Magazine article The Spectator

The Hempel

Magazine article The Spectator

The Hempel

Article excerpt

AT THE HEIGHT of the Tory 'sleaze' scandals, when.wodges of cash were flying around Westminster in brown envelopes, I had lunch with one of John Major's ministers. Within minutes he was admitting that he had just rented a hotel room by the hour. "You don't need to tell me this,' I said. But he insisted. He had taken a woman to an extremely smart London hotel just before Christmas, ordered champagne and spent the afternoon sprawled on the bed with her before returning to his red boxes and children. He admitted that the hotel staff had been agog - until they realised that it was his wife who had shared the room.

Spending a few licit hours in a swanky London hotel with your wife, he explained, was far more entertaining than getting involved in some messy affair. There was all the fun of watching the staff trying to scrape their eyebrows off the ceilings, rootling around in the mini-bar, ordering room service and getting ketchup over the sheets, with none of the horror of being discovered. So when my husband celebrated his birthday last week, I told him to take his toothbrush to work and booked us into the Hempel Hotel in Bayswater.

The Hempel may seem a bizarre choice: not just because we live only five minutes away in Notting Hill Gate, and my parents - and his parents-in-law - live in the same square and might spy one of us leaving in the morning, but because we had already been to its I-Thai restaurant and loathed the excruciatingly expensive (starters 20) experience.

When it opened two years ago, this fivestar establishment seemed perversely minimalist. The vast concrete and marble white entrance hall looked like a samurai villain's torture playground, empty except for two pits filled with wooden contraptions and kneeling mats, with fires at either end burning only pungent grey gravel. Even the ranks of white orchids looked like the flyeating variety. You expected the stonyfaced reception staff to hand you swords so you could do the decent thing and commit seppuku.

The restaurant in the basement was even more alarming, all black walls and black tables and completely empty. Only the waiters' gym shoes gleamed an ominous white. Opaque glass screens hung from the ceiling, looking as if they might fall and decapitate you at any moment. The Thai food came in little, black, compartmentalised boxes, like laboratory specimens, with prodding equipment (two alarmingly sharp chopsticks) and left us so hungry that when we finally escaped we headed straight home for scrambled eggs. What this white hotel lacked in chintz and tweeness, it compensated for in charmlessness.

But with our house overflowing with old newspapers, unwashed shirts and chipped mugs, I thought my husband would appreciate some precision and order. And I'd always had a grudging respect for Anoushka's decorating skills, grandly taking her inspiration from `the Pyramids, igloos, the inside of a ship's tunnel, sitting in a puddle'. I couldn't bear to think that the Australian sheep-shearer's daughter from the back of Bourke, the shop assistant, Bond girl and fashion guru could have hit the buffers in Bayswater.

Two years later, the Hempel has sharpened up its act. Before we even stopped the car, the doorman rushed out and offered to park it for us (and filled it up with petrol). …

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