My earliest memories are of the deep bass rumble of an engine and the orange blur of lights as they sped past my window; I was the only child of a travelling musical act called “The Midnight Warblers”, whose glory days, like the variety halls they played in, were already something of a distant memory by the time I was born. We were never going to be rich, but we managed and we were happy. In many ways these van journeys were where we all felt the most at home: My parents singing an old show tune whilst I, little more than a babe in arms, tried my best to join in with a kazoo. Already they had big plans for “Little Derek” to be the newest member of the act.
It was when we got to the venues that the real hardships began – we’d usually end up in some shabby mildewed hotel, hunched in the streets behind the hall; murderous night’s sleep on sagging beds were followed by mean little breakfasts served by foul-tempered staff. My parents always managed to make a joke out of it, pulling faces and making me smile... It was only as I grew older that I saw the toll it took on them both, my poor mother most of all. The cold, damp rooms began to take a hold on her throat, meaning the warble went out of the Midnight Warblers. Inevitably, gigs were cancelled and what money we had vanished, but the hunger meant nothing compared to seeing the crushing guilt of being unable to perform weighing down on my mother. Back then all I dreamt of was Superman coming and flying us all to warm airy beds and plates of sizzling bacon and making my mum smile again; it’s only looking back I realise this was the beginning of the end.
For a time at least, it seemed my prayers for a saviour were answered, in the shape of Shaun Ryder: after being sampled on the Happy Monday’s “Forty Five E.P.”, “The Midnight Warblers” enjoyed a renaissance, playing at Manchester’s Hacienda before being picked up for a sellout run at Shoom and Heaven in London. We stayed in a beautiful hotel overlooking the Thames, with beds as soft as clouds and breakfasts beyond even my wildest comic-book fuelled dreams. Sadly all dreams must end and it’s fair to say ours came crashing down around our heads. My parents’ habit of wearing formal evening wear to play and insistence on at least three intervals at their shows meant they were eventually shunned by the dance scene. On attempting a return to the music halls, they found their good name was forever wed to feverish visions of 24-hour raves, glow-sticks and ecstasy: Though we could just about get the gigs, no hotel would risk taking us in. We were shunned; ruined for wont of a place to stay.
In a final desperate bid to rescue the act, my parents went on a tour of Europe, before heading back to the UK and playing the country from Edinburgh all the way down to London. It would take them years and I was left with my Grandpop, a giant who seemed more like a mountain than a man, or perhaps a volcano - his ever-present pipe spewing great big clouds of smoke and ash wherever he went. I didn’t want to stay with this strange man, with his funny smells and curses as he banged his head on yet another doorframe. I still remember him holding me back as I sobbed, watching our little van drive off to Dover, my mother’s frail little wave the last thing I saw as they dipped over the hill and were gone.
I spent many days wallowing in self-pity, worrying for myself and the health of my Mother so far away, until Grandpop, deciding enough was enough casually carried me out over the marshes and to the railways. I knew railway lines were where Bad Things happened to children and my screams would have been heard in the next county. My Grandfather, the Stoic, strode on. We finally arrived at a disheveled wooden building standing in the midst of a snaking mass of railway lines. Opening the door with a key fished out from one of his many pockets, he gently shoved me in and the sight stopped my screaming in its tracks: Row upon row of gleaming levers as tall as I was, glowing lights and ticking clocks – a boy’s dream! My grandpop sat me down and even managed to find some biscuits as he brewed the tea and told me his story.
He’d worked all of his life as a train controller on the London to Brighton Line. Often manning the 47 lever operated signal boxes along the line single handed, his lever-pulling skills led to many accolades including a memorable Treble medal win at the World Switch Championships in 1981. My Grandpop taught me all he knew and over time I realised I’d come to love this great big man
I’d been receiving postcards from my parents as they travelled, sticking them up on my bedroom wall next to my train posters, but when the thick envelope landed on the doormat I knew something was different. I still remember being told by my Grandpop how I’d be sent to boarding school, using the little money saved from the Hacienda days. We had little less than a week to get everything arranged and after a flurry of activity I was sent on my way with a corned-beef sandwich and one of Grandpop’s lucky cigars in my pocket. The school turned out to be a monstrous Victorian pile called Cracknape Hall. The echoes of the Empire still rang strongly and our house masters made it their mission to make men and future leaders of us all. Our daily routine was punishing. With never enough breakfast gruel or thin blankets to go round, we learnt to fight to survive and wintry dormitories containing too-few beds meant lights-out was always met with the sound of some poor unfortunate sobbing on the cold floorboards. By day, we were in the thrall of the housemasters and teachers who prowled the halls doling out arbitrary punishments for any perceived transgressions. I kept all this from my Grandpop, to whom I told stories of avuncular teachers and rosy-cheeked adventures that I knew would make him happy. In turn, my days were brightened by the postcards sent by my parents from across Europe with their tales of exotic foods and wild nights filled with music and dance.
Academically I struggled but on the playing fields I was a natural at all things physical. It seems I’d some of Grandpop’s genes and I grew into a powerhouse, leading a historic victory in the annual Masters vs Boys rugby match – more of a running brawl than a game – for which I paid a heavy price for the remainder of the term: spending many hours in detention breaking up concrete and repaving the school’s grounds. But even then, I knew I could not stand back and let injustice go unanswered; I had right on my side which meant I could endure any hardship with a smile on my face.
It was in my final year at Cracknape Hall that my parents finally returned to London after their Grand Tour. It was only when I saw them again that I understood those colourful postcards had been as much of a lie as my cheery tales of school were to my Grandpop. With the dance scene in Europe going pop and spreading like wildfire, they again found doors being slammed in their faces and were reduced to staying in hotels little better than stables. I met my father outside the school gates. Once known as Fulham’s answer to Fred Astaire, he’d been reduced to a twisted shell, hunched over and twitching – tortured by full-body sciatica aggravated by inferior bedding. But it was when we went to the Premier Institution for the Insane to see my poor Mother that my heart broke. I walked into her ‘room’, a dingy cell covered in her maddened scrawls. She stood there, like a puppet with cut strings; I talked to her, held her hand, gave her a bunch of her favourite flowers – no flicker of recognition in her eyes. Her sanity had been robbed through bedbug-induced psychosis.
She was the reason my parents had finally returned. Defeated, not through lack of talent or determination, but the lack of a decent place to stay at an affordable price. It was too late for my poor parents, but there were thousands of people out there facing the same challenge of decent accommodation in a world awash with over-priced hotels. From that day I resolved to be a guide to those in need, shepherding the good people of Britain to the deals they deserve. I knew what I needed to do, but not how to do it: I was in need of guidance - my thirst for knowledge and the desire to learn new skills insatiable. I wandered the earth for several years, visiting people, experiencing cultures and most importantly learning skills. From the wise men of India, the Shaolin Monks of China, the Sherpa’s of Nepal and the Shaman’s of the Amazonian Rainforest I honed my skills and gained confidence in new areas, yet despite all of this I was still unsure of my identity, of the man I needed to become.
It was by chance I came to be in Mexico - originally I’d plan to go to Venezuela, but had lost my way. On arrival a poster outside the airport caught my attention ‘Gran torneo de lucha libre’ Grand wrestling tournament with a $500 prize for the winner. Short on money I decided to enter. Like all wrestlers I needed a costume. Using skills learnt from Milanese seamstresses, I set about creating my new identity: Green, the colour my mother wore when she sang onstage and my mask fashioned into a ‘H’ for hotel: in memory of my mother and father’s battles with over-priced and over-rated hotels. I now would do battle in their honour. When I saw myself in the mirror, I knew the final piece of the jigsaw was fitting into place. I’d been destined to come here and become the masked hero. I fought as “el puño verde” – the green fist – and my name became legendary. To me, however, it was all practice until finally I felt strong enough, ready to take the mantle of Hotel Derek.
I took the white door as my emblem, so I would never forget the doors to decency that slammed in my parent’s faces for all those years and with it emblazoned across my chest began my mission: ‘to source the best hotels, offering them direct to the ordinary person - and all at great prices. Never again should anybody experience a bad night’s sleep because of price or location’ and in this I found a natural ally in Hotel Direct, who worked from within to bring the best deals from the best hotels. Even our names were similar – I call that more than a coincidence, don’t you?