Industry Update
Opinion Article 1 March 2021

Writing for the Moment

By Iqbal Ahmed, Travel Writer & former Concierge at London Marriott Hotel Regents Park

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As a non-fiction writer, I usually choose to distance myself from the present moment and write instead about the past. It takes the expertise of a journalist to write about the present day. However, in 2020 many writers, finding themselves caught in situations that had arisen because of the pandemic, decided to write about present upheavals.

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I started to write my new book, The Art of Hospitality: A European Odyssey, when the first lockdown was imposed on London at the end of March, and I knew it would inevitably be coloured by the fact that it was written during the Covid-19 pandemic. But at the same time it felt redeeming to work on a travel book while living a circumscribed life in London under lockdown. Fortunately, I had visited several European cities in recent years and therefore decided to write a book about these past travels.

The shelf life of non-fiction titles in bookshops tends to be far shorter than for fiction; it is probably just a year and a half for most new non-fiction books. However, I felt inspired to visit Venice last year as a direct result of reading The Stones of Venice, written a century and a half ago by the leading art critic and patron, John Ruskin. Perhaps non-fiction can outlast fiction titles after all.

I chose hospitality as the theme for my travel book because travel and hospitality are inseparable parts of the same activity, and also because I have worked as a hotel concierge for two decades and have first-hand experience of life in the hospitality industry. It was with great sadness that I witnessed this industry becoming decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic within a matter of only a few weeks.

I had worked on my previous books in my spare time, sitting in coffee shops, so it felt unreal to be stuck at home. I realised that it is not at all an enviable situation for a writer to be glued to their desk. To break the tedium, for a month of weekdays, I escaped to a friend's shop outside London and also to a neighbour's home for a further couple of months of peace and quiet.

It has taken me exactly the same time to finish my latest book while staying at home as it took me to write my first one when I also had a full-time hotel job. In fact, I had held down two jobs for a continuous 120 days before resolving to write my first book, Sorrows of The Moon. So I wasn't really more productive in devoting all the available hours of the day to my métier. Perhaps it was because I missed the rhythm of my midnight bike-ride from the hotel back to my home.

The lobby of the hotel was sometimes like a microcosm of the literary world, where I might bump into a celebrated writer one day and a struggling one the next. Occasionally I would meet a hotel guest who had read one of my books, which encouraged me to press on with my writing. It was also in the hotel that I hosted a launch party every time I published a new book. My identity as a travel writer was intertwined with my work in the hotel industry.

Without such communal venues, our cities and towns appear to be no more than inhospitable agglomerations. When these and other social settings closed during lockdown, it took a toll on the mental health of the population. Most of us retreated from the physical world into a virtual world online. It sometimes felt as if I was writing my book in 'real-time'.

Writing about the present has its drawbacks because it isn't always easy to have a broader or more detached perspective when major world events are concurrently unfolding. But this pandemic is an unavoidable and all-encompassing tsunami. It was an urge to rise to the occasion, to somehow bear witness and reflect on this unprecedented situation, that resulted in me writing a book based on my personal experience. I had sustained my writing during the last 20 years by working in a hotel. But my job was no longer secure and so I felt very much out on a limb in the brave new world brought into being by the pandemic. However, it was a kind of guilty pleasure to sit in front of a screen and write while observing the outside world crumbling with each passing day.

In writing a book whose theme relates to the present historic moment, there is a risk that it may soon feel dated. A well-meaning acquaintance, who has edited the work of a great many writers, advised me that 'there's a virtue in the first-hand, contemporary response to great events, but literature usually comes after an interval'. There is an undeniable truth in that. Nevertheless, the world of travel and hospitality came to a sudden halt in 2020 and I was unable any longer to travel and then write a book based on my experiences. In order to write a new book while being confined to my home I therefore delved into memories of my past travels.

As with other industries, the publishing and bookselling industries have changed to a great extent during 2020. A fellow writer emailed me to say that people were reading more in lockdown but this has mostly benefited the celebrity authors who have transitioned from appearing on television to writing popular fiction. Bookshops have stayed open intermittently between lockdowns and all the major publishing events have either been cancelled or moved online. It is a daunting prospect to bring out a new book during the pandemic but it hasn't dissuaded me from going ahead and publishing my fifth book - as usual, at my own expense.

How will the hospitality industry fare in the post-pandemic world? This question is on the minds of many people who have worked in the industry for a long time. The introduction of new digital technology was already having a big impact on employment figures even before the industry was hit by the coronavirus. We should not be surprised if we see reception desks in hotels disappear altogether in the near future, with people only able to check in to a hotel online, much as with the check-in counters that have disappeared from many of the world's airports.

'O Wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here!' exclaims Miranda in The Tempest… How many, one might ask, are likely to meet and greet the weary traveller in hotel lobbies of the future?

Recommended reading: Iqbal Ahmed's fifth book of non-fiction, The Art of Hospitality: A European Odyssey, describes his excursions to four continental countries where he experiences hospitality as it is manifested in differing cultures and conditions. His wide-ranging travels include visits to Milan, Venice, Granada, Paris, Barcelona and Zurich. He is responsive not only to how ordinary people live but also to the architecture and works of art he encounters. And having himself worked for twenty years in the hospitality industry, he writes from an unusual dual vantage point: as concierge at a London Hotel, and as hotel guest and cultural observer on his own foreign travels. The book has another dimension: the comparisons made between aspects of the cities visited and the memories they evoke of the town of his birth, Srinagar in Kashmir, where the concept of hospitality is elevated to a high moral principle. More...

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