Service Without a Smile

Like several other countries in the West, Britain has given up on the sordid and vulgar activity of making things and instead gone in for the more refined and sophisticated life of service industries.

In the case of Britain, however, there is a particular problem: The people are not very good at providing service, at least in such enterprises as hotels and restaurants. They do not know how to do it themselves and will not learn from others.

I recently stayed in a British-run hotel in the south of England. It could have been grand, having once been, I imagine, the mansion of some Victorian magnate. It was no architectural masterpiece, and I should even have called it ugly had my standards of ugliness not been lowered by acquaintance with the efforts of modern British, American, and French architects. By comparison with them, the mansion was elegance itself.

It was crumbling, but not in a charming way. The stucco was peeling, the grounds were neglected, and a modern conference center had been glued to the building to destroy its symmetry. But it still had the kind of public rooms that are now absent from most modern hotels, from the days when hotels were not mere dormitories and had a social life of their own.

But the carpets! If you looked at them for too long, they would have given you an epileptic fit, or at least a migraine. They made a painting by Jackson Pollock seem a masterpiece of draftsmanship. The fact that they had to be designed, manufactured, and then chosen was enough to make you despair of humanity. And the chairs had been upholstered to produce yet further nausea.

Needless to say, vile music poured into the bar like poison gas. Such vile music nowadays is like a natural phenomenon: Its omnipresence is taken for granted, and no one knows how it gets there.

The staff, all British, had been put in a uniform: completely black, as if the hotel were intended to be a rest home for fascists. But the uniform was not threatening because it was dirty or crumpled in purely individual ways, and the staff all wore different footwear, most of it casual. It was as if they were trying to express themselves through their shoes, to demonstrate that they were individuals.

The whole point of a uniform is to give people a pride and an esprit de corps; here, it was taken as an attack on freedom, and obviously worn with reluctance.

What was most striking about the staff, however, who were mostly young, was that they were nice people, smiling and obliging. They were clearly doing their best; but the fact that they were doing their best was not comforting.

In this connection, I recall the late Methodist preacher and soapbox orator Donald Soper, who used to speak every Sunday at Speakers’ Corner in London, along with many other curious figures, such as a rotund friar from the Catholic Truth Society and a man so heavily tattooed that he would display his torso in silence to the amazed amusement of the crowd (he would be regarded as normal now).

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