Woman About Town

Venice’s ugly sister

Almost everything in Mestre is recent; everything is decayed

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Mestre might be the most hideous town in Italy. Venice’s ugly sister snarls rather than sprawls at the edge of the lagoon, a hopeless tangle of railway, flyover, flimsy high-rise hotels and the curdled bitterness of the millions of tourists who have been conned into believing they are staying near San Marco. 

Almost everything in Mestre is recent; everything is decayed. The modern city lies across the water: car-free, human-scale, where children play in the streets and the obligation to walk fosters community. Everything that contemporary urbanism considers desirable is already found in Venice: it is Mestre which belongs to the past. 

The Polish poet, Ewa Gorniak Morgan, opens her latest book, Profession: Venice, with a reflection on the city as a model for the future, and the launch at the Gritti Palace was packed. Readings were given by the author, the conductor John Axelrod (whose Venetian loft was converted from the convent attic where the celebrated courtesan, Veronica Franco, hid from the Inquisition), and yours truly (whose Venetian flat is currently home to a colony of giant rats).

* * *

Anyone who can leaves town as Carnival approaches. The dismal feast revived by the council in the 1970s as a tourist attraction bears no resemblance to the fabled farewell to the flesh which once made Venice the party capital of Europe. The late art critic Brian Sewell described the “exclusive” carnival balls as catering to the “very middle of the middling classes”, but even these are beyond the reach of most would-be revellers in from the mainland, who waft glumly through the freezing February fog in nylon costumes wondering where the fun is.

A small taste of home 

Among the latest international arrivals in Venice is super-producer William Orbit, whose plan to make Campo San Polo his home was postponed due to the Commune’s Carnival ice rink. 

Mariah Carey on repeat ten hours a day drove him (temporarily) back to London for a month-long residency at Laylow on the Golborne Road. The club has handed over its entire space for what promises to be a fizzle-popping project combining live performance, film and DJ sets.

William’s launch was considerably less sedate than Ewa’s, but I was thrilled to see a selection of Marks & Sparks prawn sandwiches amongst the canapes. It’s the little things you miss.

* * *

Apart from the professional make-up tips, the best thing about fashion shoots is the gossip. In the chair for a feature on Valentino’s Tan-Go platforms (fuschia-pink Mary-Janes with a six-inch block heel, already over), I learned which national treasure known for her luscious locks is in truth assembled from “rats” (not the same ones in my walls) and extensions, and the truth behind the skincare billionaire who turns into Cruella de Vil once the cameras stop rolling. 

Staggering around Kensington Gardens in the shoes proved precarious; I narrowly missed breaking an ankle before collapsing gratefully onto a wall. A passing gentleman in a marvellous three-piece tweed suit asked if I needed assistance. I reassured him that it was all in the pursuit of fabulousness but he was concerned about the temperature of the bricks. “Piles”, he opined “are not a myth.”

Show me the money 

Panto season may be officially over, but I was back in England in time to catch the Today programme debate on the three-year anniversary of Brexit. The studio audience laughed uproariously every time Jacob Rees-Mogg opened his mouth, but the mirth was cold comfort. “Bregret” might now be a thing, but yet another twee neologism can’t patch over the fact that the joke is still on us. Rees-Mogg was burbling about the £191 billion Brexit has saved the nation, since we do not have to contribute to the EU Covid Recovery Fund. Quick question: if the money has been “saved”, Jacob, where is it? 

* * *

At least one can still eat well in London. As Jan Morris noted, the standard Venetian menu is fine the first thirty times or so, but the tedium of the restaurant offerings is such that residents scarcely bother dining out. 

In London I was able to squeeze in visits to the brilliant Persian Kateh in Maida Vale, Kiku, which might be the best Japanese around and the relatively new Dorian in Notting Hill, where I was treated to a very grand lunch by Riviera producer and U2 impresario Paul McGuinness. 

Dorian offers a bring-your-own-bottle option whereby patrons can drink their own wine or add it to the restaurant’s list in exchange for a cut. This being Notting Hill, there was some stiff one-upmanship going on, but I was distracted even from a 2000 Lafite by the improbably gleaming complexions of the lady diners, who seemed to have used powdered diamonds as an exfoliant. 

 The waiting staff were even better-looking than the clients. Paul explained that London’s smarter restaurants are now a sort of finishing school for their patrons’ offspring. At the River Café, apparently, you’re unlikely to find a waitress whose social rank is below a colonel’s daughter.

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