Sunday, 7 July 2013

Withnail and I - in Venice at the Excelsior

Robin Saikia with Richard E Grant at the Grand Hotel Excelsior, Venice Lido.

On the one hand you have the exquisite jewel-case of the Gothic city, but only fifteen minutes away you find this unbuttoned paradise of plutocratic hedonism.

Venice, July 2013. Filming the Venice episode of Richard E Grant's Hotel Secrets, due to be broadcast on Sky Atlantic in summer 2014. The most recent episode in the series was devoted to the hotels of the French Riviera. Previous episodes explored the (often breathtakingly opulent) hotels of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Paris and Dublin. In this episode REG focuses on the grand old hotels of Venice, including the Excelsior, the Cipriani and the Gritti Palace. He asked me what had inspired me to write The Venice Lido (Blue Guides) - and I explained that the Grand Hotel Excelsior had played a great part.

REG and I discussed the enduring charm of the Grand Hotel Excelsior on the Venice Lido, completed in 1908 and still going strong. The first Venice Film Festival took place here in 1932 and the hotel is still a focal point of the Biennale, stars and their entourages descending in the first week of September during the festival. A vast Venetian-Moorish-neo-Byzantine extravaganza, the Excelsior gives guests a wonderful sense of space and luxury and was built directly next to the beach overlooking the Adriatic. Unlike many of the grand hotels it has an agreeably informal atmosphere - which is possibly why it was the favoured retreat of Winston Churchill who could often be seen here on the beach, huddled in a white robe, puffing a cigar and painting watercolours. I have always loved the Excelsior and have stayed here regularly since early childhood. In my view it is one of two hotels in Venice (the other is the Gritti) that one can safely recommend without any hesitation or qualification. One of the key defining features is, I think, that despite the hotel's proximity to central Venice it seems - in atmosphere and spirit -  a million miles away. On the one hand you have the exquisite jewel-case of the Gothic city, but only fifteen minutes away you find this unbuttoned paradise of plutocratic hedonism. As Thomas Mann very aptly put it, 'the warm sea in the morning and the ambiguous city in the afternoon...'. Another major point is that they like, rather than tolerate, children here - and the place is so vast that children can happily mess around on the beach or by the pool without impacting on the romantic ambience.

The hotel has recently undergone a major refurbishment from which the rooms and suites in particular have benefited. Tented ceilings, moorish filigrees and fabrics that recall Fortuny are very much the order of the day. There are two major parties given here every year, one in July and another in August to mark the major Italian summer holiday, the Ferragosto. This year's summer party will be held on the terrace, overlooking the beach, on Friday 26 July. At other times the hotel is a splendid place for non-residents to hang out. The Blue Bar is expertly managed by Tony Micelotta, formerly capo of the cocktail bar of the Duke's Hotel in St James's, London. Tony was recently awarded the Italian equivalent of the OBE for his services to hospitality. Such is his unflappable skill as a mixologist that he is regularly drafted in by the Italian diplomatic corps. He also perfected my own cocktail, the Death in Venice, a seductive and potentially lethal vodka martini.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Churchill and the Fascist Plot

Robin in Peter Nicholson's superb drama documentary, Churchill and the Fascist Plot (Channel 4). Click here to watch the documentary. It tells the story of how MI5, Special Branch and Winston Churchill foiled a right wing establishment plot to undermine Britain's war effort in WW2.

The best busker in Venice

My London production of Fridays When It Rains by Nick Warburton

Vicki Carpenter and Bill Risebero in Fridays When It Rains
Fridays When It Rains by Nick Warburton - Pentameters Theatre, Hampstead. Produced by Robin Saikia, Leonie Scott-Matthews and Clive Burnett. A masterly supernatural exploration of unrequited love, class prejudice and erotic obsession. First broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and adapted for the stage by Vicki Carpenter. 25 June - 7 July 2013.

British Nazis - Robin Saikia interviewed by Vladislav Davidzon of the Jewish magazine, Tablet

An in-depth interview about Robin's book, The Red Book - The Membership List of The Right Club, 1939. Were the English fascists and anti-semites of the Thirties the forefathers of today's far right?

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Bookshops in Venice face closure - here is a possible solution...

Last Friday over 100 influential writers gathered in Venice to discuss the crisis facing the city's bookshops. The meeting took place, appropriately, in the Sansovino Library at San Marco, symbol of Venice's centuries-old literary culture. The agenda was simple enough. Of the city's 35 bookshops, 14 have been forced to close because of astronomic rents - the premises will ultimately become home to yet more shops selling cheap souvenirs. Either that, or we'll see yet more expensive bars and restaurants. Of the 21 bookshops that remain, 2 are in danger of immediate closure and for the others, the writing will be on the wall soon enough.

Various solutions have been proposed, none of them straightforward. There is the possibility of instituting rent control and applying for government subsidy - difficult to create and sustain in a country already riddled with bureaucracy. There have also been suggestions of a quick fix that would enable book dealers to set up temporary stands in public spaces such as the colonnades of the Palazzo Ducale.

But how about a permanent solution, one that would be commmercially viable and appeal both to private sponsors - such as Prada or Benetton - to the Comune and to central government?

Back in Britain, in the Sixties, the British entrepreneur Bennie Gray invented the concept of the indoor antique market. Over the last fifty years he has converted several large buildings in the city into retail space for hundreds of dealers. Each dealer pays a reasonable weekly license fee for a retail unit in the building. Units range in size from 6 to 60 square meters. The weekly license fee is a quarter - or less - of what dealers would have to pay if they were to rent a conventional shop. The antique markets, housing a rich variety of dealers, have become iconic destinations in London. The idea has been much replicated by successive generations of entrepreneurs - with great success - in other cities throughout Britain.

Why not apply the same principle here in Venice, and convert a large space in the Arsenale - or a similar location - into a home for booksellers, antiquarian book dealers, bookbinders and printers, not only from Venice but from all over Italy? In addition to the retail units there might be exhibition spaces, a small museum - and a number of bars and restaurants run by Venetian operators serving good Venetian food and wine. The project could be owned and managed by the Comune in partnership with a consortium of private and corporate backers. It would be completely in harmony with the spirit that has informed the Biennale since the end of the 19th century. The book centre would be, in effect, an additional pavilion (padiglione)  - and also serve as a lasting, contemporary celebration of Venice's literary heritage. Finally, if properly managed, it could turn out to be that rare thing - a social enterprise that makes money for its private backers and swiftly repays any government grants.

If you wish to help take this idea further, please email me at

Robin Saikia is a British author living in Venice. His books include The Venice Lido (Blue Guides), Blue Guide Literary Companion London (Blue Guides), Blue Guide Italy Food Companion (Blue Guides), Blue Guide Hay-on-Wye (Blue Guides), The Red Book - the Membership List of the Right Club, 1939 (Foxley Books). He is currently completing his latest book, Venice 1912 - 1947; Impressions of a City in Peace and War.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Venice Lido - popular as ever, now an ebook

A typical day on the Lido
Blue Guides is known for its well written, beautifully produced and authoritative guide books. The venerable travel imprint, founded in 1918, has now published its first ebook, The Venice Lido by Robin Saikia. The Venice Lido was the first in the publisher's new Travel Monographs series.The print edition is a great success and remains the book to consult before planning a trip to Venice or to its glamorous beach resort. It has been become required reading for the tens of thousands of tourists who visit Venice every year, offering them a completely different perspective on the city. The critics, too, warmly praised and endorsed the book. John Julius Norwich: "I have enjoyed it hugely - and it has taught me lots that I didn't know." The Spectator: "Warmth, charm and eccentric scholarship." Guardian: "Smashing... so well brought off I expected sand to sift from its pages while I was reading." Good Book Guide: "Combines an enthralling travel guide with an equally intriguing social and cultural history." Fictional Cities: "This book will broaden your horizons." Robin Saikia is delighted with the response: "A great many people think of Venice in terms of churches, palaces and museums. They do not know that only ten minutes away from San Marco there is this unbuttoned, sundrenched paradise dotted with tennis courts and stables, a golf course and a fabulously maintained beach. If, like me, you're both a culture vulture and a committed hedonist, you'll find the Lido a more than welcome bolthole from the high-brow hurly-burly of the city. Children: in an ideal children shouldn't get bored looking at beautiful things, but in real life they do - so here are 10 things to do on the Venice Lido, some of which are perfect for children. Culture: do not suppose the Lido is entirely bereft of culture. Visconti filmed Death in Venice here. Here is a rare thing, a cocktail underpinned with literary integrity: Death in Venice the drink was invented by me and refined by Tony Micelotta, the bar manager at the Excelsior.""