2019 marks my fiftieth year as a performer. I first went on stage – terrified – to read a few of my poems in the main hall of the students union at Birmingham University in the Autumn of 1969. Then I was a nineteen-year-old Industrial Metallurgy student. Leaving university two years later, I became a professional writer and performer. Since then, I’ve had no other job apart from a three-month stint as a Santa Claus in a Birmingham department store. (Note to self: you must write a piece about that experience!). My work has always entailed travelling and staying in hotels, bed’n’breakfasts or wherever else I’m offered. Some of these have been less than luxurious. Here are four of the very worst.
Number one was way back around 1980 before I had a car. I’d done a gig in Newcastle which had run late. I’d missed the last direct train but managed to catch one heading for York from where I was assured that there’d be a second train through to my Bradford home town or, failing that, to nearby Leeds.
We got as far as Middleborough. Here the train stopped for about half an hour before the guard walked through telling everyone that there was a fault , the train was terminating here and there were no more trains till morning. By now it was about 11 pm. I’d about fifteen quid on me. After everyone else had gone wherever people with money went, I found a taxi rank and got a driver to take me to the cheapest bed and breakfast that he knew. Getting out of the taxi, I found my way into the place blocked by a gang of skinheads, most of whom were staying there. I pushed through them, got in and soon found myself in a sitting room with no carpet and a bunch of dilapidated sofas occupied by more skinheads, all of whom were working on the off-shore oil-rigs. They made me welcome by shifting over so I could join them. The TV didn’t work but we whiled away the time by passing round pages of the one copy of The Sun newspaper that the owners had left out for their guests. I’d been told that they’d gone to the pub but should be back some time. The skinhead sitting next to me was a sullen teenager with his whole head covered in a thick layer of ointment for his chronic impetigo – a singularly unpleasant skin infection.
It was about 12.30 when the owners returned, clearly worse for wear. I was assured I was welcome and could have a room, with breakfast, for eight pounds. Relieved, I explained that I’d been travelling and hadn’t eating. Could I have a sandwich? Anything would do. The drunken landlord went through to the back room to ask his equally drunken wife. I heard her say ‘He wants what?’ This was followed by a string of increasingly obscene expletives during which he struggled in vain to calm her down. The ensuing and increasing loud row between them lasted for several minutes, at the end of which he came back through to inform me that his wife said that’d be fine and would a cheese sandwich be okay?
After my feast, I was shown to my room. Like the lounge, it had bare floorboards. There was a wash-basin with a sign above it telling you not to piss in this sink. Above the single bed was a second sign instructing guests not, under any circumstances, to remove the plastic sheet from on top of the mattress. ‘We don’t want any more piss on that mattress,’ explained my host. Alone in the room a few moments later, I checked the state of the mattress and was very grateful for the plastic sheet between it and me.
Utterly exhausted, I actually slept well and was the last one down for breakfast, all the oil-rig workers having just left. Breakfast was made and served by the father of the guy who’d sorted my sandwich and shown me to my room. This old guy was an ex-miner who firmly believed that men needed good breakfasts. We got on really well together and, at his insistence, I had two huge full English breakfasts which were wonderful. All’s well that ends well.
Number two was when I was booked for a couple of days work as a visiting writer in a school in Slough during the autumn of 2010. There, I spent two memorable nights in a cheap hotel. On the first night, having driven down from Bradford, I arrived late. The bar was closing. A dozen or more muscled and deeply dodgy youths lounged among the detritus of a night of serious drinking and drugging. Lager bottles, bits of tobacco, screwed up pieces of silver paper, spoons, cig papers, lighters, a couple of needles and more all testified to this over-indulgence. I was shown to a room and finally fell asleep, only to be repeatedly woken by a seemingly unending stream of shouted mobile phone monologues which were being conducted in the back yard immediately below the window of my room. Each involved resolving the details of who was supplying what to whom and when.
The following night, those deals were again going down, but mercifully less rowdily. I’d a filthy en suite bathroom in which the main light didn’t work so you had to use the shaving light instead. Likewise the bedside light was broken, but the main room light seemed okay. All the furniture – a wardrobe, chest of drawers and two bedside cabinets – was broken. There were no channels available on the ancient white plastic TV. The carpet couldn’t have been cleaned or even hoovered for months. The toilet flushed continuously and so I’d closed the bathroom door to get some peace. However, it was a cold night and the only working radiator was the one in the bathroom so I had to open the door and put up with the constant flush.
Knackered after having had that much-disturbed sleep the night before, I numbed to it all and was just drifting off when water started pouring from the still-lit main light-socket, not just drips but a steady stream that saturated the carpet. The whole socket was, by now, crackling like crazy and a full firework of sparks was showering down. And I promise you, that’s no exaggeration. It was truly alarming. This went on for a good half-an-hour. During it, I made several unsuccessful attempts to get help from the desk staff – three cheerful youths who’d just had pizzas delivered and couldn’t see why I was gate-crashing their meal. One of them even tried to get me to relax by offering me a chip.
Eventually, in response to my fifth interruption of their feast, they deputed a mate who’d happened to drop in to visit them. He and I knocked on the door of the room above mine. An aging fat guy in y-fronts and a vest ushered us in. A Chinese woman half his age and wearing a negligee was sitting up in bed working on a laptop. They’d just had a shower. The bathroom floor was flooded but they both assured me that the water pouring into my room had nothing at all to do with them.
It was an awkward situation over which none of us had any authority. Within five minutes, for reasons I couldn’t fathom, we’d opted for diplomacy. Everyone became smiley and friendly, so much so that I felt slightly guilty for having made such a fuss, and gratefully accept the offer of a bedside lamp. Back in my room, the dripping had subsided. Leaving the main light off, I stepped carefully over the saturated carpet and plugged in the replacement bedside lamp. It didn’t work. Sleepless, I sat in the semi-dark of the dim glow from the shaving light in the bathroom, and tried to balance the awfulness of the place with the niceness these people… their free chips, their smiling innocence in their underwear, and their generosity in finding me a spare lamp, albeit one which didn’t work. You should visit Slough. It’s an interesting place.
Number three was in Amsterdam. I was with a band and we were part-way through a tour of Holland. We were on a tight budget and were glad of free accommodation. A Dutch Hell’s Angel who’d wanted to see us perform had unfortunately just been hospitalised after crashing his bike. In his absence, he offered us the use of the squat in which he lived, an abandoned warehouse. There were only a couple of beds, so most of us slept in our sleeping-bags on the floor. On the first night, I was woken at about 3 a.m. by mice. I counted thirteen of them, twelve that I could see running about all around me, and a thirteenth which I couldn’t see but could feel. It had climbed inside my sleeping-bag and had woken me by crawling into my underpants and curling up against the warmth of my balls.
And so we come to number four. This is the one I’ll never forget. It’s the late 1990s. It’s a warm night and I’ve just climbed into my comfy bed. I’m in a smart en suite room which is in a modern building owned by a leading British hotel chain. However, I’m becoming increasingly aware of a distinctly unpleasant smell, acrid and a bit cabbage-like. Gradually I’m identifying it as that of rotting flesh, of something dead that has been that way for quite a while. I get up and walk round the room sniffing. Now there’s nothing. Maybe I imagined it. Back in bed, though, there it is again. I look under the bed expecting to find the corpse of a rodent, but there’s nothing there. I open the window to let in fresh air, check elsewhere round the room, still nothing. I phone reception. A man comes up and smells round the room before assuring me that I must be mistaken. He goes. I get back into bed and there again is the unmistakable stench of rotting flesh. Another call to reception brings the receptionist back along with the manager. These two men now sniff round the room before deciding that there’s no smell. Unconvinced, I demand and eventually get a different room.
Checking me out next morning, the woman on the desk can’t find my booking details. I explain that I was originally in a different room. “Oh,” she exclaims, “you’re the man who changed rooms”. She pauses, glances round to check no one else is in earshot, and then adds in a hushed voice: “I don’t blame you. A man died in bed in that room last week. We didn’t find him for three days.”
Whenever I travel anywhere, getting home is a good feeling, not least because I know that if our mattress ever got soaked in piss or played host to a rotting corpse, we’d bloody replace it.