December 15 2019, The Sunday Times – News Review
I’ve some divan inspiration for hotels — you don’t need to stop mattress thieves, just the mattress
It’s hard to know when hotels were invented. According to Guinness World Records, the first was in Japan in AD705, but plainly that’s not true, because 705 years earlier than that we know Gullible Joe and his mysteriously pregnant wife, Mary, attempted without success to find room at an inn in Bethlehem.
What’s more, we have to assume that hostelries go back even further than that, to the days when people started to move about on horses and needed somewhere to rest them for the night. That’s 5,500 years ago. That’s when the premier inn was. And what’s interesting is that in all this time, no one has managed to get a hotel room right. Until now.
Today there are more than 17m hotel rooms in the world and all of them are wrong in some way. Some smell so powerfully of extreme cleaning products that your septum starts to bleed. Some are several miles from reception. And many have doors that are opened by electronical key cards that don’t work. Ever. So then you have to go back to reception and prove to a sceptic in a stupid waistcoat that you’re the same person who was there only two minutes earlier.
However, I was at the Dakota in Manchester last weekend and, unusually, it had rooms that had plainly been designed by someone who’d stayed in a hotel before.
The light switches did what I was expecting when I pushed them. You didn’t need a degree in astrophysics to open and close the windows. The temperature was maintained at a level that felt like there was no temperature at all. And the shower controls were located by the door to the cubicle, not on the other side of the icy jet that starts the moment you turn the tap.
As it’s in Manchester, where even the postmen get dressed up like the Chippendales before they go out, and homeless ladies look like Ivana Trump, I was expecting a lot of unnecessariness and orange diamante. But the decor was halfway between businesslike and what I’d put in my house. I had a look round the room and some of the stuff I would happily have stolen.
I worked with a chap for many years who did this as a matter of course. He argued that he had paid for the room, so everything in it was therefore his. I tried to reason with him but it was no good, and every morning he’d leave with all the towels, dressing gowns, sheets and pillows, as well as any ornaments that took his fancy. Obviously, he couldn’t have the drinks from the minibar because management had that covered, but in his mind the fridge itself was definitely fair game.
He was missing a trick, though, because last week hotel chiefs reported that the latest craze is for guests to steal the mattresses from their beds. This sounds nuts, but in posh hotels with good beds and lifts that go directly to an underground car park, it makes perfect sense.
Or does it? Because, think about it. Sure, you could be stealing something that cost upwards of £20,000, but it’s been in a hotel room since the day it was sold, and every night it’s been slept on by someone you don’t know, someone who has a skin disease, perhaps, or some kind of lung disorder.
I went through a period after I stopped smoking when my gums leaked at night and I’d wake up in the morning to find my bedding soaked in blood. Would you like to steal that? And I haven’t yet got to the other things that come from ladies and gentlemen when they are in hotel rooms together.
Once, I stayed in a hotel just outside Kampala in Uganda. The sheets didn’t look so bad, apart from the fact that they were pink and made from nylon, but I pulled them back to reveal a mattress that remains the single most revolting thing I have ever seen. Many of the stains were green. And God knows what manner of thing had caused that. Maybe a previous guest had spilt some Thai green curry. But I doubt it.
I’m fairly sure that even with light staining, a used mattress would have no second-hand value at all. Which means people are stealing mattresses for themselves. And that’s like stealing used underpants to wear.
So how can hotel chiefs solve the problem? It’s probably unwise to warn customers that all the mattresses have been drizzled with body waste. That may be off-putting.
Nor can cheap mattresses be used, to minimise the cost of buying replacements, because nobody likes to sleep on horsehair. I did it for five years at boarding school, so I know.
I suppose it might be possible to arrange a lift’s algorithms to ensure it always stops on the ground floor and the doors always open. Because knowing he’d have to stand there with a stolen mattress, in full view of reception, might embarrass a would-be thief into thinking twice.
Don’t be so sure, though. A few years ago, a gang of four men wearing brown store coats walked calmly into the ballroom at a well-known London hotel and rolled up a gigantic and very valuable Chinese rug. They even asked the guests, who’d assembled for some early-evening function, if they wouldn’t mind stepping over the enormous silk sausage they were creating. And then they carried it calmly to a waiting van and drove off.
That’s the kind of front the hotel industry is facing. But don’t worry, chaps and chapesses, because I have a solution. Fitting a mattress to a bed is a one-time gig, yes? So why not put it there and fix it to the frame with something that cannot be undone with pliers, a linoleum knife, a heavy-calibre gun or even explosives? Such a thing exists. It’s called a ratchet strap.
If you think a ratchet strap can be undone or adjusted, then please write to me at “The Sunday Times, London”, marking your envelope: “I’m weird.”