Plymouth should, I think, be twinned with Hull: both are oddly remote-feeling cities for our right, tight little island. Hull, unlike Plymouth, at least has a motorway connection, but the Devonian capital must have felt like ultima Thule last winter when the mainline rail connection was severed in the storms. The cab driver who took me from the reconnected station to my hotel descanted on the depredations of wartime bombing, and how the brutalist/modernist and now postmodernist rebuilding of Plymouth has never compensated for the dreadful damage caused by wartime bombing. I must say I’m beginning to find this excuse – which can be heard in Southampton and Coventry et al as well – a little grating; I mean, it’s been nearly 70 years since VE Day, surely time enough to effect civic beautifying.
Mind you, the only extended stay I’ve ever had in Plymouth was in the mid-1970s and mostly spent underwater. A friend of my brother’s, Bob Farrell, was a marine archaeologist who at that time was diving on a wreck in Plymouth harbour. Out of the goodness of his large heart he enrolled me, aged 15, in the fortnight-long British Sub-Aqua Club course at Fort Bovisand. All the other diving trainees were in their twenties or older, but I manned up, and despite it being April, spent many frigid hours squatting on the seabed laboriously completing emergency drills with my appointed buddy. (You have to be able to remove all of your kit and replace it while sharing a single scuba apparatus.) One day we drove to a leisure centre and passed the afternoon sitting on the bottom of a particularly deep swimming pool – but beyond this I can remember very little of the locale.
Still: remoteness, Francis Drake bowling on the Hoe, me diving in the harbour – you get the picture; Plymouth is for me ever associated with a certain outwardly bound derring-do. The cabbie dropped me at the Duke of Cornwall, an imposing late-Victorian edifice with the top-heavy lines of an Atlantic steamer redesigned by a disciple of Augustus Pugin. Despite being under the auspices of a large chain, the hotel didn’t seem to have had much by way of a refurb’ since at least the mid-1980s: unseasonable palms lurked in the tiled vestibule, and the original bell board was still on the wall by the lift, complete with buttons for signalling to the Writing Room and the Manager’s Sitting Room. As I checked in I sensed the deep, looming vacuity of the establishment: an ambience somewhere between the Overlook Hotel and Last Year at Marienbad. And as I sat in the cavernous and entirely empty dining room, delicately abstracting flesh-flakes from my perfectly poached cod, my only desire was that I could stay longer. Much longer.
A desire that was only sharpened when I saw the brass plaque that had been put up on the patch of wall on the other side of the lift; this told me that Ernest Shackleton had stayed at the Duke of Cornwall on 7 August 1914, the night before he sailed in his ship, the Endurance, bound for his final expedition: an attempt to reach the South Pole from the Weddell Sea that ended up with him and his men stranded in pack ice for months. As I’ve had cause to remark before, there’s nothing I like more, when the evenings draw in and the wind gusts hard, than to lie in bed – preferably in an overheated old pile like the Duke of Cornwall – and read about the British officer class getting their bollocks frozen off in Antarctica. That Schadenfreude having been acknowledged, Shackleton is by far the most sympathetic of the frozen-stiff-upper-lips: he never lost a man (and treated his men well), and while he may’ve been driven, it wasn’t by the same imperialist demons as that loathsome narcissist, Captain Robert Falcon Scott.
I went to my bed up the great and yawning staircase, admiring the thick pile of the runner, which was patterned with three ostrich feathers argent, the ducal crest. My room was snug; the electric kettle boiled and I settled down to my hoosh of tea and courtesy Jammie Dodgers (three-pack, naturally). It was difficult to imagine somewhere more powerfully somnolent, and as I undressed I gaily anticipated unconsciousness as heavy and blubbery as an elephant seal descending on my febrile head.
Then, hanging my jacket up, I was arrested by a bizarre sort of ledge that had been implanted in the bottom of the corner cupboard. I suppose it was intended as a shelf for shoes, but the way it had been neatly covered in the same red Axminster as the rest of the room struck me as hilarious – our human interiors are like that, aren’t they, always enacting a transformation of the utile into the decorative, or the cosy. Or at any rate, trying to enact it: the more I looked at the triangular carpeted shelf, the more absurd it seemed. And then the talking began in the room above.
There were several loud and excitable speakers, and it sounded like a language spoken somewhere far to the east of Plymouth; not Hull, but possibly Afghanistan. I wondered why exactly a loya jirga was being held in the Duke of Cornwall Hotel at midnight on a Tuesday evening in late October – but not for long: the silence had been deafening, and I was happy to slip into sleep serenaded in Pashto – or possibly Dari; it seemed entirely in keeping with my remote situation.