Diary: snowy roads, scruffy MPs and a nice train WC
Driving around Oxfordshire churches at the weekend, I sympathised with Prince Philip, and his dangerous driving, for the first time.
In the late afternoon, a low, raking sun turned roads into dazzling beams of light, almost impossible to see into. What made it worse – although infinitely more beautiful – was the snow.
Fields became great white seas. The snow flattened contours, making the roadscape even harder to read. And, when the sunlight bounced off the twin, tyre-made tracks of ice ahead, it was perilous work inching along the B-roads.
But oh how lovely the churches looked. We get just the right amount of snow in England; enough for it to be enchanting every time it falls. Presumably Eskimos get pretty tired of the stuff.
My favourite church was St Mary’s, Swinbrook, with its snow-capped bale tombs – named after their semi-cylindrical tops, inspired by the wool bales that made this part of the world so rich in the Middle Ages.
Among the tombstones was that of Unity Mitford, who died aged 33 in 1948, having shot herself in the English Garden in Munich 1939 at the outbreak of war.
Her epitaph reads, “Say not the struggle naught availeth.” I hoped the Arthur Hugh Clough line echoed her Christian struggle, rather than the Nazi Mitford’s fanatical devotion to the Führer.
As Brexit approaches, I’m watching Parliament on TV obsessively.
How shabby our MPs are. At this time of acute national interest in their proceedings, they look like a bunch of scruffy, disaffected schoolchildren.
Half of them are tapping away on iPads and phones, heads bowed, during crucial debates.
And an increasing number of them are appallingly dressed. The chief culprit is Jared O’Mara, ex-Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam, fond of wearing black T-shirts and jeans in the chamber. He’s 37 years old, not a teenager on work experience.
The casual dress tries to signal, “We’re above the stuffy pomposity of worn-out conventions.” In fact, it shows a fundamental lack of respect for the extremely important job MPs do – representing their constituents’ interests in our Parliament.
Whenever I visit the place, I’m bowled over by its beauty: the medieval magnificence of Westminster Hall; the political Valhalla built by Pugin and Barry after the 1834 fire.
The birds are not worthy of the cage.
I’m shamingly gripped by a new Netflix documentary, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.
Bundy was the good-looking preppy serial-killer who murdered 30 women or more in America between 1974 and 1978. The series retells the story through Bundy’s own words, recorded in jail.
He’s clearly a raging narcissist, taking over his own defence in court and proposing to his girlfriend when she’s on the witness stand. While not being particularly brilliant – he was an average law student – he’s eloquent in his own flimsy defence.
He’s also inventive in a slippery way. He escaped twice from prison, once leaping out of a prison library window, and then drastically losing weight to break out of a tiny hole he’d carved in his cell roof.
Why are we gripped by disgusting monsters like this? Should I be worried? I asked a crime expert why we’re entranced by these stories. He told me that it’s like being in a warm, cosy room, looking through the window at the cold rain outside, and feeling consoled by your own comparative safety and comfort.
Bundy’s rain is particularly freezing.
At the Oldie of the Year Awards – chief winner, the great Lionel Blair, aged 90 – I talked to Britain’s most prolific artist and one of the least known.
She’s Margaret Calvert, the 82-year-old genius who designed our road signs in 1957: from the Men at Work sign to the Cow Crossing picture, based on Patience, a cow she knew in her youth.
The girl in the Children Crossing sign is a Calvert self-portrait. But the sign-manufacturers didn’t copy the angles of the children’s limbs correctly. So, whenever she drives around Britain, she gets a little annoyed at their mistake – a unique irritation, I imagine.
Travelling back from Oxford on Chiltern Railways, I discovered an impossibly rare jewel – a nice train loo.
It was decorated with pictures of Sir John Soane’s Museum: a bust of Soane; fragments of classical architecture; and copies of framed portraits. There was also a clearly written, intelligent summary of Soane’s house; such a relief after the kiddified, “funny” messages you get – on signs, and shouted at you over the PA – in Virgin loos.
The loo was also spotlessly clean. Do people behave better in more elegant, grown-up surroundings?
Harry Mount is editor of The Oldie