarre note in both ladies and gents lavatories - loudspeakers overhead emitting the quiet, homely but unmistakeably insistent tones of Alan Bennett reading stories from Winnie the Pooh.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011


Pleasant review of Literary Companion London by Chris Moss in Time Out. I'm described as "open-minded" and "savvy". This morning I was in the local newsagent, thumbing through the mag to check if the review had appeared. "You gonna buy that or what?" said the newsagent (we have ongoing daily banter). "I may well buy it, if I'm in it..." I replied. And yes, there was the review, with not only a picture of the book cover but also, unusually, an author photo. The newsagent was nonplussed. "That just don't look like you. That's more like that Ozzy Osbourne. People gonna get ideas." Well, why not. J'y suis, j'y reste. The Ozzy Osbourne of the literary anthology...

Friday, 11 March 2011

Tom Brown's Schooldays

Just picked up a DVD of the excellent remake of Tom Brown's Schooldays with Stephen Fry as Arnold and Jemma Redgrave as his wife, Mary. There's a touching domestic scene in which Fry and Redgrave are sitting in bed sipping tea, illustrative of the formidable pedagogue's tender side. I'll wager my son Alexander is the only boy in Christendom to have seen his godmother in bed with Stephen Fry.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Kindling Respect

Spent a literary afternoon with my sons Inigo (7) and Sebastian (9), exploring my Kindle. The inbuilt dictionaries proved useful for Scrabble - note in the photograph the strategic use of ki, the life force and ka, one's spiritual "double" in the mythology of ancient Egypt (does anyone these days still read Dennis Wheatley? The Ka of Gifford Hillary is a pretty disturbing novel). Purchases were made. The Kindle History of Chelsea Football Club, a substantial modern classic, cost 71p (remarkably cheap) whereas Roald Dahl's Big Friendly Giant cost £5.99 which is more or less what it costs in bookshops. But that's not the point. It's remarkably convenient having all these books to hand in such an elegant device - I feel as though I'm Richard Porson with "all Bodley" in my pocket. True, quite a few people - mainly geeks - have fallen into the kindergarten trap of criticising the Kindle for not being what it wasn't supposed to be in the first place. It isn't a flash multi-media device built for movie junkies and Facebook addicts: the Kindle is supposed to be like a book - and it is. It's discreet, portable, pocket-sized, beautifully designed and has that precious, tactile, "it's mine" quality that makes a book a friend and something not to be lightly lent. It also provokes respect and envy - I've noticed people eyeing me up on the tube as I strap-hang from West Hampstead to Piccadilly reading John Evelyn's Discourse on Salletts (free). I'd go as far as to say that young crims will soon start stealing Kindles, the true test in modern times of whether something has 'arrived' or not being the extent to which people will want to nick it. I predict that soon every self-respecting crime-baron's floozy is going to insist on a croc-covered Kindle to underpin her intellectual credentials at the spa: Kindle owners are educated people, possessing an erudition and self-assurance that it is far beyond the scope of the i-pad or smartphone to confer. 

The Heath Library

Nice letter from the Camden Labour Councillor Tulip Siddiq (groovy name) in response to mine about budget cuts that, as I thought, might have brought about the closure of Heath Library, a charming retreat next door to Keats House in Hampstead. I first became aware of the library issue when I saw a photo of an extremely cross-looking Howard Jacobson on the front page of the Ham & High - he doesn't look like the sort of person you'd want to mess with. Jacobson and a contingent of other influential local scribblers are up in arms about David Cameron's latest and most baleful lex Fannia, the imposition of a £2m cut in the Camden libraries budget. Tulip advises me to disregard the scaremongering and contribute to the public consultation, open until 7 April. She also says it would be a good idea to lobby Eric Pickles, with whom responsibility for the preservation or closure of libraries ultimately rests. Pickles is the Conservative Member for Brentwood and Ongar and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. A big man, he looks as though he'd be at least as tasty in a scrap as Howard Jacobson. They could have a cagefight. Among Pickles's principal virtues are his probity and thriftiness. When a host of shysters in Westminster were having their collars felt for neutering their mistresses' cats on the proceeds of fraudulently claimed mortgage relief and building mock-Tudor gazebos at the public's expense, Pickles remained comparatively transparent and unblemished. Let's hope that his native Yorkshire instinct for watching the pennies doesn't lead to the wholesale closure of public libraries. That would be a pity, since there are plenty of other areas in which the Leeds Leviathan could cut costs. For example, overpaid and undereducated bureaucrats are the millstone around this country's neck. They should be strung up, not librarians.

Libraries - I noticed on several websites the expression of a disturbing and insidious concept ripe to be discredited: information, so this new thinking goes, is now so easily available on the web and in databases that libraries will soon become redundant. When that idea takes hold, we'll have seen the final triumph of numbercrunching philistinism.

Yentl and Me

I wrote a long overdue letter to Aldo Izzo today, thanking him for showing me round the Ancient Jewish Cemetery on the Venice Lido. Aldo runs the PR for the Jewish Community in Venice and has pretty much singlehandedly supervised the restoration of the cemetery, the cataloguing of newly discovered or excavated monuments and so on. An amusing vignette, or at least I think it amusing. Leo, my Jewish pal in Venice, was convinced I'd have to pay a fortune for a guided tour of the cemetery. "You will have to pay..." he said, loading the P-word with about four thousand years worth of Hebrew fatalism. In the event, on the strength of my forthcoming book about the Lido, Aldo insisted on giving me a free tour of both cemeteries, the Ancient and the nearby Modern in Via Cipro. "You're lucky," said Leo. "The last person he lets in for nuthink is Barbra Streisand."

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Hampstead Homophobia

This morning I passed as usual the Hampstead church of St John's Downshire Hill, a pretty place but a stronghold of some very unpleasant evangelicals, religious fundamentalists of the worst kind. I went to a party there a few years ago and got talking to a big wheel in the church's parish affairs. He was a military type wearing the tie of one of the minor public schools. It came out that I worshipped up the road at the very different parish church of St. John-at-Hampstead in Church Row. "You can't carry on there," said the blimp. "You're doing nothing more than inhabiting a kind of spiritual Switzerland." In other words my easy, middle-of-the-road broad church neutrality was little more than contemptible. It would be easy to dismiss this as a moderately amusing bluster by a pompous, condescending but ultimately harmless old prat, were it not for the wickedness that crackles like hellfire beneath the judgmental remark. For these are intolerant Christians of the homophobic stamp, openly and deadeningly anti-gay. I went to a service at Downshire Hill soon after the Switzerland episode and heard a humourless priest from, I think, Wimbledon, preach against sodomy. It was a chilly morning and one had an eery feeling throughout the hectoring sermon of having been transported back to an infinitely unpleasant bygone age. The young and very well-heeled congregation (lots of City people, somewhat like at Holy Trinity Brompton, whizzkids at futures but short of what you or I would call brains) nodded wisely in agreement as the womble maundered on and on about the decline of family values etc. His corrosive words - forgotten for years - came back to me recently when I read an article on evangelical-inspired homophobia in Africa, where Christian fundamentalism has taken a firm hold. A young gay man had died of AIDS in West Africa and had been buried in a simple ceremony by his family and his partner. A zealous local Christian group exhumed his body and hanged his corpse outside his grieving mother's house. This is the sort of thing that eventually happens when right wing Christians of the Downshire Hill persuasion start trumpeting their unsavoury message abroad - and such intolerance is infectious, even more infectious than AIDS. So if you meet people like this, avoid them with the ends of several bargepoles. And they've taken over some of London's most beautiful churches too and contaminated the premises with their happy clappy nonsense, pop groups and drum kits - a terrible shame, but dead trivial in comparison to their unwarrantable queer-bashing.