The private dinner at the British Ambassador’s residence in Rome, the Villa Wolkonsky, was as nice as it sounds.
A sunny evening, prosecco on the lawn, then dinner in the grand dining room. The only challenge was accepting that we were having a British dinner (Loch Duart salmon, Aberdeen Angus beef, a selection of British cheeses, all delicious) rather than an Italian one.
After dinner, the ambassador Christopher Prentice gave us homemade limoncello and took us on a tour around of the grounds. We started with its visible ancient beginnings of a huge Roman aqueduct and reliefs, which the villa's first owner, a 19th century Russian princess, had incorporated into the house and garden. Later it became a literary hangout, then a possession of the German government (who built a swimming pool), before landing in the Brits’ lap.
We were part of a party hosted by Jaguar for the launch of their F-Type and the ambassador in his role of promoting British businesses abroad. Despite loving the view through my window into the world, I can see that there’s a compelling argument for pruning the grander branches of British life, in the name of cost cutting.
But our relationship with grandeur is a confused one, and the media are partly to blame. On the one we rant about the garish, money-grabbing cut-price corporate world exemplified by Ryanair. Yet on the other we attack top figures who dare to earn to wages, or expensive public events.
All of which is strange, really, as pomp and extravagance is one of the few areas where we remain true world beaters. You might have seen the Royal Wedding and the Jubilee celebrations as simple celebrations, but really they were one big, gold-leafed advertisement for Britain.
Similarly the ambassador has to put on a show for visiting dignitaries (I’m not counting myself among them): a small apartment and a cut price canteen wouldn't impress anyone.
But how should we pay for it? Well for starters, we could look to those companies, for whom the embassies tirelessly work abroad. Shell paid for restoration to works at the Villa Wolkonsky. And then there are those who use the benefit of being British and who then find several billion excuses not to pay any tax to the exchequer. Right that wrong and we could probably get back to what we do best.