One of the many joys of living where you want to be is that the ghastly business of going somewhere else can be largely avoided. Occasionally, however, even we need to be somewhere else, and have to find somewhere to lay our weary heads for a night or two. Naturally reclusive, allergic to organised entertainment and bright lights, and often encumbered with dogs or offspring, the NorthernReader household has tended towards self-catering when forced out of the nest, but we have accumulated a tiny cache of hotels we like a lot. Last week, we stayed at the Annandale Arms Hotel in Moffat, and jolly nice it was too. Luxuriating in crisp white bedlinen with no fear of doing the ironing, I fell to thinking about hotels in books. Which – if any – would I like to visit?
First off, a visit to Arnold Bennett’s Grand Babylon Hotel, a really rather wonderful romp that zips along and which I highly recommend to you if you happen not to have read it yet. The action kicks off when Nella Racksole (and what a great name that is) is told she cannot order a steak and a bottle of Bass beer: a useful warning to arrogant restauranteurs everywhere. Equally mysterious, if (even) slighter, is Agatha Christie’s At Bertram’s Hotel. You are pretty much bound to know this one in some shape or form as it has been filmed, televised and adapted-for-radio about three million times since publication in 1965, each version drifting further and further from the original rather creaky plot. I like the book entirely because it is clearly based on Brown’s Hotel in Albemarle Street, which, before its current incarnation as yet another extortionately expensive joint aimed at the more gullible sort of American tourist, was a splendidly faded and slightly austere hotel where chaps had to wear a tie in the restaurant. I used to lunch there with my father and have happy, probably inaccurate, memories of the place. Mrs Christie was clearly fully convinced of the dramatic potential of hotels: not only did she set so many of her books in them, but she staged one of the more sensational scandals of the 1920s at Harrogate’s Swan Hydrotherapeutic Hotel. Having dropped completely off the radar – if you’ll forgive the anachronism just this once – for eleven days, she was spotted staying at the Swan ‘under the name of’ (to borrow Winnie-the-Pooh’s useful phrase) Mrs Teresa Neele, a name not perhaps entirely randomly selected, given that her husband was having an affair at the time with a Miss Neele.
Further afield, how rather soothing Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac sounds. Brookner deftly captures that rather melancholy charm possessed by end-of-season hotels in places that are on the quietish side at the best of times. Her imagined hotel owes something to the pensione in Forster’s A Room with a View, and perhaps something also to the Grand Hotel on the Venetian Lido, the setting for Thomas Mann’s lush and gloomy Death in Venice (and who would have thought that Mahler would be the ideal soundtrack for La Serenissima? But he is).
Or should we go the whole hog and decamp to Haiti? Not a natural holiday destination now, perhaps, and definitely on the to-be-avoided list under the brutal Duvalier regime in the Sixties, I would have thought: and Graham Greene’s The Comedians does little to sell the place. Why on earth anyone, let alone ‘Brown’, the novel’s narrator, would choose to be an hotelier in the middle of Port-au-Prince is anyone’s guess, and indeed an air of despondent fatalism is the hallmark of the book as it charts Haiti’s slide into ever greater anarchy and brutality. As so often with Greene, a terrible dry humour undercuts the tragedy. A great book, then, but not one that makes you long to own, work or stay in an hotel.
Margot Pardoe’s hugely likeable Bunkle does just that – work in an hotel – in Bunkle Breaks Away. Far and away the best of the Bunkle books was Bunkle Butts In, a completely riveting wartime yarn about espionage on the southern coast of England that is also one of the best books about a house that I know: I could conduct guided tours of Marsh House. Bunkle Breaks Away is, frankly, not a patch on it, whether for plot or for writing, but on the other hand it does give us an authentic flavour of children’s books in the Forties and perhaps makes it easier to see why Blyton revolutionised the genre: quite simply, and however plonking you think her prose style is, she wrote better than most people could or bothered to do for children. The Bunkle books hold a nostalgic charm, nonetheless, and Bunkle Breaks Away shows a pleasing concern that its young readers should understand that life behind the scenes at an hotel is not all beer and skittles.
But wait! If literature has never quite captured the cosy charm of the sort of hotels I love, how about the Awful Warning School of writing? Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho, and of course Hitchcock’s film-of-the-book (or, more accurately, film-loosely-based-on-the-book), ought to make you think twice before you shower, let alone before you book in to a creepy motel (what a great word ‘motel’ is: plangent with sleaziness). Or how about Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn? As far as I can remember, no-one seems to take a room there: understandable, of course, given the marvellous gothic-ness (gothicity?) that afflicts anyone who comes within a hundred yards of the joint, but it makes you think, nevertheless, that if Mary Yellan had only got in touch with her inner Flora Poste, laid about her with the Farrow & Ball paint and persuaded tiresome Aunt Patience to chalk up an enticing blackboard of chef’s specials (emphasising the local provenance, good life and aristocratic pedigree of each and every ingredient, of course), things out on Bodmin Moor could have been a lot less hopeless and gloomy. Hard to find time for really thorough-going wickedness as the Michelin stars come rolling in.
And that suggested re-write of one of the most enjoyable bits of tosh ever written shows you, dearest reader, that while I might be a cheerier soul than Miss du Maurier, she is the better novelist. Oh well. Back to my hotel room for breakfast in bed and a good book.