Par ou commencer, Where to begin? Racine and Barthes’s question is particularly apt in the present case. Should I start with when I first saw Flavia? Actually I can’t remember but only because sight had been comprehensively outgunned by rumour. Her beauty, her ridiculous upper class accent, her extravagance – all had reached my ears long before I saw her. Anyway it would take too long. I think for the purposes of this story I will start with the e-mail that I sent Sandro Kopp on August 31st:
Flavia and I are getting married in Venice next week ( Tuesday 8th). I’m afraid as Keith Richards said – all these bits of paper finally catch up with you. Only guests are our children. I’ve been trying to arrange a photographer (how fucking boring) and suddenly thought that, if you can imagine some way to paint it, that I would much prefer a Kopp. Terms to be negotiated.
I was willing to fly him to Venice but there was no need. Miraculously he was going to be in the Serenissima on the 8th; even more miraculously he was completely at our disposal. He and Tilda were promoting her latest film at the Festival. They had decided to keep the 8th free to lounge around in Venice: so they would lounge around with us. Or rather he would be the wedding snapper and then use the photos to help him with the painting. For years we had planned to be 5 but now we were 7. Flavia’s sister was of the opinion that this would improve the tone and behaviour of the party as unalloyed MacCabes is a recipe for unacceptable behaviour.
The party started on the 7th. Flavia and I had installed ourselves in the Palazzo San Angelo. We’d booked the best room – on the first floor with balconies on the grand canal and a view of the Rialto. More important than this luxury, I had provided myself with enough spare cash to travel everywhere by water taxi. Venice, if you have never seen it and it is the single most astonishing sight you will ever see, is built on water. There are three ways to move around Venice. Water buses – very like the 71 D in Pittsburgh, gondolas – impossibly slow and expensive, and water taxis very fast and even more expensive. When I first came to Venice and saw the rich using water taxis, I consoled myself that they were heading for the tumbrels. Later visits I just envied them. Now I was paying $100 for a five minute ride and, yes, once again – the rich do have it better – Venice by water taxi is considerably more enjoyable than Venice by 71D.
It took two watertaxis to get the ball rolling. Finn and Johanna were flying in from London; Fergus was arriving by train from Siena. I had decided that we would lunch at Murano, which is an island in the lagoon and where the children had loved watching the glass blowers when they were young. The restaurant was on a canal and had its own jetty. However our taxi driver refused to draw up there, for reasons I thought inadequate. I was explaining to him in full red-faced, macho boss mode what he should do, when, either by accident or design (this was a subject of much later debate at lunch), he touched the throttle and my hectoring remarks were abruptly curtailed as I was upended into the bottom of the boat. This put everybody into a very good mood.
A huge lunch consumed, we now headed back in one watertaxi to our hotel. There is one thing that can be said for my children – they are very good looking. The three of then together make quite an effect. The hotel was visibly impressed. Most unusually, Flavia was obviously proud of her children – not a common sight. The rest of the day is a bit of a blur but I do remember another huge meal.
I woke early on the 8th and went downstairs to sit outside and watch the city waking. Once again I could not believe in our luck with the weather. Venice is usually very humid and often horribly hot. But for our three days, it was perfect sunlight, a temperature in the mid-seventies and no humidity. I watched the barges taking out the rubbish and bringing in the day’s supplies and thought , as one cannot help doing, of Venice’s history. Once the greatest maritime power in the Mediterranean, it is now a hollowed out husk of a city, the biggest museum in the world. Wonderful to visit but slightly creepy after about three days. I tried to reflect on my life but failed. The only real thought I had was that as a young man I had always thought the marriage vows obviously bogus. How, in the face of the evidence, could you promise to spend the rest of your life with someone. You might say that you hoped you would, or even expected that you would, but the definitive vow was a nonsense. What I liked about our wedding was that even if I ran off with a chambermaid the next day, I had spent most of my life with Flavia. When I communicated this to Flavia, she was of the opinion that my likelihood of finding a chambermaid was nil.
Sandro rang to say that they were on the water bus heading towards us and he asked if I was nervous. I suddenly realized that I was. Even more surprising so was Flavia. Sandro and Tilda then arrived in holiday mode and Sandro began sketching the children. Johanna was first and looked great in a grey dress but when she was finished there was no sign of Fergus, who was next. I went upstairs to their room to find the sons screaming at each other about who could use the bathroom first. The spectacle of two images of myself behaving as badly as me was sobering as was the thought that they looked like a stereotypical pair of Irish brothers. Finally they arrived to be sketched.
Then Flavia arrived in a very elegant bright green wedding dress that I had not been allowed to see. Her hair had been very well done by the Venetian hairdressers and I thought that if nothing else we made a handsome couple. This belief lasted until the wedding photographs where I just looked fat. Soon we were in the watertaxi and on our way to the Commune in the Palazzo Cavalli. As we waited for the previous wedding to finish, I expected Italians to come swarming out, but lo and behold it was an English wedding. I reflected that I should not have been surprised. There are no Venetians left in this morgue of a city, so presumably most of the weddings are for foreigners – indeed it must be a substantial part of their tourist trade.
Now it was our turn and the very amiable Italian official, who we had met on our recce last year, and with whom we had finalized all the papers the day before, appeared in a huge tricolore sash. The preliminaries over, he read the relevant articles of the Italian state’s laws on matrimony (I was so pleased not to be getting married in a church) after which all we had to say was “Si”. According to Johanna, Flavia pronounced the most reluctant and disgusted “si’ in the history of the Italian language but I was so busy following the Italian (I had scorned a translator) that I didn’t notice this last act of insubordination.
Sandro was hopping around with his camera and we had to pose for various pictures. Tilda and Fergus had gathered up some confetti from the previous wedding and then we were back in the water taxi and heading down the Grand Canal towards St Mark’s and the Baeur hotel. Never had Venice seemed so beautiful and, as a bonus, it was Finn’s first time in the city and so there was the pleasure of his delight as well. The we arrived at the hotel. The maitre d’ was already primed but the welcoming party suddenly became even larger and more animated when they realized that we had a star with us ( Tilda’s face had been all over the papers for the previous two days). We sat down and the wine started to flow. Joan Baez’s words came to my mind “Speaking strictly for me /We both could have died then and there” but I didn’t share them with Flavia as she would have demurred.
As I gazed on the Salute and the open waters of the lagoon with the sun dancing on the waves I did think that it didn’t get much better than this. But it did.
So then we said goodbye to Tilda and Sandro, who had enjoyed themselves hugely, and set off back to the hotel. We all agreed that it was a real stroke of good fortune that Tilda and Sandro had come. I was pleased that Tilda, a member both of the school of Cambridge and the school of Jarman, had been there and there was no question that it had improved behaviour. The rest of the afternoon passed as the day before with everyone saying they couldn’t possibly eat anything more. Later that evening we sat down to another four course meal. Johanna asked “ You haven’t had a chance to consummate your marriage yet” She grinned and the boys looked disgusted. “Don’t worry” I said “we had a quickie in the loos at the hotel Bauer”. The boys grinned and Johanna looked disgusted.