I am writing this from a cottage near Santa Maria di Leuca, on the southernmost tip of Italy in the Adriatic. As the luggage, including my maps and guidebooks, only arrived yesterday, I cannot really be expected to say anything worth believing about the land or the people. As for the curious inner workings of the local airport, some 50 miles away in Brindisi, these are best left to the reader’s imagination, though of course the noble Apulian race may not be blamed for the fact that the scheduled connection from Rome had departed long before the flight from London was in the air. All I can mention, hopefully, is that this morning I breakfasted on perfectly ripe damson plums overhanging the stone table on the patio, and that the coffee was good. In a way, knowing myself as well as I do, it is already pretty clear what the next couple of weeks will be like.

I was in London for most of June and the first week of July, roughly from Ascot to Wimbledon, getting plastered on that famous pink concoction of exceptionally fine weather, predatory women, and grinning men in gray still known as the Season. One scene in particular, in the dining room of Aspinalls, is still vivid in my mind, and I would like to relive it now, against a background of furiously independent- minded crickets and reedy echoes of southern voices that sound as one imagines Homeric antiquity. I was eavesdropping on a table of six Italians from Milan and two English businessmen with Estuary accents, all in their late 50’s, when a gargantuan platter of lightly poached wild salmon trout made its appearance and the conversation, which had been tending to food anyway, suddenly burst the banks and became downright raucous. Ah, salmone! No, trota!

Before I invite the reader to laugh out loud as I laughed just then, I had better explain something. While I am prepared to accept as given that a hundred years ago food in London restaurants was as good as anywhere in Europe, it is equally true that the generation now living was brought up on overcooked broccoli and bacon grease cut with the finest claret, by which they meant the most mediocre Bordeaux. I used to find their innocence wholly admirable, on the grounds that it is always easier to find a good roast chicken and a glass of drinkable red than an interesting person to talk to or a friend who won’t make a pass at your wife; indeed, I can go further and confess that I associated their innocence with moral rectitude, if not downright saintliness. “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” their menus seemed to say, and as far as I was concerned there plainly was.

Meanwhile, of course, Margaret Thatcher was busy loosening all the social screws. Thalassotherapy and balayage became the new bywords for success. New restaurants appeared every day, cappuccino frothed on every street corner in Chelsea, specialty shops sold exotic Basque cheeses, obscure Piedmont hams, and allegedly Neapolitan burrate, until finally, 10 or 15 years later, the once-upright London came to stand on its head like a kind of junior-league Manhattan. This means that instead of two or three coffee bars where in the old days you couldn’t get an espresso, there are now two or three hundred espresso bars where you can’t get an espresso. Instead of having your broccoli overcooked, you never get broccoli at all and have to feed on Malaysian baby dwarf fig leaves, or some other such fashionable thing. And if yon mention the war, people think you are bonkers.

The effect of all this on the Londoners’ psyche has been one of massive confusion, something along the lines of the cult television series The Prisoner. They no longer know where they are, who is making them drink cappuccino and why, where the husband’s secretary finds the money to buy purple ostrich sandals, who paid for their nanny’s holiday in the Maldives, or why the Tunes is always going on about the Internet while the BBC is discovering the pleasures of lesbian love. Now imagine. Into this unholy mess, which is the present-day, Manhattanized, confused London, walk six middle-aged Italian men in Caraceni suits and shirts by Siniscalchi. And ogle the lightly poached salmon trout as if God had put it there for them.

Admittedly, Aspinalls—now as 10 or 15 years ago, in the days before the Thatcher revolution ended, as revolutions do, with the social reductio ad absurdum—has what I have always believed is the best restaurant in town, in part because it is subsidized by the casino and in part because John Aspinall is an old-fashioned eccentric who has all the produce organically grown on his own farms for the pleasure of the club’s members. All the desserts are made in his own house, by his own pastry chef, and delivered to the club in time for dinner with his own ear and driver. But what’s so solemnly ridiculous about the,scene I’m describing is that the Milanese visitors were taking it all for granted, assuming that they had been brought to Aspinalls for a taste of the new London, the international one, the one without social barriers and overcooked veg.

Soon, their excited conversation took a familiar course, as they labored to translate the word “grouse” into Italian. If this is indeed the new international London, I reflected, and if what they want to talk about is plain old food, then this conversation ought to go very differently. Why not begin by asking each other simple questions like “How do yon say ‘fresh tortelloni of ricotta with butter and sage’ in Italian?” Or “What is the Italian for Hausgemachte lasagne mit Spinat?” Or, come to think of it, for “pitsa margarita, s prostym tomatnym sousom“? Then one could proceed to pose a whole menu of still more toothsome linguistic conundrums, such as the Italian equivalent of the red or green cazunzei from the Dolomites, served with poppyseed butter, or the Italian word for zuppa sarda.

Mind you, the more this line of inquiry reminds you of Ioneseo’s hilarious and frightening play The Lesson, the less at home yon will feel in the new London I’m now describing, apart from a handful of time-frozen institutions like Aspinalls whose continued existence, anyway, rather hangs by a thread. It almost seems that the surreal object of the whole nightmarish exercise is to imagine a group of Belgians in Harrods, shortly before its owner is booted out of Britain, arguing whether the French word shopping can be translated into the English language, or a group of Russians walking into the House of Lords, just days before it becomes a theme park, and debating sullenly among themselves whether the Russian word demokratiya has some local equivalent.

It was another narrow escape for me, then, from the perverted pleasures of the Season, perverted because contrived, unnatural, deracinated, and just short of surreal. And here I sit on the patio, carefully paved four centuries ago and cared for by anonymous, gnarled, brown hands ever since, thinking that the damson plums above my head are ripe and real and have a name. In a couple of weeks’ time, I’ll be making a journey by car to the Argentario, on the Tuscan coast, and there again I will sit, on another terrace, thinking lazily that the giant watermelon shielded from the sun by the beach umbrella is neither a racial slur nor a class symbol, but simply a pitilessly quartered green sphere which the gods have invented for the amusement of thirsty children.

And then, come autumn, there will be Venice, beloved Venice, where the world ends. Not the way Italy ends here, at Santa Maria di Leuea, or as England does at Dover, with a precipitous drop into the sea, but the way a bodily injury heals itself or an evil spell is lifted, gradually, unobtrusively, yet irreversibly and firmly. No more restaurants serving foreign food, no more playing with cardsharps, no more American Express bills computed in euros, no more German lasagna, Belgian shopping, and Russian democracy, no more conversations about nothing. No more leaving Venice.

A big red and yellow butterfly has just alighted on my Toshiba portable computer. It must be an omen, a sign that I am right.