About 20 years ago, Kingsley Amis wrote a sparkling essay entitled Sod the Public: A Consumer’s Guide, in which he railed against the myriad of affronts perpetrated by, among others, the Government, the service industry, the retail trade, interior designers, playwrights and composers. Caught in his crosshairs were music in pubs, actors who can’t be bothered to speak their lines properly, newsreaders likewise, and newly-designed lavatory bowls which made it impossible for even the most careful gentleman to urinate “without bouncing a couple of drops onto the floor”.
Chief among the causes of these phenomena was “that affluence which has transformed the old relationship between shopkeeper and customer. The shopkeeper need no longer study the customer because if he loses one there will be another along in a minute, and the customer needn’t study the shopkeeper because if one purchase goes wrong, there is money left to try again elsewhere”.
These days, Amis’s targets are as much in need of a peppering with gunshot as they were then. More so, in some cases. Music in pubs has got louder, newsreaders more self-regarding, and supermarkets more arrogant. That said, however, there has been a transformation in the balance of power between seller and buyer. If Amis were alive today, he could write a piece called Sod the Provider, though I doubt that he would.
Today’s customers are, by and large, of the ugly variety. They know their rights and they have found a voice which is both loud and coarse. If, for whatever reason, they are not granted instant satisfaction of their desires, they become impatient, discourteous, demanding, boorish and, on occasion, violent. So far has the pendulum swung that it’s astonishing that anyone is prepared to work in the hospitality industry. Who would willingly throw open their doors to admit the UK’s battalions of brutish oafs, sneering nouveau riche, and, worse still, their untrained offspring?
Among Amis’s targets were UK hotels: “No other institutions quite touch these in their single-minded devotion to the interests of those who work in them and indifference to those who use them.” Implicit in his comment is that the customer/guest might wish for something reasonable, such as a cup of tea, and not something wholly unreasonable and beyond the call of duty, such as a fist fight. Yet, despite the unpleasantness inseparable from their calling, hoteliers continue to ply their trade and to engage the services of unsuspecting staff. It is hard not to admire such stoicism, and admiration turns to wonder when the hotelier, blind to the folly of his actions, ventures into the marshmallow swamps of public relations.
The result is, predictably, a blend of the poignant and the desperate. In an attempt to ingratiate itself with the many-headed beast, Travelodge is training staff in how to deal with naked sleepwalkers. You may think this is a niche market and you would be right, but, according to Travelodge, it is growing.
In fact, so numerous were the incidents drawn to the attention of senior management that it ordered an inquiry. It discovered a sevenfold increase in sleepwalking customers, in the past year, to more than 400, almost all of them men. If unchecked, that rate of increase would mean that by 2012, the year of the great Olympics horror, more than 6 million naked somnambulists will be thronging the corridors and jamming the lifts of Travelodge’s hotels. Faced with this unprecedented surge, the company is training its staff in how to deal with sleepwalkers. One useful tip is to keep a supply of towels handy to help preserve the dignity of guests, many of whom sleepwalk naked into reception and ask for a newspaper, or in some cases announce that they wish to check out.
Leigh McCarron, Travelodge’s sleep director, says, “We have seen an increased number of cases over the years, so it is important that our staff know how to help sleepwalkers when it arises.” (No sniggering, please. A fondness for double-entendres is exactly the sort of thing that gives us British a bad name). I do not know which is more remarkable/ that a naked man, or possibly a posse of them, turns up at reception and asks for a newspaper, or that Travelodge has a director of sleep.
Of one thing you may be certain. A guest who is naked, save for a ring in his ear and a tattoo God knows where, will almost certainly turn nasty when, having asked for a copy of The Sun, he is presented with a towel. I can hear him now: “What kind of bleeding service is that? I asked for a paper, not a bleeding wossname. Rinse out your bleeding ears, you muppet!”
“Yes, sir. Certainly, sir. Will there be anything else? A cod piece, perhaps? Size small?”