The most readily saleable kind of merchandise a writer keeps on offer is his natural gregariousness, with the widely advertised consequence that so many writers drink themselves to death.  In this steady though unprofitable trade of ours, I am pleased to say, I have some distinct advantage over the competition, as I never went to school and spent my childhood in near-monastic isolation.  That such a mode of upbringing, notwithstanding John Stuart Mill’s inspiring example, is almost universally credited nowadays with the unleashing of homicidal sociopaths, called “loners,” upon placid diners in fast-food restaurants may be flattering; nothing, however, is further from the truth, since it is perfectly obvious that a person deprived of a certain experience in his youth is all the more eager to have his fill of it as an adult.  So it is for me with human company, with the result that no pipe-smoking stranger on the train, no matter how choleric, and no newspaper-reading misanthrope on the bus, however deaf, have ever evaded the tungsten grasp of my clinically certified volubility.

At the next table at Harry’s Bar the other night were two middle-aged couples visiting Venice, one British and one Australian.  The Englishman, whose wife would soon reveal herself as the weak link in the organization of the table’s defenses against my relentlessly mounting intrusion, was in the insurance business.  The other man, quiet and mild-mannered, though married to a highly strung and oddly birdlike American, would later confide that he was a corporate executive in the Murdoch group of companies.  A very short time after I had insinuated myself into the table’s chitchat, while at the same time stratifying my position as the resident Venetian, with the aid of a Jesuitical commentary on the imperfect wisdom of ordering what my neighbors persisted in calling those green noodles, the Englishman turned to me and said, “You know, I really love this Harry’s Bar over here.  I want to start one just like it, in Mayfair.  You think it’d do well?  A good idea?”

“Well,” I chewed judiciously on the celery in the Bloody Mary, wondering if it would sound snobbish to ask how familiar he was with the restaurant’s South Audley Street namesake, or its sister establishment on Fifth Avenue, or the half-dozen unauthorized knock-offs here and there, including a particularly sad one on the Lungarno in Florence.  But at that point, my collocutor volunteered that he was both a member of Mark Birley’s dining club in London and a habitue of Cipriani’s in Manhattan, thus opening the door to further insidious speculation.  “What is it exactly,” I asked, “that you like about this place so much?  I mean, is it the food, is it these famous low chairs, is it the lighting?”  “No, it’s the mix,” he said.  “It’s the atmosphere.  You know, all these different people.”  As though to underscore the point he was making, two sailors in uniform had walked in and leaned on the bar.

It was time to let the penny drop.  “You mean, me?” I said, eyelashes aflutter.  “You mean that in a place like this people like you find yourselves seated next to people like me?  You are quite right, of course, this sort of thing cannot be expected to happen in New York, nor in London these days.  And I shall now tell you exactly why.  Do you see that table in the center, the one with three people on it?  That’s Count V——  with his houseguest, dining with Donatella A— — .  Now, when their bill arrives, you’ll find that they’ll be paying one-half of what I’m going to have to pay at the end of my dinner.  And when your bill arrives, my friends, you’ll be paying twice as much as I’m about to pay.”

A shocked silence followed, as I had expected.  “Isn’t that a bit unfair?” thought the English wife.  “That’s just outrageous!” thought the American wife.  “So, in effect, aren’t we paying for this Venetian Russian’s dinner?  And he’s on his fifth Bloody Mary!” thought the husbands in unison, instinctive hands on plump wallets.

“Dear friends!” I said.  “I know what you’re thinking, and as a resident of Venice I thank you for opening your hearts, and your pockets, to our island paradise.  But you’ve told me yourselves, I love the mix, haven’t you?  Well, let’s say you start yet another outrageously expensive restaurant in Mayfair, with the aim of recapturing what you perceive as the unique atmosphere of the original Harry’s Bar in Venice.  Who is going to go there?  Fatcats, fatcats, and only fatcats.  Who but a fatcat is going to pay $200 for a meal of Friskies Buffet, to say nothing of the three-dollar bottle of mainstream Italian red marked up to fifty bucks?  So how is your new restaurant going to be any different from the fashionable Harry’s Bar that already exists, and prospers at your expense, in South Audley Street?

“Besides, you mustn’t think that the round-robin of mooching I’ve let you in on is unique to this place.  All Venice works on the same system of negative air miles, and could never work without it.  The corner bar where I have my coffee every morning charges one dollar, whereas you would pay five dollars.  Why?  Because it’s my corner bar, not yours.  My water taxi to Piazzale Roma costs thirty dollars, yours will cost you double.  Why?  Because I have an account with them, while you are mere birds of passage.  If I had made your hotel booking directly through the Venetian hotelier, you’d be paying a third less.  Why?  Frankly, because the owner would believe that you are of some relevance to the society in which he actually lives, and not one of the ten million credit-card numbers that make up the abstract presenze a Venezia.

“That’s why we still have at least thirty restaurants, both in the city itself and out on the islands, that are better by far than any in New York or London, and at least half a dozen that are as good as any in Paris.  Eliminate what you see as the unfairness of the system I’m describing, and straightaway the natives, and then the regulars, and then everybody else who is in any sense distinguished, unusual, or noteworthy, will stop coming.  We will all withdraw into our homes, since, for the money that even the regulars end up paying here, one can easily hire at least a Croatian cook.  It will be all tourists, rich tourists in famous places like this one, and poor tourists everywhere else.  And then Venice will end up like Florence, where the only dining establishment that upholds the tourism-ravaged city’s gastronomic honor is a working-men’s canteen in Oltrarno.”

The wives had taken momentary refuge in what they called the powder room.  The husbands hung in there, somewhat listless I thought, but still, what the hell, lively enough for the homeschooled sociopathic loner to persuade himself that he was the life of the party and to carry on with his monologue.  “Yet the issue is wider than the survival of a tourist destination in the face of the monstrous centipede.  As you can see, the system protects us.  But equally, you must see that the main distinctive feature of the system is identical to that pluralism of ways and means that once made the European family of nations, in Mill’s words, ‘an improving, instead of a stationary, portion of mankind.’”

This is what Mill wrote:


Individuals, classes, nations, have been extremely unlike one another: they have struck out a great variety of paths, each leading to something valuable; and although at every period those who travelled in different paths have been intolerant of one another, and each would have thought it an excellent thing if all the rest could have been compelled to travel his road, their attempts to thwart each other’s development have rarely had any permanent success, and each has in time endured to receive the good which the others have offered.


By contrast, Mill argued, contemporary Europe is now “advancing towards the Chinese ideal of making all people alike.”

By now, they were on their coffee and offering no resistance whatever.  “Your new venture in Mayfair would be reckoning its success solely in money, in parallel to the larger society, which seeks to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator.  So it would be boring as hell, boring as New York and now London are boring.  Boring, I tell you, like any place where a rich footballer does not make way for an old war hero, where a real-
estate agent lords it over a peer of the realm, and where an insurance magnate never finds himself listening to the words of a writer.

“But forget writer.  A society that reckons in money, as it inevitably becomes more collectivist until it begins to resemble Albania under Hoxha, loses the very concept of personage.  While over here, once I start with the premise that I am not a gullible fool to be paying more for dinner than the man at the center table just because he is a count and I am not, one day I may get to discover that he is a fascinating and historically significant personage, whose presence I will find vastly enriching.  Don’t you see?  Mammon has bled your world dry, and left it hanging upside down like a kosher chicken!”

“So you don’t think it’s a good idea?” at length said the Englishman.