I awoke on Saturday to discover that I was a sleazy loner and frequenter of strip clubs and dodgy bars

Having been, in my naive late twenties, something of a polemical literary journalist, I was forewarned by my wife and others that I wouldn't have it easy if I ever published a book myself. So it was with "I told you so" echoing in my ears that I awoke on Saturday to discover myself portrayed in a profile in the Times as something of a "sleazy" loner, a shadowy frequenter of strip clubs, dodgy bars and dangerous nightclubs in Moscow and London; and to be informed, by someone called Phil Baker in the Guardian (a career reviewer of first novels, I'm told), that my prose is "portentous and cliche-ridden". It was bound to happen some time, said my admirable editor, Jon Riley at Faber. "Take it on the chin, old son." Which, as a retired reviewer of fiction myself, I'm more than happy to do. Still, on the whole, reviews of my debut novel, Unknown Pleasures, have been intelligently balanced, and you can't ask for more than that.

I had the misfortune to spend part of a lovely Sunday morning at ITN's headquarters on Gray's Inn Road, where I was appearing on the Brian Hayes Show on LBC. I was ostensibly there to talk about my book, but really they wanted me to review the Sunday supplements. This obsession the media has with itself is dull and deadening; and I was struck by the futility of finding myself in a sealed studio, surrounded by banks of television screens and scattered newspapers, speaking words into microphone that no one wanted to hear, least of all the bald-headed Hayes.

One of the pleasures (and surprises) of being literary editor of this paper is encountering a writer's unedited copy for the first time - which, I suppose, is a bit like seeing someone naked for the first time: you never forget the shock of initial revelation, the shock of discovering whether someone can write or not. In the main, I have found that today's Tory MPs write better than their Labour counterparts; that, with the exception of Bryan Gould, now in disappointed exile in New Zealand, the party of Dick Crossman, Roy Jenkins, Michael Foot, Bryan Magee and Brian Walden no longer produces what I call the amateur scholar-stylist. Instead, one must look to figures such as Malcolm Rifkind, Kenneth Baker, John Redwood and Oliver Letwin to find politicians who can excel as belletrists. I'm not sure why this should be so, although I suspect it may have something to do with the emergence of the professional politician, the grim new men and women of this age of the focus group. But what does he know of politics who only politics knows?

A few weeks ago, I found myself in Trieste. Feeling restless one afternoon, I hired a car and drove to Slovenia and then down along the Adriatic coast and deep into Croatia. But first, I spent a couple of nights in the Slovene capital, Ljubljana, which is a jewel of an intimate, small city - placid, youthful and caught up in the happy mood of newly acquired national independence.

There are Serbs in the city, but, as one girl I met said, "they are ashamed of themselves and keep alone". There are gypsies, too, but like the Serbs they are haunted presences, as I discovered when a pretty young gypsy girl began talking to me outside a pavement cafe before a blond-haired waiter chased her away. "Sorry, sir," he said, "but they are like animals, you know." With that, he smiled deferentially and was gone.

From former Yugoslavia, I moved on to a self-styled "conversazione" on the future and history of the essay, held at the philanthropist Drue Heinz's fabulous Casa Ecco, overlooking Lake Como. My fellow delegates - Tom Paulin, Simon Jenkins, Paul Johnson, Lorna Sage, Lewis Lapham, George Plimpton and Christopher Ricks - and I hoped to spend a long weekend in the sunshine with Gore Vidal, who, in the event, failed to appear because of illness. I'm afraid that Chatham House rules were enforced, so all I can say about those four days on Lake Como is that the food was good, the setting spectacular and the interplay of personalities, particularly between Paulin and Johnson, and Paulin and Ricks, no doubt offered more than enough material for Johnson's diary, which he's been keeping for more than three decades and in which he wrote diligently each morning after breakfast. Who would put it past the old flame-haired firebrand to have one last laugh at his enemies, perhaps from his grave, in the style of Woodrow Wyatt?

I was rather hoping that Germany would beat England on Saturday night, if only to prevent another insane outbreak of tabloid jingoism. The trouble with Englishness is that no one seems to know what it is any more and thus it finds vicarious expression through football. The national team itself sings a pompous unionist anthem (how much better, for instance, if it adopted Blake's "Jerusalem"), our bullet-headed fans dance to "Rule Britannia", drape themselves in the union flag, and stumble drunkenly around with their heads full of stories of half-remembered battles. And this is called patriotism! Of course, these people are ridiculous, and their disaffection is rooted in boredom and in the class apartheid at the heart of our comically inadequate education system. And yet I feel deeply ambivalent about them. On one hand, I hate their vulgarity; on the other, I know their blind fury would serve this country well in time of conflict, as I'm sure their forefathers acquitted themselves well in conflicts past.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, We made the people-smugglers rich