I’m on the road, working as an external examiner for a big English university. They have me visiting Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Cochin (India), and the provincial towns of Swindon and Southampton. Tonight’s stop is Newton Abbot, known to me previously only through English folk-rock outfit, Fairport Convention’s 1971 concept album “Babbacombe” Lee, about a young man called John who visited the town in order to join the Navy, and was later convicted of the murder of his aunt, Emma Ann Whitehead Keyes. He was hanged for the crime, but the trapdoor failed three times, so he spent a lifetime in prison, all with a lilting and brooding proggy folk-rock post-Sandy Denny soundtrack.

I am here, however, ahead of conducting a quality review on a validated partner of the Big University, and about to spend my first night ever in a Premier Inn – with Lenny Henry’s Good Night Guarantee (*or my money back). The room seems nice enough. There is a TV. I don’t recall the last time I switched on a TV in a hotel room, although it was probably in March 2008 when I drove through Oklahoma and stopped for the night in Muskogee – totally because of the Merle Haggard song “Okie from Muskogee” – and watched a documentary about the ill-fated Hindenburg and the subsequent collapse of the burgeoning blimp /air ship industry. The window is sealed closed, and bears an irritating notice telling me this “convenience” is provided because air is pumped into my room at all times.

I haven’t eaten since noon, and since I’m on expenses I am especially hungry. I agreed to meet my travelling companions in the Beefeater restaurant attached to the hotel at 7 PM, but find they are not there when I arrive. The half-empty restaurant is allegedly so busy that we cannot be seated for another hour, so I book a table and agree with my colleague, who I meet on the way back to my room, that we’ll meet back there at 8. I spend an hour ignoring a pressing pile of marking, and instead email Americans about prospective upcoming projects.

The Beefeater by 8 PM is practically deserted, but still our sluggish waiter takes ten minutes to ask what we’d like to drink. Following our fiendishly complex request for three pints of lime and soda (one without ice), his colleague returns twenty minutes later with the beverages, hotly pursued by the original waiter attempting to take our meal order. We ask if there is a menu of gluten-free items. Clearly angered, the waiter leaves, returning shortly with a pink plastic folder labelled “Allergies” which he thrusts towards my colleague, who opens it to discover an unbound pile of 50 A4 pages of Excel spreadsheets in a font barely discernible to the human eye. Across each page and 30 columns is listed every item the restaurant sells, with every allergen known to our species. We note with interest that there is no meat, dairy or nuts in the English Breakfast Tea. We spend 15 minutes chatting until our tip-averse server condescends to return. When we ask if he has any recommendations for a customer with Coeliac disease, he hides his exasperation with the grace and charm of Basil Fawlty, helpfully advising that the potatoes are safe, that he can’t be expected to memorise the ingredients of the whole menu, and besides, it is the responsibility of customers to know what they can eat or will possibly die from. Duly informed, we order burgers and a jacket potato, which take a further 40 minutes to arrive. When they finally grace our table the meals are small, overcooked and missing my side salad (a dry and unappetising collection of leaves is soon brought over in response to my reminder).

During the wait for this utterly shit meal I made up quite a few opinions on things, and learned about nothing at all as we attempted to fill the silence created by unfamiliar colleagues and a spouse-chauffeur sitting waiting for food in an over-air conditioned low-budget eatery watching rain descend greyly on a small A-road in Devon. I miss my planned Skype with a co-editor in Arizona by a little over an hour. I return to my room, rearrange the video call for tomorrow, and head down to the bar for a drink and dessert. A glass of cheap Malbec has to suffice, as the kitchen has already closed. I start writing this blog, last orders are called, I head back to bar and ask for a JD and water, adding “since I can’t have any pudding”. Serendipitously then, the chef emerges, declaring “I have one brownie left!” The bar tender, sharing my delight, pours me a triple measure of Tennessee sour mash and my warm cake and ice cream go down a real treat, Mr Daniels in quick, thirst-quenching pursuit.

 

 

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