We journalists are collectors. Facts (preferably true), gossip (often untrue), predictions (always, of course, correct), old newspaper clippings, photos and press handouts and – in my case – propaganda leaflets (in hopelessly ungrammatical Arabic) dropped by Israeli planes over Lebanon.
Why, I still have my reporter's notebook covered in oil spots from Kuwait, after Saddam had set the oil fields afire in 1991. Then there's the small packet in which visitors to the Fisk Memorial Library will one day find a Havana cigar ring marked "The first cigar Mohamed Heikal gave me after 29 years of friendship!" I know Mohamed, Egypt's worthiest journalist and writer, reads this column – and will appreciate the above. Long life to him.
Recently, however, I've been collecting the most irritating load of old humbug I've come across in a long time, ever more frequently, alas, and doomed to be a constant part of our lives in this most hypocritical of ages. It's one thing to pick up the glossy advertising kits of arms manufacturers – "All for One and One for All" is the motto for the Boeing's Hellfire air-to-ground missile, without apologies to Dumas – or the codswallop from the oil conglomerates about how they are saving the earth. But the latest tomfoolery to come my way – all travelling readers will have come across the same nonsense – is the little card that lies upon my hotel pillow, exhorting me to spare the relevant spa, hostelry or caravanserai the cost and bother of cleaning my sheets, pillowcases or towels. This epidemic of cant comes in all colours and continents. I've got the message in Los Angeles, Cairo, Istanbul, Ottawa, Limerick, wherever hotel managements have started to think green – green as in dollars, I mean.
So let's kick off with the friendly old Hyatt. The very word "Conserve" is literally imprinted on their little card. And here goes the script: "As part of Hyatt's commitment to conserve the environment, we will change bed linens and towels as necessary or upon request. If you wish to have your linens and towels replaced daily, please contact the hotel operator." Note that wonderful word "commitment". Like "mission statement" (another piece of twaddle), it reeks of gravitas and seriousness of purpose. And what does "as necessary" mean? When the sheets or towels have reached such a deplorable, smelly state that even the room-maid cannot stand them? And note how you have to work to maintain daily cleanliness at the Hyatt... It is you who have to call the operator if you decline to accept this lovely "green" idea.
Across the channel now to that pinnacle of sixth arrondissement luxury, the Hotel Lutetia. "YOU DECIDE," it says at the top of the English-language pillow card. "Kindly be informed that only towels left in the bathtub or on the floor will be changed by your housekeeper. Thanking you for helping us to act for the environment." This really is great stuff. Firstly, there's the legalistic "kindly be informed" – it's not in the French version – which is a command that totally negates the "you decide" buffoonery at the top. Then there's the grubby suggestion that if you want to have clean towels, you've got to chuck them in the bath or leave them all over the floor like a peasant. And all this, please note, so that the Lutetia can "act for the environment". Like, er, was it actually given a special mandate to act on behalf of the world, a master (or mistress) of morality and honour?
So down to Cairo for some more flummery in a country where three words are always better than one – or, in the case of the Marriott Hotel on Gezira Island – where 108 are better than none. There's the usual stuff about commitment to "practices that preserve our natural resources"; it's followed by the weird suggestion that "while it is our practice (sic again) to change your bed linens (sic) every day, we are supportive of our guests' desire to help protect the environment and accordingly to change your bed linens after every third night of your stay." This is imperishable. The Marriott wants to clean our bed linen every day, yet it knows that we – the paying guests – want it to stay dirty. And so they will, unless you request otherwise. Then – and remember that Cairo is one of the dirtiest, most polluted, garbage-soaked cities in the world – there is this fantastical ending: "Working together, we can conserve millions of litres of water ... and minimise the release of detergents into the environment." Even in smog-filled LA, the Hilton thanked me for "helping us to conserve the earth's vital resources".
Off to tough-minded Turkey then, where the best airport hotel in Istanbul informs me: "You surely know that tons of detergent and water are being consumed day by day to wash towels that have been used for a short period only." Like the Marriott in Cairo, I have to leave the stuff on the floor if I want clean towels. "Thanks,' the Turkish pillow card concludes "for your contruibution (sic) to the (sic) nature." All "sics" go, you surely know!
But what a glow seizes the heart of Lord Fisk when shown to his suite at the Castletroy Park Hotel in Limerick. "Future generations will be thankful to you" – I kid thee not, O Reader – "for helping them to have a greener environment." Future generations, ye gods. And they're actually going to be grateful to little ol' me if I leave the towels on the bathroom rail for reuse. But cross the Atlantic with me, to the Fairmont Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa which is, of course, "committed to conserving our natural resources", etc etc. So I have to put their itsy-bitsy card out if I want my bed clothes changed. Did Churchill do this when he stayed there? "Thank you for helping us to be environmentally conscious."
None of this, you understand, has anything to do with saving the costs of cleaning and detergents. Oh no, indeed. It is we – who pay the bills – who are helping them, the five-star hotels, to look after the environment. Of course, if they really cared about all that green stuff, they'd hang a notice above the bathroom saying "Use Less Bloody Water!" But then again, I suspect that water charges are a fixed price – and the environment can be thrown out with the bath water.