Running an inspectorate is tricky. Inspectors suspect office staff of sitting in a comfy chair all day. Office staff suspect inspectors of gallivanting round the country, staying in plush hotels.
I intend to bolster my pension by writing a book on English hotels. It could be a best seller: "Where not to stay", a fresh twist on the usual guidebook. Alternatively, I'll hawk it round the establishments I once stayed in, inviting them to pay for their exclusion much as did that Victorian lady of accommodating habits who stung the Duke of Wellington into the retort "Publish and be damned!"
Meanwhile - completely free and with names removed to protect the guilty - here is a nosegay from an inspector's odyssey.
I had the first sign of the amusements to come on my very first inspection.
It was in Broadstairs. I have nothing against Broadstairs but I do confess to some reservations about Kent. The elderly maiden ladies of my family have traditionally gone to Kent to die. Westgate-on-Sea is the necropolis of choice. Two winters of freezing blast straight from the Siberian steppe has invariably been enough to see them off.
Our hotel was up for sale and economies were being made. The most obvious were staff, heating and truth. "I ordered an en suite room." "It is en suite; the bathroom is just down the corridor." "But I don't have a dressing gown." "Wear your overcoat. You'll need it at night anyway." The last statement was true. The windows froze on the inside and the only way to protect against a fatal drop in body core temperature was, indeed, to sleep in an overcoat.
I often found in the seaside towns of southern England that I was the victim of culture, both high and popular. The curses of high culture were usually represented by Russian ballet companies; the perils of popular culture by the various troupes of Chippendales. The dancers consumed a minimum of 6,000 calories a day, the Chippendales presumably something similar plus bodybuilding additives.
The nightly amours of the Chippendales were both noisily vigorous and constant. One of my colleagues was so driven to distraction that he determined to have it out with a Chippendale. He slammed out of his room to be confronted by an orderly queue of the respectable housewives of the town, waiting their turn. He lacked the courage to push to the front, lest his eagerness be misinterpreted.
The nadir of my experiences was in the West Country. Taking my morning shower, I was assaulted simultaneously by the usual desultory trickle from the nozzle and an upsurge of raw sewage from the drain. Babbling incoherently with rage and wrapped in a towel, I stormed down to reception to protest. No word of apology passed that woman's lips. "It doesn't usually happen, dear" she said, implying slyly that I had somehow conspired with the occupant of another room to bring it about. "You could try again later or use the bath." It was at that point that I realized the disadvantage under which I laboured, scantily clad and with odoriferously tanned feet.
One consolation of staying in hotels all the time, rather than occasionally as is the experience of most folk, is that you get used to sleeping in strange beds. Some of these are very strange, over which we shall quickly pass. Others are merely uncomfortable, rendered so by foam pillows of unyielding rectangularity, nylon sheets so slippery as to make it almost impossible to cling on, or mattresses depressed by stress of service.
However, the only thing that really disturbs sleep is the fire alarm.
Contrary to the rules of statistical probability, fire alarms come in bunches. Within a fortnight, I have shivered out a January night on the front steps of hotels as far apart as Darwen, Sheffield and London.
It's not so much the shock of rude awakening from peaceful slumbers, or trudging up and down seven or eight floors, but the gradual freezing to a solid block brought about by the impact of a stern east wind on a body protected only by the first two garments which fell to hand. True, there is the amusement of seeing what others put on. True, there is the pleasure of watching those who refused to brave the elements inadequately dressed or without their make-up, escorted from the manifestly not-burning building by sturdy firefighters. But when you are turned out of the same hotel, on the same chill night, two or three times because some ravening addict kept smoking in a non-smoking room, patience grows strained.
Inspectors, you see, are much to be pitied. Not only are they unfitting objects for the envy of those who work in the Adult Learning Inspectorate office, but they deserve a warm and sympathetic greeting from those they inspect.
Next time the inspectors call, hot coffee, a comfortable chair, soft lights and tender inquiries about their wellbeing will bring better results than brassy assertion that they are staying in the best hotel for miles around.
You won't have stayed in it. My book will end all these little misunderstandings.
David Sherlock is head of the Adult Learning Inspectorate