The MT Diary: Howard Davies

Howard Davies finds Venice anything but relaxing, solidarity still exists in Spain, and finds Paris in a pensive mood.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

Seeking refuge from England's monsoon season, I popped over to Venice to speak at a conference at the San Clemente Hotel - a former monastery on an island in the lagoon. It was raining and the mood among the Italians was correspondingly downbeat. Over lobster and Soave on the elegant terrace we empathised with each other about just how hard times are.

Security was intense. There was a small gunboat at the hotel quay and a squadron of Polizia on jet skis, which were effectively big BMW motorbikes on floats, buzzed around noisily at great speed, having fun in the way Italians like to do. The excuse for their presence was that Mario Monti was speaking after dinner. In fact, he turned up via a dodgy phone link, so we could barely hear him, let alone shoot him. But, hey, why spoil the entertainment on that account, and the boys whizzed around the lagoon all evening.

I had to fly from Venice to Barcelona over the weekend and was surprised to find a direct flight on a carrier called Vueling, a low-cost Catalan outfit with a sense of humour: one of its planes is called 'My name is Ling, Vue Ling', which must appeal to all those Chinese James Bond fans who spend their holidays in Barcelona.

You need a sense of humour to fly from Venice airport. Congested? It makes Heathrow Terminal 1 look like a county cricket ground on a wet afternoon. To get to a check-in desk you need to use the 'truck and trailer' technique perfected by the Springbok pack. But amidst all the talk of an ever closer European Union it is comforting in a way to find that national stereotypes remain intact.

There were three flights boarding within 15 minutes of each other, one to Amsterdam, one to Barcelona and a third to Munich. On the left, a tidy two-abreast queue of cloggies waited patiently. On the right, a straight line of pink and peeling Bavarians complained that boarding was two and a half minutes late. In between them, a seething mass of Spaniards and Italians jockeyed for position, slowing down the process by losing bags, children and grannies. At least it gave me time to try and again fail to complete the Polymath crossword in the FT Weekend.

Visiting Barcelona in mid-crisis is a strange, out-of-body experience. One's iPad is full of news of bankruptcies and bailouts, yet on the way in from the magnificent new airport, huge billboards proclaim the brand identity of Bankia: 'a whole future together'. It doesn't sound any more plausible in Spanish or Catalan. The campaign, I learned, is designed to demonstrate 'the humanity and empathy that characterises the relationship between Bankia and people'.

The small investors who lost their shirts subscribing for the recent rights issue may wonder where the empathy went. But perhaps they should have paid attention to a hint that things were not quite as stable as they were told in the prospectus. On television, the campaign ads are accompanied by the melody of Aretha Franklin's I Say a Little Prayer.

I stayed at the W hotel, along with a planeload of surprisingly cheerful tax directors. Perhaps they were all involved in Jimmy Carr's cunning little scheme. We all went to bed at a respectable hour, after drinking just that one glass too many, as you do at conferences, but at midnight the joint was just starting to jump. On both Saturday and - to our surprise - Sunday, there were raves lasting most of the night, one of them a 'pop-up party', whatever that might be. You can't expect people to sit at home watching ads for their bankrupt bank all evening. But there was a fin de siecle atmosphere in the air.

Barcelona doesn't look like a town in trouble. The waterfront has been transformed by the Spanish building boom. They are even making decent progress with Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. The completion date of 2028, just 102 years after his death, now looks quite realistic. The mortality tables suggest it will be touch and go for me but the missus should make it.

The city is a very agreeable place to cycle round. I went up to Gaudi's remarkable Parc Guell, though I would not have done so had my map had contours on it. Judging by my heartbeat at the top, 2028 is out of the question. But the view was worth it. When the Germans are given Barcelona as collateral for their next loan package they will surely be content.

Back in Paris, I found a pensive mood. Unusually, the Socialists, who seemed dead and buried a few years back, now have all the reins of power in their hands, for the first time in the Fifth Republic. They control the Elysee, the Chambre des Deputes, the Senate and almost all the regions. Miliband junior must be encouraged by this resurrection. In the lottery of public opinion, who knows, it could be him.

Of course, Barack Obama was in a similar position in 2009, and much good it did the Democrats. But the non-Socialist French are worried about the consequences of such a concentration of power. Might Francois Hollande actually try to implement the programme on which he was elected, with rafts of new teachers and civil servants? Mon dieu!

They put their trust in Angela Merkel. Surely she will not allow the French to try to reflate alone? If only the Germans could elect a growth- oriented Hollande, with Merkel sent to Paris, where a touch of austerity in the public sector might be just the ticket. This job-swap is my humble suggestion to resolve the euro crisis. It is no dafter than most of the other things they have tried.

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