A voyage of discovery (and recovery)

Glen Garry, Scotland
Some of Scotland. Not much of it. Just a bit.

At the bottom of my soul is a little hole, and jammed in that hole is a small, hard, wrinkled, dried pea.

Every day I go to work, my soul gets soaked in the hot piss that pours from clients into my ear from 9 to 5, day in, day out. As anyone who has soaked dried peas in hot piss (and we all have) will tell you, they tend to go a bit soft after a while, and as a result bits of my soul keep leaking out through the hole, trickling down my leg and vanishing into the drains. It’s most disheartening, and over the course of a year I find myself feeling increasingly hollow and dismal. I need to refill my soul, and the best method I know is to head to Scotland and attempt to build a TARDIS.

I won’t attempt to be cool about this: I love Scotland. It’s like England without all those fucking awful English people. Where Manchester has gangs of pikeys getting fingered by the bins behind Halfords, Scotland has gloaming and heather and vast empty spaces that leak into your heart and make you feel human again. And by “human” I mean “animal”. They make you reconnect with that part of yourself that hides in the corner so you can focus on staring at a screen all day, or cope with the A6 at rush hour. A couple of days in Scotland and you realise how much of you belongs in nature, and how for the first 300,000 years of human existence, all we had was places like this. Only bigger, and with a sign that says “Feral Goats”. I’m not making that up.

Scotland
Outside, where you belong. Go there you damn fool.

And this is where the TARDIS comes in, because like a Time Lord, I somehow believe that I can cram all of that vastness into a small box with a telephoto lens, take it home with me, and by looking at it can be transported back to that better time and that better place. And I can’t. All I see is 2% of what I could see from that spot, and all I feel is gutted that I’m back at a desk in my pants. From this spot I could drive for 25 minutes in any direction without seeing more than a single house. And there’s something about being in that emptiness that lets you remember what it meant to be a person.

Oh yeah: I could also see my girlfriend taking a piss in a bush.

Because one of the other things I discovered in Scotland is that my girlfriend has a bladder the size of a kidney bean. We couldn’t travel more than 10 miles without a pit-stop, although in her defence these are Scottish miles, which seem to be a bit more generous. But when we drove up from Manchester on the Saturday we had to stop at literally every service station en route. By the time we got to Loch Lomond (thus doubling the number of vegetarians in Scotland) we’d both stopped laughing about her inability to go 5 minutes without a piddle, and were determined to plough on to Fort William without a break. By this point Lorna still wasn’t feeling the essential Scottishness I’d led her to expect, mainly because we’d only just left Glasgow.

Sign as you leave Glasgow: You are now leaving Glasgow. Please take us with you.

But just around the corner from Loch Lomond it starts to get properly massive and windswept, and everybody is called Hamish, Fergus or Morag. This is the Scotland we all want.

Don’t be fooled into thinking Scotland is just one big place. I mean, it is one place, and it is quite big. I certainly wouldn’t volunteer to carpet it, for instance. But it’s got several geographical characters, and you need to go there at once and explore them all. In the borders region it could easily be leafy Hampshire, but as you head up into the highlands you seem to leap all over the place. The moors near Glencoe (that’s Sebastian’s brother) look like Iceland. Glen Garry looks like all of the postcard Scotland you’ve ever seen, all lined up across the front of your fridge like the best cut-and-paste panorama you can imagine. The Cairngorms look like Austria and will kill you if you fuck around. And if you’re bonkers enough to drive all the way to Thurso you’ll find a landscape that looks like the Urals.

Sign as you enter Thurso: Welcome to Thurso, twinned with The Moon.

Actually that’s not fair to Thurso. It’s not twinned with The Moon. It’s more of a suicide pact.

We tried to watch Looper the night we arrived, but it was too complex, Bruce Willis was too scowly, we were too tired and drunk. Plus we’d spent all our energy on driving, pissing, and doing lots of naughty sex the moment we got into the flat. Don’t blame me: we got a free sex toy because we’d spent so much on… erm… sex toys. OK, blame me a bit. But if you’re given a free sex toy, you have to try it out as soon as you can lock all the doors. And without giving too much away, it’s the best sex toy in history, so I’m apologising for nothing, except for this: we later realised the landlord lived upstairs and could probably hear it all. So can I just take a moment to say sorry for how noisy we were, and for that thing I loudly called Lorna in the heat of the moment. She isn’t one of those. She’s never charged me a penny.

The next day we went to the local supermarket, which was showing off because they had a pineapple and a coconut in stock. People had travelled all the way from the deliciously named “Rest And Be Thankful” to see them, and some of the Fergus’s were queuing up to see the local witch doctor to have their shots before being introduced to such radical fruit. So we did the usual thing you do when visiting a strange supermarket – bought a “paint your own meerkat” kit – and then left. To fill up the rest of the day we went 10 miles outside Fort William to a place which isn’t quite the middle of nowhere, but if you stand on a chair you can see the middle of nowhere from there: it’s called Glen Etive, and is such as good-looking collection of nothingness that they used it for this bit of Skyfall.

Glen Etive/
Glen Etive. This is Scotland showing off.

It might sound like “middle of nowhere” is an insult. Not so. It’s fucking beautiful. No special effects, just 22 miles of that, petering out into even more nothing at all. And because it’s the winter there’s snow and waterfalls, and a hell of a lot of deer wandering around the place, keeping warm near the bottom of the valleys. OK, it was -7, but it’s still warmer than up in the hills. Deer are gnarly, and we took dozens of photos of them standing not 10 feet from us, being wild and cool and just a little bit amazing.

Deer are certainly gnarlier than His Popeness, who decided to jack it all in because he thinks the church needs someone else at the top. Well, not the top, obviously, because presumably that’s God, and it’s hard to replace something which doesn’t exist. But old Ratzinger finally had enough foresight to realise you can be too old to do a job. Sorry, did I say foresight? I meant Forsyth. Anyway, his announcement said he’d realised his “age means he hasn’t the strength to do his job”. Which is weird, because everyone else gets even better at talking nonsensical bollocks once they’re over 85, and that, surely is the Pope’s job.

Later, he did a follow-up announcement that he’s giving up Poping so he can dedicate his life to prayer. Being Pope isn’t religious enough for some people. Fucking nutbag.

The next day we decided to head up to the highland zoo, which is (as you’d expect) entirely populated by animals that die if they get above freezing, like yaks and polar bears and people called Fergus. Lorna, quelle surprise, was treating her miniscule bladder to rare trip to the ladies, and I was looking at a map of the zoo so I get my bearings (my marbles having vanished some time before). So I looked left to see how far away the enclosure was, and lo and behold, there was a red panda. Not in a cage, just standing on the path 10 feet from me, staring back.

An escaped Red Panda at the Highland Zoo
An escaped Red Panda at the Highland Zoo

I thought it must be one of those places where they let the tamer animals wander around freely, like Ford Open Prison, so when Lorna’s bladder was eventually persuaded to exit the toilet she joined me and we took photos as the panda ambled around in front of us. A Fergus and his Morag joined us to take snaps. It was very pleasant, but after a few minutes we all started to feel strange about it. Surely a red panda would have run off by now – there was no fence to keep it in the zoo, it could just walk to Drumnadrochit if it felt the need, although frankly, why would it want to?

So we wandered back into the gift-shop to ask an Angus if it was their policy to allow red pandas to walk around freely. I’ve never seen an Angus move so fast. In 30 seconds the zoo was in lock-down, and everyone was ordered back into the gift shop (presumably in the hope we’d spend enough money to allow the zoo to buy another padlock or two). At this point I overheard the first Fergus saying he’d already sold his photo of the escaped wild animal to a Scottish tabloid for £200. It probably ended up as a hysterically terrifying story of rampant animal fury, but the reality is that the red panda is as large and terrifying as a spaniel on prozac, and in any case it wandered back to its enclosure on its own.

Even so, the lax attention to minor details like locks and fences made me slightly nervous around the polar bears, especially as they appears to be held behind chicken wire and were fucking gigantic. And brown, oddly. I suspect the zoo was cheating, as they clearly were about their beaver display – there wasn’t anything sexy about that.

Afterwards we pressed on up to Aviemore and the amazing ski slops and unutterable beauty up there. Heaven, except that it killed 4 people while we were there, and did terrible things to my hair. I’m not a preening twat, and generally don’t care about my hair at all. But hats are essential in Aviemore, and hats do bad things to any head, even one as massive and impenetrable as my own. So I finally understand why people who live in the coldest, most exposed and windblown part of Britain all have shorn heads like an warm sheep or Frankie Boyle. It’s so they don’t get hat-hair. This was a revelation to me, and probably the only time I used my brain all week.

Eilean Donan castle.
Eilean Donan castle.
By this time we’d done Eilean Donan castle and many of the best views, so we felt we had no option but to go to Loch Ness. If you ever go to Scotland and feel like Loch Ness should be part of the itinerary, take my advice: burn your itinerary. Loch Ness is pointless. Don’t get me wrong: if it was in England it would be the prettiest place for 500 miles, and would be swarming with bikers and hikers every minute of every day. But in the highlands of Scotland it’s just the background, and you drive past it with barely a glance.

And after Eilean Donan, the dismal Castle Urquhart is, frankly, garbage. It’s a broken-down wall by a pond, for which you pay £27 entrance fee. There’s a sign outside Castle Urquhart which says: Welcome to Castle Urquhart. At least we didn’t put it in a bag, set fire to it, and leave it on your doorstep.

Much better by far is the nearby town of Drumnadrochit, which is such a bustling metropolis that they advertised their traffic-calming measures from 2 miles away: it was a single traffic island on an empty street. We went to the pub, which said “Closed until mid-March”. We wandered into a courtyard because it said there was a tea-shop and a pet-shop. The tea-shop was also closed until “mid-March”, and the pet-shop was closed, had no pets, but did have a sign in the window saying somebody had found a lost cat. In Glasgow. Which is 120 miles away.

The welcoming face of Drumnadrochit
The welcoming face of Drumnadrochit

We had fits of giggles and fits of panic, because the general ambience was similar the start of a horror movie – naive townies wander into desolate village and end up bent over a desk being abused with something mechanical. But it wasn’t quite that bad: we just found a cafe which was open, and which prominently displayed the signature of James Bond’s favourite torturer, Mads Mikkelsen. He was a regular, it seems. So that made us feel much less vulnerable to a violent death.

There’s a sign outside Drumnadrochit that says: Welcome to Drumnadrochit . This is why Herbie went bananas.

We made our excuses and left. Actually, we had to get going: it was Valentine’s day, although I think I’ll avoid telling you too much about that because it wasn’t part of the Scottish plan: just an accident which happened while we were up there. All I’ll say is that it wasn’t like yours. We don’t do romance. The card I gave to her had “With sympathy” on the front, and a photo of lilies. I wrote a rude poem in it. Not sexy-rude, just abusive. She got me a card that said she more or less loved me, with some caveats that weren’t fully explained, but I can guess. We had a meal at a local restaurant that that was pretty nonsescript to be honest, but I suspect it’s hard to find a great chef in a town with 19 permanent inhabitants. After that went home, not in the most romantic of moods, and had some sex. The sex wasn’t anything to write home about, either (which is a pity, because my mum used to really enjoy those letters).

And so, sadly, to our last day in Scotland, and the only occasion in my working-class life when I’ve needed skiing clothes. We went to a rock-and-ice-climbing centre, and I needed to wear something that is – or perhaps are – called “Salopettes”. It says much about the limitations of my class background that I still have no idea whether a salopette is plural or singular, but it matters not a jot because mine lasted about 3 minutes. Salopettes don’t react well when you drag razor-sharp crampons down them as soon as you start to scramble up a wall, and I had to be held together with duct-tape as I attempted a 25-foot ice-cliff. Although to be honest, by the time I got to the ice I was already knackered. The rock-climbing did me in, and I realised (not for the first time) that the results of my cancer surgery are pretty much permanent. I don’t have much strength left in my stomach muscles these days, at least not compared with old me. And I found it very hard to bend myself into the shapes necessary for scaling a wall.

I also discovered that I’m pretty bad at heights. Embarrassing, especially when you find out about this only when you get to the top of the 50-foot high rope-walk. I was the very definition of “chicken out”, and swiftly abseiled down, feeling light-headed and delighted to be back on terra firma. Just watching Lorna skipping around up there made me feel wobbly. Hey, where in this blog does it say I’m a real man?!

And so that’s it: my soul is refreshed and filled up with Scottishness for another year, and here I am, back at my desk, being slowly emptied again. I can’t wait to go back and do it all again.

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Rediscovering London

“When a man is tired of London”, wrote Dr Samuel Johnson, “he is tired of life”.

And isn’t that just bloody typical of a Londonista? Not for a moment does it occur to the unctuous gits that it’s London we’re all sick of, not life.

Actually, the full quote is:

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

Johnson was right: the capital contains all that life can afford, but only if you can afford it, and few can. For the rest of us, it’s a miserable place.

I reckon I’m relatively intellectual – OK, I’m no Peter Andre, but I can often tie my own shoes and have my drooling pretty much under control. And yet I’m more than willing to leave London, and gleefully manage to do it every time I visit, which historically has been far too often. So stick that up your arse, Dr. Johnson. Every couple of weeks for the last two decades I’ve been dragged down to The Smoke by the demands of my clients; and by the beard of Zeus, it’s been tiresome.

In my old job I was in charge of 40-odd programmers (by which I mean 40 programmers who were odd), and they endlessly griped about the “jollies” I was allowed to go on while they sat in a warm office with a foosball table and sly access to a whole internet full of porn that they didn’t realise I knew they were looking at.

So they’d sit in comfort, doing 15 minutes of programming and 45 minute trips to the bathroom for twice-daily wank; and they’d moan about being excluded from my exciting life as a jet-setter. Ooh yeah, how exciting: an 8 hour round trip on a Virgin train containing approximately 200,000 people and one toilet which doubles as a chemical weapons research facility.

The only thing that kept me from passing out from the heat and the crush was coffee that tastes like it’s already passed through a weasel (and not in the good way).

And when I arrive at Euston, I’m denied fresh air or sunlight because I have to ride through a hot, murky tunnel full of farts, crap violinists and would-be terrorists, packed in like sardines with literally the rudest people never to appear on the X Factor’s judging panel.

Then a dull meeting in an anonymous office block, and back to the train for a lukewarm burger that costs me:

  1. £490
  2. my otherwise svelte figure
  3. and the use of my colon for several days

London, frankly, is utter shite (just like that bit about my svelte figure, in fact).

My guess is that there are people in Marseilles saying the same things about Paris right now. To you and I Paris is a dream of romance and beauty, but to the Marseillaise it’s probably just that annoying place that’s always on the telly: a crowded, noisome, expensive, self-regarding shit-pit that gobbles up all the money and joylessly pisses all over the rest of France. It’s London with garlic and gitanes.

I went to Paris once. It’s hard to say this without is sounding like a boast, so I won’t try: I was invited to address the Nobel Peace committee on “the future of online campaigning”. You may fellate me now, unworthy peasants.

I was rather excited about the trip until I made it, when the crushing mundanity of the whole venture finally occurred to me: it was exactly the same as every trip I make to London, and I was going to hate it all. Sure, I got on a plane rather than a train, and there’s always something enervating about flying. But it was an EasyJet flight, so I left part of my soul at the check-in desk, and my seat comprised less space than my hand-luggage.

By the time I got to France it felt like a vein in my thigh had popped, and my legs had the consistency of processed mincemeat being squeezed into sausages. I went straight to an anonymous hotel just outside the airport, gritted my teeth through monumental pins and needles, did my speech, and then came home to flagellate myself for being naive enough to get excited in the first place. I saw nothing in France that was touristy or exciting or romantic. Everything was either concrete or flourescent, except for the rain, which felt entirely British.

Swap Paris for London, and I wouldn’t have noticed.

People who live in London might be offended by all of this, to which I can only say that I’m very, very… what’s the opposite of sorry? Yeah, I’m that.

Manchester. Tuesday. Around lunch-time.

London, to the rest of the population of Britain, is a vast, noisy, ugly mess that gobbles up power and influence and jobs and money and culture, and then vomits out disdain for the rest of the country. In a modern democracy with proper transport links and telecoms I see no reason at all for keeping all of that important, exciting, money-making stuff in one massively expensive place.

Of course, if you attempt to spread it out a little bit you get torn to shreds by the same idiotic wankers who think “Manchester” is synonymous with “paleozoic tar-pit”. But why not move the BBC to Salford?

And while you’re at it, why not save the taxpayer a small fortune in offices, and move the civil service to Dundee? And the English National Ballet to Bradford. And the headquarters of BT to Belfast? We could go crazy, and move the entire board of The Halifax to Halifax, or Scottish and Newcastle to Scotland or Newcastle. It’d cost half as much to run the organisations, and you never know: people might actually discover that the rest of the nation has some value, and reduce property prices in London to boot.

If you look carefully at this map, you can just about spot some parts of the UK which aren’t London.

In fact there should be a policy: keep Parliament on a permanent tour, changing venue every 6 months so the MPs who routinely evacuate their bowels full of foie gras onto Llandudno have to actually live there for a while. Well, maybe not Llandudno – there are limits. But is there a single reason why all of that powerful, cultural, commercial, influential stuff has to be based in a 4 square-mile plot? It might be convenient for the Queen, but does she really pop to Parliament that often? I think I go there more than she does, and with a lot less fannying around and expense too (although Virgin Trains are doing their best to make me travel at the speed and price of a gold-encrusted horse-drawn state coach).

Why would you choose to base your business in London, let alone live there? It’s expensive, dirty, over-crowded and has a gloating, nasty, self-regarding shittiness that just annoys the 50 million Britons who don’t live there – which is, after all, the vast majority of us.

So it might seem like an odd choice for me to have a holiday in London. I’ll explain.

I rarely do holidays. I don’t get much from a week in Greece, because I don’t see the point of lying by a pool; my holiday tradition has been to save up for 3-4 years and have a big holiday in a gorgeous far-away land that I can explore, like Cuba (which is brilliant).

So it’s been about 5 years since I had a break of any kind, and I felt I needed one. My girlfriend – who is becoming less and less ashamed of that sobriquet – wanted to go to the Harry Potter exhibit, and had never been to London. So we decided to go. For once, I was going to London voluntarily, and this time I was going to see the sights, not just traipse to some serviced offices in Archway.

And you know what? It was bloody brilliant. I’d still rather iron my own gonads into a salty, blistered, bloody pancake than live there, but it’s an amazing place for a touristy long-weekend. The Harry Potter exhibit is extraordinarily good if you’re a Potter fan, a movie buff, or just somebody who finds interesting things kinda interesting. And my girlfriend and I are at least one of those things each, so it was a joy for us to visit.

And then we pottered (no pun intended, but I’m still not editing it out) down to Kensington to see Natural History Museum, which was amazing and stunning, and still the very finest exhibition in the country. And it’s in one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring buildings too. If you’re coming to London from abroad, and are thinking of a day trip to York Minster for the architecture, don’t: just pop to Kensington instead, and try to tear your eyes away from the dinosaurs and life-sized whales long enough to look at the ceiling.

Also steer clear of York Minster for explanations of how the universe came to exist. The Natural History Museum can do that better too.

We even managed to stumble upon the only nice restaurateur in London, who was hiding in plain sight right opposite Harrods. Every person I’ve ever bought food from in London has either spat on me, spat in my food, stabbed me or called me a “fackin caaaahnt” as I walked away. And even if they didn’t actually do those things, they looked like they wanted to, and it was only the trustworthy presence of the corrupt-a-cop Met Police that was preventing my death by shiv.

But this guy was funny, friendly, generous and – amazingly – a local. I’m from the North of England, where those characteristics are the norm: but to find a Londoner who had, seemingly without any encouragement from his 8 million co-habitants, found it in his heart to be kind and warm and engaging… well, it’s made me reconsider the whole place, leave a large tip, and promise to pop in again next time I’m in town. I hope I can. You should too, if you get a chance.

There were some disappointments, such as my banging headache the night we arrived, which prevented me from”doing a sex” on my girlfriend the moment I arrived at the hotel. It was something we’d promised each other, but instead I fell asleep face down at 10pm, and snored until she wanted to murder me. Not a jury in the land would convict her, folks.

And the hotel itself was disappointing, but managed to be so in a way that was mostly hilarious. We stayed at the Grange Strathmore, which on the surface looks just like a real hotel, but is actually an elaborate charade to fool you into taking part in a hidden camera show about how much shit a British tourist is prepared to take.

They were OK before we got there: they told us of an arrangement with a nearby hotel, where we could park in central London for only £5 per day, and they were kind enough to offer to help with our bags. It all seemed to be going well, except that we were given a room that seemed to be in an “I’m smaller than you” competition with the closet, and losing. It was literally so small that we couldn’t walk around the bed; we had to change rooms or I’d have been forced to climb over my hot naked girlfriend all weekend… hold on, what am I saying?!

So we moved to a better room, and thought we’d ironed out the only snag with the hotel. We woke the next day, filled up on coffee, and had a brilliant day of museuming and distracting scientists by waving at them gleefully. The Natural History Museum is heaven for nerds and overgrown schoolboys, and I’m both. We walked about 10 miles around its corridors without a moment that was less that utterly fascinating; and when we got back to our room we so tired we had to limit our sex to only 2 hours and 9 positions. Then we showered and decided to be lazy and eat at the hotel.

I can now confess, dear reader, that this may have been a poor decision.

Our waitress. Naked. She’s just that hairy.

It was a nice-looking restaurant, with high ceilings and proper linen tablecloths, but it was almost empty: we were the only couple when we arrived, and then another couple were placed at the next table while we were choosing our food. The waitress had what I’m charitably calling a shaving cut on her lip, but an uncharitable person might have said she had an open, weeping cold-sore. She also appeared to be from a strange eastern-European nation where everybody is born in misery and then starts searching for more. I asked for a beer, and she said…

Hold on, I don’t think she said anything. Saying seemed to be beyond her. What she actually did was juggle experimentally with some randomly selected English phrases, sway slightly, and intersperse some grunts, hand signals, and apologetic shrugs into her performance.

I asked for a beer, but I wasn’t allowed one: “No. Is no in this room. For. Not… mmm… beer in other… bar… Him. Room”. And then her (possible) shaving cut flapped open a little as she smiled. I assume it was a smile. It might have been wind.

She brought us a bottle of water. It was warm. We asked for cold water instead, although it took about 5 minutes to get the concept across to our waitress, and we had to rely on my girlfriend’s experience in mime and amateur dramatics.

She took the bottle away, and then brought it back, approaching us sideways like a crab to indicate that she was sorry: “We no… hmmm… cold… fridge, no”. We took this to mean they had elected, in a brave departure from the norm, not to serve cold drinking water in their estabishment. She brought some ice instead, which appeared to mystify her. I suspect she thinks the ice machine is witchcraft.

I dare you to lick this man. I double-dare you.

Our starters were described as grilled brie in breadcrumbs with an orange jelly dressing and salad. It was actually microwaved brie out of a box, with a scoop of actual Robinson’s breakfast marmalade, and slices of raw carrot. It was grisly, disturbing and hilarious, like a car crash involving an octopus and John McCririck: you’d laugh, but you wouldn’t want to have to lick any of the mess up.

For our main courses, I ordered a steak, medium rare, with peppercorn sauce on the side; my girlfriend chose the cod with mediterranean vegetables.

It was the oddest steak I’ve ever had: it looked like it had been cooked on a low heat for about 2 days, until any texture and taste had been utterly eradicated. It was almost white inside. Perhaps it had been bleached. And rather than peppercorn sauce on the side, it was served with Bisto onion gravy poured over it, and a slab of butter. It had the traditional steak accompaniment of wet, pale, boiled potatoes and an entire field of parsley.

My girlfriend’s cod didn’t arrive because the waitress, clearly confused by the crowds, had managed to deliver it to the only other table in the place which was occupied. There were literally 4 people in the restaurant, and only 2 meals to deliver: she still got it wrong. I sat slack-jawed as she attempted to explain her mistake with what sounded like a Ukrainian nursery-rhyme, some folk-dancing, and elaborate hand-movements that suggested she was attempting to guide a light aircraft in to land.

The cod was finally redirected to my girlfriend, although it was hardly worth the wait. It turned up, as described, with traditional mediterranean vegetables: peas, carrots, brocoli, cauliflower and (you guessed it) wet, pale, boiled potatoes. If any of those vegetables had gone to the mediterranean, it was on holiday, and they clearly wished they’d stayed.

This cod is cooked better than the one at the Grange Strathmore hotel. It is also better qualified than the manager.

As with every dish on the menu, it was served with about an Imperial pound of parsley, to the extent that no other flavours were detectable. On inspection, we found that the lonely slice of lemon which had found its way onto the plate was coated with parsley too. On both sides. I began to suspect the chef had actually dunked every item of food into a vat of parsley before, during and after cooking them.

Oh: and the cod was raw.

At this point my sense of absurdity left me, especially as I realised I was being asked to pay almost £60 (plus tips) for this fiasco. So I asked to see the manager or the chef.

The manager was nowhere to be found. I’m not surprised: none of this seemed managed in any sense. So the chef came to visit, looking like he’d only just been unchained, and was surprised to find his misguided culinary experiments were actually being served to humans. I quietly listed the multitudinous failings, and he nodded in servile acceptance. He almost certainly already knew that he was shit.

Olga, the Dumb Waitress with the suppurating lip, then did a small ceremony involving a yurt and some chanting, which we took to mean that she was offering the desert menu. We declined. We’d experienced what they could do to a steak: Christ alone knows what horrors the crème brûlée held.

And finally, to add insult to injury, they delivered a bill for the full meal. Honestly, I very nearly added insult to injury in return: writing “you’re a twat” on the plaster cast the manager was about to receive. But instead I got hold of the duty manager, told her there was no way on God’s clean earth I was paying, and we left it at that.

You’d think, having given us a shit room and a shit meal, that the hotel would make a special effort to cheer us up. But the bar had no staff and no beer; so we found an off-licence, got pissed in our room, and turned in around 1:30 am, hoping for a lazy lie-in on Saturday.

The next morning I was haunted by a strange dream in which a brass band, of all things, was tuning up in the room below me. And then I woke to find a brass band, of all things, was tuning up in the room below me. It was 8:00 am, and the hotel, in an almost bloody-minded act of commercial suicide, had allowed a 40-piece brass ensemble to practice “as long as they don’t disturb anybody”.

Since the days of Euterpe herself, not a single person has uttered a more idiotic sentence than “You can practice your 40-piece brass band in my hotel… as long as you don’t disturb anybody”. After my girlfriend undertook a brief, noisy, satisfying discussion with the receptionist we were told they’d ask the brass band to be quiet until after 9am, which I think is very civilised. I’m sure they’d offer the same service in the Dorchester.

A brass band, one of nature’s most silent and elusive phenomena.

After that we didn’t need to eat, sleep or in any way be in the hotel any more, and our experience of it improved. These things always seem better when you don’t actually have to go through them. But as a final, steaming turd in our shoe, they had misinformed us slightly about the cost of parking. Remember they said £5 per day, and we were surprised and delighted? Well that’s because it was actually £39.50 per day, and the Grange Strathmore Hotel, Kensington, London, is actually the worst hotel since Fawlty Towers.

Fortunately, it’s also very nearly as funny, as long as you’re very forgiving, have a little spare cash, or are off your fucking face on heroin the whole time. I managed 2 of those 3 requirements, so I got through it unscathed. And fortunately, it didn’t ruin my otherwise wonderful long weekend in London.