Premier Inns – Purple Heaven…..or Purple Hell?

Just back from a road trip, photographing mortgaged properties in Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex. Very glamorous. Think I prefer Bermuda.

It’s for my brother’s business, so I was governed by the company’s expenses guidelines: Where specifically agreed by a Director an overnight stay can be arranged at a Premier Inn or similar, and this should include a “meal deal” for dinner and breakfast.

And so it came to pass that I immersed myself in the purple world of Premier Inns for 3 nights……

First stop, Norwich.  5 – yes 5 – to choose from in and around that great city.  I opted for the Nelson City Centre one. Big mistake. Took me ages to find it. Never drive in Norwich unless you have to, the 1-way system is insanely confusing. £96.99 for the room, dinner & breakfast.

Next up, Ipswich. Another 5 locations. Went for the Quayside one, confronting another debilitating 1-way system – in rush hour. A whopping £104.99, for the room and meal deal. And £4 for the car park. Once you find it, hidden away down a road marked “closed”.

The final night was in Chelmsford. Just 3 choices this time, and I went for the Springfield one, rather than the city centre option. Another traffic meltdown in the late afternoon rush hour, gridlock on the A12 leading to the attractive service station area where the hotel is located, nestled between the BP garage and McDonald’s. A table-topping £108.99 for the room and meal deal.

So, what were my impressions of Premier Inn World…..

  • functional: what you see is what you get no-frills overnight stays. Luxury hospitality this ain’t
  • purple, purple, purple everywhere. Even on that purposeless long strip of fabric they lay at the end of the bed
  • meal deals. Not bad options for dinner, but the menu still echoes to the beat of Wimpy bars and Berni Inns from the 1970s. Breakfast is an all-you-can-eat buffet, or a few healthier options. But psychology kicks in if you’ve paid for it already….
  • the free wifi service was frustrating as hell. Free yes, but it took forever to get online….and then when you did, it often fell away just as you were about to send an email. There’s a paid alternative – £5 for 24 hours – for a service 8x faster than the free one. But 8x nothing is still nothing. Appalling in this digital era. Currently outsourced to Arqiva….I suggest they find another provider, pronto
  • the punters: lorry drivers, salesmen, refrigeration engineers, blue-collar workers in logo’d fleeces
  • the staff: well trained in smiley Premier-Inn- speak. Purple tongues
  • the rooms: boxes in boxed buildings, containing everything you need for 12 hours in your hospitality capsule in over-populated, traffic-clogged 21st century England
  • the beds: the undoubted highlight. Hypnos. With pillows as soft, fluffy and deep as Lenny Henry’s mellifluous voice, extolling the virtues of a night in Purple Heaven

Whitbread own Premier Inn.

AMBITIOUS GROWTH

With over 700 hotels in the UK and 59,000 rooms in great locations, you’ll never be far from a Premier Inn and we’ve set an ambition to have 85,000 rooms by 2020. Internationally, we have five hotels in the Middle East and three in India, with further developments in the pipeline and a target for 50 international hotels by 2018.

I can’t wait.

 

The NHS revisited

I eulogised recently about the almost impossibly good treatment of my Dad at the Royal Surrey hospital in Guildford.

Over 10 days – initially in A&E and then in a surgical ward – the care and attention lavished on his ailing 87 year old body was remarkable.

But, in view of the explosive population growth – through a combination of increased longevity and net migration – is the NHS sustainable in its current form?

I experienced A&E myself yesterday, at first hand. Well, middle finger.

I managed to slice open a large flap of skin over the knuckle of the third finger on my right hand, courtesy of a shattering cafetiere resisting being wiped up. Feisty things, these coffee making gizmos.

My first instinct was to avoid going to A&E if at all possible, not wanting to waste their valuable resources on a minor domestic injury.

Actually, that’s not true. Before doing anything else I had to enjoy  my freshly baked bread, the crust of which was still warm and oozing with butter, and just crying out for its strong cheddar cheese partner.

A man’s stomach waits for no one. The blood gushing from my wound was temporarily addressed by a rustic dressing of a couple of absorbent sheets ripped from the kitchen roll dispenser.

At 1 pm, I called 111, the NHS non-emergency number, hoping I’d be sent to the GP’s surgery rather than A&E.  15 minutes later, after a thorough series of questions and assessment,  I was sent to A&E.

It was 2:30 by the time I registered with the 3 A&E receptionists. I’d parked at the distant Tesco’s, as the usual Orwellian scenario was unfolding at the vast hospital car park. And I’d stocked up on coffee and a newspaper, in anticipation of the inevitably tortuous afternoon ahead.

“It’s a quiet day, you should only have to wait 30 minutes to be seen.”

Promising.

“That’s just for the initial assessment.”

Worrying.

Sure enough, I was seeing the triage nurse not much after 3.

“Fingers crossed” – ho ho – “we can get away with sticking a steri-strip on this. Less restricting than stitches”.

Phew.

All cleaned up and sent back to the A&E waiting room, always an interesting study of humanity.

It was close to 4 by the time I was called through to see a young A&E doctor.

I explained again what had happened.

“Has this been cleaned up?”.

“Yes. And the nurse thinks a steri-strip might be enough. And better than stitches?”

“Hold on. I need to speak with the Consultant.”

5 minutes.

“I think I’ll glue it. But let’s have an X-Ray first, to make sure there’s no glass left in there.”

A 20 minute wait outside the X-Ray cubicles.

15 minutes inside the X-Ray theatre, taking a couple of artfully posed snaps of my offending digit.

Back to the always entertaining A&E waiting room, elevating my wounded finger like an assiduous schoolboy attracting teacher’s attention.

Finally called back to see the young doctor at what must by then have been after 5 pm.

“OK. Good news. No glass in the wound.”

Phew.

“But let me check something with the Consultant.”

“OK”.

5 minutes listening to my case being discussed on the other side of the curtain.

The Consultant and the young medic return.

“I think that needs a couple of stitches, I’m afraid. Better than gluing.”

“OK”.

I got to know the lovely young doctor as she whacked some local anaesthetic – 4 separate, painful pricks – into the bony top of the finger. She’s hoping to do a year out, in an Australian hospital, before returning to focus on a surgical career back in the UK.

We talked books, as I’d asked the Consultant if it would be ok to have a pint at tonight’s book club meeting in the pub.

After 2 stitches – “I’m a perfectionist” – she called the Consultant back in. The wound was still bleeding – quite a lot – and she didn’t want to sew it up prematurely.

“Squeeze it out, and ask him to elevate the wound before closing up.”

1 final stitch. Bit more chat. Done.

Sent away with a pretty rustic dressing, and a couple of spares, told to keep it dry for 7 days and get the stitches taken out at the GP’s surgery.

Finally home at around 6:30, after a cheeky cappuccino at the hospital’s insanely busy Costa outlet, waiting for some feeling to return to my poor finger before driving home.

Again, what remarkable service. But does it really have to take all that time getting processed through A&E, with highly trained resources who somehow don’t communicate as efficiently as everybody would in any commercial organisation?

I’m incredibly grateful for the thoroughness and professionalism of all the staff, but I ask again….is the NHS sustainable in its current form, free at the point of entry?

I fear not.

By the way, I had a couple of pints at the Olde Ship Inn as we discussed the heart-rending novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  For medicinal purposes.

 

 

 

 

Book review – The Narrow Road to the Deep North

I can’t remember feeling quite so emotionally drained as I did late last night,  after reading the final few words of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Winner of the prestigious Man Booker prize in 2014, the Tasmanian writer’s novel is epic in scale, with a beauty of language describing an atrocity of actions that breaks the reader’s heart on almost every page.

Dorrigo Evans is the story’s main protagonist. He is at once both a good man and a bad man, and in Flanagan’s deft hands becomes one of contemporary literature’s most memorable characters.

As a young surgeon and officer, waiting in Adelaide to be called up to WWII, he has a chance meeting – in a dusty bookshop – with an alluring girl. He discovers Amy is the much younger wife of his uncle Keith, but that does not deter them from embarking on a torrid love affair that will haunt Dorrigo for the remainder of his complex life.

The core of the novel is the horror resulting from the Japanese Emperor’s grand project to build a railway from Burma to Siam, in an impossibly short time and in inhuman conditions, using forced labour from 60,000 allied POWs and more than 180,000 Asian civilians.

The subject of so many other graphic films and novels, Flanagan somehow elevates – or debases – the Death Railway story further, through a haunting combination of almost poetic language and characterisation.

Dorrigo – Big Fella – fights an unwinnable battle every day, with the Japanese POW camp officer Major Nakamura and with nature: his 1,000 charges – no longer soldiers, and barely still men – suffer from dysentery, malaria, beri-beri, malnutrition and myriad other diseases. The surgeon does what he can to delay inevitable death for them, but is still forced to choose those least sick to buckle to the Emperor’s impossible demands in building The Line.

The detail in the description of their deprivation is difficult at times to read, impossible always to understand.

In a makeshift operating theatre, Dorrigo does what he can to save the leg of one of his men. It’s already gangrenous and previously amputated, but he was frantically searching the muck of Jack’s stump with his fingers, trying to find something to stitch, pinching vaulting slime, groping pitching slop, there was nothing, nothing to stitch into, nothing that might hold the thread. The artery walls were wet blotting paper. There was, realised Dorrigo Evans, with a rising horror as the blood continued to pump out, as Jack Rainbow’s body went into a terrible series of violent fits, nothing he could do.

Other characters are fleshed out into whole human beings, even as they waste away to diseased skin and battered bone. We come to know and care about Wat Cooney, Jimmy Bigelow, Squizzy Taylor, Rooster MacNeice, Tiny Middleton , Bonox Baker and other lost souls, as much as their respected officer – Dorrigo, Big Fella.

But the author reserves his most devastating detail and horrific narrative for Darky Gardiner. Essentially a good man, Darky becomes a hapless victim of circumstance one day, and an unavoidable example of Japanese brutality, necessary as Nakamura sees it, to maintain discipline and impose the Emperor’s determination to finish The Line.

The novel extends way beyond that terrible 18 months on The Line, but inevitably Dorrigo’s life after the war is moulded by the horror endured in Burma. He marries Ella, his old fiancee, they have children, he becomes a distinguished surgeon, a public figure and a reckless philanderer. But he still thinks of Amy.

We follow Nakamura and his brutal Korean guard, The Goanna,  who rationalise their brutality, with differing outcomes.

We see how some of the other few surviving POWs deal with freedom, home and memories.

But most of all, we remember horror.

My father’s cousin’s husband – Fred Seiker – is 100 tomorrow. Fred survived a Japanese POW camp and, like one of Dorrigo’s men, sketched life in the camp, presumably also risking immediate death if discovered. His published images remain enduringly haunting, and we should never forget The Death Railway. I will certainly never forget The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

 

 

Movie review – Carol

Another Times+ offer, this time free tickets to see the movie Carol at the Odeon in Guildford on a grey, soggy Monday evening in November.

And why not escape to the more glamorous, Mad Men-like world of New York in the 1950s, when our 2015 senses are stuffed full of Islamic State atrocities in Paris.

Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt,  the movie tells the story of two women attracted to each other, in an era of moral repression and the McCarthy witch hunts.

A very French-looking Rooney Mara plays Therese Bellvet, a sales clerk in a posh department store but who dreams of a more creative life.

A chance encounter with a customer, Carol Aird, changes her course for ever, both personally and professionally.

Cate Blanchett plays conflicted, glamorous socialite Carol to chain-smoking, lip-glossed perfection. She is trapped in a loveless marriage to wealthy Harge (Kyle Chandler), adores young daughter Rindy and has a tendency for ill-judged friendships with women.

The relationship between Carol and the much younger Therese develops over a languid two hours. Their attraction deepens, despite the stark difference in ages and backgrounds, and the threat of Carol losing custody of Rindy.

This is a captivating story, beautifully shot, edited and scored. And acted by the main protagonists. But at two hours, it feels more than a little s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d.

The Talented Mr. Ripley was adapted from another Patricia Highsmith novel, and was a much more rewarding movie-going experience. In my humble Just Retiring opinion.

 

Bombs and terrorism

On Saturday 24th April, 1993, I was on holiday back in Bermuda. That day the office of the Japanese company I was working for, high up the tower of 99 Bishopsgate in the heart of London’s business community, was destroyed by an IRA bomb.

An IRA bomb destroyed the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in the City of London.

Hidden in a stolen tipper truck parked by the HSBC building, the device – a huge and deadly concoction of fertiliser and diesel – killed 1 person, injured 44 and caused £350 million of damage.

I never worked in the building again.

The long-running mainland UK bombing campaign by the IRA eventually came to a halt, after decades of murder and devastation, and thanks to tortuous political negotiations.

On Wednesday 6th July, 2005, I stood in Trafalgar Square with colleague David Kuo and hundreds of other Londoners awaiting an announcement from the IOC, in Singapore, about the venue for the 2012 Olympics.

Paris was hot favourite. London won. I have never known such a perfect, instantaneous outpouring of elation as on that hopeful summer lunchtime.

The following day, Thursday 7th July – known as 7/7 in a poignant homage to New York’s 9/11 of 4 years earlier- Islamist extremists  detonated 3 separate backpack bombs in quick succession on the London Underground, Soon after, a 4th ripped apart an iconic red double-decker bus, in Tavistock Square.

52 people died and more than 700 were injured.

On Wednesday 7th January, 2015, two Al-Qaeda inspired Islamist terrorists entered the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, killing 11 and injuring 11 others.

In related attacks across the city, a further 5 were killed and another 11 wounded.

On Friday 13th November, 2015, ISIS-inspired and Syrian-planned extremists carried out a series of deadly attacks on bars. restaurants a music venue and the Stade de France sports stadium in the heart of Paris.

At the moment, 129 people have died and 350 have been injured.

I was in Paris earlier this year.  Security was visibly high, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, and suspicious drones had been seen in the clear blue skies of a Parisian spring.

Gill and I are going back to Paris in 11 days time. We’ll be staying near to the site of some of the restaurant attacks last Friday.

We could cancel but I believe we should still go. To carry on life as normal, as France is defiantly doing today, and because the risk of something happening to you exists every day, wherever you might be.

The politicians will slowly work towards a potential solution for the current Syrian crisis, and the ISIS threat. But this is much more complex than the Irish terror we faced for so many years, and could take a generation to resolve.

In the meantime, life MUST go on. As it always does.

Theatre review – King Charles III

What a brilliantly constructed piece of theatre King Charles III is, written by Mike Bartlett, directed by Rupert Goold, and with Robert Powell playing the eponymous King.

Now on a national tour, the Yvonne Arnaud audience in Guildford was royally entertained last night by the ascension to the throne of Charles on the death of his long-reigning mother. Fictional, yes. But the drama is predicated on what we already know about the heir’s temperament, principles and personal interests.

Could he put those traits aside, when King, to ensure the  country enjoys the same stability and unity provided by Elizabeth II for over 60 years?

No, according to the playwright in this thought-provoking projection into what could be the very near future.

The plot hinges on the new King’s refusal to give royal assent to a new piece of legislation, already approved by both Houses of Parliament. He fears the attempt by law-makers to control the press strikes at the very heart of freedom of expression.

But what are the constitutional implications of such an impasse ‘twixt the democratically elected House of Commons and the monarchy?

The language in this production is as thrilling as the plot. Told in blank verse, there are several nods to our greatest dramatist.

The ghost of Diana, haunting both Charles and William, and cheekily predicting both will be the greatest King to rule the country, echoes the ghost of Hamlet’s dead father.

Catherine is portrayed as having the vaulting ambition of Lady Macbeth. Her hands may not end up spotted with blood, but she has a violent passion to drive William’s direction for her own benefit.

Poor Charles – brooding, intellectual, introspective – is Hamlet, too hesitant to act decisively.

And of course, there’s always a comic character to lighten the theatrical weight of any Shakespearian tragedy. Enter Harry, stage left, the aimless, gormless Prince doomed to being the buffoon, the fun uncle, the sideshow. Until he meets Jessica. In a nightclub. And whose past ends up providing the argument for the worst elements of the British press to be controlled, after all….

The writing, acting, music and staging combine to make this a really entertaining piece of what-if drama.

It’s provocative and subversive. It’s tragic and funny. It’s fictional and couldn’t happen.

Or could it…..?

 

Book review – Waiting for Sunrise

I’m a real William Boyd fan, thanks to old colleague Steve Coles recommending him back in the 1980s.

The author is often described as a master storyteller, and Waiting for Sunrise is no exception.

Its hero, actor Lysander Rief, spends time in pre-WW1 Vienna undergoing pyscho-analysis for a sexual problem. His analyst, Dr Bensimon, talks about the benefits of parallelism, but it’s the bedroom antics of Hettie Bull, a gamine sexual manipulator, who solves Lysander’s problem quicker than the shrink.

The action moves to London, where our hero becomes a reluctant spy. Then to the trenches on the front line, neutral Geneva – where Lysander conjures up a nice line in torture, and back to London.

So all the usual Boyd ingredients are there….international locations, well-drawn characters, evocative descriptions and a labyrinthine plot. Another fast-paced, readable cracking yarn.

And yet, and yet, and yet….

Sorry, William. Something is missing. I can’t quite identify the gap, but a piece of the literary jigsaw is missing. I know….who am I to criticise one of the greatest living British writers.  But somehow the narrative strands don’t fit together as perfectly as they did in Restless, for example. And it feels to me as though the author is occasionally going through the literary motions.

An imperfect William Boyd book is still a rewarding way to spend a few hours of bookish time, but I hope the great man isn’t running out of steam just yet….

Pain

I’m reading Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd at the moment.

Accidental spy Lysander Rief, the story’s main protagonist, has to extricate some information from a man suspected of passing on war secrets.

His method of loosening the suspect’s tongue is unplanned, but highly successful. After surprising Herr Glockner in his apartment by Lake Geneva, Lysander notices “some extensive silver bridgework at the side of his teeth“.

The plan is formed when Glockner steadfastly refuses to give in to the less painful bribery offer. Bad mistake.

Lysander stuffs his victim’s mouth with wet wire-wool pan scourers from the kitchen, before exposing the wires from the flex of a standard lamp in the tastefully furnished lounge.

“He dragged Glockner and his chair closer. Then he plugged the flex back into its socket and held the now live “Y” in front of Glockner’s eyes.”

“You look like a man who’s taken good care of his teeth. Admirable. Unfortunately all that expensive dental work is now going to cause you intense, unspeakable pain. Every tooth in your head is in contact with the wire mesh of the scourer. Your copious saliva – look, it’s already dripping from the side of your mouth – is a very efficient electrolyte. When I touch this live electric wire to the scourers in your mouth……..”

I’ll spare you the descriptive next few paragraphs but, after some futile initial resistance, Glockner gives Lysander the information he needs.

The spy tortures his victim reluctantly, but effectively, because of what it might mean to the allied war effort. And the spontaneous nature of the successful plan somehow makes it feel more raw, and convincing, for the reader.

I’m not sure if William Boyd is intentionally tipping his hat towards the 1976 cult film Marathon Man, but his hero’s methods are spookily redolent of the famous scene where ex-Nazi dentist Laurence Olivier uses his own dental skill to extricate information from unwitting Dustin Hoffman. Ouch.

Can anyone really survive torture? The methods honed over the centuries must surely enable a skilled operator to achieve his ultimate aims, even from the most heroic of victims.

Do you expect me to talk, Blofeld……?

I raise this only because I know I would crumble at the first sight of a syringe, dentist’s drill, water bucket….or any other device designed to loosen my tongue.

And I know this because of the excruciating pain I suffer when my ageing back goes into spasm, as it has done over the last few days and does now with depressing regularity.

Lysander would just have to point at my lower back, and I’d be talking faster than a politician on steroids.

Weak, I know. But cowards have always run in our family……

Theatre review – Lilies on the Land

Lilies on the Land – review for Essential Surrey website.

Rating: 4.5 of 5

The Electric Theatre

Books….and how to read them

I was brought up on Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome.

Absorbing each well-thumbed page from the library book, joining in another adventure in the Lake District or on the Norfolk Broads with the Jacksons (John, Susan, Titty, Roger and Bridget) and the Blacketts (Nancy and Peggy) was a childhood joy.

Somehow I can’t imagine surfing the same literary wave of youthful enthusiasm reading those classic stories on an e-book. Or am I just a bookish dinosaur?

A few years ago, many predicted the demise of traditional hard copy printed books. Everyone was jumping  on the digital bandwagon and sales of Kindle – and other e-reading devices – exploded.

But now the jury is most definitely out…..

Some claim that print is fighting back strongly against digital. Others agree that the rate of growth of e-books has – inevitably – slowed, but is still outpacing the printed medium.

Perhaps an objective view of the issue is in this Bookseller article.

Rather than seeing the print book and e-book markets as two counter-vailing forces, it may be wise to figure out how they are working together. If the big fiction bestsellers are now predominantly being bought digitally, then has this created space within book stores to focus on different books? For journalists looking to report on this sector, the narrative might be how digital has helped revive and reinvent print, rather than the other way round.

I’ve got a Kindle, but I still prefer reading a good old hard copy, fingering the arty cover with loving hands, easing a favourite bookmark between the overnight pages as I sink between the sheets, or lapping up the author’s bibliography before diving into the first chapter.

And another interesting development….just this week, Amazon – the digital behemoth, and purveyor of all-conquering e-market Kindles – have opened their first physical store, in Seattle. Clicks and mortar….following the path of other industries, as digital and physical worlds realise they can happily co-exist, after all.

Or will the next chapter paint a different picture…….?