The restoration of Fawlty Towers
Posted by Simon Parke, 25 July 2017, 11.51am
We arrive at the Randolph hotel in Oxford.
It’s the city’s famous hotel, it featured a lot in the Morse TV series…which they are not slow to mention.
And it is expensive.
We’ve never been in a hotel so expensive but it’s my 60th birthday present, we’re pushing the boat out.
Well, my partner is pushing the boat out…
But I’ve always wanted to come here; and we both have high hopes. The doorman doffs his cap, the valet takes the car, the scene is set.
From here on, this will be a hotel story about the descent to Hades and the return to clean air; about hell and heaven.
It will be a piece about luggage, receptionists, bullshit, breakthroughs, anger… and how we start again.
So first, the descent… each painful, deflating step.
We arrive in our (not particularly) nice room; the view is a wall.
Wall as far as the eye can see.
We may be staying in the City of Dreaming Spires, but there are no dreams outside our window…apart from possibly the anxiety sort, closed in and claustrophobic.
And after an hour and a half – I will mention this - we’re still waiting for our luggage to be brought up.
Against my wishes – it’s all a nonsense to me - they insisted on providing this service.
‘I’ll have it sent up to your room, sir.’
Only he didn’t.
The service they insisted on providing they didn’t provide…so we can’t unpack.
But to distract us, a couple of guests walk into our room, claiming it’s theirs. And clearly Reception does as well, because the new arrivals have the key cards.
I hadn’t realised we were sharing our room…will we all be putting our car keys in a bowl later?
Anyway, I guide them away, the man isn’t happy - but a few minutes later, neither am I, because Reception rings us to ask when we’ll be leaving.
‘When will you be vacating your room?’
I say we won’t be, because we’ve only just arrived; unlike our luggage.
She then questions whether we are in the right room; indeed, whether we are booked in at all.
And rings off.
We want to go for a walk but fear our room might be taken if we leave; possession is nine tenths of the law at the Randolph.
I go down the corridor to ask someone about the luggage.
‘Not my department,’ he says, with a smile. Non-service with a smile makes such a difference…
And when I return to the room, I find I can’t get in.
My key card has been de-activated. They really do want us out.
My partner lets me in and I decide to have a bath. But…oh dear, oh dear... the water is lukewarm…tepid.
I ask a roving manager about this, he tries the taps, and it is still lukewarm.
He contacts maintenance, who arrive. He also tries the taps, fiddles around a little, but despite his overalls, the water remains tepid…as lukewarm as the Randolph welcome.
‘This is how it is in all the rooms,’ he says.
‘Is this the only hotel in England not to have hot water?’ I ask.
‘No one else has complained.’
Well, for the record, I’m about to; the tipping point is reached. Straw, camel’s back, you’ll know the moment.
And before we go any further, I’m aware this is a first world problem.
But it is a still a problem.
If someone makes claims on their website about their ‘famed customer service’ and about ‘giving you the weekend of a lifetime’ – and charge you the GNP of
Lithuania for the honour - then they need to be what they claim to be.
And after two hours at the Randolph, there is, appearing before my eyes, a chasm deep and wide between promise and actuality.
All organisations need to be careful of this chasm, churches quite as much as hotels; lest they become bloated on self-delusion and spout bullshit to cover their dishonest tracks.
And really, bullshit is not to be applauded in any world - first, third or seventh.
So, chasm-aware, I go down to reception and ask to see the manager. I’m angry, you may have sensed this. Ellie, the Operations Manager appears.
‘How can I help you?’
‘I’m angry,’ I say.
‘Well, what can we do to sort it out?’
‘I don’t know, ‘ I reply, because I don’t. ‘But our experience so far is like being in a bad episode of Fawlty Towers…only I’m not laughing, because my partner has spent over £700 for the privilege…£700 she can’t really afford; but she wanted this to be a special weekend for me.’
I then list the events that have brought me to this point – high walls, no luggage, room invasion, receptionist asking us to leave, deactivated keys, lukewarm water…
...these are a few of my least favourite things and lead me to be standing here in the foyer of the world-famous Randolph hotel – next to the much-mentioned ‘Morse bar’ - comparing it to Fawlty Towers.
Ellie is good. She’s very apologetic and says she will have the luggage brought up immediately. And would we like a bottle of wine as compensation?
But emotionally, healing will not be found in the late arrival of our luggage accompanied by some sad alcohol; we’re beyond even the free evening meal she then offers us.
‘Would you dine here on us tomorrow evening?’
‘That’s kind, but I think my partner is so upset right now she just wants to be away from this place. The idea of a meal here won’t appeal.’
And what I’m wondering in the foyer is this: how do we start again? What will enable shift?
Ellie is saying all the right things; she’s saying all the things I’d be saying and I tell her this, because I like her spirit. (She’s probably the nicest person in this story.)
‘You’re saying all the right things,’ I say.
‘And I mean them,’ she replies and I almost believe her. ‘We do want to make this a good weekend for you and I’ll do everything in my power to make it so.’
‘I’m just not sure how we’re going to start again.’
It’s an existential observation in the hotel foyer around life and death, endings and beginnings, disappointment and resurrection; and then a break through, provided by Ellie.
‘How about we change your room, Mr Parke?’
Good move, I think.
‘I do think that would be good psychologically,’ I say, energised at last, feeling the possibility of ascent. A change of geography could definitely help here. ‘And perhaps a room with a view?’ I add.
‘Let me see what I can do.’
‘So if we go out for a long walk, we’ll come back to a new room with our luggage in it?’
‘Absolutely, Mr Parke.’
‘And then we’ll start again. Thank you.’
And to cut a long story short, we do.
We go out, take a walk around Christ Church meadows, meet a very kind carpenter called Chris, (more about him another time), enjoy a pub supper and come back to a new room – and a room with a view, across to the Ashmolean museum.
There is also a bottle of champagne and vouchers for two free drinks in the bar.
And so we start again at the Randolph and for various reasons, enjoy a lovely weekend.
So what happened here? As we sift through the ashes, is there anything to be gleaned from this small service-industry saga beyond mere hotel tittle-tattle?
My soul was left pondering two things.
First, there is my anger. It’s not always the case, but I am happy with the way I handled it.
My anger is a fairly savage and untamed beast.
But on this occasion, it remained focused on our experience rather than turning on any individual. This meant that we remained on good terms with the staff throughout the process.
Of the six staff I dealt with in those difficult first three hours, only the Receptionist was unhelpful, borderline rude. Otherwise, it was just a series of unfortunate events and low-grade incompetence coinciding with each other.
So the anger was never about blame; but about highlighting the issues and making the situation better; its intention was to create rather than destroy.
To this extent, it felt like clean anger rather than something self-righteous, a hurt ego lashing out; that at least is my understanding.
The other experience which interested me was how we start again in life, how we draw a line in the sand with the past, and begin again.
Sometimes we can do this, sometimes we can’t.
Sometimes, in intractable situations, the skill is not in starting again, but in ending things.
There is great skill needed in endings; they too can be creative.
But if we do want to start again, an apology is always a help, certainly; just as denial is crippling.
Though often an apology is not enough not enough in itself.
It can feel a bit cheap and easy.
Do you find this? Do you sometimes feel an apology doesn’t in itself quite do it?
But the trouble is - if it doesn’t, what will?
In this case, I was aware that an apology wasn’t enough to shift the heaviness of the disappointment; but a good walk, a pub meal and a new room with a view did it.
I will blog once more about this weekend; and in particular, reflect on the gift of Chris the Carpenter and the Harry Potter effect.
But for now, I’m simply grateful for descent being followed by ascent; for the rather temporary nature of hell; and for the happy restoration of Fawlty Towers.
Also known as the Randolph.