19 JANUARY 2002, Page 9


Early January, when the Christmas decorations have frayed into being a dirty nuisance, is in general a very good time to get out of England. But I never understand why people want to go to the lowering climate of the West Indies. Unseasonable warmth, low pressure, high wind and an hour's rain on many afternoons seem to me a thoroughly unsatisfactory combination. Southern Europe is much better, whether it be an empty Venice, mist increasing the romance of the short views, or, on a clear day, the approach from the airport enhanced by the panorama of the snow-capped Dolomites hardly ever visible in summer; or the excitements of Barcelona, one of the two best non-capital cities in the world — the other being Chicago; or the distinctly non-Mediterranean softness of Lisbon more akin to San Francisco than to Marseilles; or, on this occasion, Naples.

It has of course been a spectacular turn of the year for weather, with even Oxfordshire excelling itself for frosty sunshine. Naples seemed likely to be an anticlimax. On the contrary, it has exceeded any possible expectations. Norman Lewis, in his memorable Naples '44, put 28 February as the date when spring there started, and 1 May as the date when the Neapolitan sun 'turned fiery'. This January there was a slight frost in the dawn, with a 'fiery sun' making it wholly possible to eat lunch in the open air. What has Grenada or Barbados to compare with that?

Moreover, Naples has provided me with that sufficient sense of duty which I have always found a necessarybalance to indulgent pleasure. A holiday without any work is as barren as a working day without a conversational meal. I am putting together a very lightweight book, as a follow-up to the 912 pages of Churchill, on 12 cities that have either been intertwined with my life or have peculiarly aroused my interest and enthusiasm. Naples alone represents Italy in the collection. I have therefore been able to justify my excursion by checking whether the millennium rearrangement of the fine museum of Capodimonte (on as dominating a site as its name implies) requires a rewriting of my paragraph about it, whether Bourbon monumentalists of the 18th and early 19th centuries were so splendidly extravagant as I had previously thought, and whether the constricted animation of the streets in the old city adds up to the nearest thing to a souk in Europe.

Al of this would have been enough without the excitements of Italy's adjustment to the euro — slower than in France or Germany as a result of some foot-dragging

on the part of the Berlusconi government, and largely, as a further result, being greeted on my first morning in Naples by an Italian press dominated by the news of the exclusion from office as foreign minister of my old friend and collaborator Renato Ruggiero. In spite of the foot-dragging, the adjustment seems to have gone reasonably smoothly. I used up my remaining lire on the first day, and then became dependent on euros for all small transactions, I think I was mildly cheated once, but probably more as a result of misunderstanding than of intention. The Camorra may exercise a malign influence more in the hinterland than in Naples itself — but petty dishonesty is not a Neapolitan habit, and taxis, as everywhere from New York to Berlin, are far better value than in London,

Ruggiero's departure is a more serious matter. Gianni Agnelli, still one of the most respected figures in the country, described it as 'an ugly day for Italy and an enfeeblement of the government'. Moreover, I detected the unconscious influence of the style of Alastair Campbell at work when government sources put Out a briefing that the departing minister was a mere technocrat, not really in touch with the world of today and maybe becoming a little unbalanced. Ruggiero was in fact one of the best officials with whom I have ever worked.

He has had a remarkable career. When I became president of the European Commission 25 years ago, he was the Commission's director-general for regional affairs. He moved across to become my spokesman. Then he became Italian ambassador to the Community, and then permanent secretary of the Italian foreign office. After that he became secretary-general of the World Trade Organisation, and kept that institution much more free of criticism than his successor has done.

Like nearly all really considerable figures — Gladstone, Churchill and de Gaulle are in my view the peaks of this genre — he had a touch of comicality about him. When he was my spokesman, he used to come in each evening and say. 'What is the message for the European press tomorrow, Mr President?' As I mostly did not have one, this was a mild source of embarrassment to me. And when, on an isolated hot day at the end of the very bad summer of 1977, he came to East Hendred for an alfresco meeting of my cabinet and was made to sit in the sun, his shade-seeking Neapolitan habits made him suffer much more than the pale-faced English, who leapt at the opportunity for a little exposure. He almost provided a living example of the great traditional Naples miracle of the liquefaction of the blood of San German).

Ruggiero's slightly reluctant acceptance of the post of foreign minister seven months ago was a badge of international respectability for the Berlusconi government, and his going is a corresponding loss to it. When he left me to go back to Rome, he was replaced by another quite different and very northern Italian of unusual charm called Enzo Perrot, who subsequently became ambassador to Germany. On a trip around China, Perlot looked unusually dejected: and when I asked him if he was not enjoying himself, he said, 'Only up to a point, for I cannot stand this creepy-crawly food.' When we got back to Beijing, he asked for the evening off to have dinner with his oldest friend, who was Italian ambassador there. Brightening considerably, he said, 'I expect we will have a little tagliatelli, then maybe a vitello alla rnarsala or a fegato alb Veneziano, and finally, perhaps, a zabaglione.' Next morning, when I asked him how it had gone, he said, 'Horrible disappointment. You won't believe it, but my old friend had gone all creepycrawly. Not an Italian dish in sight.' Working with anyone who could think up phrases as vivid as 'creepy-crawly' in a language not their own made even the job of president of the Commission quite tolerable.