Jason Goodwin: My new life as a Swiss hotelier in the heart of Dorset

Our columnist Jason Goodwin muses on reincarnation, hospitality and broken windows.

In his Republic, Plato recounts a vision of the afterlife in which the shades of the dead arrive in the Underworld to choose their next life. They surge forward eagerly, greedily, like shoppers at a sale, snatching at the lives that lie like so many abandoned leotards on the floor of the cave. Some are the lives of powerful kings and queens, heroes and heartbreakers, attractive to those shades who cannot see, or will not understand, that they are also the lives of people who will be beset by enemies, betrayed by friends. Wise or foolish, the shades don their newfound splendour and prepare to exit into the world, through the waters of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.

As they leave, the shade of Odysseus, the soldier, the Wanderer, the faithful lover, enters and stoops to pick up the last remaining soul. It is the life of a simple farmer, left behind in the scramble for fame and riches. ‘Yet this,’ says the wise man, ‘is the very one I would have chosen.’

One life was all very well for the Greeks, but we moderns are frequently reminded that technology and insecurity means we can choose to live several lives. The one I seem to have picked up lately is the soul of a Swiss hotelier. My life is currently devoted to hospitality and to the maxim, first laid down by César Ritz, that the customer is always right.

Nobody seems to quite know why the Swiss are so famous for hotel-keeping that they have a hotel chain named after them. Ritz, born in the Swiss village of Niederwald in 1850, was only the first. The son of a humble farmer, he was not an immediate success; his first employer allegedly sacked him, with the warning: ‘You’ll never make anything of yourself in the hotel business. It takes a special knack, a special flair, and it’s only right that I tell you the truth — you haven’t got it.’

“We Swiss hoteliers, like the prophets, don’t think like that. We think heaven is here, on earth”

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Ritz went on to become a notable mâitre d’, serving zoo animals to hungry French aristocrats during the siege of Paris in 1871, before teaming up with Escoffier to conquer London. They worked at the Savoy until D’Oyly Carte sacked them for embezzlement, and went on to found Ritz hotels in London, Paris and Madrid.

‘See all without looking,’ Ritz wrote, ‘hear all without listening; be attentive without being servile; anticipate without being presumptuous. If a diner complains about a dish or the wine, immediately remove it and replace it, no questions asked.’

This is just how we Swiss hoteliers are, in Dorset as on Piccadilly.

We meet nice people who want a decent holiday. We think about what they might want to do and see, and point them in the right direction. When they do odd things like driving a golf ball through a bedroom window, we immediately remove the glass and replace it, no questions asked. And we have clever housekeepers, like Ros the bed-making queen of the South West, and the wise and resolutely cheerful Emily, who believes that the world is so terrible that the only way is up. People, she says, are so cruel to each other on this earth that heaven must exist as a reward for suffering.

We Swiss hoteliers, like the prophets, don’t think like that. We think heaven is here, on earth, if only we all could trust in it. With that small leap of faith, we could have a world of love, without the cruelty. As it says in Isaiah, ‘The desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.’ And maybe, like Escoffier, we will do it one meal at a time. ‘The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.’