Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Long life: ‘We British are not very good at hospitality’

A recent book tour around the UK left me disappointed with our big hotels, but delighted by the train journeys 
July 19, 2023

It is over. My home in France has gone, along with my geographically European life. For 30 years I have divided my time equally between France and the UK; now, the completion of the sale of my French house has diminished my existence. The Luberon, with its sunflowers and lavender, will no longer be my joy and solace. So, mindful of my mother’s constant advice to “make the best of a bad job”, I must learn to relish the English side of my remaining years.

I have decided to explore the joys of Great Britain more thoroughly. As it happens, my European amputation has coincided with the ritual of a tour, to publicise the paperback of my book, Old Rage—a perfect opportunity to bask in the beauty of my homeland. It has been somewhat blighted by the realisation that we British are not very good at hospitality.

That is a subject I know something about. My childhood was spent living in pubs and hotels where my father worked. He was a great landlord—until, perhaps a little too apt to respond affably to his customers’ offers to “have one on me Rick”, he reluctantly took a job in a factory instead. But happily, my parents retired to live in a caravan park that had a clubhouse. In no time, Dad was behind its bar, turning it into a riotous, happy place. He died of a coronary after demonstrating his high kicks to enchanted customers. 

I have not found similar warmth and fun on my book tour. Some of our big hotels seem to have evolved rigid rules that leave no space for initiative. A TV company booked me for bed and breakfast in a big hotel in Cardiff. When I asked if I could have breakfast in my room, reception said I would have to pay for it.

 “It’s already paid for by the company,” I said. 

“But if you have it in your room you have to pay for it.”

“But then it would’ve been paid for twice.”

“Sorry, that’s the rule.”

“Okay, I will pay. Can I have it at 7am?”

“We don’t start serving till 7.30.”

“But I have to go to work early. Can’t you sneak me up a coffee and croissant?”

“Sorry, no, it’s not allowed.” 

Cut to a hotel in Manchester. I arrived late after a show and needed sustenance. There was no welcome book listing contact numbers and all the lovely hotel services. So how to find another human? I felt marooned on a Mancunian island. 

Some of our big hotels seem to have evolved rigid rules that leave no space for initiative

Eventually I gathered everything was on the television screen, and managed to order a cheese toastie and a glass of red wine from the room service menu. Eventually a young student, working to augment his university loan, brought me the red wine that I had ordered, which I guzzled in relief. The toastie came sometime later with a white wine that I didn’t order, but I downed that as well. The young man and I had a lovely chat, he left, and I got undressed and into bed. At five minutes past midnight there was a banging on my door. Imagining a fire, I leapt to open it and was confronted by another sheepish student, this time with a card machine demanding money for my room service food. He agreed that it was unlikely a sleepy, half-pissed old lady was planning to do a night-time flit to avoid paying for a fairly unpleasant toastie, but he had been told to come and get the money. Those rules again. I was supposed to have paid when the food arrived.

The hotels may be disappointing, but I am thoroughly enjoying the train journeys—especially now that the railway banks are being left to go wild. On the way to Leeds, on the unshorn sides that we passed, there was a cornucopia of foxgloves, poppies, Michaelmas daisies, wild roses and buddleia. I even enjoy the drama of the fields filled with solar panels, making use of unprepossessing roadside farmland, and the elegant wind turbines that bedeck the landscape alongside pylons that must have been equally reviled when they first appeared.

I love looking into people’s homes as we pass. One small garden, right next to the line, was ablaze with flowers. At a table fitted onto the tiny, neatly manicured lawn, a man and woman were having a drink under a parasol, as if they were in the south of France. 

So, the infinite variety of the English landscape, houses and people is there to explore. And then there are wonderful Wales, Scotland and Ireland nearby. There is so much I don’t know about my homeland. I am sad about France, but this is a new start. A new adventure. 

As John Donne exhorted us: “It is an astonishment to be alive and it behoves you to be astonished.”