***MORE FROM WILL SELF:***
I hate many things – but you knew that, didn’t you. I hate cruelty to children, and I hate cruel children themselves. I hate pompous politicians and venal businessmen and posturing radicals… I hate profile tyres and Lycra cycling shorts… I have a distinct aversion to bruschetta… I hate turkey and am at best equivocal about… Turkey.
But there is one category of the works of humankind I loathe above all others, one thuggish thing that squats at the very apex of my pinnacle of loathing, a neon sign on its pediment provocatively winking, “Hate me! Hate me! Hate me!” — a sentiment I am only too willing to supply — and that thing is a luxury hotel.
Yes, you heard me right: a luxury hotel. Actually, I hate almost all hotels, but I reserve a special place in the darkest, most antipathy-smeared torture chamber of my dark dungeon of a heart for the luxury variety. I know, I know, it looks absurd, doesn’t it, set down like that in clear type. Surely the hatred of luxury hotels is in itself a form of luxury? I mean, in order to hate luxury hotels you have to have stayed in them, right? And that implies a pretty rarefied standard of comparison to begin with. Someone who’s only ever put up in a bide-a-wee B&B reeking of an unemptied cat litter tray, the bedsheets of which were so fluffily terylene that he awoke in the small hours, sweating like a porker, and with every single one of his hangnails — fingers and toes — snagged in their little loops, might reasonably observe: What the fuck!? I’d kill for some luxury.
But if you stick with me, dear low-renter, as, struggling to contain your egregious flatulence you crouch on the flimsy pink toilet seat, a scant few inches away from your cat-loving landlady’s sleeping teenage daughter, I will endeavour to convince you of this harsh truth: you’re better off where you are.
And believe me, I do not hate luxury hotels in a flippant or surrealistic fashion — this is not like that Monty Python sketch where the Spanish Inquisition threatens its victims with cushions and comfy chairs. And nor is my hatred of luxury hotels some sort of affectation, a nostalgie de la boue that leads me to book into fleapits so as to thrill to my own degradation. No, it’s genuine: I truly loathe luxury hotels, and wouldn’t care if every copy of Condé Nast Traveller turned out to be an incendiary time bomb that exploded on gold-rimmed glass coffee tables from Martinique to the Maldives, leaving a trail of five-starry and smoky wreckage in their wake.
When did it begin, this hatred? For it wasn’t always thus: no, there was a time when I longed for luxury hotels, when I lusted after crisp linen and courted the turn-down service as a Lothario pursues a blushing maiden. That was back in the Eighties, when grand hotels were still just that: grand. That was before a strange disease broke out in the hotel world, a disease I call Schragering. I know, Schragering, inasmuch as the term can be said to exist at all (I mean, I’ve been bruiting it about for years now but I’ve never heard anyone use it but me), is an active verb but that’s the point about this malady; just as Dutch elm disease riddles grand old trees, Schragering is something that’s done to grand old hotels.
It began in New York in 1988, when the Paramount — a venerable establishment — was hopelessly Schragered. The corridors became stygian apart from pupil-pricking down-lights; the vestibules were cluttered with weird and inutile pyramid-shaped growths (these were evidence of a common sequel of Schragering: Starckification); the walls of the bedrooms and the public areas were covered with a hideous dark-blue textured growth (and the occasional picture of the hotel itself — luxury hotels are terrible narcissists); and everywhere you went in the gaff you found pretentious people in fashionable clothing talking total bollocks over cocktails served in pyramid-shaped glasses.
Now, you may well say, same diff’. Upmarket hotels are always full of folk with more money than dress sense and surely it’s preferable that they be young and trendy, as opposed to old and jewel-encrusted? Well, the point is honesty: Ian Schrager, who was one of the impresarios behind Studio 54 had invented the boutique hotel as an extension of club-based socialising by other means. Indeed, as the Schrager virus was carried across the pond — from New York to London to Paris, to all points east, and then back round the world again, girdling it with unnecessary scatter cushions — so it took with it this fundamental self-deception; a form of what our psychotherapeutic brethren denote “denial”.
Of course, all hotels are involved in denial, because they all enact stratagems to attempt the same big brocaded cover-up: either they try and be homey, or they try and be functional, or possibly they deploy luxury. In all cases, the aim is the same: to distract the temporarily resident from the ugly truth ever-hovering in the periphery of his awareness: a thousand-thousand men have wanked, humped, sweated and puked in this bed — and probably a few of them have actually died here as well.
Yes, as you lie there caressing your own total of two bollocks, you must keep firmly at arm’s length the hairy, wrinkled truth: hotel rooms reek of the Freudian death-drive; they are ghastly concretisations of the fundamental nature of our existence: our bodies are but short-let accommodation for souls that check in and then express-check-out the following morning after coiling a shit into the earthly toilet bowl.
The people who have the misfortune to actually work in hotels know this only too well, which is why the very best of them have the dispassionate and yet considerate air of high-class funeral directors. This fact alone makes luxury hotels more deathly than others – but there’s more, much more.
Back in the days when my US publishers still laboured under the delusion that I was about to become a best-selling author for them, they would send me on multi-city American tours. Like a one-man rock outfit, I would ricochet from Detroit to Des Moines, often reading to “crowds” comprising five buck-toothed teenagers in some godforsaken Barnes & Noble bookstore stashed in the uttermost corner of a desolate strip mall. Every night, I would find myself drunk, barrelling along the corridor of this Marriott or that Holiday Inn, having forgotten my room number in the lift, and screaming internally at the sameyness of the prospect: the identical doors diminishing to an ice-machine vanishing point.
The madness that came over me during these tours I dubbed “Barton Fink-ism” after the Coen Brothers’ 1991 movie, which features a crazed psychopath (played by John Goodman) torching a similarly soulless people-hutch. After several years of these deranged peregrinations, I swore that I would never, ever, stay in a mid-price chain hotel again.
Yet now, since the Schragering has spread and spread until like some taupe fungus, it infests every fold and dewlap of the urban body, I long for standardisation. Because what luxury boutique-style hotels deploy as their main strategy with which to cheat deathly feelings is the biggest con of all: cosiness. All those mismatched cushions, all those clashing fabrics, all the thought that’s gone into individually furnishing every one of their hutches, all that guff on the menus, and all that schmaltz laid on with a trowel by compliant staff, all of it is designed to persuade the guest that he is in a house: specifically that he is a guest in his own home.
The Starck fact is, however, that if your home is like a boutique luxury hotel, you must be some kind of crazed, anal-retentive, design-obsessive. Because I don’t know about you, but I hope it comes complete with traces of family excreta in the toilet bowl, shed public hairs plaiting the shag pile, stray Rice Krispies crunching underfoot in the kitchen and a persistent rattling sough from the central heating. And that’s just the material reality — the emotional one is far more fraught. No, if I were to check into a luxury boutique hotel that was really just like home, the woman on reception would look pretty frowsty, probably be a little drunk, and might well say — instead of “I hope you enjoy your stay, Mr Self” — “Where the fuck’ve you been?’ Or possibly just greet me with a stony stare.
Even if you do accept the fakery implicit in a room that’s been impersonally personalised, and you fall for the emotional prostitution involved in people being super-nice to you for no other reason than your credit rating, there still remains a core problem not just with boutique luxury hotels, but with the grandest ones of all.
If by luxuriating it is taken to mean that the luxuriater will find himself in material circumstances of such uncompromising largesse and aesthetic perfection that a sense of relaxed plenitude will be impossible to resist, then all I can say is that even the poshest hostelries I’ve ever put up in simply haven’t been luxurious enough. I think of the city-centre hotel in Birmingham I stayed at where the receptionist informed me, with an assumed smile of satisfaction, “We’ve upgraded you to the Cholmondley Suite, Mr Self.’ And when I asked him what the suite’s features were, he smirked again, “It has a fully equipped gym.”
Well, no one – I repeat no one – except possibly Oscar-fucking-Pistorius (especially now), wants to sleep next to a fully-equipped gym. The fittest among us would find such an in-room amenity an incitement not to relax, while those of us who’re a little less buff could only experience a deep, existential self-loathing as they contemplated the Tunturi machines and the splash bath when they got up in the middle of the night for a piss. (And yes, there really was a fully-equipped gym in the suite — in the bathroom.)
Then there was the overnight in Barcelona when I treated my then 15-year-old daughter and myself to a stay at the Hotel Arts, a constructivist designer-colossus plonked down on the seashore. She revelled in the plush expanse of her room — the umpteen-inch TV, the leather boxes full of unguents — while I sat moodily by the pool listening to some arsehole interrogate the waiter concerning the provenance of his lobster: “Is this really a Maine lobster? It doesn’t taste like a Maine lobster…” And thinking: if this was a really luxurious hotel, I could push a button at this point and a liveried assassin would come and discretely garrotte the garrulous fellow.
Or take my recent blast-off into the cramped constellation of five stars. On a trip to Basel on behalf of this fine organ, I boldly checked into Les Trois Rois. This is an indisputably grand hotel: properly old — the corridors actually undulate — beautifully and tastefully furnished, with superb views across the Rhine, and a staff who are so responsive to your needs that the first one I encountered didn’t only speak faultless English, she spoke it with a regional accent. (Lancashire, as it happens.)
But, having paid the best part of five hundred shitters for the privilege, I began picking holes in the gold-brocaded fabric of the gaff within minutes. Why was the TV positioned mere inches from the foot of the bed, so you had to squeeze past it on your way to the escritoire? And, more pressingly, why was it attached to the wall by a thick skein of cabling so that it couldn’t be moved, or better still, removed? (I barely watch TV at home, and I never watch it in hotels, and yet their managements always seem to think the punters want a screen in their faces.)
Then I got pickier still: if this was luxury, why were the individualised shampoo and conditioner bottles labelled so opaquely that I had to put on reading glasses to tell which was which? And what about the little wire basket in the shower they were housed in? It didn’t hold them snugly, so they kept tipping over. Ooh! — the frustration of this. Naturally, at home it wouldn’t have troubled me for a second, after all, I’d be too busy picking Rice Krispies from between my toes, but here, in the very bosom of luxury these were utterly unacceptable irritants.
Then there was the tea incident. If luxury hotels aspire to the condition of homeliness, but with vastly increased comfort, then why can you never get a decent cup of tea in them? In your standard chain hotel there’s almost always a kettle in the room, and nowadays a selection of leaves, but along with luxury comes the rip-off of room service tea.
I ordered my bedtime cup around midnight, and about five minutes later there arrived — with great pomp, and borne on a silver tray by a beautifully-clothed waiter even taller than me — a pot of rapidly cooling water, and beside it a brace of those fancy gauzy teabags. I lost it: “What’s the point,” I barked, “in bringing the water all the way up from the kitchen without the bags in it!? Tea is an infusion: the bags need to go in the water when it’s just boiled!”
I picked up the bags and began dunking them, like sad bollocks, into the water, and gestured at it frenziedly, while plainting: “See! See! It’s too cold now for the tea to brew!”
Naturally, the waiter was imperturbable, and he set back off to the kitchen immediately to fetch me a properly constituted pot of tea, but so far as I was concerned the damage was done. This was not luxury: luxury was a cup of tea, just the way I liked it, when I liked it, and certainly without having to pay £20 for the privilege.
So, when I say to you, dear resident of a cramped B&B, that you’re better off where you are, I mean it — I truly do. Because after all, when you’re looking at the shelves full of ghastly knick-knacks and you smell the cat-litter, and you’re hearing the teenage daughter’s execrable pop music, there’s absolutely no denying the authenticity of the experience: you’re right at home. It may not be your own home, but by accepting the reality of other people’s homes you’re that much closer to that true desideratum, which is to be at home in the world, than any pampered luxury hotel guest will ever be.
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