Regular readers will already know that K and I have enjoyed mixed success with trendy London hotels. For every agreeably expectation-satisfying experience at One Aldwych, Threadneedles or the Malmaison, there has been a corresponding St. Martin’s, Hempel or myhotel Bloomsbury (sic) to leave us with a nasty taste in the mouth and a mockingly extortionate figure on the credit card bill. It’s not even as if we’re hard to
fool please. Flirt with us at reception, stick some Jasmine & Geranium Body Wash in the bathroom and a couple of squares of Green & Blacks on the pillow, and we’re yours for life.
This time round, a recommendation in the Guardian Travel section alerted me to a decent-sounding introductory deal at the newly refurbished Cumberland Hotel at Marble Arch: a vast place, which has shed its former faded shabbiness in favour of a slick, minimal (mais bien sur!) £95 million re-fit.
I wasn’t convinced. In the small print at the bottom of the bill, I discovered that the Cumberland, for all its Ian Schrager-esque pretensions to super-sleek bleeding-hedginess, is actually owned by the Thistle Hotel group: that byline for bland corporate mediocrity. (Meta aside: note how I cannot even get across the concept of bland corporate mediocrity without resorting to boring stock phrases such as “bland corporate mediocrity”.) And that was the key to understanding this joint. For all its clear gleaming surfaces, cavernous open spaces, wittily surreal flourishes, and the inevitable Big Lobby Art, there was no mistaking that tell-tale underlying whiff of the corporate.
The decidedly mezzo-brow, derivative nature of said Big Lobby Art provided the biggest clue. That painter who rips off Bridget Riley’s multi-coloured vertical stripes, only with nice polite “tonal shades”, all airbushed and fuzzed over in an attempt to look tasteful: she was there. That sculptor who does those boringly life-like human figures, such as the walking shopper and the man resting sideways on his elbow, which I’ve seen round the corner from the Thistle Hotel in Newcastle: he was there. Safe choices, selected by committee. The Athena Gallery does Charles Saatchi. Meh.
I can only conclude that the Ian Schrager hi-gloss boutique “look” has become so entrenched in the popular flicking-through-Wallpaper*-in-the-airport consciousness, that even the dreary old business chains are starting to pick up on it. How long before Travelodges are rebranded tLodge+ or something equally “conceptual”, with ambient electronica wafting through the lobby and a goldfish on a plasma screen wriggling above the check-in counter? Betcha someone in head office is “scoping it out” right now, even as we talk.
My room was the expected symphony of blonde wood, oversized Egyptian cotton pillows and limited space, with the self-consciously “quirky” bonus of a large etched glass panel behind the bed, depicting a mythological scene. (Something to do with a man and a horse, I think. It didn’t hold my attention for long.) An outstretched china hand rested enigmatically on the desk. A large plasma screen on the wall offered excellent TV reception, as well as high-speed Internet access using the wireless keyboard provided … at a urine-extracting £5.99 per hour, if you please. I mean, I’m hardly Mister Best Value Consumer Rights at the best of times, but really. The bathroom was freezing, with no discernible means of heating. (In the morning, the shower took over five minutes to reach almost-lukewarm.) But worst of all: there was no mini-bar. Granted, there was a fridge: but it contained nothing but two plastic bottles of mineral water.
I checked the directory of services. Nope: no reference to a mini-bar whatsoever. And hold up, what’s this in the introductory guff?
“Upon entering your room, an outstretched hand tempts you with a pair of firm, ripe apples.”
(I paraphrase, but you get the gist.)
SO WHERE WERE MY F**KING APPLES THEN? Was this because I’d booked at the “introductory” rate, and they thought they’d save a few bob on sundries?
Well, mustn’t grumble. I unpacked and ate my smuggled-in Pret A Manger sandwich, glamorously sprawled out in front of Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway in my underpants, got dressed, and mooched down to the bar for that authentic Lost In Translation experience. Marooned on a bar-stool with a Budvar and Word magazine, trying to look like I belonged. The mysterious loner, eschewing company, and feeling really comfortable with it too, no, really…
Arriving back in the not-even-that-early-anymore hours, I paused for a couple of minutes in the now almost deserted lobby. My reverie was soon broken by the sight of an exceptionally beautiful woman gliding noiselessly past me, on the way from the lifts to the main entrance. Full, glossy shoulder-length hair. Head bowed, eyes firmly trained to the floor. Thick, expensive coat clasped protectively, almost defensively, around her slender form. For a second or two, I thought it was Naomi Campbell, in full incognito mode. My only wish is to be invisible; this charisma is my curse.
Until she reached the door, and I spotted the dark, seamed stockings and the mile-high f**k-off stilettos. At 6:45 in the morning.
My little BdJ moment-ette. A passing whiff of the transgressive, dispatching me to my slumbers with feverish re-examinations and deconstructions of every last nuance.
Was this the capable professional, adroitly negotiating her customary dignified, low-key exit? Or the broken, ruined fall-girl, skulking away from the scene of her shame and disgrace, her bedraggled, tawdry finery mocked by the dawn’s early light? Ah, the strange twilight world of the heterosexual! We shall never know.