15 JUNE 2002, Page 58

Going places

Petronella Wyatt

Ishould like to begin this column by refuting — impolitely of course — the claims of the lady who wrote in last week saying that the tale I told of an Anglo-Irish woman who died after giving a party to which nobody came was Evelyn Waugh's invention not Oscar Wilde's. I have myself received quite a few letters about this in a similar vein. The truth is, however, that the original story was Wilde's and can be found in the biography of him by Hesketh Pearson. Waugh either stole the idea and expanded on it, or else it is a traditional Anglo-Irish tale.

I am glad to report that my party did not result in nobody turning up. Indeed we ran out of food halfway through and had to rush to the kitchen to make toasted-cheese sandwiches. After this strain on my culinary talents I took myself off to Spain with the intention of escaping the bank holiday here. This was not without its mishaps. Through no fault of their own, my friends' guest house was not ready when I arrived. The workmen had failed to install something rather essential — that is, the windows. As the small hotels nearby were full, I was forced to install myself in the Ritz.

The Ritz, with its jasmine-scented garden, is famously one of the most beautiful hotels in the world, but in recent years it seems to have lost its glamour, having been bought by a chain. There are windows but the service is unacceptably bad. There is nothing more infuriating than returning from a late Spanish meal and finding that the glasses in the mini bar have not been replaced. When you are paying through the nose you expect some reparation through the mouth.

Everything in Spain seemed much more expensive than it was the last time I was there. The blame lies squarely with the euro. It is no myth that shopkeepers and restaurateurs have used this currency as an excuse to raise their prices, Not only that but the exchange rate between euros and pounds seemed to vary from bank to bank and cash machine to cash machine. Even British Airways had its own capricious rate of exchange, making a bottle of scent the equivalent of the price of a small tin of caviar.

In Madrid, British confusion is greeted with much glee, as a sort of belated revenge on the sinking of the Armada. All over Europe goods are more expensive

since the introduction of the euro, which can only lead to higher inflation and eventual unemployment. The same was true in Italy, where I went after Spain. Some friends of mine had asked me to their house near Pisa. The house, or small castle, used to belong to the della Gherardesca family. Ugolino della Gherardesca was the one in Dante's Inferno who allegedly ate his children while in prison with them. Only the recent discovery of some skeletons where the family was imprisoned now indicates his possible innocence. I would not be surprised, however, if a great many more Italians were not forced to eat their children out of growing poverty. Because of the euro even the village shops appear to sell essentials at considerably more than before its introduction. It may be that Britain may soon become one of the cheaper countries in Europe.

There is one thing that wouldn't have happened on the Continent, however, and that is the Railtrack disaster. It was explained to me, and I have also learnt from experience, that in Europe they have some of the finest engineers in the world. In Britain we regard an engineer as the lowly creature who comes in to fix up the bathroom but in Italy, for example, they are up there with the most distinguished and respected scientists. At every smart party you will find a smattering of engineers — all very prosperous, all maim middle class. No wonder Mussolini found it so easy to make the trains run on time.

Italians are horrified by the lack of proper engineers in Britain and say that such rail crashes could never happen in their country. As the British economy has become a service one, I suppose the government is not terribly concerned with promoting the engineering profession, or any profession which builds or makes things, hence the difficulty of finding good craftsmen in England, save in the north.

But, I ask you, if a foreigner can be brought in to run the English football team, why can't some engineers be imported to help Railtrack? They might find the weather here appalling but at least we haven't got the euro yet. It might even be worth their while, I hear that the son of the Pretender to the Italian throne is at a loose end.