Last weekend I stayed at what many people consider to be the best hotel in the world, the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong, the 1963 original and still the group's flagship. How, though, do you measure one great hotel against another and end up with the world's best?
Service, obviously, in which regard the Mandarin Oriental scored about as heavily as it's possible to score. Scarcely had we stepped off the plane – on what cynics might call a press junket but I prefer, in the manner of MPs and Fifa delegates, to call a fact-finding trip – than we were corralled by liveried drivers and swept through the airport on those buggies that normally transport the old, the lame and the Beckhams.
On our arrival at the hotel itself, even more impressively, we each had a personal receptionist waiting to whisk us to our rooms for the check-in procedure. Evidently it is considered just too tiresome to have to register in the lobby. And about 90 seconds later my luggage arrived. It is a bugbear of mine that in swanky hotels (how I like having a swanky-hotel bugbear) the hall porter insists on commandeering bags that you are perfectly able to carry yourself, then takes a little too long to deliver them, so that you're forced to flick through the 37 TV channels, twice, when all you want to do is unpack. Not at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong.
Needless to add, the room, dining and spa facilities all ticked the boxes, but what every good hotel also needs is a top-notch bar. The Mandarin Oriental has several, notably the Captain's Bar, an expat institution for decades, and the atmospheric M Bar on the 25th floor, which used to be a cabaret lounge, and where staff once felt compelled, very politely, to eject a boorish Australian who was attempting to get into that evening's show. They rejected his protestations that he was the act. But he was.
It was Barry Humphries, arriving in character as Sir Les Patterson, the Australiancultural attaché. I'd have chucked him out, too.
It's always interesting, however, when eastern and western cultures meet, as they do head-on in Hong Kong. On which subject, I'd been told we would be dining at one of the hotel's restaurants, the Manoir, which I took to be an outpost of the Raymond Blanc empire. I'd also heard, to my delight, that the PR woman hosting our dinner at the city's other Mandarin Oriental, the Landmark, smaller and even more chic than its older sister, would be one Vivien Leigh. Naturally these turned out to be the Man-Wah, and Vivian Li, who was no less pretty than her near-namesake, but a lot more Asian.
Cary Grant wasn't all he was cracked up to be
The long flight out to Hong Kong, and back again, afforded lots of time to catch up on films, and happily the carrier was Air New Zealand, which has a splendidly extensive in-flight entertainment system. I watched four new releases, and also one very old release, Alfred Hitchcock's mistaken-identity thriller North By Northwest.
Now, a few weeks ago I got some abusive letters for suggesting in this column that many of the stars of Hollywood's so-called golden age, for all that they remain screen legends, weren't actually much cop at acting. Well, I'm bracing myself for more of the same, because, while there are plainly plenty of exceptions – Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis spring to mind – I'd challenge anyone of discernment to watch North By Northwest and tell me that Cary Grant was a good actor.
Effortlessly stylish, of course; nobody ever had more style. A decent light comedian, sometimes. But a convincing actor? Definitely not. Some Like It Hot came out in the same year, 1959, and I reckon that Tony Curtis was better at acting Cary Grant than Cary Grant was at acting. In fairness, Grant wasn't helped by the plot, which is risibly porous. Would such an urbane man about town as Roger Thornhill, Grant's character, still live with his mother, even in 1959? I doubt it.
Ironically, Ernest Lehman's dialogue, unbelievably clunky in parts, has been praised by a journalist called Nick Clooney, for whom North By Northwest was "certainly Alfred Hitchcock's most stylish thriller". The irony is that Nick Clooney is best known these days as the father of George Clooney, for my money an infinitely superior actor to Grant.
All that said, the iconic scene in which our hero flees the crop-dusting plane remains genuinely exciting. And I think I may have identified one other marvellous legacy of North By Northwest: Thornhill, handsomely rugged and impeccably dressed, was a Madison Avenue advertising executive, and surely the model that Matthew Weiner had in mind for Don Draper when he created the brilliant Mad Men.
We didn't get days off for bad weather in my day
My daughter, now 17, was seven years old before she saw snow, which rather suggests that Britain's climate has changed even in the past decade, given how much of the stuff we've had these last few winters. Whatever, out here in rural Herefordshire she and her two younger brothers are given "snow days", meaning no need to go to school, at the first sign that a single country lane might be blocked.
Whether this is the modern fear of litigation – the prospect of parents suing if their car goes through a hedge while trying to get little Teddy to his lessons – I don't know. But what happened to the Shackleton spirit, the British determination to conquer the elements? I don't remember ever getting a snow day in my childhood.