Howard Jacobson: The Fawlty Towers experience lives on

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The Independent Online

'Sea or sheep?" my wife wanted to know. "Sheep," I said. "No, sea. No, sheep." This proved her point. I was overworked and tired, I couldn't make a decision, I needed a weekend away looking at something that wasn't a manuscript or a computer. But what did I need to look at – sea or sheep? I was too tired to know.

I pretty much stopped driving a few years ago. This was partly because I had moved into the West End and didn't need to drive, and partly because I was falling prey to road rage. If I didn't stop driving I would kill a cyclist. Throttle one, I mean.

The only time I miss driving now is when the urge to get away, to look at sea or sheep, is upon me. Getting away without a car is tough. You can't just set out and see where you end up: you have to choose a destination and then book taxis, trains, hotels, even sheep. The internet with its we'll do it for you dot coms is said to have made all this easy, but that's a lie. Booking anything on the internet is Kafkaesque, full of mysterious interrogations and dead ends. After two hours on the internet you start to wonder who's asking the questions – you or them?

Where are you going, when you are going, what station are you leaving from, when are you coming back – if you knew the answers to any of those you wouldn't be searching the internet. Find a hotel that doesn't specialise in mystery weekends or hen nights and before any site will tell you if there's a way of reaching it by train you have to register or remember a password or re-register with a new password which turns out to be your old password and is therefore no longer available to you since you're now not the person you were before you re-registered. They want to know your sex, birthday, postcode – which information keeps coming back with the word ERROR flashing in red because you've forgotten to tick a tiny box hidden at the bottom left-hand corner of the page. By the time you've got the information you need to get away you're too worn out to go.

In the end we chose sheep over sea, going for a rural hotel with lily ponds, near enough by train not to have to start our return journey the minute we arrived. No table for dinner until nine o'clock but given the wildlife promised on the hotel website we could always shoot our own if we got hungry.

We arrived at four o'clock, in good time for afternoon tea in the drawing room. All the waiters were busy, pouring tea with one hand behind their back. When we finally got the maître d's attention he noted we hadn't booked. "We're residents," I told him. He looked at his watch and shook his head. I told him we'd been told afternoon tea went on until 5.30. "It takes two hours to bake fresh scones," he said. I pointed to the scones on everyone else's plates. "They made a reservation," he said sadly. I gave him the look I gave cyclists in the days I drove. "You telling me you have to make a reservation for scones?"

"Calm," my wife whispered. "Think sea or sheep."

"I'm thinking scones," I said.

The maître d tried to mollify us with biscuits, but brought scones in the end, with rich raspberry jam, Cornish cream and an apology, all of which he served – even the apology – with one hand behind his back.

I calmed down by the Monet lily pond. The gardens were as good as promised. Bunny rabbits played on the lawn, undisturbed by the sound of croquet mallets. At the far end of a magnificent avenue of giant redwood trees an incurious deer chewed grass. "This is working," I told my wife, allowing my BlackBerry to quack away unanswered in my pocket. The sun came in and out, fish appeared on the surface of the water, ducks gathered in a circle beneath a bush. Peace!

At nine o'clock we went to take our seats in the restaurant. Nothing doing. Would we please go to the drawing room where'd we'd be given canapés and shown the menu by one-armed waiters. "No," I said. I enumerated my reasons. Hunger, dislike of not being seated at the time I've booked, dislike of eating late, dislike of sitting in low armchairs reading menus and wine lists when I want to be sitting up at a table clinking glasses, dislike of leaving London for relaxation and walking into that hurricane of fuss and obstacle known as "Fine Dining".

"If you used both your fucking hands," I thought of saying, "you might run a more efficient restaurant." But I hadn't come to the country to swear.

There was no moving him anyway. So it was back to where we'd earlier had to fight for scones, and the naff ritual of balancing heavy faux-leather menus on our laps and wondering if we were ever going to eat again. Half an hour later we were called for dinner. Soup arrived at the time I normally start getting ready for bed. At 10.45 a waitress offered us desserts. After waiting 20 minutes for them we gave up and left the table. Another waitress pursued us with the offer of coffee in our rooms. "When – three in the morning!" I exclaimed. She wondered what was wrong. "Everything. The whole thing's been horrible," I said, and then was unable to sleep, not because of the late eating but because I thought "horrible" had been a horrible word to use and was annoyed with myself for having used it. It hadn't been horrible, just fussy and inept, pretending to style where there was none. It confirmed my belief that every hotel in England was a Fawlty Towers at heart. "We must have been mad trying," I woke my wife to say.

"Hush!" she said, as we watched the dawn break through the unlined curtains.

We returned to the Monet lily pond in the late morning. The sun came out. Fish showed their backs above the water. Ducks headed for the shade. Far away, a sheep baahed. "But then again," I said, closing my eyes.

At that moment two young Australians began setting up a laser version of clay shooting. An amenity for guests. When you hit the clay an electronic buzzer went off. Zaphbedoyng!

"Sorry to spoil your view, guys," the Aussies said.

Should have gone for sea. Should have stayed home. Should have punched a cyclist.

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