A Deserter Abroad: Venice
‘That reminds me,’ said Half-life as he finished his pint, apparently apropos of nothing. ‘Damo’s got me freebies for his show if you fancy it.’
‘Damien,’ said Half-life. I looked blankly at him and shook my head. ‘Hirst,’ he added. Half-life’s love of art has been well-documented on these pages but even so, this was news indeed. Was there no end to the big man’s contacts?
‘Damien Hirst has given you tickets for his show,’ I said.
‘Are you fucking deaf? I just told you that. You in or what?’
‘Sure. What’s the catch?’
‘No catch. Just two tickets. Two blokes. An art show. And maybe some tinnies, if we’re lucky. Monday, yeah?’
‘Nice. OK. Where is it?’
‘Venice? Isn’t that a little bit of a catch?’ I said and Half-life shrugged.
‘Not if we’re staying in Damo’s palazzo,’ he said, with a wink. ‘Your round.’
In fact, the journey to Venice is anything but onerous. My flight was a very reasonable £55 return, flight time is a measly one hour 45 minutes and is followed by a wonderful refreshing boat ride across the lagoon. Indeed, by the time my vaporetto turned into the Grand Canal on Sunday evening, the waterside bar and cafe lights beginning to twinkle in the dusk, I was wondering why I didn’t do this every weekend. Sure, accommodation can be pricey, but Half-life had apparently sorted that.
He had provided me with an address in the San Marco sestiere. I was determined to find it unaided, not least as the contact number he had added should anything go wrong was for someone called ‘Vaselina’, which would almost certainly turn out to be a joke at my and some poor woman’s expense.
I alighted at the Rialto and dragged my little suitcase over bridges, through deserted squares and down magical narrow streets. Even Half-life’s prosaic instructions – ‘Left at the Co-op’ – couldn’t break the spell.
When I arrived I was let in by a young Italian woman who managed to look glamorous despite wearing what was essentially a tracksuit. That’s Italy for you. She led me through a courtyard, up a flight of marble stairs and pointed to an upper landing.
‘He is there,’ she said, ominously.
I climbed another staircase to the grand piano nobile. White curtains billowed at four full-length open French windows. Out on the balcony Half-life was smoking a cigar and flicking ash into the canal below.
‘Benvenuti a Venezia,’ he said. ‘Let’s get paralytic.’
In the morning I was awoken by Half-life in the adjoining bedroom.
‘God Almighty, shut the fucking fuck up!’ he was hollering out of his window, shirtless and waving a half-full bottle of Prosecco.
‘What’s up, mate?’ I said.
‘Gondoliers,’ he said. ‘What a racket.’
But singing gondoliers aside, the walk to a cafe for breakfast reminded me of why I adore Venice.
Firstly, it can be (summer tourist hordes aside) so blissfully peaceful. Partly this may be due to the calming qualities of water. I recalled the story of the creation of Thamesmead and how lakes and waterways were introduced there with the intention of placating the unruly natives being uprooted and bussed in from Peckham and other inner city areas, as if they knew the high-density housing was going to throw up its own set of problems. Some years later they drained Southmere and found two dozen vehicles had been driven into it.
But in Venice, the continuous bubble and gloop of the luminescent canals creates a soporific background ambience that soothes the soul. It’s hard to believe you’re in a city at all. Amsterdam has a similar feel in parts, and Bruges, but really there is nothing like Venice, La Serenissima, the town that tranquilises.
Even better, there are no infernal cars. Walk round a corner, then another, and suddenly all sound is stilled, the air clean. That alone has had me firing up Rightmove.
And then there is the fact that everything is beautiful. It hardly matters that you get lost so easily in the jumble of streets, not when they are all so easy on the eye. Every house, every window, every wall is a photo opportunity. At the end of our calle someone had left out a bag of rubbish to be collected by the dustboat. It looked fabulous. It is no wonder that Venice is a city besotted by art. It is art.
The Damien Hirst exhibition, ten years in the making, is big. So big it is housed in two museums – the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta Della Dogana – which means it requires a considered plan of attack.
‘We start at the Grassi,’ said Half-life over a caffelatte, handing me my ticket. ‘Quick pint at Accademia, wander over to Dorsoduro for lunch, then wine, spliff, second half, pint. Any questions?’
Sometimes the man is quite brilliant.
‘So you’re really mates with Damien Hirst?’ I said, risking a little probe.
‘Damo? He was a very good customer of mine back in the day. And he let me hole up at his place after the gun thing.’ (Half-life had some years ago effectively ended his fledgling TV career by firing a handgun live on air during a poetry performance). ‘He’s solid.’
I have enjoyed Damien Hirst’s work over the years – the visceral shark, the OCD pharmacy, the exquisite diamond-encrusted skull – but nothing had prepared me for this show. From the moment we walked into the Palazzo Grassi and caught site of the feet of an headless colossus that stands fully three storeys high in the central atrium, I was enraptured.
‘Fuck-a-doodle-do,’ said Half-life, and I couldn’t have agreed more.
Ostensibly a collection of long-lost antiquities retrieved from the ocean, the range of work on display, the variety of materials used and the attention to detail is breathtaking. Really, this exhibition is what the word awesome was made for. I was expecting bold and thought-provoking but I wasn’t expecting shits and giggles. One piece gradually revealed itself to be a shell-encrusted Goofy; a blue granite pharaoh sported a nipple ring and looked uncannily like Pharrell Williams. Happy? I certainly was.
‘What do you think?’ asked Half-life as we headed down to Accademia at half time.
‘Big, beautiful, monstrous, playful,’ I replied.
‘Not about me,’ he said. ‘About the show.’
‘Bravo, Damo, basically.’
‘Yeah,’ said Half-life. ‘He’s no Tracey Emin, but he’s pretty good.’
Venice is the perfect place for this wonderful exhibition – a city of the sea, filled with relics and antiquities. The title of the Hirst exhibition is Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, a title that suits Venice itself; an ageing architectural masterpiece that defies belief, that walks on water, that tricks and tantalises.
The next day was an Italian public holiday, Liberation Day, commemorating the end of the Italian Civil War and of Nazi occupation, and the whole of the Venice area seemed to have descended on the city. It was a glimpse of what the place is like in the summer, when the streets are clogged with tourists, progress anywhere is arduous and you can’t even get to the bar.
But we weren’t tourists, we were guests, and we didn’t have to put up with this shit.
We booked a tasting menu for the following day’s lunch in a restaurant the girl at our palazzo had recommended, one that featured such culinary delights as spider crab and potato foam, and jumped on the vap to the Lido, the 11-km long sandbar that separates Venice Lagoon from the Adriatic. Billing itself, somewhat disingenuously, as the ‘seashore of Venice’, it was once renowned as the playground of aristocrats. We felt, somehow, it was where we belonged.
The vaporetto was virtually empty but Half-life was intrigued by a Japanese woman wearing a germ mask.
‘Why are they such germaphobes?’ he asked.
‘I read that in fact they wear the masks because they have a cold and they are stopping it spreading,’ I said.
‘Oh,’ said Half-life. ‘Either way it’s well horny.’
‘Horny? What’s horny about that?’
‘You know, vulnerability. Nurses, maybe. A girl who has to live in a bubble. Are you telling me a bubble girl isn’t hot?’
‘You do worry me sometimes, mate.’
Of course, the Lido has form for taboo-breaking obsessions. It was where Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach fell for his Tadzio in Death in Venice, a tale of passion and suppression. Not that Half-life does suppression.
‘Right, the top’s coming off,’ he announced when the sun came out on the Gran Viale Santa Maria Elisabetta, the bar-lined boulevard that leads to the sandy side of the island. ‘Time for a Spritz.’
The Spritz is Venice’s famous aperitif: Prosecco, Aperol, sparkling water and an olive the size of a satsuma. It is as foul as it sounds, but when we stopped at a little street pub and sat up at the bar, Half-life talked me into trying one.
‘When in Rome, or wherever the fuck we are.’
The holiday season had yet to start in earnest and despite the outbreak of fine weather, the beach was quiet, which was probably just as well given the appearance of Half-life’s startling white torso. At Aurora Beach Bar we kicked off our shoes, bought some lagers and lounged on giant beach bags. Not at all what I was expecting from a visit to Venice. Half-life though, took it all in his stride, though not in his strides, which he removed to reveal his trademark Speedos.
‘First time I’ve had the boys out since Tenerife,’ he said, looking admiringly at his own testicles.
Back on the other side of the Lido, we sat with pints of cocktails on the waterside terrace of the Hotel Villa Laguna, where we were treated to a soundtrack of Shakatak and early Level 42 as we watched the sun set over a distant Venice. A flight of swallows frolicked overhead, like they were enjoying their own la passeggiata, the Italian evening walkabout.
‘This, for me,’ I said, ‘Is what jazz funk is all about.’
When the bill came, we didn’t have enough to leave a tip.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ said Half-life. ‘He knows he’s not getting a tip. Waiters always look at the shoes, that’s the tell, and as soon as he saw yours he knew he was getting fuck all.’
Back in Venice, Half-life suggested skipping dinner in favour of more booze.
‘It’s how I keep my figure,’ he explained.
‘OK, but can we find somewhere with some good beer?’ I said.
A Google search threw up a nearby pub-like bar called Devil’s Forest, where I refreshed myself with a really quite excellent 6% IPA called Gaina, brewed by Birrificio Lambrate in Milan, while Half-life got into a scuffle with some off-duty gondoliers and then tried to persuade a girl from Dudley to leave her fiancé and accompany him back to our palazzo for some slap and tickle.
Casanova was from Venice, I reminded him.
‘Tease ya, squeeze ya, please ya, then Thelma Louise ya,’ said Half-life. ‘Casanova, pass him over.’
‘Is that a quote from Giacomo himself?’ I asked.
The following morning we awoke late to steady drizzle and raging hangovers. I remembered our lunch booking and emitted a low moan.
‘Tell you what, mate,’ I said to the big feller, ‘I’m not sure I can face five courses of anything, let alone spider crab. What is spider crab, anyway?’
‘You don’t wanna know,’ said Half-life. I took out my phone to look it up. ‘I’m telling you, leave well alone.’
‘The spider crab is everything you should fear about the ocean,’ I read aloud. ‘The leg span of this monster crab, from claw to claw, can reach 18 feet…’
‘Shitting fuck. Imagine one of those reaching over and nipping off your bell end.’
And that was it. Lunch was cancelled. Instead we decided to ‘walk about for a bit’ and see if we felt better.
‘And now I come to think about it,’ I said, as we strolled over to Castello, ‘Of all the things you could do with a potato, making foam out of it has got to be the least appealing.’
Wandering the rain-wet streets I was reminded of my own romantic liaison in Venice. Just out of college and on a European rail tour, I’d bumped into the beautiful sister of a college friend, staying in the city on an art school trip.
Over evening drinks she confided in me that she’d only ever kissed one person – her boyfriend at home.
‘Then kiss me,’ I had said, and we kissed there in the cafe, and then out in the rain, on bridges and under arches. We hugged and gazed and danced with masked strangers. I walked her back to her hotel, where she invited me up to her room.
Halfway up the first flight of stairs I was accosted by the night porter and firmly invited to leave. On my way back to my own hotel I got hopelessly lost in the fog, but I was so blissed out that I could have walked for eternity through this city of romance.
‘I think it was my most romantic night ever,’ I said to Half-life when I recounted the tale to him over a blessedly simple lunch of spaghetti, pizza and Pinot Grigio.’
‘Only ’cause you didn’t fuck her,’ said Half-life, delivering a belly-kick of truth in the way only he – the foul-mouthed savant – knows how. ‘Romance is basically not fucking,’ he elucidated. ‘Have you finished with that breadstick?’
After lunch we picked up our bags from the palazzo and left for the airport.
‘Grazie, Vaselina,’ said Half-life to our house girl.
‘Don’t tell me her name is actually Vaselina.’
‘No, it’s Gloria.’
‘Gloria Hole,’ he said, grinning his boyish, sex-mad grin.
Casanova, pass him over.
More on Venice in this podcast:
Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable runs until 3rd December 2017
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Image credits: Sunday night blues by Adrien Sifre used under this licence; Casanova by Francesco Giuseppe Casanova courtesy of Adriano C.; And then she kissed me by Henrik Berger Jørgensen used under this licence; all other photos by the author