Stewart Lee says online reviews can make it hard to judge hotels – oh, and comedians
We live in an age of online accountability. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, when I first schlepped around as a stand-up, our promoter gave us an allowance of £8 a night for accommodation. Today, I’ve spent that on two coffees at a motorway service station. How quickly we begin to sound like our grandparents. ‘Eight pence? For a comic? They used to be a penny.’ Or, ‘Eee, I remember when this free Best Western magazine was just a tree.’
But you could usually find a bed for £8 in the late Eighties. Borderline dosshouses did cheap deals. Benign heroin addicts roamed the landings, searching for oblivion and finding only liquid soap, and the breakfast meats looked pinkish, but you’d be fine. And before basic budget chains, every city boasted a concrete hive of 3ft slits of rooms. Here, noisy human waste percolated past your sleepless head, down pipes that no one had seen fit to conceal.
Once I alerted the night desk man in one such establishment in Liverpool to the presence of cockroaches on the wall and he answered with practiced perfection: ‘Keep your voice down, Sir, or all the guests will want some.’ I went to the bar, and it was full of jolly, red-faced prostitutes, weary reps banging on the condom machines in the gents with heavy hearts, and stand-up comedians. A young Jo Brand was the only woman not looking for business, and helpfully advised me, 21 and somewhat naïve, that the ladies trying to get me to buy them drinks were, in fact, professionals.
Back then, there were no online repositories of accommodation advice. I drove around the country in a second-hand 1970 Morris Marina, and other comics passed on advice, like depression-era hobos marking the gateposts of farmsteads with secret symbols, telling each other if the inhabitants were a soft touch or not.
Now everything is different. I tour in four- or five-month blocks, and a promoter points me towards places like this hotel, where you are sitting now, reading this former tree. But even if I was still booking my own beds, today I’d be all over the website called TripAdvisor.
I’m pretty sure the website that can make or break an establishment’s reputation came to wield its power in the early Noughties. I quit stand-up from 2000 to 2004, but was still doing the odd long-distance footpath walk in pursuit of fun, fags and real ale. One wet morning in the Welsh marches, when we awoke, still drunk, in a room above a pleasant enough pub, with a few hours of dull roadworks before us until we hit the slopes again, the landlord insisted on driving us miles to join the path at the top of Offa’s Dyke to spare us the boring bit of our walk. We were astounded by his kindness, until he insisted we recommend his pub on TripAdvisor, as he was trying to counteract some damning reviews.
But what the public think of people and places can tell you only so much. I Googled my own name to see what punters who post on websites had to say about me. There’s the usual mixture of praise and condemnation, but predictably, the bad stuff is more impassioned, and more memorable. ‘An unfunny, fat dwarf,’ writes Simon, on Chortle. Nelson, at cookedandbombed.co.uk, sees ‘an agonisingly tedious, gammon-headed, fat-necked, squinty, shuffling, **** with an inimitable droning monotone. I do wish he’d **** off and set himself on fire’.
If I were a hotel, I doubt readers of those comments would choose to stay in me, and yet many guests come back each year, having enjoyed their visit, commenting on the cleanliness of my rooms and my complimentary biscuits. Ah! 17 words left. Damn! Could I make clear, I’m not a hotel. It’s a metaphor. Don’t try and book to…
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