Venice, after we’ve cleaned it
A few hours to kill in Venice before leaving by boat for Greece, Crete and Egypt. The director thinks it would be nice for me to see the city from the back of a rubbish barge, and very soon, perhaps a little too soon, after breakfast I find myself hosing down the Riva degli Schiavoni and tossing plastic bagfuls of Venetian unmentionables into the garbage barge. Mario, 48 years old, with a 13-year-old son and a daughter of 20, is in charge of our squad. ‘Even the rubbish in Venice isn’t cheap any more,’ he replies to my routine suggestion that this must be one of the most beautiful cities to grow up in. ‘The young can’t afford to live here now.’ The other two members of our crew are Fabbio, who turns out to have weight-lifted for his country, and is profoundly embarrassed by the whole filming, and Sandro, curly-headed, beautiful, pre-Raphaelite, and unreachable on most levels.
We move at a stately pace up the canals, hurrying for nobody. Refuse collecting gives one a smug sense of superiority. The veneered-wood and polished brass launches may huff and puff as they try to get past us with their expensive cargoes, but we know they know how much they need us. We’ve seen what they like to keep out of sight.
I enjoy my refuse-eye view of Venice and suggest to Roger that we make it the first of a Great Dustmen Of The World series, to be followed, if successful, by Great Sewers Of The World.
Ron Passepartout baulks at this. ‘I’ve just spent five weeks in the sewers, thank you!’ He is referring not to conditions at TV Centre, but to a programme he’s just made about a man who had taken refuge in the war in the sewers of Lvov. Ron has been everywhere and met everyone. On the very first day of filming the phone rang on location and a P.A., covering the mouthpiece, shouted, ‘Ron! Can you do the Pope, Friday?’
By boat to the Venice Post Office to send my dinner jacket back to London, the smartest part of the journey being already over. This is one of The Great Post Offices Of The World, located in the Fondacio dei Tedeschi built between 1505 and 1508 as a base for German merchants in Venice. There’s a wide brick-tiled courtyard with a stone fountain in the middle surrounded by three levels of pillared galleries. The walls were once decorated with the works of the great Venetians – like Titian, but of these (as the guide book has it) only ‘one much-impaired nude’ by Giorgione remains. I notice a lot of young, beautiful women heaving mailbags out onto the quayside beneath the Rialto Bridge. They also work for the Post Office. The Grand Canal, at this point, is like Piccadilly Circus, and the driving is terrible, with motoscafi cutting up vaporettos and cement barges cutting up taxis and gondolas gliding serenely and suicidally between the lot of them.
I seek refuge at the Hostaria del Milion – good unpretentious food and wine in a tiny, intimate little courtyard. Two doors down there still stands the house where Marco Polo lived and from which he departed on his great journeys to the East. I stand and look up at the modest stone walls, as if there might be something I can learn from them. A photographer takes pictures of me doing this. He’s an Italian. His real name’s Renato but I’ve taken to calling him Posso which is the only word I’ve heard from him today.
‘Posso?’ Snap. I feel sorry for these still photographers. They’re only doing their job, but they keep getting in the way of Passepartout and making him very cross.
Early evening. Our departure for the Levant is not, sadly, from some photogenic quayside flanked by the Lions of St Mark, but from the tourist-neglected backside of Venice, the docks of the Stazione Marittima. The soft warmth of the day has given way to a chilly evening as our baggage barge chugs past the soaring hulls of a rough assortment of freighters – a Russian boat from Starnov, the River Tyne from Limassol (a poignant reminder of where the British shipping industry has gone) and finally the elegant wave-moulded bow and milk chocolate hull of my home for the next four days, the Espresso Egitto, Venezia. Maybe because we’re all tired, or maybe because we can only count eleven portholes on her side, Passepartout and I are not as responsive as we might be to the promise of the Egyptian Express. A shout causes me to turn, lose my footing and almost disembowel myself on the camera tripod.
Aboard ship after two hours in bureaucratic limbo on the quayside. ‘People Who Need People’ echoes from the PA system. ‘People Who Need Portholes’ would be more appropriate. Ron is in deep decline. His cabin not only lacks portholes but also lights. I keep trying to remember not to tell him what I can see out of my window.
What I can see is the delicate skyline of Venice at night, as we pass through the lagoon. A soft, almost insubstantial image. I feel that if I rub my eyes and look again it will be gone.
‘The end of civilisation,’ someone mutters darkly, as the stone quaysides and lamplit arcades recede into the distance. A bit of an exaggeration, especially if you’re a Greek, but it is the end of temperate climates, seasons, and western ways for a month or two, and I allow myself a little homesickness.