An Interview and Evening with George, of the George of Stamford.
I’m early to my interview with George of this hotel called The George of Stamford. (Call me George he’s said enough times that I now drop the ‘the’ in front of his name, though don’t mistake me, I am one for titles.) It happens sometimes when my editors schedule interviews in these English towns that are within commuting distance of London. The bloody train gets me out here faster than it looks on a map. It seems like I’m traveling halfway up the bloody English coastline, but less than one hour ago, I was in London boarding a train at Kings Cross station and now I tread cobblestone. I pass beneath an iron sign that spans the medieval street. Today, it marks this place as The George hotel but, yesterday, it acted as a gallows to warn highwaymen like when Johnny Depp arrives in the opening scenes of Pirates of the Caribbean. Ye be warned.
George of the George of Stamford sits across from me for afternoon tea in this courtyard where the same ivy has been growing since the Knights Hospitaller and the Knights Templar were the N’Sync and Backstreet Boys of the day. The relative historical insignificance of this moment made the dew on the ivy feel like a bored, watery-eyed look after a yawn. This is where my skills as an interviewer must kick in to convince these walls history can still be made. I don’t mind the challenge. I’m better with a live audience. As far is this being the real George of the George hotel when The George hotel first started, it’s rather a grey area. I mean is the voice of Mickey Mouse today the real Mickey Mouse? No, but sure it is. That’s mickey, all right.
George: Any trouble finding the place? [His triangular coachman’s hat, which bobs along with the rise and fall of his grey eyebrows, is the same both in shape and structure as his nose. When told of long, sun-bitten coach rides of no rest, “Then I shall ride in the shade!” his nose must have cried in defiance.]
Johnny Book: About as much trouble as Sir Walter Scott must have had in finding a rhyme while he was staying here in Stamford.
George: I remember it. He was standing in front of St. Martin’s church, with a view down the cobblestones of the George and of the River Welland. He was trying to decide between curry and roast beef with Yorkshire puddings for supper, and then, hands in his tweed pockets, the fellow remarked that the view from the church was the finest “’Twixt Edinburgh and London.” Good writer, that Sir Walter Scott. I suppose that’s why he was knighted.
Johnny: I suppose.
George: Not a fan? You, of all people?
Johnny Book: It’s just too bloody easy, isn’t it? I mean for a writer to come up with material out here, if we’re all being honest. It isn’t fair. What would Sir Walter Scott have written if the odds were even. What if instead of English country landscape he had to write in some chain coffee shop because the cool ones were an hour away round trip with traffic. Sir Walter would have written, “It’s the finest view ‘twixt the parking lot and a food truck serving macaroni and bacon with names that are lame sexual innuendos.”
I look up and down the courtyard walls that have been here since before Henry VIII was even a glimmer in his tenth great-grandfather’s eyes. Courtyard. Yes, that is its name, but I wonder if the monks and knights and kings who strolled through this courtyard, deciding which paragraphs in history would be written next, used the word courtyard as lightly as we do now, like how before Doppler radar they used to say of a hurricane on the horizon, looks like rain.
Johnny Book: I imagine it wasn’t very difficult for you, George, of all people, to get us a reservation here for afternoon tea. Should count myself lucky.
He gives me the same look of practiced patience I’ve seen on espresso bar baristas in Italy when asked for a drink from Starbucks.
Johnny Book: No reservations? One thousand years of this spot building up a reputation as a restful place for kings to coachmen traveling the Great North Road from London to Edinburgh and all of the English towns in-between and they don’t want to channel that thousand years of buzz into a reservation system?
The waiter pours George’s green tea, which I then realize is actually jasmine. It’s only green because it’s reflecting the color of George’s face.
Johnny Book: Sorry. There must be a reason you don’t do reservations.
George: More like 40. In the 1700’s, Stamford ran on average 40 coaches per day through this town. We weren’t the only coaching inn in town, mind you, but we were the best.
Johnny Book: Oh. Yes. Quite. I see the difficulty. I mean you’re talking folks who left London two or three days ago—
George: Four. It took four days to coach from London to Stamford.
Johnny Book: So a king leaves from London on a Sunday, sends a messenger that he’s coming, everybody sighs like the front desk guy on Oceans 12 when “Sta arrivando Julia Roberts,” and then it would take, what, a broken coach wheel, a muddy rain, a highwayman or two, for Kingy’s arrival to be pushed back from noon until midnight. The next night. Or next week. And you’ve still got to feed him and rest him and send him and his men on their merry way. Try that with reservations. I mean you can’t exactly say to King Henry V, “Sorry, I know you’ve got France to go down and conquer but you missed your bloody reservations so it’s off to bed with no dinner for you tonight. Good look writing your St. Crispin’s Day speech on an empty stomach.” Nah. Fluidity. I see now that that’s the name of the game.
George: Spoken like a true innsman.
Johnny Book: Of course, in terms of today, it means nothing if there isn’t an immediate open table for afternoon tea. It just means a drink at the Champaign bar with its Champaign or the York bar with its fireplaces. It’s all the same if we all get there in the end, which is all that matters.
George: Ever given any thoughts to the profession?
Johnny Book: As a matter of fact….
Our three-tiered trey of sandwiches and scones and desserts arrives. I skip the finger sandwiches and go for the scones on the second level. With a quick double tap, he knocks the clotted cream out of my right hand with one peck of his triangular coachman’s hat and then with a second blur of a peck the scone goes flying from my left hand. I’d be more offended, if not for the relief of finally knowing what those tricorne hats are for. I thought it was like a minimizing drag thing. Like a spoiler on a sweet mustang.
George: Every thing in its due order, my boy. It must connect or one gets lost. That’s your first lesson of innsmanship, but tell me, how’s your mathematics?
Johnny Book: I can diagram a hell of a sentence in English class. Now don’t get me started on this that isn’t a necessary skill spiel. It’s the best way to know grammar and grammar is the best way to communicate what you know. Now the trick is prepositions. Once you—
George: And your navigations? When you’re lost at the mall, do you find your own way to Williams Sonoma, my dear fellow, or do you consult those handy directories?
Johnny Book: I ask the security guard.
George: You skip the directory entirely? I would have ridden straight through a hundred storms for a map of such clarity in my coachman days.
Johnny Book: Who the hell looks at those things? You never know if it’s actually going to be the directory or some advertisement for…whatever the hell those things advertise. As if that young millionaire pop star with no shirt on and who makes more in one concert than a coachman makes in a year navigating folks down the Great North Road ever really depends upon a department store scent to attract a lady or two.
George: [Wipes something off his neck.] Quite. Quite. And tell me, what of your paper sales?
Johnny Book: My paper sales?
George: Don’t you ever watch The Office?
Johnny Book: American or British?
Johnny Book: Yes.
George: The George is the Dunder Mifflin middleman between the paragraphs of the history books. Oh, don’t look at me like that, ol’ boy. The middleman is the true hero of history. I’m serious. There ought to be an asterisk between the paragraphs of pinprick schoolboy history books that reads: and then they spent the night and rested their horses at a coaching inn like The George of Stamford, and then the next day…
Johnny Book: Well, then, to quote Michael Scott: “Real business is done on paper.”
George: And real history is done in the coaching inns that move history along.
Johnny Book: And just like Dunder Mifflin, the George competes with the big chains with a personal touch of customer service with the likes of its bars and afternoon tea and cozy rooms.
George: Nah. Anybody can offer service with a smile.
Johnny Book: So what does The George offer if not that?
George: You know the sign out front is a f*&king gallows for people who mess with our customers.
Johnny Book: Dunder Mifflin indeed.