Just warming up…

Cimber Sterling was not in the least intimidated by the threat from Eyjafjallajökull so we made it to Italy. It seemed to me that the flight from Copenhagen, where the sun had at last begun to shine, was slightly higher and slightly bendier than the usual route but perhaps I was imagining that. The clear skies and unfolding sunny terrain made memories of the past wet and windy days fade quickly. A rented Smart waited at Marco Polo airport and, after clearing out the filthy interior and removing the empty plastic bottle that had wedged the driver’s seat against the wheel, it was off to the 15th century Tenuta Castel Venezze, an agriturismo near Rovigo. Driving along the E4 was a contrasting experience; you quickly got used to the manic driving but it was harder to believe that the swathes of poppies stretching to the horizon hadn’t been painted on the landscape. The historic surroundings at the castel extended to the computer facility that was generously made available to guests so, with data downloading at the speed of a saline drip and no connectivity for my laptop, I let it alone. Consequently, my intended daily travel diary will now be a more relaxed reminiscence of sunshine and warm days in the Veneto.   

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Perfect food – for the soul

We’re going to Italy in a couple of days and this post was supposed to be the first from the Veneto. It wasn’t to be. We had originally arranged it so that we would arrive on Saturday afternoon but the forecast of wet, cold and windy weather in northern Italy together with the threat from the infamous ash cloud, forcing airports in the Mediterranean and north Africa to close and continuing to billow over the horizon like a harbinger of doom, conspired to ruin the plans. The local weather forecasters here in Sweden – these are guys that apparently check to see if the cows are laying down in the mornings and only forecast weather that matches one of their cute graphics – promised clear sunny skies and 23C for today. So we postponed travelling in the hope that we could avoid dashing out of the rain in Italy and laze in the sun in Sweden. As I write we are enduring yet another cold grey day of fine but persistent drizzle so the weather guys got it wrong. And airports are closing around us like dominos falling and now we may not make the rescheduled journey; it’s no comfort to know that the vulcanologists got it right.

Of course, we could have cancelled the trip altogether but Italy is always such a special place to be, regardless of weather, so the bags are packed and my bicycle-clips are in my pocket. May is the best time to see the Italian countryside; it’s green and revitalised, not too hot; wild flowers bloom everywhere and Italian waiters approach the new season with a fresh, but probably misguided, hope that the hoards of tourists won’t get under their skin again this year. In this region they even have their own language, called Venetian or Veneto, with nearly five million people speaking and understanding it. So, if the mood takes them, they can insult you without fear of you catching them out with the surreptitious use of the BBC Italian Phrase Book. Veneto gives the locals a haughty and slightly aloof character but that doesn’t stop them wanting to share the wonders of their singular cuisine with you. I love the food in this part of the world – risottos with a variety of fish or calves liver with onions and Marsala are Venetian specialities that I try not to miss and the Asiago cheese, from Vicenza, is world-famous. Also from Vicenza, aged salami called Vicentina is mouth-watering and, of course, Tiramisu was invented in the Veneto. The wine produced in the region is well-known and I’ll be making my personal contribution to the local economy by sampling the Soave, Bardolino, Amarone, Torcolato, Valpolicella and sparkling Prosecco. Grappa is also produced and is just the thing after a late dinner.

The market in Venice, just off the Rialto Bridge, is a magical, bustling place in the morning and fish stalls abound. When I first visited as a wide-eyed student it seemed that only Italians knew where it was and I felt as if I were the only foreigner there. Today there are more digital cameras but it’s still an important part of a trip to the Most Serene Republic. Venetians take their food and their shopping very seriously indeed so the market is a place to be revered. The variety on offer is a feast of sights, sounds and smells, all good ones too. The fish merchants are complemented by bakers, butchers, pasta makers and a string of stalls selling fruit and vegetables. We never miss the chance to stop over in the square for a sandwich and the apperitivo that will see us back across the lagoon.

There’s a secret to having a wonderful trip to the Veneto. Venice is magical but it seems to get more and more crowded each time I see it – on average 34,000 visitors daily. These days it even has two McDonald’s outlets and an Irish pub, which go some way to explaining why we’re staying in an old castel on the mainland. Peace and quiet, prices that aren’t extortionate, home-cooked food and a short boat trip each way. So, if we get there, I’ll hope to share a few thoughts over a Campari and soda while nightingales serenade us from the olive groves and fireflies meander through the warm night air. Perfect, no?

And the winner is…!

Early days for our infant coalition and, despite the wealth of promises, opinion and expert comment, we’re breaking new ground; the truth is that no one can tell just yet how it will go. Cameron and Clegg are putting in place some laudable quick wins – the fixed-term parliament, cancelling the third Heathrow runway and imposing a pay-freeze on the Cabinet – which serve to show real intent.  I think, as I wrote in an earlier post, that this will be a good thing for us although my fear is that we may need to fail at it first time around.

What our previous government failed to see [or failed to admit, which is more likely] was that the electorate is a very different animal from the masses that have supported a fairly simple two-party system up until now. It’s not long ago and certainly within my memory, that the have-nots – the workers and dispossessed – traditionally voted Labour while the haves – landed gentry, professionals and the privileged few – voted Conservative. It seemed to me when I was a youngster, looking back at it from here, that only school-teachers voted Liberal Democrat then but I accept that as being a jaundiced view. Today voters can and expect to make up their own minds and, given that politicians have little or no credibility, it’s easy to see why Clegg’s open and apparently honest approach appealed so widely. Alright, there was a lot of wavering as ticks were put in boxes on voting day but the possibility of a coalition was well publicised and if that had really scared people then the Conservatives would have won their majority. No, this is a sea-change.

I remember the first time my Dad, retired now but a Master Bricklayer at the time, changed his allegiance from Red to Blue and it was quite a decision for him to make. Mixed emotions of disloyalty and desertion were only tempered by the the local building workers’ union having disowned him and his contemporaries for breaking away from employment by a few large national contractors to work self-employed. It was many years before he could work in the local area again and needed the Thatcher government to prize the vice-like grip of the unions off the workers.

Now we have an electorate that is better educated, able to take in every subtlety and nuance through 24-hour media and free from the traditional social constraints that kept sons voting as their fathers had. Blair saw this in 1997 and his ‘Presidential’ approach to government perhaps exploited the last real opportunity for an individual to hold autocratic power. The result of this recent election has shown that life has moved on for elected officials; that they are not above the law [well, that requires some further debate]; that they have to be more equal; that they have to be more accountable and that they are not immune from the consequences of their actions.

Cameron and Clegg still have power but they appear to be setting out a process whereby they will remain responsible with it and accountable for its consequences. I can’t think of an example of where a politician holding similar power has used restraint and not exercised it for the good of society and the sake of humility. For me, the first measure of real change will be just that. That will make us all long-term winners in a process that has, thus far, only provided a long-term loser, one James Gordon Brown. I like what Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize holder, said about it – ‘Ultimately, the only power to which a man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself’.

La Serenissima beckons

So what do you do when it all gets too much? I’m going to clear off to Venice for a few days – a place that never disappoints and where ancient brickwork has proved more enduring than the grand promises of quite a few governments.

I spent last evening reliving the excitement of my youth and made it through to 3.30am before fatigue and an overdose of expert analysis got the better of me. The single malt was of course still as good and I enjoyed the feeling of immediacy that the live updates brought but the excitement waned quickly. I was disappointed for the Lib Dems, but in truth, not surprised that the fair words of Nick Clegg didn’t magic up seats at Westminster. In the end we didn’t get the change that each of the leaders confidently told us we wanted and that they would bring; we just got dull anticlimax after the possibilities raised by the sudden elevation of a Third Force. My incumbent – he of the taxpayer-funded manicured lawns and pristine driveway – was returned with an increased majority so clearly the general populace doesn’t feel as strongly as I do about how the next government will appropriate an increase in VAT.

As the talking heads were wheeled on during the interminable gaps between the declarations of the early results I felt the need for the statesmen, personalities and characters that made previous elections so compelling. I felt a little short-changed and never more so than when Sky’s pretty correspondent opened the continuity from Luton with the memorable line ‘Luton; famous for its airport.’ If nothing else that put the election into context.

I’m old enough to remember 1974 when Edward Heath failed to win an overall majority and went on to resign after negotiations with Jeremy Thorpe, who was then leader of the Lib Dems, came to nothing. It was the end of the world, politically speaking, for Heath and Gordon Brown had that look about him today when he addressed the media in Downing Street. I hope that he is philosophical in defeat – after all, he is an unelected leader and in all fairness has been on borrowed time for a while. Now we have to wait while the desperate struggle for power – poorly disguised as conscientious and serious-minded men doing ‘what’s right for the Country’ – is slugged out behind closed doors. The last time this happened, in 1974 when Harold Wilson formed a minority government after Heath resigned, we were back at the polls in eight months. Spare me, please.

So Italy, the cuisine of the Veneto and the ever-romantic Venice beckon.

Ciao bella!

Vote for me at your peril – finally

Well, it’s make your mind up time; we vote today and I can’t say that I’ve reached any sort of conclusion. We’re about past the novelty of having the Liberal Democrats soaring above the moral high ground and the polls have settled. The euphoria of ‘yes, these guys really are saying something new’ has gone and, typically, we are at the ‘hmm, do I really want to change things that much?’ stage. The Lib Dems are mostly shown in third place now, albeit with a greatly increased share of the popular vote, but very close on the heels of Labour. So now we’re faced with an unpalatable situation where their soaring popularity appears to have taken a significant amount of the ‘where do I place my vote’ electorate – the floaters – and spread them like cheap marmalade across the political front. This has left the analysts warning us that a hung parliament is almost a certainty. Well, one thing about politics is that nothing is certain but, based on the number of seats each party will win according to the latest polls, neither Conservatives nor Labour will have an overall majority. Both will need the Lib Dems or the other minor parties to turn any policy into legislation.

That eventuality will leave us with the possible nightmare scenario of Labour being patched up with a motley crew of minority groups and Gordon Brown being Prime Minister again tomorrow. Perish the thought of that fake smile on the front of The Times. A coalition will, of course, represent the change that everyone has talked about but will it be a change for the better? Our last coalition government was formed in 1931 and steered us through the effects of the Depression and the Second World War. People didn’t want change then, they wanted leadership and as soon as the war was over politics went back to normal. This time around we want change, but we want it because we’re all fed-up to the back teeth with the untalented and dishonourable shower that represent us today. Things aren’t quite as bad as they were in 1931 although some bankers may not agree with me when they receive their bonus cheques.

I remember when, as a young lad with an awakening interest in politics, I sat up all night eagerly watching the declaration of results in obscure constituencies during a general election. Loose-tied and bug-eyed candidates making ‘thank-you’ speeches in front of a few dishevelled party faithful at 4.40am was fascinating then. It was a long haul that gradually lost its interest over the years but that was a lot to do with my growing cynicism with politicians. As I became older Election night became more bearable for me with support from an excellent single malt and, in the Middle East, an election breakfast next morning with champagne, eggs, bacon, tomatoes and baked beans. Tonight the events will be broadcast live in High Definition for the first time but, if I were a gambling man, I wouldn’t bet on it being very different. Older and wiser now, I won’t lose a lot of sleep over it. I would, however, like to be a fly on the wall when David Cameron or Gordon Brown call Nick Clegg and start the process of thrashing out how they can keep the gravy train moving with the extra weight of the Lib Dem contingent in the rear carriage.