TRAVEL WEEKLY EAST
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE ENGLISH
By Siew Hoon
Once upon a time, we looked upon England as the enchanted land. We saw London as that glorious capital of men and women who fought wars, won them and ruled over their far flung lands. Some of us who lived in former colonies looked on the English with grudging respect.
Today, the perceptions of the British have changed somewhat.
On the British Airways flight over to London last week, I read about a British Council survey which painted the British as ‘stuffy traditionalists living on past glories, class-conscious, frequently drunk and xenophobic.”
There are those English who are sniffy, louts and racists. But there are also those who are kind, warm and hospitable and, in particular, wonderful characters that you wouldn’t want changed in any way, because they are the essence of English.
Take my host in this bed & breakfast the British Tourist Authority had organised for me.
I arrive on a cold rainy evening. The taxi driver helps me with my bags, rings the apartment listed as “Penthouse 1” and makes sure someone is coming down to let me in before he drives off. (Can you imagine any taxi driver in any Asian city doing that?)
A distinguished-looking gentleman in his latter years, opens the door, shakes my hand firmly, mumbles something about the weather, picks up my bags and ushers me into this old dogdy-looking lift.
“Are you sure it works,” I ask. (Us modern Asian city folks are generally suspicious of any installation over 20 years old. The lift looked more than a century old.) “Of course,” be says. His air of quiet confidence assures me.
We enter the apartment. He takes me through a tiny walkway. “This is your bedroom and bathroom,” he says, pointing first left, then right.
“How many rooms do you have?” I ask, curiously. “Just the one, dear,” he replies, looking at me quizzically.
And that was the beginning of a unique hospitality experience for me – the only time I had been the only guest of a local family.
Having stayed in many London hotels, from the best to the dodgy, this was luxury. The bedroom is a good size, everything you want is here – hairdryer, closet space with plenty of hangers, bedside lamp, power points. The bathroom is also spacious.
In the mornings, my host cooked breakfast for me (scrambled eggs on toast) and we had conversations. He asked me about Raffles Hotel and if it had changed. He talked of London and how it has developed. He admitted the English had been “rather slow” to change but now, “we are changing quite fast for us”.
We talked about politics, the arts, history and books. I helped myself to the classics, even a novel written by his father-in-law.
He said, “Make yourself at home.” I did. I did my e-mail, using his phone line. “I am sure you know what you are doing,” he asked, as he watched me, sitting on the floor and fiddling with his phone with a nail file. My air of quiet confidence assured him, I presumed.
Once, when I couldn’t get a taxi, be walked me out (in the rain) and flagged one down for me.
I had my own keys so I could come and go as I like. When I returned in the wee mornings, I would sneak in on tiptoes, remembering when I had to do it at home with my parents.
When I left, I felt as if I was leaving home. He brought my bags down to the taxi, shook my hand and said, “Lovely to have you stay and do come back.”
I am sure my host had no formal hotel training at all. What he did came from the heart. I learnt what being a guest was really like, in the true sense of the word, not some anonymous figure renting a room.
The hotel industry could learn a lesson or two from this.