Am I having a good time? No comment

'I once spotted this entry that a child had written in a church visitors' book: "Gloomy and boring"'
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The Independent Online

I once flew in a plane on an internal flight in China and noticed something that was far ahead of anything we have in the West. In the plane, hanging on the pilot's door to the cockpit, there was a notepad marked "For Your Comments". The idea, presumably, was that any passengers who had criticisms or suggestions could write them down there, and then be arrested and shot at the end of the flight - or that seemed to be the passengers' attitude, because I went and looked at the suggestion pad, and nobody had written anything down at all.

I once flew in a plane on an internal flight in China and noticed something that was far ahead of anything we have in the West. In the plane, hanging on the pilot's door to the cockpit, there was a notepad marked "For Your Comments". The idea, presumably, was that any passengers who had criticisms or suggestions could write them down there, and then be arrested and shot at the end of the flight - or that seemed to be the passengers' attitude, because I went and looked at the suggestion pad, and nobody had written anything down at all.

That was the brilliant innovation. The comments column without any comments, I mean. All too often when you visit a church or stay at a small hotel or pub you are offered the chance to sign a visitors' book, and write your address, and add a comment.

And what I have discovered after years of poking my nose in other people's columns is that whenever people open a book which has a space for comments, they invariably feel constrained to write down something even when they have nothing to say, and when they have nothing to say, it is almost always complimentary.

Churches are always lovely. And tranquil. And quiet. And peaceful. Little hotels are always lovely. And delightful. And homely. And friendly. I once spotted a child who had written in a church book, "Gloomy and boring", but he was a shining beacon of honesty in a fog of platitudes. "We shall be back!" cry the hotel visitors from Canada or Harrogate. "We shall often think of this church and its peacefulness," says the lying family from London. Myself, I can rarely think of anything original to say, so I don't say anything, although I did once on a visit to South Africa take a walk in a deep forest and find a very tall tree at the heart of it, so tall that it was famous and had its own visiting book, and I wrote my address in it and added the comment, "It seems a long way to come to see a tree," but I felt afterwards that I should have written nothing.

The only man I knew to break the rules was my brother-in-law Keith, who is a chef and a hard man to please. Our two families were staying in a well-known pub in Sussex, where he was appalled by the arrogance and inefficiency of the maître d', so he wrote in the book as we departed, "Fine apart from the obvious staff problem," but even there he was too cautious to really come out and speak his mind. The urge to be nice is too strong.

The only time I ever found myself occupying the moral low ground was about 20 years ago when a large group of us were spending Christmas in a remote Landmark Trust property in south-west Scotland called Saddell Cottage. It was next door to another, much grander, Landmark property called Saddell Castle. As the only writer present in the cottage group I was given the job of filling in the Saddell Cottage Diary, which every visiting party was required to do, and as it seemed a better option than chopping logs or catching capercaillie I got down to it.

It quickly got boring to write down humdrum real life, so I started to invent a fantasy story in which all of us became very curious about the life at Saddell Castle. One day one of us (in my diary) went to see who was living there. And never came back. Next day, another of us followed to see what had happened. And failed to return. The sounds of jollity from the castle grew louder and louder, as our numbers grew smaller. Finally, I wrote in the diary, I was the only person left in the cottage. "I am about to go to the castle to clear up the mystery. Come what may, I will return to reveal the secret." But that was the last entry.

Occasionally, very occasionally, I bump into people who have subsequently stayed in Saddell Cottage, and read my entry while staying there and want to know what happened next, which is nice.

All of us on that Chinese plane, by the way, wrote our comments on the back of that pilot's door. They were all uncomplimentary. The food and service were both terrible, and the plane was late. Still, I think we were compensating for days of staying at Chinese hotels where the food and service were terrible and where there were no visitors' books in which to write our comments.

But then, if there is no book in which to write your complaints, where do you write your complaint about that?

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