I have been living in hotels for so long I am beginning to hallucinate. For example, at an EU summit on Saturday I could have sworn that Nicolas Sarkozy winked at me. I was fighting my way to the front of a media scrum at the Elysée Palace and almost fell over the rope. I teetered against it and in that second our eyes met and the French President smiled beguilingly at me. But I could have imagined it. The whole thing could easily be a product of staying in the Park Inn, Charles de Gaulle, and existing on summit sandwiches. Very nice sandwiches they were, with aspic on top. And there were canapés, and silver trays of French cheeses, and delicacies on bamboo cocktail sticks.
If I had not been nearing the end of my nomadic tether after three weeks on the road covering various events of political import I might have enjoyed them. But having just been through the party conference season I find that I’ve developed an allergy to mass catering.
And hotels. I don’t think working away from home would be quite so bad if hotels weren’t utterly fascistic. The Park Inn, for example, tried to refuse me a bottle of mineral water at 11 p.m. because the bar had shut. I say ‘tried’, because of course they had not bargained for a woman with post-conference fatigue. ‘Please,’ I told the waitress, ‘just pass me that bottle of water and we’ll say no more about it.’ I offered her some euros. She looked at me as if I was trying to buy her soul. So I had to do my thing at the reception desk. After five minutes of it, the manager was running to the bar screaming, ‘Vas-y! Badoit! Vite!’ And other phrases which I took to mean: ‘We’ve got a crazy woman on our hands.’
I’ve perfected this effective technique while staying in English hotels whose primary purpose is to frustrate. At the Abode in Manchester, my efforts to secure sustenance at ten past ten in the morning were greeted with a brisk, ‘If you’re looking for breakfast we’ve finished.’ When I rang down for a bowl of fruit I was greeted with: ‘What? Like apples and oranges?’ And when I ordered a salad: ‘What? Like lettuce and tomato?’
At the Radisson in Birmingham I found the television set to regulation sound levels which prevented me hearing it, never mind anyone in the room next door. When I ordered a bottle of San Pellegrino they tried to charge me £8. I asked whether they were perhaps confusing San Pellegrino with Château Lafite. After much wrangling it was conceded that water did not cost £8 but that a tray charge had been added. In which case, I said, could she come and collect the water because I wanted to go to a shop and buy my own for 90p. At which point she agreed to wave the tray charge. I sat down on the bed weary and half beaten.
It was then that I noticed a cheery blue card placed on the bed offering me ‘FREE MILK! Giving you back what your mother took away!’ Quite apart from the yuckiness of that particular suggestion this was a baffling development indeed. The hotel was offering a quarter pint of milk free, but water at £8 a bottle. I asked why and was informed that the manager was Norwegian and believed milk to be very important. Water, not so much.
It wasn’t the only jaunty gimmick either. What is it with this boutique-ification of hotels? You used to find a room service menu on the desk, now it’s a card offering ‘In Room Tucker’. You used to get a bar of soap, now you get bespoke toiletries called ‘Bad Hair Day’ and ‘Dirty Devil’. Oh, please. Just leave me alone to have a shower without telling me what to think about it. These little touches don’t tickle or charm me. They make me even more irritable and determined to complain. So I start to complain about everything.
‘I can’t find the remote control,’ I whinged to a poor receptionist one night, knowing full well it was somewhere in the ruffled bed covers. ‘I can’t find the butter…I can’t find the broadband…I can’t find the curtains.’ Actually, that last one was perhaps taking it a bit far. But they were the most ingeniously hidden blackout blinds.
Before I could even start complaining I had to work out the phone which didn’t have a button saying ‘room service’ or ‘reception’; it had a button saying ‘100 per cent guest satisfaction’. This is an example of dangerous overpromising if ever I heard one. What were they expecting? ‘Hello. Could you send up Johnny Depp and a basket of fruit please. Yes, that’s apples and oranges.’
Melissa Kite is deputy political editor of the Sunday Telegraph.