For the first time in many years, I am working with my mother, Olga. We have just bought a 38-bedroom hotel in East Sussex, in the medieval village of Alfriston. It will close at the beginning of November while we completely transform it. We will open again in June for South Downs walkers, cyclists, Glyndebourne-goers, visitors to the Bloomsbury-group property Charleston, and lovers of an escapist stay away.
It has been a long time coming. First, we opened Hotel Tresanton in 1998. Then in 2004, OP, as her closest work colleagues call her, bought Hotel Endsleigh in Devon, and I spent the year project-managing the renovation, and then from 2005 to 2008 as the manager. My mother says that rather too many stories about my time in tenure have the phrase “and then Alex opened a bottle of champagne”. But on the positive side, there were very few letters of complaint.
On that occasion I was very much the junior partner. OP was the boss, and I enjoyed being her second-in-command. It was a happy period in my life. I felt focused and energised. Managing a small country house hotel allows you to get involved in many different disciplines, and for someone with a butterfly mind – as the gentleman trying to teach me the Sage accounting system disparagingly remarked of me – it is the perfect job.
It was, however, a post that isn’t easy to combine with being a wife and mother. My husband, Marcus, and I lived apart for a year, only seeing each other a couple of days a week. But when I fell pregnant with little Olga I knew that the end was nigh.
Since then I have had a very satisfying career on television, but I have longed in the last couple of years to return to the real world. I have spent so long, on programmes such as The Hotel Inspector and Our Dream Hotel, telling other people what they are doing wrong in their hospitality businesses, I thought it would be interesting to see if I could still cut the mustard myself. I didn’t want to become one of these people who tell others what to do without being able to do it themselves.
So here I am, working with my mother again, but this time as an equal partner, as I am able to put in a significant sum of money myself. My daughter is safely ensconced at boarding school, and my little Rocco is at an age when I can relax about his educational development for a year or two, and throw myself wholeheartedly into the project.
Marcus has been less than entirely enthusiastic. He likes me being at home, and always comments that it isn’t fun when both of us are working long hours with neither of us making allowances for the other’s tiredness or grumpiness. But he is slowly coming round to the idea, as he sees how much I am enjoying myself.
This project has made me realise how wearing it has been dealing with the awful stresses, strains and miseries of others’ business lives, when I can give advice but can’t implement the change myself. I often feel that I am watching a business crash in slow motion, and as a helpless bystander.
Instead, the success or failure of this business will depend to a large extent on me. It is of course very stressful. We have had to borrow a large sum of money, we haven’t received the significant planning permissions yet, OP and I both have real day jobs and are doing this, as it were, in our spare time. But the time I spend on this project reduces the overwhelming anxiety I think I am not alone in feeling about the state of the world.
Whether you are worrying about climate change, or bemoaning the paralysis of Parliament, or the vicious partisanship in any debate, or the relentless onslaught of social media, or the rise of knife crime, the problems feel so enormous that it is tempting not to engage at all.
It’s so much easier to concentrate solely on the issues one can affect, so restful to be grappling with the details of our own business plan, with the architectural drawings, dealing with our new neighbours in the village and the planners, urging builders on, training staff, deciding on decorating schemes. It may all sound petty, but it is also very concrete and satisfying.
I am sure there are many who will see this as fiddling while Rome burns. Of course, I realise that we do all have a social and moral responsibility to engage, whether we are marching to demand climate change action or attempting to reduce our own carbon footprint. We must prove, even if only in our own lives, that it is possible to engage in respectful debate. We can’t just close our eyes to the world around us. Otherwise we let extremists of every sort win.
But doesn’t it say much about our society that, for me at least, work is a version of mindfulness that at least temporarily makes the terrors of real life and my feelings of powerlessness retreat.