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When Will I Be Famous?

Something about Leicester that failed to make the finished book
By Martin Kelner on Jul 11, 2011 - 1:40:00 PM

When Will I Be Famous
Article dated: Thursday 27 February 2003
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"...As it is, I decide to travel down to Mr Methane's pre-Christmas gig for the insurance brokers in London, breaking my journey to spend a day in Leicester. Leicester is almost exactly midway between London and my home in Leeds, so this does not sound too outlandish a plan to me.

However, the woman in the travel centre at my local station whom I approach to buy tickets for this expedition looks at me as if I were Phineas Fogg in the Reform Club, about to try and circumnavigate the world in eighty days. Wakefield to London via Leicester, huh? "Well, it's a crazy idea, but it might just work," she almost says as she starts punching computer keys madly.

Turns out, after consultation with several colleagues, there are a number of different combinations of ticket she can sell me which will enable me to complete this mad mission. Whichever way I do it, it will cost me around 140 pounds. I think I may have discovered one of the reasons our roads are so crowded.

I discover another when I arrive at the station at 10.30 in the morning, just in time to catch the 08.47 Virgin train, which as it happened was not just one late train but two late trains. I could not quite make out what the guard - or the customer service manager, or whatever they call these chaps these days - was saying, as I was concentrating on finding somewhere to stand where nobody's elbow was in my midriff, but it was something about one train being the Newcastle to Bournemouth service, and another going to Bristol Temple Meads, and that the two were going to split at Birmingham New Street, so be sure you are sitting in the right bit, and they apologised for being so late, especially to the German girl standing near me, who had missed an important exam she was supposed to be taking in Sheffield, but the reason for this was that they were a shower of shit who could not run a piss-up in a brewery, and they were sorry if this caused any inconvenience.

I may have misheard some of that, but the fact remains that it is impossible to travel on Virgin Trains without reaching the conclusion that Richard Branson, the company's boss, is a complete arse.

Actually, I held that view, even before he went into the train business, simply on the evidence of the jumpers, his smug expression, the publicity stunts - litter supremo, the balloon trips, and so on - and the fact that his fortune was built on Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, one of the most boring albums of all time.

Thankfully, my contact with the arse's trains has been limited. My local company GNER runs a tolerably good service to London, getting me there and back for an acceptable 63 pounds on one of their discounted tickets.

What I find intensely annoying standing by the toilet trudging to Sheffield in the a's overheated train is all the ludicrous window dressing - the electronic toilet door swooshing backwards and forwards, the "branding" everywhere, the pictures of nice food curving round the top of the carriage with arrows pointing to the buffet, or the Pumpkin Cafe, as they call it (Pumpkin Cafe! Do me a favour).

The train is called the Mayflower Pilgrim which, with its echoes of seventeenth Century privations, sounds about right. Whether anyone on the ship had B.O. quite as pungent as the chap who passed the last dreary five miles into Sheffield squatting beside me while he waited for the toilet, is not recorded.

If I have been too hard on Branson, I apologise. It is not so much the bejumpered buffoon himself I find annoying as the way we suck up to him and his ilk. The Robert Maxwells, Freddie Lakers, and Alan Sugars of this world, that guy who used to run Asda, oh, and dozens of other chancers.

There is invariably a time - usually just before they get found out - when somebody does a poll saying such and such a business person should be in charge of the country, or running the lottery, or Mayor of London, or something. For goodness sake, we let Maxwell run the Commonwealth Games, and Branson front the clean-up Britain campaign (that worked, didn't it?). Ted Heath's government, I seem to remember, was full of these so-called "entrepreneurs," while Tony Blair remains uncomfortably close to that chap who runs dodgy publications with titles like Big and Bouncy, European Under-age Spanking, and the Daily Express.

We should remember that what these people are good at is making money for themselves; at buying something for twenty pence and selling it for thirty, then taking the profit and buying a big fuck-off property in West London. Good luck to them. It's a skill, but they should not be dining at government's top table. If they want to do something for the public good, they could pay all their tax.

I arrive in Leicester too late for lunch. Too late, that is, according to the young chap behind the bar of the Cork and Bottle, a satisfyingly pubby pub behind the market, decorated with posters in several windows bearing legends such as "delicious hot food," and "food all day," which turn out to be more in the nature of aspirations rather than actual policy statements.

"Kitchen's not working," the barman tells me, and suggests other places nearby where I could get something to eat. But I have deliberately avoided the trendy bars he suggests, because it is my view that on a cold winter's day in a strange town only an English pub will do, and they are getting harder to find.

The usual afternoon crowd is in there; three single middle-aged men sitting at separate tables, one engrossed in the racing paper, the other two quietly enjoying their own personal emotional crises, and a friend of the barman sitting at the bar, watching the fruit machine.

I order a glass of red wine, and the barman goes on the hunt for a clean glass. "Nobody bothers shining up the glasses at the weekend," he explains, "They've got too much to do." Yes, English pubs can be the most miserable places on god's earth, I know, but given the alternative, I like them.

As you will know if you have followed my chronicle this far, I have nothing against a little misery. It is character forming. Who wants to live in some Stepford Wives world where constant standards of satisfaction are guaranteed? I am not Michael Winner, looking to lambast hapless restauranters because my en croute isn't crouty enough or something; but when some giant multi-national fat capitalist bastard is failing to cut the mustard - step forward Jarvis Hotels PLC in partnership with Ramada International Hotels and Resorts, a division of Marriott International Inc - I feel justified in a bit of bluster. Let me explain.

Emerging trail weary from Leicester railway station on a grey icy afternoon, I wander on to the underpass towards the shopping centre. Always a bad sign, I find, if the first road you hit out of the station is an underpass - unless you are particularly partial to the smell of urine, that is.

It disgorges me on to Granby Street, a drab collection of bars and imitation Kentucky Fried chicken shops, and I decide to stay in the first hotel I come to, which unfortunately is the Ramada Jarvis Grand. I ask the doll-like young girl behind the counter for a room, she does that thing they do with the computer under the desk - I'm sure this is all for show, they haven't got real computers under there - flashes me her best Barbie smile and offers me a single room. "I can do it for you at a rate of 110 pounds," she says.

Doesn't sound like "a rate" to me, but I have no time to haggle. I take my card key from her, and find, what? A dungeon. Not a room-shaped room at all, but a corridor-shaped room. No bath, just a fairly careworn shower, considerately decorated with two long black hairs on one of the tiled walls. The dark, airless room smells stale and musty, and there is one small window at one end, which I can open, if I want to hear the banter of the workmen banging around on the scaffolding outside. It is not the kind of room where you expect to spend a "leisure break." It is the kind of room where you expect to be chained to the radiator by people demanding the release of political prisoners.

Spend ten minutes in it and you immediately feel homesick. I feel homesick not just for home, but for my lovely airy spacious room in the Smisby Manor. I even feel homesick for Granby Street outside.

I will give you an idea of the kind of people running this benighted hotel. There is a glossy piece of cardboard in the room advertising their snacks. Great food with a twist is the proposition, as I believe the marketing people call it. Great food with a twist. And do you know what the twist is? They serve it in a bowl. That's the twist. You can get burger and chips, chilli, chicken tikka massala, all the usual suspects, and they come in a bowl. In a bowl. Brilliant.

All the dishes cost 11. 95. Now twelve quid does seem a shade on the pricey side for a burger, so you would probably expect something special for that price. And you get it.

Not in the meal, particularly, but on the menu, where the description of the food runs to thirty-three words. Or, as they would put it, thirty-three creamy, succulent, crispy coated words. "Fresh" lettuce, "sesame seed" bun. You know the drill.

Is there a menu in the world, by the way, that boasts of limp lettuce? I have got news for you, Ramada Jarvis Grand Hotel. It's not a special fucking feature that the lettuce is fresh. I can walk fifty yards to the market, and get you as much fresh lettuce as you want. From Gary Lineker's dad, if you don't mind. And what is the big deal with sesame seeds? Anybody ever sent a bun back because it didn't have sesame seeds on it?

I am not an extreme man, and capital punishment is abhorrent to me, but I think we should consider bringing it back for people who expend more than twelve words describing burger and chips.

And how about this for their description of sausage and mash? "A trio of Cumberland sausages served in a hearty sage and onion gravy with mashed potato." A trio? A fucking trio? What kind of music do they play? Classical, or do they have a special sausage playlist; We Don't Pork Any More, Let It Beef?

I don't like to go on about the money like a flipping racial stereotype, but they charged me 9.95 for my corn flakes in the morning. I had kind of assumed they might throw that in with the "rate."

Like the railways, I expect there are all sorts of discounts available, but if you just wander in off the street and they have a chance to rob you blind, they will seize it with relish. Or, with your choice of mouth-watering spicy sauces from our relish tray.

I think I am safe in saying that nowhere else in the world would you pay 120 quid for what I got in Leicester. This was not London, remember, this was Leicester, population 280,000, the tenth largest city in the country, and about the twentieth most interesting.

The writer Joe Orton came from Leicester, but does not feature prominently in the city's tourist literature. That is maybe because he was invariably disparaging about his home town, and used his occasional visits home to seek out gay sex in public toilets.

And why did he spend his time back in Leicester hanging round public toilets? Because they were more comfortable than the Ramada bloody Jarvis Hotel....."

(All prices are as in 2003. Seem quite reasonable now. Have increased exponentially since, obviously)





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