The next post will be on or before Monday, 27th March


Back in 1993 and for the first time ever, I visited the handsome city of Cheltenham, in order to attend its prestigious Literature Festival. I was doing a gig as they say, for I was one of the two judges for the Stand Magazine International Short Story Competition, the other being the celebrated author of The Woman in Black (1983), the very versatile Susan Hill (born 1942). The competition was high profile and with substantial cash awards (First Prize that year went to the talented Australian, Geraldeen Fitzgerald) and as well as ruminating in staggered sequence about the wonderfully arcane secrets of judging, Susan and I had to dish out the cheques. However rather than Stand choosing our accommodation we were invited to find our own, and of course it being nearly a quarter of a century ago there was no internet, or if there was no one I knew had it. In those touchingly innocent Neanderthal days, it was impossible to find a distant B and B or a hotel (I lived in far-flung North Cumbria) without recourse to the telephone and/or the postal service. Thus it was, that Stand posted the judges a list of suitable places in the city centre, and I chose one at random and rang and booked my overnight stay. It was a frail and kindly and elderly female voice at the other end, and she promptly offered me a vacancy and waived any cheque deposit, my word she said sensibly, would be enough. Moreover, and please take note, it being 1993 and not 2003 or 2017, I did not ask Mrs Vera Auburn as she was called, any or all of the following urgent consumer conscious queries re my forthcoming accommodation:

Was it en suite? Did it have satellite TV and optional video input? Did it have a good view of the exquisitely posh Cheltenham terraces nearby? Did she have any accurate and recent colour photos of the room that she could post me? Were there healthy eating options (e.g. yoghurt both bovine and ovine, milled oats, luxury Sainsbury’s muesli, piquantly fresh fruit juices, pungently fresh fruit) among the breakfast fare? Oh, and here by the way Mrs A, and just for the record, is a list of my 27 different food allergies and while we’re at it and with metaphorical conviction, I would prefer a sumptuous feather bed to any other……

A quarter of a century ago, it simply never occurred to me to ask her anything about her room, as not only was I staying for one night only, but more importantly she had such a kind and friendly old lady’s voice I couldn’t imagine her inviting me to stay in a rank and unhygienic tip where the mattress was brick hard or where possible odious student neighbours would drive me mad with all night hifi (as opposed to wifi) music. In fact, had I at gunpoint been ordered to ask her a single question or put in a lone request, it would have been strictly apropos the make or break breakfast, and would have been, can you at all costs make sure the fried egg isn’t runny or as my late wife Annie always put it much more vividly and accurately, isn’t snotty.

When I arrived I turned out to be the only guest, which pleased me no end as there would be no nocturnal noise, not least because Vera herself did not look the druggy rave nor wild eyed partying type, nor would I have to make affable somnambulant chat at the breakfast table (what part of the world are you from? A writer? Fascinating! Tell me, how you do get your inspiration? Excuse me? Looking through keyholes you say? Aha…). Vera Auburn was about 80, thin and pensive, a little melancholy, a little slow in her movements, and her B and B, though clean and tidy was unpretentious and resolutely frill-free. My room had no TV thank God, and though it boasted a wash basin, it was not en suite, though remarkably it occurs to me now that in 1993 I wouldn’t have known what en suite meant anyway. Whatever the case, after leaving the Festival and then having an enormous Indian meal with Geraldeen, I staggered home and turned in about a midnight and slept the sleep of the almost sated. The next morning at breakfast, and because I was the sole guest, Vera sat down beside me and effortlessly chatted. She asked me about my family, my wife and 4-year-old daughter and then as if needing to confide something to someone who was not only a married man but also a safely neutral quantity, and who crucially she would never see again after today…she confessed not too zestfully that she was in a relationship herself. He was called Mr Norris and he was a few years older at 85. They were both widowed and Mr Norris was open about his need for female company and to match his words he spoiled her considerably with flowers, expensive chocolates, meals out, and offers of taking her abroad on package holidays to Malta, or even cruises to the Canary Islands if Vera wanted. Offers she stressed, because she would not go that far, and to put it in a nutshell this Arnold Norris chap simply wanted too much from her and was too pressing and too importunate. She added that she was quite fond of old Arnold, but that was as far as it went (NB, that ‘quite’ modifier is a lethal one, eh? Bad enough to say you are fond of someone in lieu of loving them, but ‘quite fond’, is tantamount to saying I don’t like him, or let’s face it, in fact I hate the old bugger…). She sighed and said with emphatic eloquence that she valued her independence, but felt that Norris wanted to move in with her or worse for her to move in with him, and so, pleasant as it was to have a man enamoured of her, it was also wearing, and these mixed feelings she was left with were a nuisance more than a joy. I smiled at Mrs Auburn and wryly thought to myself, it never ends at any age obviously, nonagenarians and centenarians included. By a miracle, my wife Annie and I are relaxed and balanced and equal, but otherwise life is about one of you wanting more than the other, and the other craving less, and the needy one can never be an equal and democratic and 6-foot high quantity, no matter how many chocolates or Thomsons tours they fling at you in their desperation.

For an instructive contrast, we need to fast forward 14 years to 2007 when I was Royal Literary Fellow at Lancaster University, and was staying overnight every Monday in the city. This time no need for leaflets from the city tourist office via the university, I just googled ‘Lancaster accommodation’ and discovered a B and B handy for the train station, with taken as given TV and en suite and wifi, and at £40 a night was definitely at the cheaper end. I rang up and talked to a laughing, friendly woman called Jenny and was so encouraged as to book 6 consecutive Mondays, given how most other places were wanting at least twice as much. As the weeks went by I was very happy staying at the home of Jenny Bright who was mid-40s, married with a small son, and was blond haired, attractive, sturdy, cheery, and extremely hard working. Her vegetarian breakfast was peerless, the filter coffee fab, the rooms all fine. Which made it all the more puzzling the morning she approached me looking a little pensive and asked me could I possibly help her. Noting my bleary 7.30am bafflement, she explained that given how much I liked staying there, she wanted me to go on the Trip Advisor website and give her guest house a positive review, as it would be both a colossal personal favour, and also stop her having this horrible churning feeling day and night, not to speak of her being stricken with the runs in her always sensitive stomach.

Mr IT Man of the Year 1974, who was still frightened of Word and all it represented, and had only just stopped using Works 1987-1993, asked:

“What’s Trip Advisor?”

In all my fabled naivety and going by the perky name, I imagined TA might tell you things like, ah yes, the Algarve is altogether quite nice, especially pullulating Albufeira and the Valley of the Wolves; Malta too is extremely OK cos they all speak English and if you don’t mind the stony beaches; and not forgetting that the wine is very cheap if unrefined in Crete, and the bibulous natives are ever so friendly etc. Instead it turned out to be a mega consumer site where people wrote a short hopefully honest report on their stay in a hotel or guest house, or alternatively the quality of food at a restaurant or the excellence of a bar or nightclub. Up until recently all the comments and ratings on Jenny’s place had been very positive, but she had just seen a horrifying shocker newly-posted and as well as feeling upset and personally attacked, she was terrified it would put people off, as so many folk out there believed Trip Advisor to be completely infallible. If I wrote a good report it would push down that malicious little bitch’s horrible demolition job. Oh yes, she knew who it was OK, despite her anonymous pen name, self-styled ‘Truthteller’, some truth and kiss my backside! It was a former employee who Jenny had had to sack as she was bone idle and unreliable when it came to cleaning and making the beds, and who also smelt powerfully of sickly sweet sherry at times. Carrie as she was called had invented her overnight stay here and had gone on at amazing length about a tiny scratch mark on a shower cubicle, about mattresses that were worn and snagged provided you had a powerful microscope, and about a duvet that had on forensic examination a 2mm tear in it. With only that to go on, Carrie had managed to make the guest house sound like a shameless competitor for a Lancastrian slum or a squat, and although she was allowed to write and publish any slander she liked, Jenny was not permitted to answer back. Only someone else, someone like yourself JM the eminent RLF university man, could counter the imminent damage to her business by writing something positive.

That same day in my campus office I wrote a glowing report on Jenny’s B and B, so glowing I was moved to tears at the power of my conviction and my obvious capacity to be a principle-free propaganda merchant who would smirkingly offer his skill to the very highest bidder. Jenny was delighted at what I wrote, and then guess what, some 7 years later I did a reprise of the whole thing when a hotelier on the Greek mainland asked me to counterattack one or two mean spirited types whose cavils as far as Manos were concerned were beyond any mature understanding. They had been complaining on the site about tatty and comical 70s décor, sloth and indifference on the part of the staff, showers not working at best volume or temperature, and other obsessive compulsive nonsense, which I assured him could only be that of 2 or 3 anally retentive English couples who had been peevishly slagging off the excellent Hotel Rex. I duly gave my favourite mainland hotel an ecstatic 5-star review and reflected as I did that what the moaners failed to appreciate was the priceless originality of Manos himself who sat there whistling amiably at his desk and then for no good reason would close his eyes and burst into passionate yearning Greek song about women and love and lust and despair. Then there was his handsome divorced daughter Katerina in her late forties who chainsmoked and sported a cheeky t-shirt which said ‘Too Sexy for My Ex’. At times, she was replaced as receptionist by lovely blond haired, blue eyed Maria who I always called Agia/Saint Maria to make her giggle. Though most original was 30-year-old Kostas the tall and eloquent night porter and day time handyman whose English was excellent and who was always bog eyed from his diurnal duties, and hence showed signs of irritability with Manos as of course he had such a thwarted social life. Kostas had singular and startling ideas all pivoted around his violent disdain for his fellow Greeks, for he said far worse things about them than Merkel and Berlusconi ever had. Consistent with that he thought Brexit was a wonderful thing for my nation, and earnestly hoped that Grexit might happen one day….though of course it never would unless it were a compulsory expulsion by the EU rather than a lucid Hellenic declaration of departure.

The point is that the enduring joy of staying with people like Mrs Auburn in 1993 or at the Hotel Rex in 2017 is the presence of these likeable and arresting people, who despite their fronting a place where supposedly the décor and the bedding and the plumbing are not a 1000%, will remain imprinted in the memory for ever where the spotless and suave and impeccably hygienic and antiseptic variation will turn into a kind of anaemic blur far quicker than you can imagine. In the meantime, UK TV documentaries reveal that a predictable type of extorting Mafiosi behaviour has recently shown its ugly head, inspired by the corruption possibilities of hotels and restaurants eager for valuable consumer ratings. In one that I watched, a nice bloke of 50 with a wispy beard and a gourmet country restaurant in Gloucs , UK, explained how a bunch of well dressed couples in their early 30s had come to his place last month, ordered and consumed a ton of pricey food and the best of wines and then told him that if he did not give them it for free, they would savage him on Trip Advisor by this time tomorrow. He had stared at them in disbelief, then angrily offered to ring the police if they didn’t pay up, even ingeniously lying that he had their car registration numbers written down. They had snarled and paid him waving their fists, blaspheming obscenely and then departed shouting and roaring into the winter night, The next day the vicious demo job duly appeared and since then his custom had fallen drastically and he told the camera with a lump in his throat that he wished he had let them have the fabulous feast of venison, halibut, turbot and prime steak and sauvignon and chateau neuf for free, as it was laughably nothing compared to what he’d lost in the last few weeks and would lose in the weeks to come.

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