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November 27, 2009

Theodore Dalrymple recommends taking your holiday at an airport hotel - so long as you don't switch on the television

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple finds joy in airport hotels.

Taking an early flight recently from a distant airport, I had occasion to stay overnight in an airport hotel next to the airport; but, with the incompetence I have come to expect of myself, I mistook the day of my flight and arrived twenty-four hours early. This meant that I would have to (or at any rate might just as well) spend two nights in the airport hotel.

Touching down several thousand miles away, I learnt that the weather at my final destination was so bad that I could not take the connecting flight and would therefore have to stay overnight in the airport hotel. That made three nights in succession spent in airport hotels.

By now, I have stayed in such hotels all over the world and they are much the same wherever they are. Had there been a world government to ensure uniformity throughout the world, its work, at least with respect to airport hotels, could not have been done better. Of course, their uniformity is part of what makes these hotels so reassuring.

The décor is antiseptic and easily kept that way; there is something Scandinavian about them all, as if there were birch woods and lakes outside. The staff are smiling and polite in a Pavlovian kind of way; one imagines that an electric shock comes up through the floor if they fail to smile or tell customers what they really think of them. As for the food, it combines exotic names with complete blandness, and is sent up from some subterranean central kitchen that provides all the airport hotels of the world.

The bedrooms are all the same, give or take a few square feet, down to the kind of pictures on the wall, which must soothe without stimulating in any way. They are there only because an absence of pictures would disturb the guest.

The windows overlook the car-parks that are half the raison d'etre of the hotel: not that anyone is expected to look out of them. They scarcely open, at most by an inch or two, these windows, both to prevent suicides and to keep the silence in and the temperature-controlled air undisturbed. Although giant aircraft take ff only a few hundred yards away at most, their sound is reduced to a dull hum, which, when it occurs often and regularly, is rather soothing, like the ticking of a clock.

The strange thing is that I loved my three nights in these utterly impersonal surroundings. What happy hours I spent stretched out on my bed reading detective novels (I had taken the wise precaution of bringing several old-fashioned green and white-covered Penguins with me). I had no computer with me and switched off my mobile phone. I was almost as incommunicado as it is possible to be in the modern world: and this in the middle of an airport through which scores of millions of people pass annually!

I began after a while to reflect on why I was enjoying myself so much. Clearly it had something to do with the anonymity of the place, and a release from the need to be somebody or play a part in front of others. There was no social pressure whatsoever; there was no need to pretend or to try to please. Airport hotels, then, are the realm of Pure Being. They are places of spiritual refreshment or even of retreat. They are, at least potentially, the monasteries of our time.

Are there not commercial possibilities here? Re-think the meaning of your existence with three days in a Heathrow hotel! Guaranteed nothing to do, no one to meet, perfect calm, food bland enough to reduce eating to a physiological function. No one can spend his time fruitlessly wondering what is for dinner tonight: since no one, in the normal way, is expected to stay more than one night, why should the menu ever vary? The food today will be the same as the food in ten years' time - though it is possible that it will be called something different.

Needless to say, only those with minds - or perhaps I should say souls - prepared will be able to benefit from spiritual retreats in airport hotels: by which I mean those strong enough of will not to turn on the television that, appropriately enough, is kept in the modern equivalent of the commode, the television cabinet. How easily the heavenly peace of the room can be turned into one of the circles of hell: at the flick of a switch, in fact. To put people out of the way of temptation, perhaps the television could be removed for the duration of their stay; though more advanced souls could have them in their rooms, much as the Mahatma slept with young girls to test his chastity

Except for very superior people, of whom I am not one, such stays in airport hotels would be short, a few days at most; but the most spiritually-inclined, no doubt, would eventually come to live in them. My Diogenes Travel Agency would offer discounts, or perhaps even time shares, for regular subscribers.

The desire to get away from the oppressive aspects of reality is natural enough. That is why I sympathise so much with people who work in National Health Service organisations such as Trust Headquarters. Their offices have much in common with airport hotels except, of course, that the receptionists - who are reached only through a decontaminating air-lock at the entrance of the building - tend to the opposite of airport hotel receptionists. They react with Pavlovian suspicion towards all strangers, and perhaps receive an electric shock through the floor if their fail to display it adequately.

As in airport hotels, the flow of air in the premises is perfectly controlled and the windows do not open (there is no need for them to be able to do so). The outside world enters only as a faint and soothing hum, as a vague rumour of its existence. Here in the Platonic realm of targets, reality is as welcome as salmonella in a cream tea.

This is the dialectic, then, of the modern world: between the frightening disorder of pullulation on the one hand, and the antiseptic order of the airport hotel on the other.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. He is the author of the author of Junk Medicine: Doctors, Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy and In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas.


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"Are there not commercial possibilities here? Re-think the meaning of your existence with three days in a Heathrow hotel!"

In recent years I've come to believe that there would be a market in the West (or in Britain, at least) for an ultra-low-budget package holiday wherein the happy travellers sign up for ten weeks of subsistence farming in the middle of nowhere. I don't mean the conventional "gap year experience": none of that blogging on your laptop about the lovely sunsets and your feelings; no bus-trips to explore the local cuisine in the towns nearby. No, I mean living like a Spartan Helot for three months. ...Just you and the guy from the local milita prodding you in the back with a Kalashnikov until you've planted the yams.

I chanced upon the idea a few years ago, after an in-law of mine, a lecturer in law & sociology, informed me (with the pitying smile of the elect) that the corpulence of British society was largely due to dietary ignorance, and that the only solution to this growing problem would be a nationwide government drive providing instruction on how to eat --- along with, if memory serves, measures to tackle the terrible epidemic of grinding poverty which grips this island nation. (I lacked the presence of mind --- and the courage --- to ask her, as Churchill would have doubtless done, which of these two blights was responsible for her own ponderosity.) As may be appreciated, reasoning with so lost a soul is a waste of breath, and so my thoughts turned to the question of whether she might see the light were I to adduce living refutation of her thesis.

So I got to thinking: what if a group of despairing fish-shop fatties were dispatched for their hols to, say, the Ghanaian hinterland, to bring forth their sustenance from the earth with hoe and cutlass? Though beyond the reach of both governmental dietary "education" initiatives and state subvention, I'd wager that the holidaymakers' bulging bodies would nevertheless become considerably less bulgy as the weeks wore on. ... And just imagine the impact on their self-esteem!

Of course it may be argued, particularly by a member of today's academy (and no doubt using the latest statistics), that the poverty in the average African backwater is much less severe than that experienced by the average welfare-dependent Briton: the definition of poverty in the developed world is even more plastic than the definition of bullying, and the continuing quest for the definitive definition is no doubt by now a multi-million-pound industry, employing many of the public sector's subtlest minds.

Yet even if my in-law were not persuaded to re-think, I believe that the benefits to the holidaymakers would more than compensate. Perhaps they might even find the daily struggle of African village life more attractive than the enervating round of subsidised or credit-based consumerism that passes for "life" in today's Britain. They may even be keen to sign up for subsequent vacations.

...And happy holidaymakers signing up for more tours make a happy tour operator! I should think my overheads would be fairly low. The customers could organise their own air-travel & insurance (or pay through the nose for me to arrange them, if they're too lazy). My outlay would be primarily the purchase of the land they'd be working, and running costs would be little more than the fee for their African taskmaster (the local going rate plus a bit) along with their bed & board --- although perhaps there's some extra money to be made in a fat-burning hut-building program. I doubt that I'd have to do a great deal, once the thing's all set up (particularly if my customers sign a comprehensive enough waiver prior to departure). ...Might even take the tour myself, abdominous as I am.

Indeed, the idea of getting rich by turning prime British belly-pork into African agriculture is a most pleasing one. Any takers? ...Or prospective business partners?

Posted by: P.H. at November 28, 2009 06:55 PM
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Purely as a matter of curiosity, is PH anyone different from Theodore Dalrymple? The style and approach seem identical.

Posted by: Archie Wedderspoon at December 1, 2009 03:44 AM
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the good doctor has written an excellent story. however, i think that possibly one could broaden the base of hotels to almost ANY generic hotel...say Holiday Inn, or Hilton, or Best Western, or Sheraton, or Marriott...in all of these you will feel delightfully anonymous, and in my experience one tends to feel very well taken care of in the four stars and up hotels...the food as Dr. Dalrymple explained is quite predictable, and limited, (unless one wants to go out and ramble about) but usually good enough to fill the hole...one can lie on the bed and luxuriate for as long as one likes, with NO calls upon one's time. no work to rush off to, no dishes to wash, no floor to vacuum and so on. very nice to stay in one of these places for a week or so....all the cares of home tend to vanish for the while that you are there.

Posted by: visvanath at December 1, 2009 09:29 PM
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I recall an article in one of the papers a few years ago in which an author (I cannot remember who, unfortunately) explained how he once had a deadline for a book approaching, and needed to work hard and non-stop on it for about a week, which would be difficult to do at home with his family. His solution was, in fact, to check in to an airport hotel. He would be comfortable, his needs would be taken care of, the food would be good but not interesting enough for him to want to take extra time savouring it, and there would be nothing at all to distract him. Everything worked well and he got the book written. Apparently, the oddest thing that happened was the slightly puzzled reaction he got when he called the hotel in the first place and said he would like to make a reservation to stay for a week.

Posted by: Michael Jennings at December 3, 2009 10:18 AM
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These airport hotels all sound like the retirement home that my poor mother inhabits. The drollery of posters here would entirely escape her. Sanitised, undisturbed peace, efficient comfort and freedom from necessity of thought .... ah, what bliss. Next best thing to being dead. It will come soon enough. Don't hurry it along.

Posted by: mara at January 22, 2010 07:24 AM
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