(CNN) – Anyone who is getting rid of long hours of confinement with dreams at any time of a new start in life, should take it into account as an edifying tale.
In 2011, at the age of 44, I had my own career in the midst of a mid-life crisis, giving up journalism to start a new life as the owner of a hotel, restaurant and a waterfront bar on the Scottish island of Islay.
Four months later, having already developed a slightly nauseous feeling that I could have made a mistake, the confirmation that I was not made for the hospitality sector arrived at breakfast in the dining room of the hotel on a Sunday morning in November.
With the sore hangover struggling to force a restorative porridge down, I tried to avoid the glow of the low winter sun reflecting on the lake while keeping an eye on the events unfolding at a next table.
An American guest had suddenly refused to take delivery of a batch of eggs, rightly since they had been poached to the point that she could have sent them alone to the kitchen.
Judging by the sunglasses she wore, the woman also faced the consequences of an evening spent in the company of local brandy.
An offended waitress avoided her eye and I could see the color of the client’s cheeks change from slightly reddened to glowing chip over the minutes without any sign of a replacement breakfast arriving.
“Bloody cooking,” I thought, not for the first time.
The hotel bar was popping … at first.
James Deane Photography
If I really had a calling for my new job, I guess I would have gotten up at that point, apologized to the client, and burst into the kitchen to deliver a cursory lecture on the benefits of simmering on a rolling boil, in the manner of Gordon Ramsay.
I would then have triumphantly emerged with “eggs to die for” and an obsequious display.
In real life, I collapsed lower in my chair and wished I hadn’t watched a surreal dark comedy unfold in an uncomfortably familiar setting.
One of the good / bad things about running a restaurant in Scotland is that almost no one ever complains, let alone send back food.
Even if customers thought something was completely disappointing, they invariably responded, “How was it?” with a variation of “Very good, thank you!”
I think this is due to the fact that foreign visitors to our coasts often start with low expectations while, among those from the rest of Great Britain, there is a cable politeness that bypasses complaints.
I appreciate the desire not to offend, but I recognize that it does nothing to help meet the improved but still uneven standards that lead to low expectations.
This reluctance on the part of the public to criticize or complain also tends to indulge the performers, so that even the mildest expression of less than total satisfaction can provoke a thorny reaction.
‘You should be ashamed …’
Angus MacKinnon: “I was not made for the hotel industry.”
This is how my breakfast chef, thornier than most, reacted to the snobing of the first batch of eggs by simmering in silent rage for 20 minutes before sending a replacement plate with two eggs so lightly poached that yellow looked like. wrapped in an extra-gossamer condom.
Not quite unexpectedly, the now foul-smelling recipient, in her thirties from Chicago, overturned her cover, pushed the plate back towards a crying waitress and fled upstairs in a cloud of explosives from Windy City.
As bad as it was, I felt confident that, armed with my growing experience of handling complaints, I would be able to limit the damage when the woman came to check.
“I saw what happened, I am so, so sorry and …” I started to say.
“Damn, you should be sorry …” she interrupted.
“Yes, well, like I said, really sorry and …”
“Sorry? Must be ashamed of this shit …”
“Well, maybe not the only one who is ashamed, huh? Anyway, again sorry …”
“What did you say? I can’t believe it. Like. Am I wrong here?”
“Like I said, I had breakfast at …”
“I’m not paying a dime for this …”
When something broke in the client part of my dehydrated brain. Before I knew it, I had launched into a sermon on the theme “You people, coming here, thinking that you can speak to my staff like that. Who do you think you are …”
In the end, I got so angry with just indignation that I had no choice but to go for a conclusive final fulfillment.
“Do you know what, go ahead,” I said, tearing up the bill for a three-night stay before her.
The TripAdvisor review that popped up in my inbox a few days later was remarkably balanced under the circumstances.
Which only made things worse, of course.
Moments of clarity
The old MacKinnon hotel is located on the Scottish island of Islay.
James Deane Photography
Business owners like to complain about inaccurate, even malicious, posts on review platforms, but my experience on this side of the fence was that reviewers, by and large, were trying to account honest from their experience. In my case, they probably tended to be a little too generous.
I should have two more “moments of clarity” about my future as a hotelier in the months following Eggs-gate.
One was an unarmed fight with an outside generator at 4 a.m. the night a hurricane hit the island. The other was the realization that a five-digit amount had evaporated from the business during the first six months of my dilettante stewardship.
“You were sort of asking for it,” said the local police sergeant, closing the unresolved file with a ruthless review of my cash-in-transit arrangements, from crates to safes and banks.
Looking back, nine years later, my naivety about almost every aspect of my poorly judged business seems barely understandable now.
It was not as if the whole company had not been advised against me.
When I asked a longtime hotelier on the island, and then selling, if he had advice for a young beginner, he replied, “Don’t do it.” When I laughed, he added, “I’m not kidding.”
Then there was the friend from school days who told me bluntly, “you’re not suited for that at all.” All this only made me more determined to dive with my fingers in both ears.
Despite the large amount of capital to invest and the security of a solid building, most banks were not interested in giving me a mortgage because their lending criteria for the sector explicitly require applicants to have two years of experience in the business.
It should have sounded the alarm, but my reaction was more like “Don’t these people know who I am?”
“I ran a press room covering half the world! I worked on really complex business stories. I whistled a copy during the World Cup finals”, I thought said. “How difficult is it to change a beer barrel?”
While there is some truth in it, that is not really the point.
“A very nice party at home”
Islay is part of the Inner Hebridean Islands off the west coast of Scotland.
Wannabe Conrad Hiltons’ high failure rate has taught lenders to restrict access to their funds to those with solid trading experience. Only, they enter with their eyes fully open on the realities of being linked to a 365/7 business, and on the relentless determination of its “finish late, start early” rhythms.
I told myself that I had thought about all this, that journalism had endured me for long hours. But most of the time, I just avoided dwelling on the embarrassing truths of the trade: instead, my mind was overwhelmed with visions of roaming the rooms in subtle tones, reshuffling the wine list and collecting the langoustines of the boats at dawn.
I did some of these things and for a while my partner and I had the space jumping to the rhythm of two dinners a night and to the sound of a crowded bar.
During this exhilarating brief period, it was easy to understand why having your own hotel appealed to so many journalists and other creative professionals.
For journalists who have lived a constantly shifting itinerant life, the idea of settling in one place and a less rushed and slower existence can become extremely attractive at some stage of life – especially if you you can imagine it retaining some of the excitement and camaraderie that accompanies the territory in journalism.
I remember a colleague who approved my nut plan saying, “Yeah, I always thought it would be great to have a hotel by the sea. It would be like having a great party at the House.”
Lots of interesting people came to my hotel. I enjoyed meeting them and having a drink with them. The wine list has improved.
But the summer honeymoon quickly gave way to a fall awareness that the list of skills required to really run the business was complemented by efficient secretarial and accounting, the convenience of improving habitat and a nose to find the cheapest toilet paper.
Fear of heart attack
MacKinnon: “I knew that if it went bankrupt, I could lose a huge portion of the savings.”
I was not only not very good at it all, I was practically allergic to the chores that I considered chore. Very quickly, I was so depressed by the enormity of the error I had made that I could barely bear to think about it, let alone do anything to extricate myself from my madness.
To make matters worse, in my drive to get started, I had mortgaged the house I had built on the island to get my hard-earned loan. I couldn’t cope with the management of the hotel but I knew that if it broke down, I could lose a huge chunk of 25 years of work and savings.
This winter, I remember almost nothing but the intense stress that sent me twice to doctors convinced that the blows to the chest and the head would inevitably trigger a heart attack or a stroke.
Most of the nights were spent while the BBC World Service rumbled all night on the bedside, the implosion of Syria making my sleepless gloom worse. Each day had to start with a long, soothing walk that allowed me to function, but not to the point of facing the haystack that now hung around my neck.
Fortunately, it turned out that putting my head in the sand, or more precisely under the duvet, was not such a disastrous thing to do. The business I bought was essentially solid, the tourism economy on the island was strong and growing, and my employees could be reliable in keeping things balanced, paying the mortgage.
Eventually, a much more nimble pair of hands came up with a proposal to hire me the business. It worked well enough for him to buy me back a few years later.
I had managed to escape my own dream without a financial scar. “Well, at least you’ve tried,” said my lawyer. “You would have regretted it if you hadn’t!”
So, would I start all over again?
Probably not bloody.