The Daily Telegraph
My Venice trip is an escapist mini-breakdown
I shall get hate mail for travelling abroad, but I had to do something to escape the paranoia and despair
There is death in Venice, which makes now the perfect time to go. Thanks to coronavirus, tourists are staying away and the streets are half empty. It’s nice to see the locals walking about unmolested by foreigners asking directions. Venetians are small and wiry, almost as beautiful as their buildings, and they shout a lot. “La mascherina!” one of them barked at me on the vaporetto. Put on your mask!
Everyone must wear a mask on the water buses, but no one bothers with social distancing. Faces are covered in the cathedral, except for the priest, the choir and the reader. Your waiter wears a mask but his customers do not. Covid-craziness is impossible to escape, but at least here – where my grasp of the language extends to repeating English words in an Italian accent – I can’t understand what’s being said, so I’m able to pretend no one’s talking about it.
I’m not on a mini-break. This is a mini-breakdown. I hate lockdown Britain and not just for the deaths we are trying to prevent but the paranoia and despair. I thought we cared about mental health? I suspect we were just trying to sound nice. When push came to shove, we told people to get on with being miserable – just as we told them to stuff their jobs and shove their schooling – and the consequence of not being able to imagine a future is utterly devastating. We will be living in this spiritually impoverished state for two years at least, because the moment there is a spike – and there will be a spike – they will shut everything down again. That’s what bureaucrats do and that’s what the public wants, even though a rise in localised outbreaks has not resulted in a rise in hospitalisations.
You and I are living with the consequences of other people’s terror, and it’s as frightening as the disease itself. I shall get hate mail just for having the nerve to go abroad. “Is this an essential journey?” a friend asked angrily. I said: “Well, it’s not quite the Bahamas, but it’ll do.”
I am certainly glad to be missing
the Democrat convention this year, which has been scaled down to some televised speeches. It has to be the most cynical nomination process in memory. Joe Biden was picked because he was the least offensive option; the vice president, he decided, had to be a black woman. Balance on a ticket used to be ideological (one moderate, one liberal), now it’s representational – and the result is that the candidates offer no breadth at all.
Biden/harris are not super-left, as Donald Trump alleges, but lacking in principle. They are all for police reform now; a few years’ ago they were parading around like Robocop. This killed Harris’s own campaign during the primaries. I recall a town hall meeting where a white student – almost shaking with purity – accused her of supporting racist policies when she was attorney general of California because she put some people in jail. Harris, who – to repeat – is a black woman, looked slightly confused.
The same record that lost her the nomination then will now be wheeled out to win the general election, along with the perception that she’s woke, yes, but not anti-capitalist. A vice chair of Morgan Stanley said the “announcement of Harris was exceptionally well-received” across Wall Street. Investment banker Peter J Solomon called the ticket “safe, balanced … diverse, what’s not to like?”
Thus Biden can say his ticket is historic without alarming the donors – and identity politics, though radical in some instances, will remain a clever cover for keeping other things exactly the same.
One regard in which Venice has
changed is the chefs: they all appear to be Chinese. But then Venice was always at the centre of globalisation. The cathedral of San Marco looks not Italian but Byzantine, with brass lanterns and golden mosaics, including, to the top left of the altar, an entirely unrealistic lion. It resembles the comedian Marty Feldman – eyes on stalks – and although the winged lion is the symbol of Venice, one suspects that many of its finest artists never saw one. At the Accademia Gallery, Renaissance representations vary from accurate to preposterous, typically in paintings of St Jerome who pulled a thorn from a lion’s paw and became its best friend.
Venice, long threatened by plague, also has a strong devotion to St Roch, the saint invoked for protection against disease: he is shown lifting his trouser leg to display the plague bubo on his thigh. His little dog brings him bread. By sheer coincidence, yesterday was the feast of St Roch and the Venetian patriarch, standing under a giant red canopy, gave the plaza a blessing. Normally hundreds would attend; this Sunday, only a dozen. I fell to my knees.
The sky is crystal blue and the canals are turquoise. My companions drank white wine and argued about religion over lunch, and I felt myself unburdened from fear. I like my friends and I like their attitude. It can be summed up as: “We all die in the end. In the meantime, let’s live!”