THE DIARY: Even anoraks have their place in Venice, littorally

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Standing up in the back of the boat, as I learnt to do 54 years ago, and leaning on the smooth polished wood of its cabin, I indulged in my usual moment of ecstasy as we emerged out of the back-canals into the noble sweep of the open lagoon. Was the Doge's bucintoro lying there? It was not. Were there mighty galleons sailing in from Negroponte? There weren't. Did the lazy red sails of Chioggia fishing boats colour the Lido's distant shore? No. Never mind, Venice was Venice was Venice, still rippling and laughing there, the one place on earth that almost never lets me down.

I say almost, because from time to time in life I have found myself briefly disenchanted with it. Not this time, though. It was spring, the squalid miseries of Heathrow's Terminal One were behind us, my love and I were celebrating 50 years of friendship and I came back to the old city prepared to forgive it anything, as I hope it was prepared to forgive me. I smiled ingratiatingly at the successive hordes of anoraked adolescents pushing and screaming their way through alley-ways, wearing comical hats. I told myself that the Piazza San Marco was meant to be jam-packed with ugly tourists, and littered with their rubbish - were we not ugly tourists too, and had there not been gaping sightseers in this square at least since the Middle Ages?

I managed to persuade myself - well, nearly - that I could detect some magic numen in the bronze replicas of the Golden Horses of St Mark that now occupy their plinths on the Basilica facade. I even managed to suppress my natural distaste for everything to do with the Venetian Carnival, a trumped-up revival of ancient festivities which was fortunately over, but which nowadays casts (for my tastes) a more or less permanently baleful pall upon the city - I hate everything to do with masks, clowns, puppets, fancy dress and fashionable cosmopolitanism.

Of course I never complained about the price of coffee - good God, I know better than that! Of course it did not dismay me that the concierge at our hotel (the Monaco) seemed to think I was something the cat had brought in - that's what concierges are for! Everything was lovely in Venice, in the spring of 1999, in the 54th year of my acquaintance with the city, and the golden jubilee of my love: anoraks, loutish crowds, masks, substitute horses, ridiculous prices, grumpy concierge and all. 0 Venezia, I very nearly cried when we boarded the aircraft for London, as I have been very nearly crying for most of my life, non ti lascio piu!

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BUT LONDON turned out to be lovely too, in its weather as in its spirit, which nowadays seems to me provocatively exciting. A case in point was the hotel we stayed at, one of those excruciatingly smart decor-hotels now so prominent here as in New York. I had mixed feelings about this establishment. On the one hand I found its neo-Japanese minimalism delightful, so clean, so cool, so very unlike my own cluttered home in Wales, which is all but overwhelmed by its weight of books, ornaments, cats, sewing baskets, ship models and pictures of Admiral "Jacky" Fisher, RN.

On the other hand I was repelled by the prevailing silliness of the hotel's room arrangements, which seemed to me to speak of basic insecurities, cultural uncertainties and transience. Gimmicks do not make a great tradition. Is it really a good idea to use butler's sinks as washbasins in a hotel bedroom? Is it not better, after all, to have a simple old-fashioned switch to control the bedside lamps, rather than a row of six small finicky buttons? Is there much point to the metal National Benzine Mixture oil-cans which, mysteriously lined up here and there, were identified for me as "decoration"? Half the gadgetry didn't work, and I was not in the least surprised to find an error in the bill.

How different, I could not help thinking, from our own dear Harry's Bar in Venice! Nothing transient there. Harry's was alarmingly trendy when I first knew it at the end of the Second World War, and it remains smoothly trendy still. It does not depend upon designer chic, but on solid professional aptitude. Its simplicity is of a less derivative (but equally calculated) kind, its service has retained down the years its trademark blend of the sweet and the sardonic, and I have never even bothered to check the bill (except discreetly to note the per amici discount Harry's kindly grants its regulars...)

But I am not complaining. In a way I welcomed the irritation of that London hotel, because it made me examine my own reactions, and wonder if by any chance - could it be possible? - they were symptoms of growing old. Would I have preferred those maddening light buttons when I was young? Would I have paused in passing, every now and then, to appreciate the ensemble of the National Benzine oil-cans?

I hope not, and at least I can claim without hypocrisy that dear old London itself seems to me more stimulating, more exhilarating today than I have ever known it. I often read about its racial problems, but as a visitor I never feel them - it seems to me to have adapted with cheerful brilliance to its post-imperial penalties, just as it is painstakingly reconciling old loyalties and new in its architecture. There was a time when I found it uncomfortably dominated by foreigners (eg Australians or Nigerians), but now I think its genial and rather raffish ethnic jumble is a sign of its infinite flexibility.

For it is really a British city no longer. I made a pilgrimage across the park to see the superbly restored Albert Memorial, a thing of almost Egyptian glitter and mystery, and wondered how much its spectacular reappearance will mean to the rest of the islanders. I doubt if it will give much possessive satisfaction to visitors from Leeds, or Glasgow, or Swansea: for most of them it will be just another tourist attraction, hardly more their own than the Eiffel Tower.

Yet I remember seeing on television, a million miles away in Llanystumdwy, the ceremonial unveiling of the rejuvenated monument, and sensing how intense was London's own pride in it. Here on the spot citizens of every kind and several colours told me how wonderful a thing it was, and urged me not to miss it. The truth is, I rather like to fancy, that London, so soon to have its own elected President and Parliament (aka Lord Mayor and Assembly), is gradually metamorphosing into a City-State, and will one day join the Scottish and Welsh Republics, and perhaps the English Kingdom too, as a sovereign member of the European Confederation - Albert Memorial, old oil-cans, Ken Livingstone and all.

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