In 2008 I spent, on a rough count, 64 nights away from my family. Seven of those nights were spent on airplanes, the rest were spent in 30 or so different hotels. I know my fluffy towels from my scratchy, I have learned that much. In fact, I have learned little else. And this perhaps needs to be said: the amazing thing about hotels is that nothing happens in them. Lights get left on, taps drip, trays are left in hallways, and the cleaners make their sad rounds every morning. You hear them as you open the door and scan the room one last time and wheel your bag down to the lift, the sour whine of a distant hoover, as you approach and then pass the stainless steel trolley that waits outside some non-medical non-emergency, the abandoned sheets of an uninteresting night; rumpled, bare, slightly stained. What did they get up to in there? Murder? Sex? Organising their receipts?
I am sure chambermaids have their tales of what people will leave behind, but they don’t get any from me. I leave packaging behind: from sun cream, emergency foundation, from the blue French nail varnish I buy in Seattle, and carry back to Co. Wicklow, and leave on a shelf and never use, because I am freaked out by the air miles. I go through dozens of duty-free shops and fail to buy a perfume, despite trying to buy a perfume, every time. I have become a perfume nelly. I quite like Marc Jacobs Grass, which you can now get only in Milan, but I think it gets a bit armpitty after a while, a bit basil-on-a-north-facing-window. Yes, I went round the world at least twice and never visited a museum, or a gallery or any other place that might make me cry, or think (and besides, I did not have the time), but if you are looking for a bottle of Chanel’s Cristalle, then I can tell you that Schiphol is the only place that does it anymore. It also does quite a nice amaryllis bulb, in a pot.
‘Do you want a bag, do you want a belt?’ I ring my husband from some leather goods heaven, Geneva, or Heathrow Terminal 5, and hear the kids rioting in the background as he says: ‘I don’t need a belt. I have a belt.’
Back home, I pause at the door to arrange my conference face: ‘My goodness I am tired, and I certainly had no fun, and I worked so much and drank so little, my goodness it is just such a relief to be back with you all.’ Meanwhile, he gets ready to throw the family at me like a rugby ball, and head out the door, and not come back for quite some time. We do not fight. Much. A mercy.
I unpack in the hall, and put the clothes in the washing machine before I take off my coat. Every time I come home, it seems another door has fallen off the kitchen units and I don’t care. I have decided to adopt the Iris Murdoch approach to keeping house, though I feel she might have managed this book-selling business in a more autocratic and interesting manner, this endless round of taxi-plane-taxi-interview-interview-gig-hotel.
I email several different publicists to say: ‘There is no time to eat on the schedule you have sent me.’
Everywhere I go it is autumn, or a mild spring; you would think the world an entirely temperate place. This is when the writers come – after the hurricanes, and before the monsoons. I bring the Brisbane flu back from Hong Kong in March so the whole family escapes when it comes, the slow way, to Ireland in October. After this I wash my hands 17 times a day, and I am not sick again.
I travel all year. I do not miss a connection. I can go anywhere on hand luggage, for any length of time. I do not fold, I roll. I despise people whose shoes will not take them from day to evening. I am, at all times, good to go.
I do not cry except, sometimes, at altitude, where I miss my children most. A long-haul flight is a very emotional place: it is something to do with the air. There are people, men mostly, who live in these planes. They are selling too: not books, but money, futures, policies, ideas. They are selling anything you can put on a laptop – or on a second laptop that you pull out of the bag at security, just when the queue thinks you are done.
The people who stay in hotels are mostly white and mostly male, the people who clean them are mostly Asian women, and this is the case in Sydney as it is in Hamburg, at least it is true in this new country I have discovered, this global, corporate, transitional place, where everyone is on the move, and nothing ever changes. Nothing ever happens, as I said before. Room service is often slow and those funny headless hangers never work, but no one dies, no one screams, and if they are having sex then they are doing it very quietly. The only sound as you turn from one corridor into the next is that of televisions being shifted along by remote control. All right, maybe the food is too fattening, and it is hard to get your greens, but it is, on the other hand, very easy to get a glass of white wine, spookily easy to get a glass of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, no matter where you are in the world, and the biggest crisis you can have is with the mini bar, a battle I have, in my day, yes, sometimes lost, but also fought and won.
I have the traveller’s great gift: I can sleep. I sleep in every room and wake up late. I go away with my family and as soon as the plane takes off I am gone. My five-year-old son keeps pushing my face and I talk to him, being both perfectly asleep and perfectly awake at the same time. I am often jet-lagged, but how can I tell? I have a poor sense of time, as I have a poor sense of left and right, and this makes me a good traveller because, no matter where I am, I always look both ways before I cross the street. I wake up with coffee and I sleep after wine, and I never ask how long a flight might be, or how long delayed, or how far from the airport to the gig and from the gig to bed, except once, when someone asked me to take the bus to save on his expenses. It was a very long and circuitous bus route. It made me very tired indeed. And there was a journalist at the other end. I think, if there’s a journalist, they should really let you take a cab.
The first time I entered a publisher’s office, the person delegated to bring me upstairs asked me whether I minded taking the lift. I said I was fine taking the lift, unless there was something wrong with the lift. She said, it was just that some authors got a bit panicky in lifts.
I don’t panic, in lifts or elsewhere. But I think I have gone very passive, which is possibly a very, very slow version of the same thing.
My favourite lift of the year was in Auckland when an enormous, tattooed rugby player got in with three or four writers (none of us panicked) and he glared and sighed, shifted and clenched his fists for two whole floors. Then the lift doors opened and he walked out again.
My least favourite lift was in Houston, where Hurricane Ike had knocked out the central shaft, killing the hive mind of the whole row. Thirty seconds is the industry standard for the arrival of a called lift, and when this doesn’t happen, you begin to lose faith in the building. You start to look for the fire exits and turn the double lock on your door, you wrestle with the window, which is closed (they are always closed), you doubt the cook and refuse the scrambled eggs (is that spittle?), and you check the printout of your bill, several times.
Perhaps it was the hurricane, but the place in Houston was a great example of a hotel on the slide. The furnishings were expensive, and the foyer was the usual riot of strelitzia, but there was no diced melon at the breakfast buffet, and this was certainly a shock. The coffee came in paper cups. I had to wash the room service chicken under the tap because it was so salt-encrusted and I was so hungry, and there was nothing else to do. These small domestic acts humiliate us in hotel rooms, or make us, at the very least, hold our breath. It takes some time to possess these spaces, if we ever do: meanwhile we steal and despoil things, we sneak around. The Royalton in Manhattan is so dark that it, ‘makes you feel as if you are up to no good’, as a fellow writer said, ‘even if you are just going about your business’. The attempt at drama, or at stating the drama, doesn’t always succeed so well – which is the drama of being alone. Maybe I am too used to solitude; I am happy enough with the presences, or agitations, silence brings. When I am at home, I don’t even need the radio. Even so, I tread lightly on hotel carpet and I never shake that sense of immanence.
But, you know, you take a shower and nothing happens. The endless corridor is often empty. The men in suits with conference lanyards nod as they get in the lift and, in Toronto, one of them said: ‘Great shoes!’
They are clean, nice men. Everyone washes in the morning, and they wash again before changing and going out to dinner. And sometimes it is nice to have a shower before bed.
Hotel bathrooms are highly fetishised, with their rows of toiletries, and the possibility of a sewing kit. I love the showers and have a faint, geological interest in the tiling (so much marble!), but I hate the toiletries, most of which could strip paint. There was a nice body lotion by Roger & Gallet once, that smelt of cucumber – but once is not enough out of so many, many hundreds of little plastic bottles, refilled or thrown away by the chambermaid the next day. I hope she steals them, as I do not. I hate the waste, or I do not get any pleasure from the waste.
Some people love hotels. I don’t know why. They can be nice if you are with someone, but so many people in these places are on their own. I am as partial as anyone to a bit of Siberian duck down, but the glamour of it all escapes me (or I resist it): that mild sense of danger, the promise that indulgence might turn, at any moment, to adventure.
I don’t think of hotel rooms as exciting or sexual spaces, not because the light switches are so complicated, and the upholstery often mildly offensive, but because experience tells me that they are not sexual spaces, actually. They are spaces that are empty, and therefore full of potential, but this is not the same thing.
This is what the porn channels are for, perhaps; to crystallise the sense of potential and name the unease. Me, I watch the news. I am very suspicious of porn. Why, for example, do people describe it as being ‘consumed’? You don’t say that a film is ‘consumed’ or even a prostitute. I have been in hotels, in the past, in Bucharest and Dakar, where I was the only woman not actively working the foyer, and this did not unsettle me. The fiction these women present is so thin, the underlying realities, of sex and money, so very real: there is a rage in this transaction against appearance, which makes it the opposite of the hotel dream.
It is a melancholy thing, to pass hundreds of thousands of people on the road and remember so few. Four black-suited men pushing aerial photographs around a table in Bogotá airport with thick, manicured fingers. A rich man in New York saying, ‘These people,’ into the empty air over his breakfast, and then looking back down at his plate. An African businessman waiting on his flight to Entebbe, reading Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In.
The most powerful men are not on these planes, they are on private jets, but some of the men on the planes are powerful enough, especially towards the front. Jet-lagged, laundered, serviced, perfumed; with their rituals and tricks: the tablets of melatonin, the Litebooks and exercise bands; with their plastic money in two different pockets, and their information stored online. They sleep under the same slippery white sheets, in different time zones, with the same pay-per-view, and there is always melon in the breakfast buffet. Don’t tell me what they sell is real. In 2008, they were already running on empty, their legs spinning faster, like the Road Runner out over the canyon drop. I think they knew.
In May I listen to someone from Man Investments tell me that bankers don’t read novels (‘Really? How interesting’). I ask him what is coming ‘down the pipes’, because this is how business people describe the future, these days, and he says, ‘What is the worst that you can imagine?’ then pauses for effect. ‘Well, it’s going to be much worse than that.’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.