I fell in love with Claridge’s long ago. It was not a passion based on intimate contact, as I was never rich enough to stay there habitually, but rather a platonic yearning for the unreachable ideal, a poet’s misty-eyed vision of the eternal beloved. I cared little that this was, apart from everything else, a swanky Mayfair hotel; or that, over the years, it had played host to everyone in British and European history worth mentioning, from Empress Eugenie to Alfred Hitchcock; or even that, fantastically, in 1945 a suite in the hotel had been seconded by Prime Minister Churchill to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, rendering it sovereign territory for a day so that the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Alexander, could be born there.
No, it all had to do with an article I once read in some trashy British society magazine. The editors had commissioned a survey – that’s what most society magazines specialized in back then, surveys that could be done in an afternoon by a couple of underpaid, albeit titled, hacks on the blower – of the most fashionable London hotels, asking each of their general managers the same indelicate question. If a guest of your hotel, who was neither obviously a cripple nor falsely claiming the indulgence due to one thus enfeebled (so, give or take a turn of phrase, ran the question), asked to be fed with a spoon, would you make the necessary arrangements to see that he was spoon-fed?
Even 25 years ago, this was a scandalous enquiry. Today, the offending magazine editor would probably be cautioned by police for making it, copies of the issue containing the controversial survey would be pulped, and a raucous protest march by the Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender community would speckle Parliament Square with placards reading “We’re All Cripples Now” and “No Spoons for Bigots.”
Even 25 years ago, every single one of the dozen or so managers of whom the scandalous enquiry had been made dissembled, prevaricated, and otherwise visibly perspired by way of reply. Their answers were verbose, conditional, and full of subordinate clauses whose meanings resonated, ruefully and inevitably, in mutual contradiction. Only one respondent said “Yes.” Yes, period. He was speaking for Claridge’s, and hence Claridge’s was officially the one hotel in Britain that would unhesitatingly spoon-feed a guest in rude good health if such were the guest’s express whim.
Last week I revisited Claridge’s, thanks to the generosity of a Belgian friend who wanted my company – and damn the expense, which, to somebody living in the backwoods of Sicily, looked as sbagliato as a flagrant misprint on an engraved wedding invitation. Breakfast for two was something like $200. Where I am, I live on that for a week.
And yet, for me, even that sbagliato was part of the ideal that I had once fallen in love with. In our age of universal levelling, of bulldozer assault on all existing hierarchies – whether they be of God or of gender, of beauty or politics, of unapologetic wealth or genteel poverty – it is cheering to see exorbitance in anything and extravagance in something.
Staying in Claridge’s, I’m happy to report, is still about as politically incorrect as reading G. K. Chesterton’s essays to a recidivist single mother on welfare who is addicted to sniffing glue.