It can no longer be put off. We have to sort out the atelier.
Atelier, in this context, is a hopeful euphemism for the room used to store wood, broken strimmers, old tins of solidified paint, bits of bubble wrap useful for protecting priceless antiques as yet unacquired, old trainers handy for sudden mudslides, wire coat hangers designed to deform hanging garments but just the thing when seized by the urge to do a bit of metal sculpture, strands of raffia to tie the 50 lavender bags languishing in a damp cardboard box since last summer, and other household essentials.
It’s when confronted with such tasks that you remember why Vladimir Nabokov chose to live in a hotel. ‘It eliminates,’ he said, ‘the nuisance of private ownership’, adding that it also confirmed him in his favourite habit, ‘the habit of freedom’. *
There are novels written about hotels–’The Shining’, ‘L’Hôtel du Lac’, ‘The Hotel New Hampshire’. But how many writers actually choose to live in a hotel to write?
The most famous example must be Nabokov, who moved into the Montreux Palace Hotel in Switzerland in 1961 and died there in 1977. Uninterested in material possessions, attached only to memories, Nabokov, with his wife Véra, settled into a routine where the hotel staff did the cleaning, a lady called Mme Furrer cooked lunch and dinner, and Nabokov could get on with his work, starting each morning at his writing lectern in ‘the vertical position of vertebrate thought’ then sliding gently into more recumbent postures ‘when I feel gravity nibbling at my calves’.
It’s a seductive idea.
This year I’ve stayed in two hotels where I could happily settle down on a permanent basis. The Radisson Edwardian Hotel in Manchester has all the amenities, first class service, and general cosseting factors of a modern bustling luxury hotel along with resonant reminders of its historic past.
Step outside, and you’re in the middle of Manchester, a dynamic and vibrant city. If it’s raining (and it usually is) you can stay in, surf the Net, lounge on a giant Vertue mattress in a fluffy white robe, order champagne from room service and admire from your window the illuminated clock tower of the Victorian Gothic Town Hall. Alternatively you can wander down to the Opus Reserve Bar, sip a Hallé Berry cocktail, gaze at the dramatic Italianate colonnades and lofty ceilings and tune in to the historic echoes. For you are sitting in one of Manchester’s iconic buildings, the former Free Trade Hall.
Built in 1853 on the site of the Peterloo Massacre, its history encompasses different struggles for different freedoms. The original Renaissance-style facade with its stately arcades reflects some of these. A red plaque commemorates the Peterloo massacre**.
Carved shields denote those Lancashire towns active in the movement to abolish the government-imposed Corn Laws, in force between 1815 and 1846. Their repeal bolstered the development of free trade, represented by one of the emblematic figures depicted on the tympanum where the Arts, Commerce, Manufacture and the five Continents are also seen.
It was inside, in the public assembly hall in 1872, that Disraeli outlined reforms aimed at protecting working people and halting the growing divide between rich and poor in his famous ‘One nation’ speech. ‘A densely-packed audience…received him with a roar of applause’ while ‘the swelling strains of the organ rolled grandly forth’. *** It was here in 1905 that Christabel Pankhurst, one of the Manchester founders of the Women’s Social and Political Union, was thrown out of a Liberal party meeting, arrested and put in prison. Churchill made one of his finest speeches here, Charles Dickens acted in a Wilkie Collins play, and in 1858 the building became home to the beloved Hallé orchestra. A little less than 100 years after Disraeli’s speech, more musical history was made as the hall resounded to concerts by Pink Floyd, The Sex Pistols and Bob Dylan.
Six centuries back in time and 1500 km away from the Radisson Edwardian is La Maison Bakéa.
This maison d’hôtes in the Tarn is perched near the top of the ancient citadel of Cordes-sur-Ciel. From the outside it looks pretty unassuming. Step through the door and gasp. Words spring to mind like ‘unbelievable’, ‘stunning’, ‘amazing’, and ‘wow’. You are inside a private house dating back to the 13th century. Two storeys rise up around a beautiful interior courtyard with half-timbered brick walls and galleried passages running along each side. Swallows swoop and dive through the atrium, bringing food to their young. A massive stone staircase winds its way up to the five guest rooms. More ancient stones await inside door; age-darkened beams cross the ceilings, coloured light filters in through stained glass windows, polished earthenware tiles gleam underfoot and bucolic tapestries hang on the wall. You can almost hear the minstrels tuning up. Fortunately for weary travellers the beds are big and modern and the opening of other doors reveals 21st century plumbing, no need to don a cloak and trudge up the hill to the village trough. You will however have to forego one modern amenity and resign yourself to a period of Smartphone withdrawal, 13th C builders being more concerned with keeping things out (like crusaders), rather than letting things in (like radio waves). Nor will you have concierges with gold keys and a fleet of attentive staff to cater to your every whim. Just your host and hostess, charming, knowledgeable, passionate about their house, ready to serve you a glass of sparkling Gaillac on the terrace high above the valley or welcome you to breakfast in the grand salon, where you eat in the company of a ghostly Spanish knight, whose suit of armour guards the vast fireplace.
Outside, the history continues, in the alleys and shaded squares of Cordes-sur-ciel. This is Cathar territory. Centuries before Disraeli and Christabel Pankhurst were advancing the march of freedom in Manchester, Raimond VII, count of Toulouse, was preparing to defend the freedoms of the local population by building this rocky fortress. The Albigensian crusade of 1208 to 1229 had pitted the Catholic Church, supported by the kingdom of France and its barons, against the heretical Cathars of the Languedoc. The crusaders took various strongholds, including Carcassonne and Beziers, where an estimated 20,000 people were put to the sword. It was in Beziers that the commander of the army, Papal Legate Arnaud-Amaury, asked how to distinguish Cathars from Catholics, gave the infamous reply ‘Kill them all, God will know his own.’
Standing on the cobbles of this picture-postcard town today it’s hard to imagine such bloody battles. The struggle continued after 1229, with the Church relying more and more on a relatively new and terrifying weapon, the Inquisition. Catharism was finally crushed; Toulouse and the surrounding areas brought under the heel of the French king. On a note of revenge à la ‘Game of Thrones’, one of the most hated and feared Crusader commanders, Simon De Montfort, was killed in a battle outside Toulouse. One version of how he met his maker claims he was hit on the head by a huge stone launched from the barricades by a woman. (Maybe her name was Christabelle? Please note I have refrained from putting a smiley here.)
Both the Radisson Edwardian and La Maison Bakéa are my idea of hotels conducive to a bit of vertical thinking. Alternatively, you could just loll about in them, read books, people-watch, indulge in gastronomic excess and cultivate ‘a habit of freedom’. Of course, you’d have nowhere to put your wire coat hangers and bits of raffia. Also, if you lived in a hotel all the time, could you really justify going to stay at others? Like that place I mentioned in Toulouse, where all the early aviators lived. And Le Grand Palais in Biarritz, with its Belle Epoque rooms and glittering chandeliers.
That one, by the way, is the next hotel I want to stay in. We just need to find a couple of gold ingots to afford the prices.
Maybe when we clean out the atelier?
*Read Nabokov’s wonderful1969 interview for the BBC:
**The commemorative plaque says: ‘On 16 August 1819 a peaceful rally of 60,000 pro-democracy reformers, men, women and children, was attacked by armed cavalry resulting in 15 deaths and over 600 injuries.’
*** published in The Manchester Guardian on the 4 April 1872: