Tuesday, March 4, 2014

No Comfort at the Inn by J.P. Bowie

The definition of comfort, according to Merriam Webster is to give strength and hope to - cheer :  to ease the grief or trouble of - console.  

Some years ago my partner Phil and I traveled to the UK to attend the memorial service for a dear friend. I had known Godfrey since we were both chorus boys at the London Palladium and although our lives took us to different corners of the globe at times, myself in the States, G. in South Africa, we had remained in touch over the years. It was a devastating blow when he was stricken with cancer.

We had many friends in common so it seemed a good thing to be with them - we all needed to find comfort in each others' company and share the burden of our loss. Ironically, the hotel we chose to stay in was a Comfort Inn. It was cheap by Brit standards and reasonably close to where we needed to be to meet with friends and attend the memorial service.

What we hadn't bargained for was the sheer discomfort this particular Comfort Inn afforded. In its original form as a Victorian townhouse I'm sure it had some elegance, but with its rooms chopped up to make thirty out of its original twelve and teeny bathrooms inserted here and there, it more resembled a warren for humans - and small humans at that. The 'breakfast' room was in a windowless basement and there were more rooms down there! Can you imagine staying in a hotel room without windows? Shudder...

When I complained about the inadequacy of our room and asked if they had anything larger, the receptionist glared at me from under her burka and snapped - "You must be from America!" Precious little comfort at this inn. I'd rather they'd said - "No room."

The weather was bitterly cold - it was January in London after all. As our room could not accommodate more than the two of us, when friends came to call we had to find a restaurant or pub to meet up in. That's where we found a place of real comfort - the John Betjeman pub outside Kings Cross Station. Named after the famous British poet, this place had taken the word ambience and made it its own. A friendly and rowdy crowd of punters and bar staff, a dining room complete with roaring fire and a damned good menu - bangers and mash, fish and chips, shepherd's pie - comfort food nonpareil! It was hard to pry us away from all that coziness and bonhomie. Almost made us forget why we were in London, but we knew G. would have been one of the first to appreciate the comfort the John Betjeman gave us in our time of sorrow.

Years later Phil and I still talk about that time in London - the awful hotel, the wonderful pub, the joy of seeing friends again and vowing to stay more in touch. Thank heavens for Facebook! Never thought I'd say that. But it's amazing what a friendly message can do for one's spirits on a rough day. Cyber comfort - now there's a new phrase not yet found in Merriam Webster.


  1. I laughed out loud at the line, "You must be from America!"

    Due to your contrast of the ironically named Comfort Inn and the amazing pub, it occurs to me that warmth is a big part of comfort. Comfort food is so great in part because of the way it warms the belly and makes one feel enveloped. The inn, on the other hand, didn't give adequate shelter against the bitter cold, driving one out into it in order to see friends.

    In any case, it sounds memorable, and I'm impressed at how well you remained in touch even before Facebook! A raised glass for your friend.

  2. People asked why didn't you leave the hotel? Well, Expedia had made the charges nonrefundable - they must have known what the place was like! I sent them a nasty letter after, but no apology was sent.

  3. The Comfort Inns here in the states don't seem to renovate older houses, the ones I've seen anyway. They're not top shelf by any means, but nowhere as bad as the one you encountered.

    Back in the seventies, I had an English partner in a North Beach SF saloon. I was chef. We served bangers and mash as well as shepherd's pie. No Fish & chips because we had no fryer. What we did have, however, was an illegal kitchen in the basement, with no ventilation. We'd told the health department that we brought the food in from another restaurant and that nobody could open the downstairs rooms because the liquor was stored down there, and the major partner didn't want anybody else in the basement. They knew something was up, so after months and months of being put off, they said that if we didn't open up down there, they'd shut us down. What we did was make an appointment with them and the major partner, move the stove and preparation equipment into the liquor room that morning, stack wine and beer cases all around it so it couldn't be seen. They never bothered us again.

  4. I remember touring Great Britain about 35 years ago on a shoestring, staying at Bed and Breakfast places in rural areas, and time after time being asked if we were Canadian, presumably because Americans weren't likely to be staying at B&Bs, especially with shared bathrooms. I remember finding some good meals in pubs, too, but we had no circle of friends there and traveled on each day, so we were still outsiders. I envy the convivial pub experience.

  5. Great story, JP, especially the contrast between the hotel and the pub.

    D.H. and I have sometimes stayed at B&B's, in search of atmosphere and a sense of history. However, we've found that they often tend to be uncomfortable and inconvenient. Victorian era furniture (or American Colonial, at least as bad) frequently doesn't provide adequate surfaces for laying out ones belongings. The beds tend to be too tall for short people like us to get in and out of without breaking our legs. Old houses lack insulation so drafts are often a problem. (If you think winter in London is cold, try winter on the North Shore of Boston!)

  6. That's a great story, JP, and I hope your deceased friend's spirit was also drawn to the John Betjeman pub. Your post reminded me of staying in a suite in an old house in London in the 1970s where the only heat was supplied by coin-operated heaters & gas cooker. Without the right change, a person could freeze and/or starve. The warmth of other bodies in public places was much more attractive.


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