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View from Vitalia: Of heat, air-con and human-friendly hotels

There’s often very little substance behind nice-sounding programmes and PR campaigns.

“It’s hot as hell in Cook, South Australia!” is written on a small magnet-cum-thermometer, stuck to the fridge in my kitchen. The magnet features a horned busy-looking devil clutching a fork in his hands, sorry hooves, in the midst of a bonfire. I acquired this rather tacky ‘souvenir’ in situ, so to speak, that is in Cook, South Australia, or to be more precise, at the train station where our Indian-Pacific Express from Sydney to Perth stopped for about ten minutes. I remember it was sold to me by a sinewy and sun-drenched Crocodile Dundee type sporting a huge Akubra hat. Apart from him, the platform was empty. And, yes: it was indeed hot as hell there!

Many years on, I still find it hard to comprehend how I was able to cope with the all-permeating heat during my several years down under. Having discarded Sydney initially as too hot and humid, I settled in Melbourne, where the climate was drier, yet – notoriously – much more unpredictable and the sudden heat waves were merciless indeed. They would come and go unexpectedly, literally within minutes. After a particularly hot spell preceding an abrupt temperature drop of 20 degrees or more, when layers of hot and cool air collided due to a rapid fall in atmospheric pressure, one could sometimes hear a blood-chilling whining sound, coming, it seemed, from above as well as from below, as if a thousand Hounds of the Baskervilles were howling in chorus on some invisible celestial moor.

Luckily, Tasmania, Australia’s coolest state, was not too far away – just across the Bass Strait. I would often escape there for a couple of days or so, just to cool down.  

Well, during the last couple of weeks, one could be forgiven for thinking that Australia and Britain have somehow swapped geographical locations, and while my omniscient Google assistant assures that in Melbourne now the temperature is just 11 degrees, the ethanol level inside my long-lasting fridge magnet from Cook, South Australia, had risen right to the 30-degree mark, with the ever-grinning plastic devil looking busier than ever. 

Yes, Britain – just like the rest of the world (with the exception perhaps of Australia and some other parts of the Southern Hemisphere where it is now winter) is in the throes of an unprecedented heat wave – a clear sign of the ongoing global warming. The roads are melting, the rails swell up and bend, the brains are ready to boil. No more hasty shedding of clothes at the first sign of timid sunshine (as Brits have always been fond of doing – be it on a beach or in the middle of a motorway). “Cheque enclosed” – the two, reputedly, most coveted words in the English language – have been resolutely pushed out by “cold drink”.

And there’s another ‘cool’ word (both literally and figuratively) that is now on everyone’s lips – ‘air-conditioning’, or ‘air-con’ – mostly, it has to be said, not due to its availability, but rather due to its absence.

Yes, the UK’s relationship with air-conditioning has always been complicated and dysfunctional, similar perhaps to unrequited love – a somewhat bizarre scenario for the country where Michael Faraday, following in the footsteps of Benjamin “I invented everything” Franklin, first discovered the cooling effects of the compressed and liquefied ammonia as far back as in 1820. Yet, if for the United States the invention of air-conditioning was truly ground-breaking (not too many people know that until the introduction of the air-con, Washington DC, with its scorching and humid summers, was considered a ‘hardship post’ for  international diplomats where poor foreign envoys used to die like flies from all kinds of heat-related diseases and infections), in Britain it has been effectively ignored right up to the present times when the rabid global warming made the introduction of this 200-year-old invention into everyday life a burning (sorry for the gruesome pun) necessity.

Nowhere this necessity is felt more strongly than on this country’s ever-malfunctioning and overcrowded trains, and in particular on the London Tube, where the temperatures in summer regularly and notoriously exceed the EU maximum for transporting animals – 30 degrees C.  I myself had a heat stroke on the Central Line several years ago when the weather was not nearly as hot as it is now.

We are all used to hearing that air-conditioning of the London Tube presents a seemingly unsolvable engineering problem – due to the depth of stations, outdated shafts and a number of other reasons which, incidentally, did not deter E&T as far back as in 2010 from looking at possible engineering solutions for the problem.

Never before has the need to cool the Tube been as acute as it is now, and yet, according to the Evening Standard London newspaper, it will be at least 12 years(!) before we can expect a solution. The paper quotes a Central Line staffer as saying in social media: “Hi, we are aware of the heating issues [it’s hard not to be! – VV]. We’ve made improvements to the ventilation systems on the current fleet [well, if they did, why can’t the passengers feel them? –VV]... New trains are coming in early 2030, under the Deep Upgrade Programme which will be delivered with full air cooling systems”. 

This means at least 12 more years of being baked alive on Central (and other) Line trains! Not sure I will still be around to witness the big AC Day.

Incidentally, the abbreviation for the mysterious “Deep Upgrade Programme” is DUP. I am tempted to ask those who will live up to that bright air-conditioned Tube future: please make sure you do not get DUP-ed again!

On a different note, I recently received an unasked-for PR press release under the catching headline: “London Tops List of UK’s Most Female-Friendly Hotels”.

My first instinct was to check whether it was not a typo and they actually meant “Pet-friendly hotels”, for I thought we were far beyond the time when women were not allowed to have a drink at a bar if not accompanied by a ‘gentleman’. But no: it was a serious real-life competition, with “group of female mystery shoppers” visiting the participating hotels incognito and checking for... What exactly were they checking? Whether or not they will be turned down at reception or allowed to dine at a restaurant while being females? According to the press release, they were checking, among other things, the hotels’ “levels of security” and “customer service”. But shouldn’t those be equally good for all the guests, irrespective of their gender – and those include males too?

Not sure about you, but to me it all sounds awfully false and patronising, for everyone who travels around knows that neither women nor men are being discriminated against in UK hotels on the grounds of their gender, unlike, it has to be said, members of some racial and sexual minorities. It is the latter who should have been the subjects of the above competition. The problem is: who would willingly volunteer to take part?

The next logical step is to identify UK’s most human-friendly hotel. Why not? A writer friend of mine has just written a movie script about a motel for the aliens! But, seriously, those kinds of PC PR exercises should come to an end to leave more time and effort for the improvement of  the often still low “levels of security” and “customer services” for the hotel clients of all genders, ages, heights and obesity levels.

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