Lost in London

A look at London and life in general through the eyes of someone who sometimes can't bear to watch.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Mother nurture

I am on a train from Yorkshire to London. I spent most of my journey at a table with a child and her two parents. The daughter was around six or seven and the parents were probably in their late forties to early fifties. Like almost all children on trains with just a few stuffed animals for company, she was bored. She wriggled, groaned, sulked, played, went to the toilet and kicked me, all in an effort to pass the time. Finally, when I reached for a sandwich from my bag, she decided she was hungry and relayed this to her parents. Clearly, the child had been told she could not eat until their arrival in Peterborough, as when the mother appeared to relent and motioned to get something from the rickety trolley making its way through the train, the father peered over his designer frames and said “Now we agreed on nothing until Peterborough and we must stick to it.” I then noticed he was reading a text book for therapists and that his wife’s bag was a free one you would get from a conference- in this case a family therapy convention. Suddenly, the girl’s educational toys, violin and loquaciousness fell into place.

I saw the girl’s eye fall on the table directly opposite and my gaze followed hers. By sheer coincidence was another girl of slightly younger age, with two younger parents both clutching cans of Carling. The child was contentedly playing computer games on a colossal laptop as her guardians laughed dirtily and took long gulps from their cans. My original youngster glanced at them sadly and then turned back to her more serious elders, her mother swathed in paisley and knitting a beret and her father wearing a hundred neckerchiefs and engrossed in his textbook. There are a million ways to bring up a child, I reckon, and yet the outcome can be just as unpredictable. I wonder which one of those girls is going to get the most GCSEs? And which one will be the happiest? Hard to say.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The ghost of Christmas present

Ten questions I have been asking myself this Christmas:

- Is it worse to spend some of the big day online rather than lying prone watching the TV?

- How much is too much to spend on Christmas presents?

- When is it too late for the 'Christmassy' feeling to start?

- Is it wrong to check work emails on Boxing Day?

- Is it going to take my stomach actually exploding before I stop eating?

- Will a year go by when somebody doesn't write 'Happy Birthday' in a Christmas card (it's on the 23rd)?

- Did I hide any disappointment well enough?

- Will my little sister ever seem grateful enough?

- Why does everyone go on about Christmas telly?

- Are the sales that amazing that people need to almost get crushed to death outside Selfridges (I watched the chaos from the comfort of the sofa: I was not there!)?

- Will my voice hold up for a round of Singstar Abba?

They're all pretty much rhetorical, but any insight gladly appreciated. Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Consider yourself at home

Despite my middle class pretensions (buying olive oil, watching BBC4), I imagine I will always be working class at heart. I was working away this weekend and working away usually necessitates staying in hotels. I'm fortunate enough that I don't have to stay in manky Travelodges, and therefore avoid passing sleepless nights trying not to listen to insurance salesmen trying in vain to find the po**ography channel on a tinny portable. I usually stay in quite nice hotels and although I am almost 33, I never quite get used to it.

No matter how many times I stay in a hotel, I always feel that mild apprehension as I approach the check-in desk. There’s either a queue, which makes me feel gangly and exposed as I feign patience and loiter awaiting my turn, or there is nobody manning the desk, leaving me frantically looking hither and thither out of the corner of my eye like a menopausal shoplifter in John Lewis, desperately searching for a uniformed human to come and tend to my needs. Or there’s a supercilious ogre stationed behind the desk, eyes wide and mocking until I approach the desk where they narrow partly to intimidate and partly because a fixed grin has forced them closed.

The hotel on Friday night in Leeds was quite painless at check-in. They found my details quickly and I was about to head off to my room when the porter insisted on carrying my very meagre bag up to my room for me. Silent minutes stretched ahead like hours as we waited for the lift, got in the lift and then waited an aeon for the lift doors to open. As we entered the room, he insisted on checking that the bed had been turned down and clicked on every light, babbling about guest directories and room service. I had never had someone forcibly bring my bag up to my room before. I felt like a country bumpkin on his first visit to Memphis. I gaped searchingly at my friend who had met me from the station. Would I have to tip? Would he ever leave? My hand stayed firmly in my pocket and he left without hesitating. Of course you don’t tip; it’s not the 1930s.

As I always do when I arrive at a room for the first time, I inspected first the tea-making facilities (in this case kettle and espresso machine!), followed by the bathroom where my friend and I cooed over the Bulgari toiletries, lifting them all up to the light as if they were precious jewels and then collapsing in laughter at how provincial we were behaving. While my friend demolished the complimentary pastries, biscuits and fruit, I peered into wardrobes and enthused at the wooden shutters.

I was sad to leave the hotel the following day, after enjoying the free shoe-shining service and marvelling at the fact you could borrow a Wii or Playstation to use in your room. You could even make sue of a pre-filled iPod of contemporary tunes. I didn’t take them up on the offer; I had visions of it being chocker with Dido and James Blunt. After settling my bill, including an astronomical £20 for a below-par breakfast, I left ready for the day ahead.

The next night was an entirely different experience. My next stop was a well-known hotel in Manchester. Let’s call it The Lowry. On arrival, I approached the check-in desk, impressed by the sparkling lobby. I was asked if I’d like to leave an imprint of my credit card in case I wanted ‘extras’. I declined (life’s too short to drink from a minibar) and was warned that ‘everything’ would be blocked and any extras would have to be paid cash. I started to wonder what constituted an extra by this point. As I watched a slightly rotund businessman carefully steer a tottering woman modelling the make-up counter at Debenhams toward the lift, I began to get a better idea.

When I finally found my room, after wandering the corridors for an eternity, I entered to find it large, sparse and freezing and, most horrifying of all, no kettle for making tea. I frantically searched the guest info for details on how I could make a cup of tea. It seems I could order a latte from room service for £6.50, but that was my lot. And then hidden away, I found details on how to get your own ‘complimentary tea tray’. You had to ring room service and ask for one. ‘I bet nobody does that’, I thought. I decided it was time someone did. I suppose the scores of footballers who stay there to spit roast pneumatic blondes don’t have much call for a cup of Mellow Birds. The tray was brought to me 20 minutes later with a sarcastic flourish as if it contained caviar and Cristalle, not a travel jug and sachets of Illy coffee. I sipped my coffee like I was tasting it for the first time.