The tea. About the tea, there can be little complaint. A pot for two from an old-fashioned pourer, of the kind that deposits its contents in the cup rather than on the adjacent surface. It is late morning in summer in deepest Galloway. The hotel in this small town has been chosen for its proximity to the bus stop, but although it is called a hotel it is really just a pub, or a pub with a couple of rooms at best – or worst.
The barman is sporting a Rangers T-shirt. He is unsmiling, almost grim, and the season hasn't begun yet. But we get a friendlier reception from one of the few punters, an old man with a soft voice and confidential manner, who informs us that his wife died recently. He seems gentle; a little sad and bereft.
When I tell him where we're headed, he smiles. He remembers Ayr. He
used to stop for lunch there every other Saturday on his way to Ibrox for the match. But then Mr Souness, the manager, of whom he has little good to say, introduced a ticket-only policy and he stopped going. We are not sure what a ticket-only policy means or why it would discourage anyone from attending the match, but, not wishing to disappoint him, we nod enthusiastic agreement.
It is not his fault that we almost choke on our tea. Nor any fault of the tea. As he wanders off to the public bar, the muzak begins and it is unmistakably an instrumental version of 'The Sash My Father Wore.' The tune itself is rather beautiful. It appears in its original form to have been a lament. But then they added lyrics and it became a Protestant anthem, a standby of the Rangers faithful.
The truth finally hits us; we are shamed by our own naivety. Yes, we
are having our tea in a sectarian pub – incongruously, not in working-class Glasgow but middle-class Galloway, in a respectable little town of independent shops and art galleries. Do we complain? I wouldn't fancy challenging that mean hombre of a barman, and our problem, if it is a problem, seems beyond the scope of the local tourist information office. No doubt the police, if there are any in the vicinity, would laugh at us if we objected.
We pay up and leave without uttering a word of dissent.
A few hundred yards away, most of the signage has been removed from what used to be the main hotel in the town. I stayed there once while
adjudicating the county drama festival and loved its comfort and solidity. It is scarcely conceivable that it has been reduced to this shell of a place. I peer inside, wondering if it is still in any sense open for business. It's hard to say. It looks, feels and smells derelict, and there is not a soul to be seen.
For guidance I consult TripAdvisor. Maybe more than any other invention of the internet, TripAdvisor reminds us how far standards of literacy have sunk. People are writing more than they have done at any stage in human history. The paradox is that this explosive growth has been accompanied by a calamitous decline in standards of written prose. I pay special regard to the site's Scottish members, whose inability to spell or punctuate exposes the ludicrous pretensions of our education system. Of course the English are just as bad, but Scottish illiteracy is funnier, matched as it is by the familiar patriotic hubris, reflected so well in the various platforms of the Edinburgh festivals.
TripAdvisor is also useful to some extent for its hotel and restaurant reviews – though if you relied on the many unflattering critiques you might sensibly decide never to leave the house – but I value it more for its incidental insights into the state of Scotland, especially the Scotland of the small towns, where most of us live.
I am surprised to discover that the apparently derelict hotel is still receiving guests. One was there only a few nights ago. He wasn't best pleased when he checked out, yet the issue was not, as I'd expected, the quality of the accommodation – about which he had little to say – but the fact that he had been awake long into the night because of boy racers driving at suicidal speeds up and down the main street.
How is this allowed to happen? How is the quality of life in a small Scottish town so badly disrupted without, it seems, anything being done about it? In a month when grandiose claims have been made about Scotland, mostly by people who don't actually have to live in it, we need to remember the boy racers and the sleep they murder. This is the reality, just as the sectarian pub is the reality, and it’s all a world apart from the Charlotte Square tents, which will soon be dismantled, leaving the natives in relative peace for another year.
Dorothy L Sayers adored Galloway and regularly stayed in Gatehouse at the Anworth Hotel, which was recently re-named, converted into a guest house and promptly closed to non-residents. We bought a copy of her superior detective story set in Galloway, 'Five Red Herrings', and read her entertaining foreword in which she thanked the proprietors of the Anwoth and of another hotel, in a neighbouring village, for the local knowledge they had shared with her.
On the bus back – after our unsettling encounter in the Rangers pub –
I note that the hotel in the neighbouring village is still in one piece, still with its original name, and evidently still open. Sadly, though, the TripAdvisor reports are unfavourable. The rooms are awful, the food is awful, and one disgruntled guest complains that he was kept up till 2am by drunks in the bar.
That too is part of the reality of small town Scotland. There is only so much of it we can stand – until another train arrives from London, another flight from Los Angeles, and we learn to our astonishment how wonderful we are. I suppose we should be grateful.