18 JANUARY 2003, Page 37

Keeping one's head above water in Venice

David Ekserdjian

GONDOLAS AND GRAPES by John Hall Sibilline Press, £25, pp. 320, ISBN 0954219805 Ihave an unusually vivid recollection of the first time I met John Hall. I went to his flat in Chelsea to be interviewed — as I thought — to establish whether I might make a suitable lecturer for his Pre-University Course in Venice. However, when I arrived, he got straight down to the nittygritty of how many lectures I would be giving, what titles I had in mind, and so on. I must have been all of 25, and had never given a proper lecture — by which I mean one without a written text — in my life. In retrospect, it strikes me that John must have been mad, or at least that if his trust did not lead to total disaster, then that only proves that he is one of those truly rare people whose guardian angel puts in a lot of overtime.

The Venice Course — aka the John Hall Course — has been going since 1965, and has survived all the intervening economic lows, not to mention the vicissitudes of changing university entrance systems and a gradual sense that a 'gap' year partially spent in the Serenissima is a wimpy option if one's friends are backpacking through some torrid zone or other. It is routinely accused of being a sort of arty finishing school, but that slur never quite explains the number of its alumni who are en route to Oxbridge, nor indeed the fact that some have returned to the fold as lecturers. John Hall is characteristically elliptical about his own energy in keeping the project going through the (woo alto of crazed Italian bureaucracy that constantly threatened to sink him, and eloquently evokes the wonderfully eccentric heroes and heroines of the expat community in Venice, as well as the migrant population of lecturers he has lured to the city over the years.

The other leitmotif of this elegant autobiography is the life he and his wife, Therese, and his second family have carved out for themselves in San Ginesio in the Marche, which has thus far survived the onslaughts of the Chiantishire effect, and remains blessedly back-of-beyondish. His account gives one the impression that only the Western Front in the first world war was more dug up than the area around the house, which now boasts terraces and fountains aplenty, and looks splendid in the photographs that chart its transformation. The other great enterprise, of course, which gives this book the second half of its title, has been the production of wine. Not having sampled Château Hall, I am unable to hazard a guess as to how many marks out of 100 Robert Parker would give it, hut it deserves to be good after all the false starts and disasters that preceded its eventually triumphant emergence.

It would be wholly wrong, however, to give the impression that this is a chronicle of disappointments: on the contrary, like its author, it is as uplifting as a glass of Prosecco on a grey February day in a bar down a misty calle in the most beautiful city in the world, and makes one yearn to be back in Italy.