The Fairlawn Hotel
By Jeff Dell
I confess to having felt rather smug over the years about living in a country that doesn't feel the need to change its name. I know it's a bad thing being smug, I'm just telling you what I feel, and that's a different thing. As you have, I've found that thinking something long and hard enough isn't guaranteed to make you change the way you feel about it - that only happens after a spell in a re-education camp. It packs quite a punch for such a small word. A touch of arrogance, a handful of conceit and a large dollop of superiority. And perhaps in the case of the UK a lot of historical ignorance and an equal measure of wishful thinking? In fact, nothing to boast about at all, in fact, so I wonder why I said it. There's always time - I could go back and write something else. I mean 'smug' isn't too appealing, truth be told, and I suppose it must.
If I type too fast I occasionally spell United Kingdom 'Untied' Kingdom, but this is about as far as it gets, or at least I think so. It can't mean anything; it's hardly some sort of unconscious insight, is it?; hardly a scene from a national psychodrama being played out on my keyboard. If you type it fast enough and often enough United sometimes gets written Untied and that's the beginning and the end of it.
You know when you hear a country called something like 'the people's democratic republic of '- whatever- that the reality is that it's a demagogic lunatic asylum where you get killed if you spent any time overseas or speak a foreign language or wear glasses, or apply for a passport, or ask where the polling booth is, or wonder why the great leader is a fat lump of grinning lard while the glorious peasants are no thicker than the sticks they're leaning on - or being beaten with. France is a simple name - no messing. Australia, there's another. And Canada - still top of the UN Development Index I see. Jolly well done, Canada. So, United Kingdom? Is it me? Are we loosening the ties, or are those ties restraints? Are we unravelling in a spirit of British compromise, or are we - as some people tell me - a far more cogent national entity than we realise?
I was reflecting on this in Kolkata just the other week. It's what you do when stuff happens at home and you're stuck in a hotel room somewhere else - and it's late, and you just can't watch any more BBC World. I've been coming here for thirty years now. For most of that time, it used to be called Kolkata. And I was recently in Chennai, which used to be Madras, and the change seems to have gone down pretty well. As far as I know people didn't suddenly get disorientated and forget how to get home. Gangs of citizenry weren't spotted waving white sticks at incomprehensible road signs, wailing 'Oh blimey - where are we?' And some names you're going to have to change eventually. Take Rhodesia. I was in a bar in Nottingham with Le Blunt, an old mate. We got talking to an old guy who'd lost two sons in what to him were and would always be 'the Rhodesian Wars'. He could have been your uncle or he could have been Rider Haggard - take your pick. But he'd still lost two sons, not more important sons than others', but sons nonetheless, and you get to thinking. And you got a sense, in that bar in Nottingham, that the world that he'd known was now rotating on a different axis and it was all he could do to keep on his feet. Certainty is confounded, a new narrative is written and the sweep of history isn't concerned with the names of your dead children.
When I'm in Kolkata, I always stay at the Fairlawn Hotel in Sudder Street. I've flirted with other places - among them the Lytton, the Astor and the Kenilworth - but I always return to the Fairlawn feeling a little unfaithful, and now I've decided I won't bother going anywhere else, at least for as long as Violet's still alive.
Violet Smith is the Fairlawn's owner and manager. She's getting on a bit and she doesn't so much get herself made up in the morning as have herself reconstructed on a daily basis by dutiful, and I suspect rather patient, maidservants, and, when she's over, by her daughter. Imagine Sunset Boulevard as a tea shop and picture Violet coming down that staircase with the lights on her and you've got it. Mark Tully once lamented the fact that the Brits had packed up and gorn orf too quickly at the close of play on the last day of Empah! They should have stuck it out, he said, and given it a go. And I thought about that and wondered what I'd have done. And what sort of a go it would have been.
Violet and her husband stayed on and ran the Fairlawn. They maintained contact with the dwindling community of expatriate stayer-oners until there was nothing of it left, and they were not impressed by a new kind - a different type - of Briton who began to pass by in the late sixties in a barely discernible trickle that was to turn into a stream in the seventies and eighties. Home has a treacherous habit of reinventing itself when you don't live there. Mr. Smith died a few years ago. A sad decline, and towards the end he was moved downstairs to the room opposite reception. Like buying a bungalow; a sort of preparation.
Violet is Armenian by birth and British by choice. She fashions her hotel, if that's the right word, in a style that is not so much kitsch as a stunning pastiche of a caricature of your elderly aunt's house. It is a tribute to a time in Britain in the early sixties when at least one of your relatives had emigrated to Australia and the world was bright, modern, and positive and, well, perhaps a little bit plastic. Artificial flowers, stuffed Koalas, Sydney Opera House T towels, family photos and the Queen. And Felicity Kendall - a family friend - loads of lovingly inscribed portraits on the wall as you go up the stairs to your bedroom and its improbable plumbing. The Fairlawn Hotel is not a statement about what ought to be - it's not in the least Imperial - it's more Violet's physical expression of an expatriate's love affair with what home might have been. It's not my home, it's not the home I made in England, but I recognise it from a time when the world was a little more predictable. You need that, sometimes, in a changing world, as you'd know if you spent as many nights as I do in hotels, wondering exactly what you were doing there and what home would be like when you got back. You get to thinking.
Violet stayed on but didn't move on. She's turned the Fairlawn Hotel into your Aunty Glad's front room - with bedrooms that she's kept just in case her favourite nephews and nieces turn up. Do yourself a favour, next time you're in Kolkata.
Footnote: Violet Smith has been made an honorary member of the Bangladesh Watford Supporters Association.