The Sharp End: My dust-up with destiny

Rhymer Rigby spends a day rising to the chambermaiding challenge at a west London hotel.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I know Hotel Babylon is fiction - a great conflation of all the inappropriate things that go on in hotels, stirred with a dollop of artistic licence - but it's impossible not to be affected just a little by it. So as I walk into the Chiswick Moran hotel to start my stint as a chambermaid, I wonder what evidence of nocturnal debauches I'll be uncovering.

Things start promisingly. As I wait at the front desk, an Irish couple are complaining vociferously that this Irish-owned hotel doesn't seem to have many Irish staff - seemingly oblivious to the fact that we're in west London, where most service-industry jobs are filled by east Europeans; it's like expecting the McDonald's in Red Square to be staffed by 18-year-olds from Iowa.

I'm introduced to Alvina, the likeable Polish head of house-keeping. She gives me a quick tour of the rooms, which I rather admire - nicely designed without the self-regarding smugness you get at so many boutique hotels. The clientele, I'm told, is made up mostly of businesspeople, and the hotel does a brisk trade, as this part of London is lacking in accommodation.

After my tour and familiarisation session, I'm left with chambermaid Anetta, also Polish. I'm to watch her and learn the ropes before I pick up my own feather duster. Nothing to it, I'm thinking. But, five minutes in, I feel the need to start making a list. After a week or so of chambermaiding, you might know it all off by heart, but for those of us who've done it for only five minutes, there's a lot to remember - from leaving the right number of toiletries, to dusting coffee cups and stacking them just so, to fanning out the magazines nicely on the table. And who knew towel-folding involves such artistry?

It's this precision that makes cleaning hotel rooms so much harder than cleaning their domestic counterparts. Just because you can make your bed at home doesn't mean you make one to a hotel's exacting standards. I've never made a bed in this way before, and I suspect I never will again. My natural male instincts keep kicking in. Why, I wonder, would anyone dust behind the lamps? No-one ever looks there.

A relatively clean hotel room takes 30 minutes to do; a messier one (normally encountered at weekends in the wake of city-break guests) can take up to an hour. Left to my own devices, how long will it take me to do one? I'm sure that not only will it take me two hours, but it will then take a person more competent than me half an hour to straighten out my mistakes and oversights.

I'm asked if I want to do a room by myself. Lord knows, I try, but after a couple of minutes it's clear that I'm getting nowhere and, even with my list, I'll probably be mis-stacking cups, leaving mirrors unpolished and thrones in a state unfit for a king. I bow to the inevitable and accept Malwina's offer of help.

Malwina has been chambermaiding for a couple of months as part of her training. She says it's a difficult and exacting job and not something she'd want to do every day. It's surprisingly physical, too. I stand in awe of anyone who manages to put 18 duvets back into their cover every day, or do that weird thing with pillows that results in beautiful invisible edges. And, of course, all these things are done in the strangely intimate surrounds of a room that someone else has slept in.

There is a reason why chambermaids are called chambermaids. I ask Malwina if she has ever known a chamberman. Only one, she says - and he lasted all of three days. The trouble is that to be a good chambermaid, you have to care deeply about cleanliness and tidiness, and most men just don't. Like me, when they look around a dusty room, their first instinct is to find corners to cut.

Still, Malwina puts some music on and, by watching her carefully, I manage a few smear-free coffee cups and a bed that doesn't bring shame upon the hotel. When we finish, I look at my watch. It's lunchtime already - and I've seen one room being done and I've done half of another - a third, if I'm honest. Anetta's 18 is a summit I can never dream of reaching.

Chambermaiding tends to be a minimum-wage job - £5.73 an hour - although Moran's says it pays somewhat above that. The chambermaids' shift ends between 2pm and 3pm, so when the sales manager asks if I want to have lunch, it's like a lifeline to a drowning man, and I bid Anetta and Malwina goodbye, certain that with me gone, their productivity will soar. As for Malwina's chamberman, three days looks like quite an achievement to me.

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