Philip Hensher: The free offers that deserve to be spurned

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The Independent Online

A Japanese couple, on holiday in Rome, went into quite a nice-looking restaurant. They ordered pasta, fish, and ice cream and a bottle of sauvignon blanc.

The bill arrived, and to the couple's horror, the restaurant was demanding nearly 700 euros, including service charge of nearly 120 euros, for an ordinary Italian lunch. They contacted the police, who, in a matter of days, called in the health and safety authorities and had the restaurant, Il Passetto, closed down.

I'm sure we've all been in a similar position, and probably in Rome. Once, I went into an ordinary-looking restaurant in the city with an Italian friend. We were talking in English, and got the full tourist treatment. First, there were no menus, but just a recitation. The two dishes we ordered were then supplemented with a steady stream of unrequested dishes, which we turned away. Finally, the bill consisted solely of the figure of 600,000 lira scrawled on a scrap of paper, or around £250 at the time. We demanded our legal right of an itemised bill; the same piece of paper returned, with the first figure crossed out and 200,000 written in. We demanded again: the piece of paper returned for a third time, now asking for 100,000 lira, or around forty quid. That, we paid.

The interesting feature of the Japanese couple's sad story is not that they were ripped off in Rome. That can happen anywhere; you should make very sure the rough area of expenditure you are incurring when you go to a restaurant in the back streets of Ginza in Tokyo. It is more a case of the insight it offers into a society where everything rests on good personal relations and strangers being persuaded that they like each other, however fraudulently.

In the wake of their awful holiday, Yasuyuki Yamada and his fiancee were contacted by the Italian minister for tourism, Michela Brambilla. She offered them a free holiday in Italy as guests of the Italian government.

Mr Yamada thanked her with all the civility at his disposal, but declined. He found her country asked too high a price of its visitors, and proposed to return without accepting a gift, at his own expense, at some unspecified future point.

It is easy to see where the distinction between the cultures lies. Japanese culture knows all about the gift, and when one is offered, the exact scale of the return is inferred by the recipient. Italian culture just offers gifts, expecting indefinite niceness and obligations. I know a number of now middle-aged Italians who have been weaned away by parents from unsuitable boyfriends or a new, but distant, career. The ball and chain is disguised as an escalation of gifts; a new mobile, a new watch, a new Vespa, a car, an apartment.

The personal obligation entering into every minute exchange gives everyday life a friendly and humane aspect. But, at important points, it does seem to those outside to miss the important point. Why do Italians keep voting for Berlusconi? Well, they feel that he likes them at their worst and most venal moments.

Once, I was in an Italian restaurant in London and observed that, among other photographs of Italian heroes, their walls bore a large photograph of Mussolini. I spoke to the manager and remonstrated, upon which he said, I think, the most Italian sentence I ever heard. "The next time you come to my restaurant," he said. "Phone in advance. I'll take it down, especially for you." Useless to point out that there never would be a next time. No doubt they think of us – English customers in Soho, Japanese customers in Rome – as bewilderingly and unattractively ungrateful for all their kindly offers.

Woe the university that can't spell my name

The universities select committee has observed that a first-class degree from a low-ranking university is not as good as a first from a good university. Amazing, but true.

Occasionally one gets a glimpse of the standards prevailing in the lower segments of further education – not just among the students, but among their teaching staff, too. For complicated reasons, I am obliged periodically to apply for unnecessary grants of public money in order to write the novel that a commercial organisation is already happy to pay me for.

This summer, I was required to apply to the AHRC, or the Humanities Research Council. Back came a report on the proposal by a "referee"; an anonymous figure from some wretched institution, presuming to be regarded as my "peer". From beginning to end of the report, this person called me "Henshaw". There is someone employed in English literature teaching contemporary literature in a university, who is quite unable to copy down an author's name correctly before writing about him. If I see a paper from a first-year undergraduate who misspells an author's name, it is returned unmarked, rather than offer them a job teaching the subject. It would really do very little harm to national intellectual life if the 40 worst universities in the country were closed down overnight.

The one I feel sorry for is Sophia

The actor Jude Law had a brief liaison, and now is to become a father for the fourth time. For some inexplicable reason, the fact of fatherhood emerged before the identity of the mother came out – the order of events is quite surprisingly hard to reconstruct, and the origin of the story lost in the mists of the celebrity archives.

Anyway, the mother is Samantha Burke, an American actress, and her foetus is called Sophia. I know it's customary to christen children after they are born, but Miss Burke is evidently a woman in a hurry.

Miss Burke's mother, Lea, went to the press to complain that Mr Law had not been in touch since he learnt of his fatherhood through the delightfully romantic medium of a lawyer's letter. (She didn't seem to consider whether one of the reasons he might not have been in touch was that she was in the habit of speaking to newspapers about these kind of reports.)

Later, a lawyer-dictated statement emerged, stating the Burkes "can affirm that Jude has been responsible and supportive". As for Mr Law, he "is still taking it in", which, in the circumstances, I suggest we can take as "requiring a paternity test". There's only one decent observation to be made about all of this: poor Sophia. And have heterosexual men never heard of condoms?

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