H.E. Bulstrode

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A ‘Fawlty’ Approach: Ghostly Satire in the Contemporary Age

Basil Fawlty was a monster, albeit a very human and recognisable one, a masterful comic creation who somehow managed to engage the viewer’s sympathies in his daily travails. He was a man temperamentally ill-suited to running a hotel and dealing with the general public, and that, after all, is the situation from which the fundamental comedy arises. Originally screened over forty years ago, it is now something of a period piece, but there are still Fawltys out there, albeit often of quite a different stamp.

Running a bed and breakfast or a small hotel must be difficult at times, and it takes a certain type of person to make such a venture a success. Quite often though, the ‘wrong’ sort of person deludes themselves into thinking that they would make an excellent job of such an enterprise, and, so I’ve discovered, they can be wrong in so many different ways.

If you have often stayed in this type of establishment, you will undoubtedly have encountered proprietors who have managed to strike just the right balance between formality and friendliness, and others who have not. Sometimes you might experience a frosty reception from someone who views you with an innate distrust, and treats you as if you’re an unwelcome interloper, a cumbersome burden upon their time. At others, you might find you meet someone who appears to be all smiles and warmth, but who then proceeds to overstep the boundary and ask inappropriate and intrusive questions. I can recall one occasion where the host, whilst serving breakfast at a communal table, asked an apparently innocuous question of all waiting to be fed: ‘What do you do?’ Each person in turn gave their answer, and he smiled and nodded in acknowledgement and approval, until the time came for me to provide my reply. ‘And what do you do?’ he asked, somewhat regally.

‘Um, I’ve been made redundant.’

Cue killing silence.  

To be honest, this was no more than an innocent blunder on his part, but it felt humiliating to have to say this in front of a roomful of well-paid professionals. This, however, was as nothing compared to what I have experienced elsewhere, for there exists, I have discovered, another type of individual attracted to running a B&B: the proselytiser. I would sooner experience the rudeness and petty snobbery of a Basil Fawlty, than the unconscionable intrusiveness of the host or hostess intent upon imposing their morals, values and behaviours upon their guests. Don’t get me wrong, for I have no problem with people running their businesses in line with their beliefs, as there will doubtless be others who share their outlook and would love to stay in such a place. However, if I’ve booked somewhere that states that it provides a full English breakfast, I do not then wish to be informed in a disdainful tone every time that the proprietor serves up bacon, sausage and egg, that they are vegan. I do not wish the said proprietor to make huffy remarks when asked about good local pubs – ‘I don’t drink myself, so I couldn’t say,’ condescending smile. When enquiring about local cafes and restaurants, I do not wish to be referred exclusively to vegetarian outlets. Beatrice Clemens. Such experiences are what gave birth to Beatrice Clemens, the insufferably overbearing fictional B&B hostess from the Dorset village of Cerne Abbas.

The thing about Beatrice is that she thinks she’s doing good. She sees herself as a philanthropist and a progressive, a warm-hearted pillar of a community that needs bringing ‘up-to-date’, and it’s with this mission in mind that she’s set herself up as a B&B ‘host’ (not a ‘hostess’ you understand, as that would be ‘sexist’). Her business is a front operation for her busybodyism, and she is, as is so often the case, an outrageous hypocrite. Beatrice Clemens is a Basil Fawlty for the age of ‘social justice’ and ‘equality’, combining characteristics not only of the hapless Basil, but also those of Dickens’s Mrs Jellyby, the telescopic philanthropist always so concerned with the plight of those in faraway places, whilst neglecting the welfare of those closer to home. Her purblind social attitudes prompt her to behave just as rudely to her customers as Basil’s snobbery did. She is out there. You may have met her. Poor you!

Now, if such a person can irritate the hell out of me, what might the guardian spirit of a particular place, a genius loci, think of such a person intent upon transforming their oasis of tranquillity into something fundamentally alien to its essence? Thus emerged the scenario for The Rude Woman of Cerne, a satirical ghost story set beneath the gaze of the priapic club-wielding giant. When I wrote it, the name of Beatrice suggested itself as an appropriate moniker, and only just this morning I discovered something not a little uncanny in this respect: John Cleese based the character of Basil Fawlty on the Torquay hotelier Donald Sinclair, whose wife’s name happened to be . . . Beatrice. The Rude Woman of Cerne, should you dare meet her, is available from Amazon in Kindle, and in paperback as part of the collection Uncanny Tales from the English Shires.

Alas, the Cerne Giant was rather overgrown when I visited so I didn’t manage to get a good picture of him. As it was also raining heavily that day in the village of Cerne Abbas, I have instead provided a picture of that other Dorset touristic honeypot, the village of Corfe with its ruined castle.

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