I’m an old farting male who has given up hotels for hostels
Michael Harding: I love privacy but hate ‘Downton Abbey’ obsequiousness
Downton Abbey: it’s my collusion with the posh hierarchy of hotel life that worries me. Photograph: ITV
I’m familiar with hotels. I like their anonymity. I check in with my attache case in one hand. I say my name and the receptionist examines her screen. She asks me for a credit card. She tells me my room number. She tells me when breakfast starts in the morning. She asks me do I need a hand with my luggage.
And then she gives me the key, a white piece of plastic folded into a small cardboard glove, with the room number and the wifi password written on it.
I take the lift, hoping that the room is large enough, and that the heating works, and that the window is not overlooking the roof of the car park, or the vents for the air conditioning.
And when I have opened the door, and checked all these details, I run the bath and rejoice that I am back again in the land of luxurious anonymity.
My collusion with the posh hierarchy of hotel life that worries me, as if they were students at a secondary school and I was the head teacher
Because privacy is supreme in a good hotel. I slip invisibly across the carpet in the foyer, and nobody asks me where I am going or from where have I come. I am lord of my own little privacy, and the staff are there to pamper me.
But in recent years I have become anxious about the people who work in hotels. The anonymous young women and sometimes men who slip along the corridors carrying vacuum cleaners, and pushing trolleys of fresh towels and sheets, small buckets of toiletries and a variety of cleaning agents to polish the bathroom floor and erase the slobber of the previous guest.
I become uneasy about the speed at which they work, the number of rooms they must finish in so many hours, and the muck they face where guests have been partying all night. It must break a cleaning woman’s heart to confront the debris of other people’s fun, in room after room.
In recent years I have tried more and more to leave the room as tidy as I can, and the toilet as clean as I found it. If I’m staying for two days I tell them that I only need one towel and that there is no need to change the sheets or make the bed.
Before I go I leave loose change on the bedside table in the hope that it will be accepted as a gesture of gratitude for their services.
But I’m still uneasy. I still notice their downcast eyes as I squeeze past them on the corridors. I still see them stepping back from the lift as I approach, allowing me in, with assurances that they are quite happy to use the stairs, even though they are standing there with a vacuum cleaner in one hand and an armload of towels in the other.
As if we all must obey a game of Upstairs Downstairs just because we’re in a hotel. As if the cleaners must still assure the guests that the template of Downton Abbey is alive and well in the small civilities and obsequious manners of a quality establishment.
Sometimes the en suite is so tiny I can hardly manipulate my body on to the toilet seat. And the sink is often so small I can barely wash my hands without splashing water everwhere
It’s not that I worry about their being paid unfair wages, which might well be the case. It’s not that I fantasise about what their lives are like outside their uniforms.
But it’s my collusion with the posh hierarchy of hotel life that worries me, as if they were students at a secondary school and I was the head teacher. The protocols and mannered responses that suggest an ordered world of “me” and “them”, of me as a kind of willowy Lady Mary to whom they must bow benevolently.
So recently instead of hotels I’ve been using hostels, where young people with surfboards and eccentric old fogeys on cycling holidays talk to each other about the weather and lounge in the dining area and nurse laptops on the sofas. Where people take off their boots at the door and chat to strangers as they look for the cornflakes each morning in the kitchen cupboard.
Being human is about recognising others as equals rather than being served breakfast by a stranger in a uniform.
Being an old farting male, I can only be accommodated in hostels with private en-suite rooms. And sometimes the en suite is so tiny that I can hardly manipulate my body on to the toilet seat. And the sink is often so small that I can barely wash my hands without splashing water all over the floor. And there is never a ledge on which to place my toothpaste and brush.
But these are small inconveniences compared with the pleasures of informal living and communal breakfasts where I can discover yet again that being human is about recognising others as equals rather than being served breakfast by a stranger in a uniform.