Alexander McCall Smith: Sweet relief from the purgatory of airports and soul-destroying hotels

A grounded Alexander McCall Smith looks forward to good, British hotels with their homely cabbage smells and tepid bathwater

Alexander McCall Smith has been experiencing the joy of not being hurtled through the sky in a metal tube (Picture: Tony Johnson)

One of the consequences of not going anywhere is the release it gives from airports and hotels. I used to like going to airports, but that was a long time ago. In those days, airports had an air of excitement to them: the names on the destination boards were promisingly exotic, the restaurants were uncrowded, and the staff were solicitous. Now the exotic destinations are like everywhere else (filled with tourists exactly like us), the restaurants are overfilled, and the beleaguered staff are harassed to the point of indifference. Like most people, I suspect, I now regard airports as a necessary evil – to be endured, but avoided if at all possible.

I frequented airports as part of a programme of attending literary festivals and doing book tours. Those occasions I enjoyed – and still do – but when travel became impossible, work trips of that nature were cancelled without ceremony. That was a matter of regret, but the concealed silver lining was freedom from airports and hotels. Both of these I shall not miss – a feeling that I imagine will be shared by many who have to travel for work. Airports are a passing inconvenience – one never has to spend more than a few hours in the purgatory of Heathrow or JFK – but hotels are another matter altogether. One may have to spend days on end in a hotel, and that can be a real penance.

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There are some hotels, of course, that are a delight to be in. There are hotels with a view; there are hotels with scented gardens and yoga pavilions; there are hotels (chiefly in India) with staff in smart turbans and with peacocks on the lawn. These hotels are all a fine way of spending both time and what remains of the children’s diminishing inheritance. But these hotels are usually not in the places where one has to travel for work. The hotels that one ends up in more often than not are a different sort of hotel. And there are an awful lot of them.

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Over years of travelling for work, I have spent what must amounts to many months, if not years, staying in various establishments dreamed up by the late Mr Hilton and his friends. These hotels are all clean, well-run and do their best, but they remain hotels. And that’s the problem. Hotels are anonymous; no matter how much they try to make you feel at home, you are not. You are in a strange bed in a room in which, no matter how attentive the cleaning staff are, there will be an awful lot of the DNA of other people: little flakes of skin, and so on, not that one wants to be clinical about it. And of course one is adding to that detritus oneself.

It is the lack of individuality, though, which is soul-destroying. Hotel décor is instantly recognisable, down to the mass-produced individual works of art that the better hotels proudly hang on their bedroom walls; down to the Gideon Bible in the bedside drawer; down to the white towelling bathrobe in the wardrobe that you are told you are not to remove on pain of having the cost added to your bill. Then there are the mini-bars, small fridges in which drinks and snacks with a mark-up of one thousand per cent are placed there as temptation. I have always assumed that these mini-bars are sub-contracted to the Mafia, who price accordingly. On occasion I have found myself in a hotel so bleak it has moved me to poetry. This happened once on an American tour, when I was booked into a hotel in an urban landscape of such desolation that even Edward Hopper, that great artist of the emptiness and loneliness of America, would have had difficulty in capturing it. The hotel was situated in the middle of a great expanse of concrete that was probably a car park, but could equally well have been a rocket launch pad or ground zero of some weapons-testing programme. The outside of the building was featureless: reflective glass that mirrored the sky and the concrete outside; the occasional protruding pipe; a flat roof; closed, unwelcoming doors. Venturing inside – once you had identified the entrance – you were greeted with patterned carpets of a vaguely op-art persuasion, and a bland reception desk. The rooms were reached along interminable corridors – American hotels are very big – devoid of natural light, lit by flickering neon.

This was not a cheap hotel – it was, in fact, quite pricey, possibly because there was no competition nearby. Miss Bartlett, from Forster’s A Room with a View, would have been disappointed in what could be seen from my window: an expanse of flat roof with large air-conditioning ducts; in the distance, a flat, featureless horizon, a world without topographical or cultural salience.

But then the thing that made this hotel so memorable: off one of the endless corridors was a public room set aside for meetings. This, as I discovered the next morning on my way to breakfast, bore a sign proclaiming it to be The Hemlock Room. I have no idea why it should be called that – sometimes businesses choose odd names: a friend once told me of finding a Titanic Travel Agency in Philadelphia. That could be apocryphal, but in view of the fact that The Hemlock Room actually existed, I am prepared to believe the Titanic Travel Agency.

It got better. Beside the door a sign announced that the meeting that day was on the subject of ‘How to deal with difficult people’. I peered through the door and saw that the attendees were already assembling. They looked all right to me, although I reminded myself that these were those who wanted to learn how to deal with difficult people. I wondered, though, what would happen if some difficult people themselves came to the meeting. They would complain about the coffee. They would dispute the agenda. They would argue with those seated beside them, disrupting the meeting. The end of such a meeting would come as such a relief.

On another occasion I would like to write about the hotel I stayed in on a Caribbean island where none of the guests was welcome, where rows flared up regularly over the size of the mosquito nets, over the refusal to give us milk for our morning tea, and over the laundry’s practice of returning only half of those items entrusted to it every day, and then distributing these to guests indiscriminately. For those who like to wear the underwear of others, this is the hotel. To do justice to that hotel would require more column space than is available here.

Now travel is curtailed, and most of us are staying at home for the foreseeable future. Now we are free from hotels or, if needs must, we shall be in good, British hotels with their homely cabbage smells and their tepid bathwater. I shall in due course need to go back to touring, but for the time being I shall miss neither hotels nor airports, nor the indignities they heap upon us. I suspect that there are many others who feel the same.

We have sampled home, our backyard, and the sheer joy of not being hurtled by metal tube through the sky. That may wear off, of course, but for the time being it is just what we needed.

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