"When Tunbridge Wells falls," mused Paddy Ashdown last week, in the wake of the council-elections carnage, "what hope is there for John Major?" What hope indeed? The charming spa town at the boskier end of Kent has long been synonymous with conservatism, due to the high proportion of wrinklies and crumblies per head of population, and the apparent predeliction among its letter-writing classes for signing their Telegraph-bound invectives "Disgusted". But was Mr Ashdown being merely fanciful about the significance of the election results? (It's still a hung council, after all, only now there are 23 Lib Dem councillors to 19 Conservatives.) Can it really be true that the home of Garden-of-England, reactionary chic has turned into a libertarian paradise without anyone noticing? I went down to take a look.

Well, some things hadn't changed, I was glad to notice. At the noble Victorian pile of the Spa Hotel, a notice proclaims, "We would prefer gentlemen to wear a jacket for dinner in the restaurant", and I overheard an irasci- ble ancient protesting about "this frightful Commie, Chirac" over his matutinal prunes and sauted kidneys. But what would he have made of the crowd that had gathered on the street corner to attend a dgustation of Muscadet and froggy cheese (in times gone by, the organisers would have wound up in the stocks)? A similar kind of skittishness was detectable all over town, even at the hotel. When I rang to complain that the Vent- Axia in my bathroom was making a terrible, un-turn-offable racket, the general manager himself appeared and, after a moment's mild consideration, simply plunged a Biro into the whirling blades like some pinstriped mugger. At the Chteau Marmont in Los Angeles, OK; but Tunbridge Wells?

Along the Pantiles, that stretch of neo-Georgian shopping mall where one used to be able to imagine, say, Jane Austen taking a stroll, worse lay in store. The counter culture was in full swing. Swarthy Romany types oversaw tacky funfair rides. Beardy chaps with banjos and black guitars belted out "Fiddlers Green" to an audience of plastered proletar-ians drinking Ruddles out of plastic mugs. A Sixties throwback in Stars-and-Stripes pyjama bottoms phlegmatically directed the traffic. Good God, it could have been Glastonbury.

It was with positively Paul Johnsonish forebodings that I popped in on the Art Society, expecting to find the place knee-deep in eviscerated bovines and those frozen-chicken things that are apparently all the rage in Charles Saatchi circles. But all was well: just a few modest, still-life hyacinths and aspidistras, some proof that the world had not gone mad. Still, on the way back to the car, I had to negotiate a safe path for Mrs W's tender ears through the clamour of Chapel Place, where a group of frankly non-Tory voters was listening to a pain-strength "sound system" blasting over the cobbles.

So Tunbridge Wells goes left-wing, communitarian, acid house. It's like watching a dowager negotiating a hula-hoop. Or was it that, startled by the local council results, I was seeing what I wished to see? To reassure myself, I sped to Chartwell, Sir Winston's lovely country home for many years, and the place where he did his bricklaying and painting and other British pursuits. There, at least, there'd be no trace of dodgy, modern, pinko/liberal nonsense. But wait a minute. In the library, among the collected Pepys and soldierly histories, the book that most stood out was To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson's sympathetic history of Marxism. In the museum of trophies, one stood gazing at the huge crystal bowls the great man was given by Stalin in 1944. In Clemmie's dressing-room, one noted her award of the Order of the Red Banner of Labour, her tea-set from St Petersburg. The couple were obviously secret fellow-travellers, crypto- anarcho-syndicalists...

No they weren't. But all looks yellow, as they say, to the jaundiced eye.


Big trouble (all right, small trouble) at the Early Learning Centre, the right-on toyshop chain beloved of the British middle-classes. Already the shop boasts a ghastly "no stereotyping" policy ("We try to be non- sexist and avoid pigeon-holing products for specific genders," they helpfully, if inelegantly, explain), a "Safety first" policy and a "No tanks...no guns" policy. Now, in a twist that will bring joy to any cynic's heart, the twee but profitable company has been caught out over its lack of a "No infant-sized facsimilies of controversial dairy products" policy.

Among other toys for domesticated modern infants, the Early Learning Centre stocks a lot of tiny replica groceries - tins and cartons and so forth for little consumers to place in their replica shopping trollies and buy with their replica credit cards. The other day, a member of the National Childbirth Trust, the intellec-tual power-house of middle- class parturition, spotted an appalling faux pas among the minuscule merchandise. There, in the midst of the tin cans were several replica Nestl products, such as Carnation Milk. Aaargh! Given Nestl's status as a hate-object among liberals - the result of its enthusiasm for pushing dried milk to the Third World - this is a gaffe akin to asking the Devil if he'd like to run a stall at the church fte.

Not surprisingly, since they're a company that has studied its customers' lifestyle down to the last spoonful of sugar-free Calpol, the Early Learning Centre has agreed to withdraw the offending products. It is good to see that lib- eral vigilance extends even into the playroom. However, I couldn't help noticing that the ELC catalogue reveals, unashamedly, that there are still no black people (or should I say, "people who define themselves as Black") in Duplo land. On with the struggle!


Making my way along Millbank to the Tate Gallery to see the De Kooning exhibition ("Magnificent landscapes," purred one admirer in a room full of baffling abstracts apparently composed using house-painting brushes), I was, as is now a routine occurrence, accosted by several vendors of the Big Issue magazine; this is something to which no reasonable person could object, providing it never becomes actually compulsory to read the plucky little publication.

Unfortunately, the techniques pioneered by the mag's itinerant sales team seem to have been borrowed by those pushing the gallery's own vanity publication, the Tate magazine. To enter the gallery these days has become a matter of running a gauntlet of willowy, black-clad youths employed to stand, as it were, in tableau vivant, holding forth copies of the glossy magazine. It's enough to send one scurrying back to the National Gallery - where they've recently started to offer art-appreciation classes for homeless people, an altogether kindlier act than stealing their sales techniques.


As befits a land of poets, the Welsh have never been afraid to put pen to paper. A friend recently wrote a piece about comedy in another newspaper, noting with some sympathy that, in the absence of politically acceptable targets, self-righteous comedians like Lenny Henry had taken to attacking the "poor old Welsh". Within days, a letter had arrived. "'Poor old Welsh'," it quoted, "you are a patronising git and I hope you die of Aids." Oddly, though, the bardic missive, which was unsigned, had an NW10 postcode. Another fiendish English plot, I expect.


I suppose it had to happen. In Seattle, the home of grunge culture but otherwise a place just as nervously PC as New York, they're trying to ban gossip. It seems that among the city's council house blocks, feelings have been running high because of "residents talking about other residents". Well I never. And in order to head off any trouble, four of the housing "authorities" have now put up notices identifying "community" areas in which careless chat, casual defamation and outright tittle-tattle are banned. Residents who are at a loss about how to start non-gossipy conversations are advised to discuss the state of their apartments.

It's a wonderful idea, you must agree, if only for its party-game potential. (Both teams will try to remain interested as each member in turn explains the shortcomings of his damp-proof course. No remarks about other people. No value judgements. No speculation. Anyone falling asleep will be instantly disqualified.)

Gossip. I've tried my best to give up this unpleasant habit, resolving henceforth to talk to the other inhabitants of Weasel Villas only of current affairs, bits of classical learning or in a ritual exchange of courtly but meaningless aphorisms ("Good day, Gordon. Nice motor. Is it not the flight of the heron at sunset that most resembles the wake of the goldfish at morn?") but it's beyond me. Within minutes, I'm back in Rover's Return land, arms folded, headkerchief wagging, tongue fairly toxic with calumny and detraction. My reflections on the marital disharmonies of Mr and Mrs Stoat from No 12, on the sexual orientation of Mr Beaver at 37a and the colossal insurance scam pulled by Mr Muskrat at No 3 will not easily be stifled.

I suspect that Seattle's example will be replicated in right-on cities all over the world - but also that a new, countervailing tendency will be ushered in as a result of it. When restaurants and clubs and whole districts are designated gossip-free areas, the way will be clear for special, underground clubs full of scandalous liquor and shameless chatter, where you can still learn what Mrs Sensible saw on Mrs Peculiar's laundry line the other day. These places will be a godsend to the human spirit. They will be called Speakeasies. The Weasel