In Evelyn Waugh’s first novel, “Decline and Fall”, the hero, Paul Pennyfeather, is sent down from Oxford for indecent behaviour. Desperate for any job he can get, he visits Church and Gargoyle, scholastic agents. “We class schools into four grades,” says the teaching agency’s boss: “Leading school, first-rate school, good school and school. Frankly, school is pretty bad.”
Much the same can be said of hotels. One of the oddities of a career in journalism is that you find yourself ricocheting between the equivalent of “leading schools” and “schools”. On a recent trip to Liverpool I stayed in something that could only generously be described as a “hotel”. The room stank of disinfectant. The sheets and towels were threadbare. The only soap was in a (badly fixed) wall dispenser. One of the porthole-shaped windows in the corridor looked as if somebody had vomited on it and then made a half-hearted attempt to clean it up, smearing the offending material around rather than getting rid of it. A grizzled old journalist I encountered on the stairwell (there wasn’t a lift) said that he’d been to some of the dodgiest cities in the world and this was the worst hotel he’d come across.
From Liverpool I travelled to Budapest and up several notches in the league tables. The Four Seasons in Budapest is a sumptuous art-nouveau palace on the banks of the Danube, built by Gresham’s Life Assurance Company in 1906 to house its senior staff. (Those were the days!) The giant jewel box of a room was ten times the size of my Liverpool hovel. I luxuriated in my bath, smeared myself with unguents, paraded around in my super-thick dressing gown, stuffed myself with complimentary chocolates, and wallowed in my supersized bed. All this luxury came with a sting in the tale, however. I had arrived on a late-night flight for a dawn start – my determination to squeeze the most out of my six hours in my hotel meant that I had almost no sleep.
My worst experience at the bottom of the hotel food chain was in Nowheresville, New Hampshire, during the 2008 Democratic Primary. The world’s news organisations all descend on Concord, New Hampshire’s biggest city, in time for the vote, so I couldn’t find anywhere remotely convenient to stay. I thought that Hillary Clinton was finished after coming third in the Iowa Caucus and so was planning to write 3,000 words on Barack Obama’s effortless path to the White House. Then Clinton threw our plans into chaos by trouncing Obama in New Hampshire. I had to drive through the night to find the place I’d booked in order to write a story that was the very opposite of the one I had prepared for.
When I finally located my hotel it was even worse than I had expected. The next-door room was the scene of a wild party that was fuelled by cheap beer and crack cocaine. The TV wasn’t tuned properly so I couldn’t follow the news. The internet didn’t work so I couldn’t do any research or send my story to my editor. The party got progressively more bad tempered as morning approached. I eventually conjured up my 3,000 words out of thin air then drove around for miles until I found a McDonald’s that provided internet access along with its egg McMuffins.
Yet my worst experiences with travel have been in “leading hotels” rather than “hotels”. I was once staying in one such palace in Bangkok (Asia does “leading hotels” better than anyone). I had been feeling queasy since eating an odd-tasting egg for lunch and eventually queasiness exploded into a full-scale crisis. I spent hours lying on the floor of the bathroom expelling noxious substances from every orifice – “double ending” as it is known. My wife kindly phoned the hotel switchboard to summon medical assistance and some extra towels but also decided to order room service as well. A doctor’s injection curtailed my alimentary activity for a while, but the arrival, shortly afterwards, of a trolley loaded with spaghetti bolognese, red wine and an elaborate arrangement of powerful-smelling orchids wasn’t quite what I needed. The hotel bathroom looked rather less like a palace by the time I left.