I am sitting in the bar area of a fundamentally depressing Novotel in Wolverhampton which is currently accommodating our little family. The Novotel is the epitome of the invisible hotel: you walk into a bland fug of white corners, cheap nineties bright sofas and pine-veneered tables, corporate banners advertising their Brand New Loyalty Programme and a wash of non-music that, if it were any more insipid, would fail to sound at all from the well-hidden ceiling speakers that are set into the uniform white foam tiles above you. The bleak hotel has been built to its soulless template next to an inexpressive roundabout just off a utilitarian dual-carriageway, next to which Wolverhampton itself seems to thrive and bustle with local character, curving charming alleyways and the hum and buzz of life and work. I remember once seeing a photograph of a similar hotel being built, an image which depicted the room units being dropped by a crane as a whole into place: each constituent of accommodation pre-built and inoffensively, mildly decorated; complete with dazzlingly worthless watercolour prints and waterproofed carpet with its practical, forgiving, busy design. All that was left for the staff to do, presumably, was to supply the miniature kettles, and the regulation two-pack of stem ginger biscuits. That and to check that the sheets are not large enough to tuck properly under the mattress, while making sure the duvet can be secured firmly thereunder on all four sides, making it a ludicrous act of strength and courage to get into bed: a process which involves standing and wrenching the quilt from beneath the heavy mattress, thereby bringing the inadequate sheet up and out with it, then continuing the course of action with the end of the bed so that you can at least get in and try to sleep on the flaccid, tangled sheets without feeling like a dog is lying on your feet; then, some time later, fight against your own weight while trying to kick the rest of the bedding free in order to have the breezy pleasure of exposing your legs to the dry cool-ish air being noisily rasped out by the room’s ineffectual air-conditioning.
The bar menu perfectly reflects in appearance the charmless corporate design of the entire hotel. Standing up like a greetings card next to my laptop, it shows a severe close-up of a sea-bass fillet, peppered temptingly and topped with a sprig of thyme; in relief but out of focus, what appears to be the fish skin, and behind that, and now severely blurred and fading into the cream tone of the menu cover itself, some green pieces of what may be bok choi. The word ‘Menu’, or rather, ‘menu’, for please sweet Baby Jesus Christ we should not begin such a word with a capital letter, is turned on its side and runs down the right side of the menu front, and ‘elements’ (small ‘e’) and ‘your choice’ (‘y’ and ‘c’ ) are printed right ways alongside it. What purpose does ‘elements’ serve? I fail to grasp this. I have looked around – the bar has not been given one of those names like ‘Mirage’ or ‘Temptations’, which might explain the inclusion of this odd word into the design – and neither does the menu itself offer separate components of a meal which I might be invited to bring together in my preferred combination that suits my unique tastes and lifestyle options. The word ‘elements’ is simply the nauseating name that someone has decided to give the menu, because ‘menu’, let alone ‘Menu’, just wouldn’t capture the cool, cosmopolitan, contemporary chic of this sophisticated brasserie. And ‘your choice’? My choice? It’s a menu – I need to be told in lower case Myriad Pro Regular that it’s my fucking choice? That’s what a menu is: a list of options. And as it’s been left here for me, I understand that it’s a list of my options.
But despite all this, despite its lacklustre awfulness, despite its charging for wi-fi (an offensive act secured by connecting to a French server which takes five minutes to bring up its page, and then you have to pay ten Euros for a couple of hours ‘Euros? In Wolverhampton?’ hence me typing this into Word to post later when I can have free hotel wi-fi as God intended), despite all this, the redeeming fact is that the staff of the Novotel are utterly delightful. They may work in an exuberantly hateful environment that has been borne out of a profoundly misjudged sense of what people find welcoming, but they are a friendly, helpful and more-than-happy-to-please team of ladies and gentlemen. Last night, which is so rare and so appreciated on tour, Gary the barman kept the kitchen open for us, and we enjoyed a post-show feast of nicely-cooked food before bed. Today, Grace who brings me hot water and honey and lemon to soothe my poor throatingtons is more than happy to go out of her way with my unusual beverage requests for bottles of room-temperature water and extra honey-pots, and they couldn’t be any more delighted to make us feel welcome. And ultimately, this human kindness outweighs all the limitations of the place and depressing choices made by the hotel designer’s penchant for corporate blandness. (And what is that? Do people that work for corporations prefer bland surrounds? Do those people behind the Novotel brand, for example, like this sort of thing? Why does everything excused as ‘corporate’ have to be like this?)
Compare this hotel to the sumptuous, boutique Hotel du Vin, where we stayed in Harrogate. These hotels are delightful: but all of the gorgeously thought-through aspects of this lovely hotel – and the occasional Hotels du Vin are the highlights of the touring calendar and probably the most charming group in the country – were marred by a bar and restaurant staff who were generally tricky, flustered and distracted. This undid so much of the enjoyment of our stay, in the same way that the delightfully warm staff at this very different place in Wolverhampton lift the experience of staying here to being perfectly pleasant.
Simple kindness makes all the difference. An hotel (even ‘a’ hotel, which is similar but not quite as fancy: no spa and you don’t get dressing gowns in your room) can be equipped with all the conveniences to satisfy the fussiest touring mind-reader, but such things are immediately forgotten when the staff are miserable or uninterested. And if hotels are there to accommodate, then this is a very human need they fulfil, and thus we can learn from hotels how to best treat each other: we may be equipped with all the intelligence and wit and talent in the world, but nothing counts for much if we’re not kind. And we may be ugly, gawky, and have horrible-looking menus, but there’s nothing as appealing as being nice to people. Kindness, despite our current fetish with persuasion, goal-setting and getting-what-you-want, will always win over. It is the unfashionable but fundamental human virtue most conducive to personal happiness and a huge, forgotten secret of success.
And the Wolverines do seem very nice. A couple of fun shows and we’re back off to Blackpool.