Petronella Wyatt

Home thoughts from abroad

The ongoing escapades of London's answer to Ally McBeal

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I have just been staying outside Rome near a town called Ladispoli. In ancient times, the area, which was a luxury seaside resort for various Roman emperors, was called Alsium. During the second Punic war it managed to exempt itself from having to send troops to fight Hannibal. Later, both Tiberius and Marcus Aurelius had villas there in order to escape from the broiling heat of the Roman summer and its accompanying stench.

Getting into Rome is probably more difficult now than it was those thousands of years ago. A la Livingstone, a lot of the city has been pedestrianised and cars require a special permit to enter the centre. This leaves one at the mercy of the Roman taxi-driver, who makes his English counterpart look like Talleyrand for subtlety and good manners. One example will suffice. One afternoon I asked one of these Roman taxi-drivers to take me to a street called Via Giulia, which is near the Tiber.

The man drove about 200 yards and then declined firmly to go any further. This was inexplicable as there were no signs or policemen barring his progress. When I protested he literally shovelled me out of his car and on to the street. I later discovered that this is now the norm rather than the exception. The Romans have always been known for their rudeness, but nowadays it almost reaches the point of harassment.

The traffic jams are worse than in London, too. A friend of mine tried to drive from the Via Veneto to St Peter's. After moving two yards in 20 minutes he abandoned his car in the middle of the road and walked the rest of the way, ignoring the screams and yells of the other drivers.

But however rude the Italians can be at least they respect other people's private lives. Journalist friends of mine told me that there had been virtually no coverage of the Edwina Currie/John Major business. At the two dinners I went to during my stay, which also included some Germans, everyone expressed disgust at the English media and its destructive prurience. Why aren't your papers writing about Saddam Hussein and Iraq or other serious subjects? I was asked continuously. Others said they thought Britain was now a liberal society and had moved on from Victorian attitudes.

Actually, we have moved backwards. When Lord Melbourne was prime minister he was named as the co-respondent in a divorce case. No one called for his resignation or heaped ignominy upon his head. Then, of course, there were exceedingly able statesmen such as Palmerston, whose adventures with women only made him more popular, prompting his political rivals to bemoan their own lack of colour.

British society is more hypocritical than ever. On the one hand, hard-core porn is sold over the counter and, on the other, public figures are condemned for harmless, youthful indiscretions. There is more violence on television and fewer people believe in God, and few of us are exempt from breaking those of the Ten Commandments which society no longer believes in, as politicians scramble for the votes of gays, lesbians and single mothers.

The John Major affair has made us the laughing stock of Europe. Most Italians still cleave to the time-honoured tradition of keeping both a wife and a girlfriend and think that if the English hold such absurd and impractical views they would be better off abolishing marriage altogether.

Perhaps we would be better off abolishing marriage. There is no stigma attached to children born out of wedlock, indeed it has become the fashionable thing for middle-class girls to do. The English seem unable to handle marriage anyhow, as our divorce rates are one of the highest in Europe. But, as with many things people are incapable of mastering, they continue to entertain an unhealthy obsession about it.

As for Jeffrey Archer and his prison diaries, the puzzlement abroad is similar. Why was the man given such a stiff sentence for telling fibs about when and where he met various women? It is a given fact that most politicians on the Continent lie to judges or the public and no one seems to mind. On the point of publishing a book about prison life, one of the Germans asked, 'But what about Oscar Wilde and