Christina Patterson: I've reached a tipping point with tipping

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The Independent Online

It starts the minute you arrive at your hotel. The suitcase that you dragged for miles to the bus stop, and then up and down the stairs on the Tube, and then down endless corridors and broken travelators at the airport, and then to the information desk at the other end, and to the bus stop, or the train, or perhaps the taxi, is, the minute you arrive in reception, whisked away from you by a man in a uniform, who carries it (but it's got wheels!) to the lift and then a few yards to your room. He opens the door, waves at the room as if he had, like God, just that minute conjured it from the air, and pauses.

Oh God, that pause. You have, if you're lucky, some crisp notes that you changed at the airport, but they seem to be in denominations of 10,000. And while you haven't quite got your head round the currency, or the exchange rate, even you can grasp that 10,000 is a bit much for two minutes' work. Two minutes' work you didn't ask for, or want.

And this, of course, is just the beginning. For the next week, or two weeks, or however long it is that you don't make your own toast, or clean your own toilet, someone is serving you. Someone is serving you food, someone is serving you drinks, someone is cleaning your room, someone is supplying you with fresh towels and fresh sheets (which could last for, well I won't say how long, at home), someone is driving you to places, someone is hailing the cars that are driving you to places (even though you didn't ask them to), someone is waving you into those cars, someone is giving you information, someone is saying "good morning" and smiling.

They may be smiling because they are pleased to see you, they may be smiling because they are lovely and polite, or they may be smiling because they would quite like to be remembered, at some point, with a little consideration. A tip. And you are well aware that they're earning a lot less than you, and may rely on your tip to feed their family. But then the minute you leave your hotel there are thousands of people who would kill to be working in that hotel, or that restaurant, or bar. They need your tip too. Or, at least, the benefit of your bountiful beneficence.

Actually, what they need is a living wage. That's what the people working in the hotel or restaurant or bar need, too, and they may or may not be getting it. They may or may not be getting it in Malawi, or India, or Peru, or Cambodia, and they may or may not be getting it in Stoke Newington or Hampstead. Waiting staff, as this newspaper pointed out last year, have often been offered a basic level of pay below the minimum wage, which is then "topped up" to legal levels. Topped up with contributions from customers that they thought were tips.

Today, this legal loophole is closed. This week, too, one of the country's leading restaurant chains has abandoned its 12.5 per cent compulsory (unless you're extremely assertive) service charge, and decided that customers should be able to decide for themselves how much to leave as a "reward for good service". But what kind of service did they think we were paying for in the first place? And what were the prices on the menu for? The raw ingredients?

Since none of us live alone in a cave, pretty much everything we do, or consume, involves some kind of human intervention. You could call it a service. Which is something you pay for. Do you also have to pay for the smile?

In Iran, a few months ago, I was impressed by the service in the hotels and restaurants. I was impressed because the men who served us (yes, of course they were men) were quiet and calm. They didn't smile sycophantically, they didn't ask us, every 10 seconds, "how's your food?" (an enquiry that always makes me want to say "it's edible, thanks, which it ought to be at that price, now will you please just let me eat it?") and they didn't hover. They did their job with dignity, knowing that they were feeding their families by feeding us.

There may be other things wrong with Iran (quite a few, as it happens) but there's not much of a tipping culture – and three cheers for that. Tipping is demeaning. It places one person in a position of superiority over another. It's anachronistic, complicated and embarrassing. Please, let's just pay people properly for the jobs they're employed to do.

The great, the good – and then there's Nancy

You can imagine the scenario. "Gordon, we've found you a saviour. A celeb. Gorgeous. Willing to pose with you." A pause. A jutting of that famous jaw. A wary Scots voice. "Who is it?" Brief pause. Upbeat voice. "Nancy dell'Olio."

Our Prime Minister is said to be less foul-mouthed than his predecessor. He is also desperate, so perhaps he was polite. Perhaps he was even keen. Perhaps the dour son of the manse, who got married in his own dining room, was delighted to be feted by a woman famous only for being the ex-girlfriend of an extremely well-paid football manager. This, after all, is a woman who, like the formidable Sarah Brown, knows how to Stand By Her Man. Well, she knows how to stand by one of them, not the other one, obviously, the one she was married to when she met him.

True, she has a little trouble in remembering her date of birth, and in constructing a completely coherent sentence. ("I have no idea what you're talking about," said Paxo once on Newsnight.) True, her endorsement of Brown, earlier this week ("the perfect No 2"), was not entirely wholehearted. But Labour has lost The Sun and needs all the help it can get.

You just couldn't make it up

I have never read a Harry Potter. (Why? Because I'm not an eight-year-old child.) I can't therefore comment on their literary merits, or on the justice, or lack of it, of its author winning prizes. But the rumour, expressed in a new book by an ex-White House speechwriter, that J K Rowling was considered by the Bush administration for a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and turned down, is a little alarming.

Not because Rowling should grab all the gongs going, or even because it reinforces the view that Bush may not have read anything more taxing than The Very Hungry Caterpillar (a book he claimed as one of his favourites, which was published when he was 23), but because she was turned down, according to the book's author, because her books promoted sorcery. Yes, sorcery. In the 21st century.

But the land of the freedom fry is also, of course, the land where a hefty swathe of the population believes the world was created in seven days, and that they themselves are descendants of a man in a garden called Adam, and it was a shame about the snake. You can see the problem with this thing called fiction.