Brian Viner: 'A Bathological tendency to tweeness afflicts bits of England's loveliest city'

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The Independent Online

Much as we love our darling offspring, Jane and I value the occasional weekend away without them, a treat we manage to organise once or twice a year. Our most recent escape, if that's not too dramatic a word, was to Bath, which took us only an hour and 40 minutes or so in the getaway car, if that's not pitching it too strong.

As well as being easy to get to, Bath has resonance in our lives. It was during a fleeting visit 12 years or so ago that we first entertained thoughts of leaving London, thoughts that eventually led us to north Herefordshire. Also, Jane meets her friend Kim there every December for a bit of Christmas shopping and a lot of pinot grigio, so she has got to know it pretty well, and was able to give me a guided tour, albeit a little lacking in information about Jane Austen and Beau Brummell. It was more of a "That's where I got your moleskin trousers" kind of tour.

An intimate knowledge of Bath's retail outlets and coffee bars, however, was of little use when it came to getting the cup of tea we were gasping for at about 5pm. The celebrated Pump Rooms had stopped serving at 4.30 which seemed a bit premature on a Saturday afternoon, so she took me into Jolly's department store, which might well have been the model for Grace Brothers in Are You Being Served? of blessed memory. While I visited the Jolly's gents, she went to the Jolly's caff, the promisingly-named Café Zest, and asked at the counter for a pot of tea for two. "Can you look at the sign, does it say we're closed?" said the Jolly's, but not notably jolly, employee behind the counter, gesturing to a board at the café entrance. Jane went to look, and reported that it said "Closed". "Then I'm sorry, I can't serve you," the woman replied.

As we left Jolly's I observed that there was something dispiritingly English about a woman in a café apparently quite willing to serve a customer a simple pot of tea, but instead invoking the dreaded "Closed" sign. This reminded Jane of a line she had heard on the radio, that when the English say "only in England" it is in a spirit of exasperation, yet when the Americans say "only in America" it is an exclamation of pride. How true.

Anyway, none of this did anything to sully our carefree someone-else-is-looking-after-the-children mood, which was enhanced when we got back to our hotel and decided that, what the hell, we'd hit the bar. We were staying at the Royal Crescent Hotel, which has shot to the top of my favourite-places-to-stay chart, partly on account of the charming barman, Orlando, whose juggling and twizzling routine makes Tom Cruise in the film Cocktail look ham-fisted. Orlando prepared us each a golden delicious, a vodka-based concoction of genius which he told us proudly was voted Cocktail of the Year 2008.

Sipping my golden delicious, it occurred that the Royal Crescent could have called its cocktails Northanger Abbeys, Mansfield Parks and Prince Regents, but another of its merits is that it has defiantly resisted what might be called the Bathological tendency to tweeness that afflicts some bits of England's loveliest city. I was pleased to look down the menu and see proper cocktail names like oriental flower, sombrero of passion and virgin coral, all mixed with great verve by Orlando, who told us that he comes from the Canaries, reminding me of the old music hall gag: "I've just come back from the Canary Islands where I didn't spot a single bloomin' canary. Next year I'm going to the Virgin Islands ..."

We got home from our idyllic break to find the children arguing about whose turn it was on the computer. They all use it for different purposes, 10-year-old Jacob's current obsession being the fantasy game RuneScape, in which every player has a nickname. These nicknames, by which you are known to all other RuneScape users, are generally something heroic or cool, but when Jane asked Jacob what he had called himself, he looked terribly crestfallen. "It's really embarrassing," he said, explaining that his pseudonym had been entered on his behalf by his 13-year-old brother Joe, and he didn't know how to change it. "What is it, sweetheart?" asked Jane. Jacob heaved a heavy sigh, and his eyes brimmed with tears. Thirteen-year-old brothers can be real swines. "It's Platypus Lad," he said.