The Royal Enclosure at Ascot
Woman About Town

In with the It crowd

International glamour and the comforts of home

This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

One might imagine that most people would be rather flattered to find themselves described as “the chosen ones”, but not so the “international aesthetes” who according to a French magazine are injecting new life into Venice. 

Like all cosmopolitan cities, Venice can be extremely parochial (though not so bad as New York), and the latest article set off a chain of bitching at the Ai WeiWei opening on San Giorgio. The first social event of la rentrée, the first time the internationally revered artist has worked in glass, the magnitude and haunting complexity of the 9-metre black glass sculpture La Commedia Umana: not nearly so engrossing as analysis of who was in or out on the latest It list.

The Mostra del Cinema presents a particularly agonising social problem for the Venice art crowd. Most patrons and curators affect to despise all the Hollywood razzmatazz as vulgar unless they’re actually invited to something, but they then have to contend with no-one knowing or caring how important they are. 

Not because the parties are particularly starry (spoiler: most of the real slebs fly in for a few hours of contracted photo ops), but because they’re full of bewildered TV execs obsessing over all the ways in which the famed Excelsior Hotel on the Lido where the Mostra is held is so spectacularly horrible.

The plastic plates in the beach cabanas, the hairdryers still attached to the walls, the rotting bathrooms, the Soviet swimming pool … if you want to blag your way into a night out with Monica Bellucci an Excelsior key fob and a sour expression is way more effective than claiming to work for the Prada Foundation. 

• • •

Bibliomemoir — the examination of the effects of reading on life — has been a growing trend in publishing for several years. If I had to isolate the book which has had the most pronounced effect on my own life it would have to be John Mortimer’s rather unimpressive novel Summer’s Lease, a gentle, somewhat bland satire on Brits in Chiantishire. 

Inviting a glossy-maned, polyglot teenager to stay the night, the English hostess is answered with “That’s awfully kind, but we’re going to Dubrovnik”. All I ever wanted was to be “international”, racing around Europe, staying in glamorous villas with a bikini and a lipstick as luggage. 

The aspiration comes back to haunt me every summer. Italian teenagers are serious about holidays. Not for them a fortnight on the Costa del Plonk with mum and dad; my daughter’s travel arrangements this year included Sardinia, Forte dei Marmi, San Moritz, Tuscany and Panarea. No plan appeared to involve a ferry timetable or accommodation beyond someone’s cousin’s friend’s place, but when I tried to insist on some attention to logistics the over-entitled little git told me to stop being so English.

Effortless cool

My Euro pretensions were soothed by a dreamy weekend at the Villa Rocca Pisana near Vicenza, a sixteenth-century Scamozzi rotunda built for a Venetian ducal family. The house was designed as an escape from the summer heat; the four wings around the central cupola are open to the air, creating a natural cooling system so effective that even when the plains are sizzling at 38 degrees it feels fresh inside. 

If high temperatures are here to stay maybe it’s time to rethink glass-walled Malibu-style homes and consider how intelligent architecture can obviate the need for air-con. The house party included sculptor Peggy Milleville and my Venetian neighbour, Sandro Rumney Guggenheim. Three singers from La Fenice performed by candlelight from the mezzanine and no-one spoke English for three days. 

* * *

To London in time for The News. I was meeting my sister for a noodle on the South Bank when the Queen’s death was announced. There was no obvious outpouring of immediate grief on the terrace of Rosa’s Thai but two disgruntled Scousers fell out of the door of Ladbroke’s.

“Ah frig. Me race has bin cancelled.”


“The Queen’s dead.”


“S’alright. It was a shit ’orse.”

Scones and sympathy

Blood will out though. Since Her late Majesty insisted on pausing at 5pm every day for tea, Deirdre and I decided to commemorate her reign with scones. We took a walk down the Mall to hear the 96-gun salute first. An ardent monarchist, Deirdre was in full black, complete with patent court shoes. 

“Slovenly,” was her verdict. “Look at them, milling around in T-shirts. No respect.” Aside from a few gents from the Pall Mall clubs, it’s true that there were no jackets to be seen, let alone mourning ties. 

“Marks and Spencer’s don’t even sell suits anymore,” Deirdre added glumly.

Perhaps Her Majesty didn’t notice the casualwear revolution

Perhaps Her Majesty didn’t notice the casualwear revolution too much, since men in suits accompanied her everywhere, like the smell of fresh paint, but we agreed that the whole thing has gone Too Far, if only on aesthetic grounds. Now that the Brits are the fatties of Europe, at least a suit contains the billowing rolls of tattooed flab. Plus, all that commemorative royal coverage reminded us that Prince Philip was actually super hot … this really had to stop.

Tea at Brown’s is just right, grand enough but still cosy. We had seconds of the excellent coronation chicken sandwiches, discussed whether Her Majesty was a clotted cream or jam-first scone stylist and sampled eight kinds of cake, including an extremely satisfactory slab of Victoria Sponge. Sturdy, stalwart, steady. Englishness, even the pretend kind, suddenly felt rather comforting.

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