Notes from a Posh Hotel: wherein I enjoy Nigella Lawson in the bath

As I paid the taxi-driver on the forecourt of Rudding Park Hotel, Harrogate, a bellboy came to the window, hoping to assist with my designer suitcases. But I had only a muddy backpack – actually my sister’s – that had two bruised bananas escaping a side-pocket. I tried to refuse his service but he insisted and took it off me, before struggling to carry it in a way that both suggested my importance and concealed the fruit.

I was put in the bridal suite, which is probably the only time I will get to stay in such a room, on account of my inability to commit to any relationship for more than forty-five minutes. I immediately drank the fizzy water and read a magazine about prep-schools and ceviche, for no other reason than that it it was free to do so. I hunted for the complimentary nipple-piercing kit, so I could make use of that as well.  (I joke, but there’s something regrettable about how my behaviour bends to meet expectation or exact value. I lose myself trying to achieve either, I feel.)

nigella 3

I hadn’t had a good wash for a few days, so I had a go in the bath, which took an hour to run, such was its size. I put the television on and climbed in, but the water and bubbles still only covered my ankles and bottom, so I had no choice but to keep the tap running, which meant I could no longer hear Nigella Lawson saying something poetic and suggestive about meringue peaks. (And let’s be honest, the only reason one watches Lawson, in the bath or otherwise, is for her ample vocabulary.) Indeed, so well does Nigella enunciate certain words that the lighting system, which is voice-controlled, threw me into a black-out when she mentioned pomegranate.  That’s the thing with luxury – it’s often too luxurious for its own good. In my private steam-room, for example, I could only manage four pages of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, which simply won’t do. (I tried again in the morning with goggles: same result.)

I put on both dressing gowns and listened to Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher analyse a Midlands derby – which did little to commend north-western comprehensives – before going down to the hotel bar. There was a wedding reception going on, which confused me, given that I was in the bridal suite. I couldn’t help fearing there had been a mistake, and that the married couple were presently consummating their vows in a single-room with no view.

Before anyone could accuse me of getting in the way of some King-Size sex, I went to my room and locked myself in. After some light reading on the matter of squatter’s rights when staying at a five-star hotel,  I went to bed, but struggled to get comfortable. The various rugs and sheets and tapestries were so tightly tucked under the mattress that even some fierce kicking and writhing failed to release them, with the result that I was unable to sleep on my back (as is my custom) without snapping a metatarsal. (This is the trouble, you see, when chambermaids do their job properly.)

clinton

After breakfast the next morning I was given a tour of the hotel by Peter Jenkins, who had previously done the same for Bill Clinton, John Cleese and Mikhail Gorbachev, when they came here to use the steam-room. I had hoped to avoid Peter’s tour in case he asked me why I looked nothing like the respectable man of letters he had imagined or whether I was planning to actually eat either of those bananas. But, alas, I had no such luck, for Peter was at reception waiting when I went down to check-out. As he whizzed me around, Peter kept-up an imperious commentary on the hotel’s evolution. Never have I met such a formidable hotelier! Were Jenkins posted to the Middle East, he would surely quell all the hubbub in that region with a single monologue about Victorian extensions. I wanted to ask if Gorbachev had approved of his tyrannical manner, or whether John Cleese’s funny-walk had confused the bellboys, but Peter didn’t seem the type to test jokes on.

As I pretended to wait for a taxi into Harrogate (I was actually going to get the bus from up the road) Jenkins told me that the original owner of Rudding Park had a fantastic neo-gothic church built for his son’s twenty-first birthday. Confident that we were now on good terms, I told Peter that for my twenty-first I had gotten an electric cheese-grater. ‘Yes, well, one reaps what they sow, young man.’ And with that I went to Manchester, where I knew I’d be safe from luxury.

Notes from Cambridge: wherein I get expelled from Clare College

cambridge sign

Bill stayed at the University Arms Hotel in Cambridge, and complained of its functional modern style and ghastly façade. I sought a room there nonetheless, but they were full. I poked about in Christ’s Pieces (pleasantly arranged) and a few shopping streets (Green Street, Rose Crescent), before chancing upon Clare College, where I asked for a room. The porter told me matter-of-factly that there weren’t any. I informed him, with careful ambiguity, that I was ex-Cambridge. Within minutes I was in room P1 boiling the kettle and trying on the various academic costumes I found in the cupboard.

I had a pint in the college bar, where a burlesque show was carrying on. I bought a round of drinks for god-knows-who, and found myself at a table where a lot of clever things were being said about beauty, mostly in relation to Cambridge’s buildings and a girl in the second year called Christina. My suggestion that a lot of this beauty is built at others’ expense, and thus has something shameful about it, was not taken seriously, nor was my suggestion that Christina, who I was shown photos of, was a six-out-of-ten.

I was invited to an after-party in the quarters of a known eccentric. In a pitch-black room snippets of classical music were being played while a score of students lay on the floor trying to guess the composer. (And to think the tax-payer once subsidized this shit.) I wondered out loud what the prize was, hoping it was a time-share in Tenerife, and that they all won it, and took themselves off there, leaving this wonderful building to be put to better use, as a Bingo Hall perhaps. I suffered the game for about twenty minutes before requesting, in a pique of proletarian rebellion, a piece by S-Club-7. I was asked to leave.

***

Next morning I had a croissant and an espresso at Indigo Coffee House (what a prole!), whose proprietor argued that given how encapsulated and infantilized the students are at Cambridge it’s a wonder they don’t fuck-up more when in government, which struck me as a generous assessment. Later, and following Bryson’s lead, I sought out a mediocre curry-house – not easy to get a restaurant to admit to being such – and then an ‘empty pub for a lonely pint’. I found such a pub (The Fountain), entered, paid six quid for a pint. ‘It’s a craft beer. Small batches. / ‘I don’t care if it was crafted in Machu Pichu by the goddamn Dalai Lama.’

And then Simon Richard Pistol entered, looking like a toothless De Niro, and immediately got wound up because they didn’t serve Strongbow. I didn’t want him to notice the young lady to his right, so I asked him what part of London he was from, and got this in reply: ‘Brixton. Joesphine Road. I’m the craziest bastard you’ll ever meet. Ex- SAS. You know Maggie? 1982. She phoned me up. What do you want, I said. Paul, go and have a look would you. Falklands. So I went over by submarine. Course I did. It was like Clapham bloody Common. There was this bloke living in a shed. I knocked on his door with my gun. Course I did. He said come in for tea. I only drink Assam. / Assam? / Assam. But he didn’t have it. So I shot him. / Bit of an over-reaction. / Don’t judge me. Don’t fucking judge me. I could nuke this city. Oi, barman, get this bloke a drink. / (I was tempted to get another pint of the Machu Pichu stuff.) Paul, I can’t. I’ve got to go. / No you haven’t. No you fucking haven’t. Get this bloke a fucking drink. / No, really, I’ve got a date. / Ah, fair enough. Where you taking him? (He actually said that.) / Er, for an Indian. / Good tea the Indians.’ Then he gave me directions (precise and accurate, as it happens) to a good curry-house, shook my hand, bade me farewell. A part of me was reluctant to leave. Not because I was enjoying his company – I felt constantly one slip away from a smack in the mouth – but because I could sense that the others in the pub would have no time for him, which would only wind him up further.

I collected my bag from Clare and went to Anglia Ruskin University, where I was to spend the night on the floor of a Brazilian exchange student. As I waited for my host outside the library, perhaps a hundred students shuffled past, and not one of them had a white face. They weren’t international students. They were British. Sure, Cambridge has non-Anglo-Saxon students, but they’re mostly invited internationals from wealthy backgrounds with stellar academic records. Ruskin, which is at the other end of the university spectrum to Cambridge, is full of Britain’s ethnic and racial minorities. I couldn’t help but find this shameful. I don’t mean to suggest that Cambridge and its students are complicit in some grand, elitist plot to systematically recycle privilege and opportunity. But I nonetheless had the urge to clear some of Clare’s corridors and re-house a batch of Ruskin students there, where they would no doubt excel and graduate into positions of social and civic power, and fare very well indeed. I don’t know. The dichotomy got to me, is all.

I ate Fish-style Fingers with the Brazilian (vegetarian) and drank whisky from pint glasses because the smaller ones were irrevocably dirty and spoke about Rio and corruption and the government’s attempts to clear certain slums – ones that tourists might chance upon after a beach-volleyball bronze-medal play-off – of drug dealers et al., which, when cleared, have their power vacuums readily filled with one militia or another. (See Iraq/Syria/Libya, ad infinitum.) We rode bicycles across Parker’s Piece and Midsummer Common and past the Grafton Shopping Centre and along Mill Road and King’s Parade, arriving, somehow, back at The Fountain. I asked the barman how long Simon Richard Pistol had stuck around and he said long enough to kick-off and start threatening to kill someone and upending tables. I asked what became of him. ‘He was taken away by six plain-clothes policemen.’ Perhaps I should have accepted his offer of a pint.

Notes from Oxford: wherein I get expelled from Christ Church College

I was stuck for a room in Oxford – on account of a quidditch tournament – so I went about the various colleges, knowing that some let rooms to visiting dons and queer-looking strays. (I can easily pass as the former; one merely needs to stand straight and refer periodically to Joyce and the ghastly weather.) I tried at Nuffield and St. Peters but was told, in no uncertain terms, to piss off. At Christ Church the porter spent twenty minutes trying to get me a room at the Premier Inn on Crawley Road, but grew frustrated by the automated phone service so hung-up and told me to clear-off. In the college’s launderette I overheard, in relation to a pair of socks, a discussion of Post-Kantian Aesthetics, which I found indulgent – I mean, do undergraduates really need to be washing their socks? I was eventually escorted off the premises by a Latvian porter, who found me on tip-toes peering into the canteen.

(To protect the health of my grandparents, where I slept in Oxford, and how I came to sleep there, is best left unwritten.)

***

boudelian oxford

For those eleven remembering minutes I was in the cupola of the Sheldonian Theatre (Wren’s debut, 1669). It is in the Sheldonian that Oxford’s students graduate, so I had a bit of fun and got up on stage and awarded myself an honorary degree for failing to distinguish myself on the world stage. The ceiling, by the way, is a patch-work of 32 paintings, collectively depicting a bunch of cherubs dicking about in the firmament (sp.?). Up in the cupola, or loft, I saw Broad Street laden with parked cars; labourers in orange laying this and setting that in the rain; Clarendon House and the Bridge of Sighs, across which grumpy undergrads scuttle after making a dog’s dinner of their finals; gables and statues and umbrellas and cameras and parked mountain bikes; the buttery rump of Radcliffe Camera, which reminds me of a bedsit I once squatted in Lowestoft; and a student in his room with a cup of something hot, bent over this or that magnum opus, perhaps another Wren or Shelly or Chelsea Clinton.

portrait

At the Ashmolean museum an old man was told-off for sitting on a sixteenth-century chair, probably sensing they had something in common. As I walked about, I wondered whether the portraits of this and that nobleman, which dominate so much of so many galleries, are the equivalent of modern ‘selfies’? And whether the depictions of gods and angels and other biblical-folk are the equivalent of glossy spreads of Katy Perry and One Direction? And whether the still-lifes of fruit and pheasant and hunks of bread are the equivalent of unironic photography of toilet-paper and microwavable lasagne? The museum’s rooftop cafe was my preferred gallery. Here the children took joy in flicking orange juice at one another, and nicely dressed couples had nicely worded discussions about what to have for supper that evening. I found the display of kindly patience shown by one waiter to another (the one having upset the tea-tray of the other) more affecting and instructive than any of the Ashmolean’s precious pieces. But, then again, I am a philistine.

I went to Evensong in Merton College for a remembrance service. I was worried that I wouldn’t last the whole ninety, so I sat at the end of a pew. It was difficult to judge when one was and wasn’t supposed to stand up. Accordingly, as the choir made a start on Away in a Manger, I was the only other person stood, which I quickly, and embarrassingly, rectified. During the drinks reception a ring of vicars discussed Chelsea’s equalizer, which oughtn’t, I gathered, have been a penalty. I don’t know why exactly but I have felt a little sad and lonely in Oxford – I’ve tears in my eyes now. Perhaps it’s because I have memories of failing here, so everything around and about me feels like a reminder of not being good enough. To cheer myself, I made a joke at The Bear on Alfred Street. A sign outside announced that the pub had been open since 1242, so I asked the barman (a weedy, good-for-nothing fellow) why he had opened late  that day.He looked at me blankly. ‘It’s just that it says outside you opened at a quarter to one.’ He asked me whether I wanted anything and I said no. ‘So you just came in to say that?’ I had, so I left, and went to Milton Keynes.

 

Weston-Super-Mare

Bryson stayed at the Birchfield in Weston, but it was fully booked so I took a room at the Seaward, which deserves its two stars. Cheryl on reception greeted me like an errant son that owed her money. (A waitress has already caught my attention; but what doesn’t catch my attention these lonely days?)

‘This the  Bob Bryson book, is it?’ Cheryl asks.  ‘The very one.’ I assure her. Then she does that thing that all people do when discussing a book they’ve no idea about, which is to look at both covers and then flick aimlessly through the pages, as if by assessing the font size they might gain a deep impression of the book’s narrative and prose style. ‘What did he do in Weston, then?’ ‘Chinese, arcades, had a go at his landlady, bed.’ ‘You’ll manage most of that but if you have a go at me I’ll clip your ear and make you go without breakfast.’

I like my hotel room. There’s less stuff to get off the bed before you can get in it.There’s no soap or shower cap or vanity pack to get confused by. The TV has an odd relationship with its bracket, tilting uncontrollably down and to the side, so it can only be watched sat in a corner on the floor. And, best of all, there’s no distracting view because there’s no window.

weston bird

There is something pathetic and affecting comparing what I have just seen of Weston (a fight in a kebab shop; several dozen TO LET signs; the Premier Inn on the front which is proud to serve Costa; The Argos on Waterloo Street, which ought to be listed to serve as an example of how not to build things; the forsaken promenade torn through by a lumpen carriageway; the locked-up pier; the careworn hotels with their careworn patrons) with the images of Weston in 1910 that hang in the Dragon Inn, which show a proud and prosperous place, its beach busy with blonde bombshells in red costumes.

In the morning I spoke with an old man working in a souvenir shop. He told me that many people think the new arcade is too loud, but that he just takes his hearing-aid out; that the tide is the second fastest in the world, or it might be third; and that it’s a shame Portsmouth has lost its shipbuilding, suggesting that the decision to award the contract to Glasgow might be an effort to squash the Scottish independence movement. I asked this wonderful man if he was happy here. ‘What more do you want? You can see Wales from here.’