Heartbreak hotels

Rudeness, indifference and discomfort: travelling in the UK has convinced Mary Evans that all sanity has fled from the public world

May 24, 2012

At this time of year, the roads and trains of the UK are busy with external examiners going about their business. The reports they have to write will be heavy with the jargon of "learning outcomes" and "progression rates", but they might also - in this year of the London Olympics and of campaigns for "holidays at home" - add a brief report about the accommodation provided.

Many examiners might find, as I have recently, that one of the countless mysteries of present-day higher education is the whereabouts of all the graduates of hotel and catering. They seem to have vanished off the face of the Earth - either that or learning outcomes in this discipline are in need of urgent inspection.

Let me list the things that did not work in one hotel bedroom: the lavatory did not flush; the bedside light had no bulb; the shower discharged only boiling water; the hairdryer was broken. Add to that the peeling wallpaper and a bed the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents would have condemned, and the final mark would have fallen far short of that must-have upper second. On the other hand, the reasons outlined for these shortcomings deserved a starred first in "fantasy explanations". The lavatory did not work "because we are so far up"; the water could only be boiling because "the shower is electric"; and the bedside light had no bulb "because they get hot in the night and people might get burned". Had I discovered a new, secret world of subversion and resistance to the managerial goals of consistency and conformity?

Although I initially wanted to flee, the stiff upper lip soon asserted itself: after all, the hotel was to be home for only one night and British academics, used to trailing the length and breadth of the country for little or no reward, are generally made of stern stuff. Even so, I did not expect that I would have to mime the word "roll" at breakfast the next day because of a language barrier. "Rolls" were advertised on the breakfast menu and, in the face of other choices, seemed like a good idea at the time. Not one English-speaking hospitality graduate was on hand to translate my wish into reality.

If this was the state of hotel-keeping in the supposedly affluent South of England, I thought it better not to set my expectations of other parts of the country too high. In one of England's great Northern cities, I realised (yet again) how right the philosopher Gillian Rose was to suggest that we should keep our minds in hell and despair not. Here the problem was less structural (although, once again, cold water had disappeared - and not everyone wants to clean their teeth in hot water) than it was a certain refusal of everyday forms of etiquette. At breakfast I wondered at what point the word "toast", barked at me across the room, became a threat rather than a question. Here, tea came ready-sugared and guests were presented with a vast plastic bottle of milk and told to "pass it on". But none of this was as alarming as the quiet, subdued horror with which we obeyed.

These events all took place only a few weeks ago; writing this I am appalled yet again by the sense of powerlessness that was created by these hotels. As is increasingly the custom, bills were paid either in advance or by other people, so changing hotels in unfamiliar places would have been fraught with difficulty. The complete disorientation that occurs when entering an apparently deranged universe - in which lavatories do not flush because a bathroom is on the first floor of a hotel about 500ft above sea level - means that although the only sane response is to depart, that response has been blocked.

Yet in the context of having to assess learning outcomes, or of listening to James Murdoch, these apparent departures from reality, or even sense, begin to seem like much more of a pattern. In many private worlds, people talk to each other and recognise that when things do not work there is probably some malfunction with the machinery, and that the words "would you like some" are often a useful way of framing a question. In the public world, however, it would seem that talking nonsense increasingly carries the day.

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