A couple of months ago, Jane and I finally got round to putting visitors' books in our two holiday cottages, inviting "comments and suggestions". For six years, we had resisted, not least because, on perusing a few visitors' books down the years, we have ourselves recoiled slightly. The most disconcerting comment of all was at Cliveden, the swish country-house hotel, where we stayed in a suitably fancy room for one night about 15 years ago. "Great rumpy-pumpy in the Canadian hot tub" our immediate predecessors had written, which not only put us right off the Canadian hot tub, but also took the edge off climbing into the vast four-poster, knowing that the last people in it were the sort of folk who say "rumpy-pumpy".
Of course, it's only to be expected that couples should feel gripped by the spirit of Christine Keeler and John Profumo when staying at Cliveden, but it surely doesn't need chronicling for everyone else to read about. And what if some of our customers felt the same impulse? We really didn't want guests to leaf through the visitors' book and find that Mr and Mrs Jenkins from Ruislip had enjoyed "great rumpy-pumpy in the vegetable garden", or even "fantastic hanky-panky in the chicken run".
We were also concerned that, while most visitors seem to enjoy staying here, there might be the odd negative remark, which would then be there for posterity. I know of some distinctly upmarket cottages in Cornwall, where the proprietor was understandably mystified to find, at the end of a hugely enthusiastic entry in the visitors' book, the caveat: "Only one criticism: not enough cake tins!!!" That there were not enough cake tins implies that there was at least one, yet for these guests, one cake tin was insufficient, and it was an oversight worth mentioning.
Anyway, having overcome our misgivings, we placed two handsome visitors' books in the cottages, and for the next couple of weeks rushed in to check them practically before our departing guests had found second gear. Yet to our great disappointment, there was nothing, not a single inscription. We might even have settled for "amazing slap-and-tickle beside the cider press", instead of guests being greeted with page after blank page, but eventually we realised that nobody wanted to be the first to leave a comment. Perhaps they weren't sure what tone to strike. So I confess that, in direct contravention of the holiday-cottage owners charter, I forged the rather extravagant assessment from Elton and Dolores Roebuck, a charming but alas mythical couple, that their cottage had offered them precisely the peaceful break they had been looking for, that north Herefordshire is God's own country, and that the Viners had been perfect hosts.
This opened the floodgates. Everyone who has stayed since has added a comment, not always as gushing as that left by dear Elton and Dolores, but all gratifyingly positive. And if anyone has enjoyed "thrilling how's-your-father on the trampoline", they have at least been delicate enough not to mention it. The only vaguely eccentric entry came from a sweet elderly couple who remarked that, while driving around the area, they had seen a surprising number of tractors – undoubtedly worth mentioning if you happen to be staying in a hotel near Paddington Station, but surely not that much of a shocker in the Welsh Marches.
Still, I'm coming to realise that a visitors' book should reflect the idiosyncrasies of those who write in it – within reason, of course.
There has not been a noticeable outpouring of sympathy following the news, reported in these pages, that Hugh Hefner has been dumped by a couple of his pneumatic girlfriends, and that his Playboy empire is in financial distress. But I must admit to feeling sorry for the old boy. About five years ago, I was sent by a magazine to write a feature about Hefner, which involved hanging out (in the nicest possible way) at the Playboy Mansion and attending his Valentine's Day Party. I would defy anyone who thinks of him as a perverted old goat to sit down with him for an hour, as I did, and not come away charmed by his intelligence and charisma. I did fear for him once his celebrated libido began to dwindle, but I didn't think the Playboy share price would dwindle first. Then again, you can't keep profits up with Viagra.