Mark Watson’s project, Hotel Alpha, the novel of which we review in our fiction section here, is more than just a book. The Hotel Alpha website had 100 short stories to read, one for each room. [The website has ended, the stories are now available as a separate book – Ed] We’re delighted that the publishers have let us bring you one of the stories to read here…
Every room of the Hotel Alpha has witnessed hundreds of stories – some incidental, some life-changing and many of them intertwined in ways that the guests couldn’t possibly know. In these 100 stories, secrets are exposed, love lost and found, memories created and relived, and unforeseen consequences spiral. Characters from the novel Hotel Alpha are revealed in unexpected ways, and new ones make their mark on the thirty-year history of London’s most extraordinary hotel.
Story 80: Alpha Bar, 2004
Graham and I first became friendly because of a shared esteem for each other’s commitment to work, specifically to hotels. Hard-working people are not hard to find, but occasionally there appears someone who goes – as the saying has it – ‘above and beyond’. I was like that in my approach to hotel reviewing. At the peak of the Guide’s success I was visiting almost two hundred hotels a year. I would happily have visited more if more had been available: they could not make four- and five-star hotels fast enough to keep up with my regime. There were years, in fact, in which I found extra work: we published versions of the Guide for France and Spain, and once or twice whimsical ‘special editions’ which found me reviewing down-at-heel bed-and-breakfasts, even (in one sorry summer) a series of caravan parks. None of these extra helpings of the Swan Guide sold especially well. Readers were too attached to the genuine article, and they knew it would never be a long wait until the next one arrived. Between 1979 and 2004, we published a new edition every year without fail, normally during the first week of November. After publication I would take a week off, or ten days, generally staying with a friend who lived in Northumberland. Then I would begin my circuit once more.
No other reviewer could rival the consistency of the Guide, because no similar book was compiled and written by one man on his own. Readers – I flatter myself, but to judge from letters and testimonies I received – came to like the style of my reviews. My tone could be curmudgeonly, even bitterly sarcastic (as in the write-up of the ‘five-star’ place in Hull which failed to fix a dripping shower for an entire weekend), but also rose to a pitch of reverence for the truly great hotels, which always filled me with the kind of awe other people feel in the face of natural wonders.
It is not that I ever fell out of love with hotels. Nor did they stop treating me well. It was something else that changed.
But back to those days. Back to what I was saying. The prestige of the Guide meant that, for a long period, I was what you might call a marked man. There were many people whose noses I had put out of joint, who waited vengefully for me to come back and review them again so that they could teach me a lesson. There were even more who wanted to solicit my goodwill and had their staff primed to be obsequious, their best room ready to be shown off. In either case it was, of course, essential that I maintained my anonymity. I would not be browbeaten by hoteliers, and nor would I be buttered up by them. I had to remain a genuine guest, a stranger like everyone else in a hotel, receiving exactly the same treatment as the rest of them. There is no point in writing a review if all you are reviewing is the experience you had. When I awarded the trademark out-of-100 score, which so many hotels displayed triumphantly in frames above their front desks, or emblazoned on the front of their brochures, I was not merely saying ‘this is how much I enjoyed it’. I was saying, definitively, ‘this is how good it is’.
And so the Guide always paid for its own rooms, ignoring all invitations, avoiding any hotel which was making a special effort to lure me, and booking under a different name every time. I generally arrived during busy periods, when put-upon reception staff would not pay me more attention than it took to dispatch me efficiently to a room. I left between eight and nine in the morning, having sampled as many of the breakfast buffet items as I could accommodate. Between check-in and check-out, I would explore every facet of the hotel. I began with my own room: was the bed a suitable firmness? The pillows plumped? Was there too much noise from neighbouring rooms, were the staff obliging or impatient when contacted by phone, did the television spark promptly into action or require aerial-wrangling, was there a laundry service, had the placement of windows been optimally planned to give views, was air conditioning left on so long before residents’ arrival that they were greeted by a tomb-cold room?
Then I would make it my business – as indeed it was my business – to see as many other rooms as possible. I followed housekeeping staff and waited for them to leave a door open here or there. I noted ‘Private – staff only’ signs and investigated what was behind them. If a conference was on, I infiltrated it; if a birthday party was being catered by the hotel, I passed myself off as a guest. People teased me for my attention to detail, yet the details I was attending to were things they would regard very important if applied to their stay, their room.
One hundred marks available. Hotels all but begged to be considered for a 90+ score, like the one I awarded the Alpha. They trumpeted it far and wide if they were given an 80+, even sometimes a 70+. Small wonder, then, that I knew the value of each one of those marks. There were a hundred questions in my mind. For a hotel to gain a perfect 100, I would have to answer ‘yes’ to each one of them.
Graham was the one who rumbled me: the first one in all that time. It had been five years between my second review of the Alpha (during which it consolidated its 91 per cent rating) and the third (on the basis of which it edged forward to 92). At the end of that third visit, I found myself looking across the magnificent desk into the eyes of the same man who had greeted me all that time ago. I only remembered him vaguely, from some quality of warmth in his smile, perhaps; there was no reason to believe he would remember me at all, given the number of people who must pass his way, and the fact that I deliberately make myself unmemorable.
And yet his eyebrows went up as I handed the key across to him and gave my pseudonym for the night: Groves.
‘Forgive me for saying so, sir,’ Graham remarked, ‘but I could have sworn that the last time you were here, you had a different name. Something relating to … farming, I think?’
It had been ‘Hay’. I ought, of course, to have used the same alias as on my last trip here – normally I would have done, in order to address the faint risk that something like this might happen. But I had become a little lazy. Or perhaps (although this is strange to say) a part of me wanted to be caught out, as apparently happens with serial criminals. Something about the process of hiding and dissembling does leave one with a certain fatigue, a desire to be known in full. Whether it was because of this, or an intuitive sense of a potential friendship waiting to be initiated, I did not do the obvious thing and say, no, he must be mistaken, I had never been here before, I had one of those faces which led people to think, and so on.
‘It was Hay,’ I admitted. ‘I go by, er, by various names.’
‘I remember,’ said Graham, ‘because we used to play a game which involved guessing who would check in next – a man or a woman. Well. Anyway. I remember somehow. Nice to see you again.’
This might have been a pleasantry he addressed to every returning customer, but again I felt as if there were genuine substance to it, and could sense my will wavering in a way it almost never did. As a result my eye was drawn inexorably to the certificate that hung next to a series of photographs – Howard York with assorted luminaries. The HOTEL ALPHA received a score of 91% in the 1987 edition of the Swan Hotel Guide. 90% plus earned you a certificate on gold-tinted paper– silver from 80 to 89 – and it was handsomely displayed in a heavy black frame. The two of us looked at it together, and Graham cleared his throat.
‘Is it too much of a liberty,’ he enquired, ‘if I ask whether you are Mr Mike Swan himself?’
I knew straight away that he would never tell anyone: discretion was not just part of his professional ethic but one of his instincts. Moreover, the Hotel Alpha was a place where the unsaid or unacknowledged lived freely, almost officially. And so I began to do what I had never done in all those years of hotel-going: I became a regular. Of course, for the most part I was still on the move. But now I had a base when I returned to London. I became known about the place. I spent an unseemly amount of money at one of their charity auctions. I typed up my reviews in the Alpha Bar, where my tab was not always called in. And in the evening, or very late after he had signed off, I sometimes sat with Graham in what was then the smoking room. I had never been much of a one for confidences, and perhaps nor had he. When – it must have been the late 1980s – we got onto the subject of our respective fathers, there was a feeling that it was new conversational territory for both of us: new, strange, but welcome.
‘We were never terribly … close, I suppose is the word,’ said Graham, sipping from a shot glass. ‘I always felt that he was disappointed in me. He wanted me to be in the army.’
‘Mine wanted me to be a vicar,’ I said, ‘like him.’
This was stretching a point. The Reverend Peter Swan must have realized, from the purely dutiful nature of my church attendances as a teenager, that I was not devout like him. In fact my main enjoyment of the services was in watching him. He was no blood-and-thunder preacher, but he held his congregation – generally about a hundred, in a gerontocentric parish in Oxfordshire – effortlessly. His stock-in-trade was the gentle, humorous sermon, low on references to sin and guilt, and seasoned with homely anecdotes and jokes he got from the Reader’s Digest. For the parishioners, he fulfilled the same sort of role as a GP: he was ever-available, brisk, remembered names, asked for news, and delivered a not-too-damning verdict. The obscure pride I felt when he provoked a ripple of laughter around the pews, or when people shook his hand with more-than-necessary vigour in the churchyard afterwards, provided some of the richest moments we shared: he was conscious of my pride; he played up to it, even. I liked to critique his performance over Sunday lunch in the vicarage. ‘An old woman went to sleep,’ I might tell him, ‘but she was very old so I don’t think it was your fault.’ Or I would inform him of a mutter I’d overheard, or gauge the success of one of the jokes. ‘I think it’s what your father said that’s important,’ my mother would reproach me, but he would overrule her. ‘Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much about that.’
When I handed over the first printed copy of the Guide in 1979, when I brought home clippings from The Times or informed him that I was appearing on Radio Four (interviewed over the telephone rather than in person, of course), there was the same transaction in reverse. The corners of his mouth would edge upwards; he would handle the newspaper article with an affected scepticism, peering at it through his round glasses. He would give a wry acknowledgement, saying something like ‘the good gentlemen of The Times cannot be mistaken’, or passing comment upon the typeface used in the book, or the photograph of me on the jacket. My mother, once more, fretted that he had the wrong priorities, that he ought to be more fulsome in his praise, show off to his colleagues the way she did when she brought the Guide to the Mothers’ Union. But there was more than enough for me in the oblique pleasure he took from my successes. Neither of us was given to fuss or emotional display. We had our rules, we had our own language – much of it unspoken.
It was surprising, as the Guide took off more and more, as I relished invitations to such-and-such a restaurant from my publishers (which I accepted, on the whole) and to numerous events for hoteliers (which of course I had to decline), how easily I managed to neglect my duty to visit my parents. My schedule of hotels was now very exacting, and when there was a break from it, I enjoyed the novelty of being in my own flat. My brother still lived near the family home and was back there most weekends; without consciously signing up for it, I began to accept the position of prodigal son to his dutiful progeny. Whenever I did go home, I had too much news, and they never had enough: I lost patience trying to field my mother’s enquiries about publishing schedules or about my hectic itineraries – especially hectic to someone who rarely left Oxfordshire – and became a little depressed listening to their stories about people I could barely remember. Months went by and I only obliged them with the odd phone call, even this carried out with a sense of admiration for my own loyalty and patience.
When, in 1994, my mother phoned – having tracked me down at a hotel to Cumbria by contacting my publishers – to say that my father was seriously ill, I was oppressed by the great part of their later years I had opted out of. I had to confront the understanding that, for all the pleasure they had taken from my doing well in life, I could have trebled that pleasure merely by appearing in the family home a little more often. These realizations had come rather too late.
My father was still preaching, even though he was finding it difficult to stand up because of the different kinds of pain he was in. I went to watch for the first time in eight years. I recognized various time-wearied folk, people who had always looked old now seeming more so; others who seemed to have evaded ageing. And around us, of course, the church itself watched impassively, another couple of centuries in it yet.
But the most noticeable thing was not the people who were there: it was the people who weren’t. The congregation was barely thirty-strong. When they sang the hymns, the lady with the piping treble was absent from the back row, and without her as a foil the others lumbered through. My father’s jokes – including a good one about a recent rugby match – brought a minimum of chuckles out of the sparse crowd. Towards the end of the service I glanced towards the altar and saw him, hand on hip, looking as if he were struggling to breathe.
My mother left the two of us alone together that night. We talked about good and bad places I had stayed, about the time I found myself at a party also attended by Terry Wogan, and almost by accident ended up tripping over the subject of his illness.
‘The prognosis isn’t particularly impressive,’ said my father in his usual way, as if describing the programme of a concert. ‘It might be all right for a few years, apparently. But it might all happen rather quickly.’
Nausea was building rapidly inside me. I tried several times to begin a sentence. The really horrifying thing was not the idea of its ‘happening rather quickly’; it was the feeble-sounding proposition of ‘a few years’ which he offered as the better outcome. All right for a few years.
I went out for a glass of water. It was hard to get a grip on the tap. When I came back into the room, he had not moved an inch. I groped for the right words, trying to imagine what consolatory things he himself must have said in the bedrooms and sitting rooms of the ill, dying, bereaved.
‘Your faith … ’ I began.
He peered at me, almost amused.
‘It must make it … does it make it a little easier?’
I had begun it as a statement, but it came out almost like a plea. My father did not immediately say anything. He inclined his head a little as if he were giving serious thought to my suggestion. He gazed out of the window at the ash and oak trees which framed the approach to the vicarage in a manner so self-consciously picturesque, so timelessly English in that cricket-on-the-village-green way, that in recent years I had come to see it all as a little twee. In the light of the news it all looked as fragile and temporary as everything else.
‘I always liked the idea of being in charge,’ said my father, looking down at his hands. ‘And I liked the idea of someone else being in charge above me. I think for a long time people have had a need for that sort of order.’ His eyes would not meet mine, but perhaps I was not really trying to catch them. ‘Now,’ he went on, ‘things have changed. I don’t think people see life in the same way any more. All neatly arranged, with someone at the top, keeping an eye out. I don’t know that people believe things are as simple as that. I don’t know, really, that I do.’
My mother came in with a tray of tea and biscuits, and there was some talk about my brother Alan making an unexpected visit – he had been on the phone – and that led to some further household talk about sheets and linen and the central heating, and by the time she had gone again it was impossible, or at least I found it impossible, to return to the subject we had been on. It was weeks later, lying wide awake in a silent, dark room somewhere on the north Norfolk coast, that I tried to digest what he had said and what it meant. Was it a declaration that he had lost his faith, or merely that the Church was not as important as it used to be? Was he regretful that people no longer cleaved to traditional authorities, or had he ceased to believe in those authorities, even the one to whom he had given up his whole life? There might still have been a chance to ask, but I did not know how. And anyway there was the Guide. My mother insisted – speaking on behalf of both of them – that the news did not interrupt my routine. There was no good to be done in mooching around the vicarage. Alan would be staying for long periods. My father did not want a fuss and would loathe the idea of causing a disruption to my work. I went along with all the common sense, all the pragmatism. Around four weeks after our conversation, two hundred miles from the vicarage, Alan called to tell me that our father had died in his sleep.
I am drunk now. It’s hours since I wrote the last bit. In a period of hours I can always get drunk. I do always get drunk. It begins as … not quite desire, perhaps, but the will is always there. I am not the sort of addict who is miserable to be addicted. I embrace it, I suppose you would say. I embrace it without necessarily enjoying it.
The Swan Guide. I wanted it to be perfect. More than that. I wanted it to be complete and definitive. In the couple of years after he died, I worked with an energy that made my previous efforts look like dilettantism. 74 out of 100. 56 out of 100. A charming hotel with a few rough edges. A rather staid place which does not transcend its mediocre surroundings. Impressive service. Mike Swan and the Guide have spoken. I wanted to feel that my father would be proud of me, of course, and I could only maintain that feeling by doing better and better. There was more to it, as well. I wanted to provide a system that worked. In this section of the universe, the only one I had any power over, I would show that there was order and rightness. I am aware that I am drunk. It very rarely shows in the work I file. I function very convincingly, I think, no matter how far gone I am. After all, my brain is used to it. It wears the alcohol like clothes.
The Guide was the one thing I could do which – well, it would not make amends. Perhaps there were no amends to be made. But it was the one thing I could do.
The first time someone showed me a website for hotel reviews, I sneered. There were spelling errors; the writing was bad; the conclusions were half-baked and, above all, there were dozens of different ones. The views of halfwits sat alongside better-considered pieces as if it did not matter which was which. I had never been intimidated by the multitude of competing hotel guides on the shelves: I was certainly not going to lose any sleep over these amateur attempts. The public wanted an expert view. The public would always want an expert view. All I had to do was ensure that I remained the most prominent expert.
But I had got it wrong.
I had failed to understand what was happening. I could not have foreseen it, but I ought to have considered it, at least. Perhaps if I had been a little younger. If I had been the sort of person to use a computer. As it was, I barely looked at the Internet until my publishers began to hint, with increasing regularity, that we ought to ‘think about having a website’. I allowed them to put some of my reviews on the Internet, but it was not enough. Now I had to write pieces to go with the reviews. I had to think about ways to ‘draw people in’ to the site. Enough of this, I eventually said. Enough of this faffing about. Why must we caper about like this, begging people to sign up to newsletters? Why could we not have faith in the book itself, the book everyone loved? And it was then that they showed me a document summarizing the Guide’s sales for the past two years. I accused them of panicking. I called it a blip. I said that they ought to have better displays in bookshops, I said a great many other things. In my heart, I knew the truth.
I had thought that if I ran faster than everybody else, there was no way I could lose the race. It was clear now that while I was running, they were driving cars.
I have gone through drunk. It is getting light outside, I think.
I am sitting at a laptop. There is an article about the ‘boom’ of ‘online reviewing’. It claims that the Internet is the greatest step towards global democracy for a century. It says that opinions have never been so easy to air. It says this as if it is something to celebrate. The article itself finishes with an invitation to add a comment; one person takes issue with some of the findings of the piece, another person chips in with his tuppence-worth, the original author resurfaces to explain why they are both slightly wrong, and the three of them continue to trade written remarks, leading each other further and further from the content of the article as it was written and coming to no conclusion at all. At the bottom of the page you can click on a button and read nine more pages of the same conversation. Elsewhere on the page, you can click on an Internet address, underlined in blue, which takes you to one of the hotel websites.
I look up a hotel which was the first to be awarded a 90+ by the Swan Guide years ago. That year it took out full-page advertisements in Sunday newspapers with our rosette emblazoned across the name of the establishment. Here, it makes no mention of the Swan Guide. Instead, the hotel trumpets the fact that it has scored an average of 4.1 out of 5 from critics on this site. If you click on the phrase ‘critics on the site’, a list comes up of more than two hundred people who have written a review – the lengths ranging from a few words to a few hundred. If you click on any of these individual names, you can read other reviews contributed by them. You can review the reviewers. Other people can review your review of the reviewers to say whether they found it helpful.
If I turn off the laptop now, if I throw it out of the window, if I throw myself out of the window, all this will continue, feeding upon itself like a virus rotting a body. My typewriter still exists; so do my many notebooks of hotel observations; my printed books, arranged chronologically along an entire shelf in the vicarage until recently, and now in the care of an aunt who took care of Mother’s things. Nothing visible has changed. And yet this other world is here, laid over the one I sought to bring a little under my control, the way a new building is put up on the site of an old one.
Mark Watson, Hotel Alpha (Picador, London, 2014) 978-1447243298, Hardback, 400 pages.
Read David Hebblethwaite’s review of Hotel Alpha, the novel, here.
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