A little festive warmth on the green baize

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The Independent Online
Some things are temporary and contingent; they come and they go. And when they've gone, they leave little mark. Sexual passion, Barbie dolls, chocolate-coloured clothing and government crises all fall into this category. But others are eternal and recurrent, essential parts of the deep fabric of life, and it was those - rather than the flashy and colourful plastic of Mr Major's plight - that were preoccupying MPs yesterday.

Far from having spent the morning in deep plot, members had clearly been attending the first convivial pre-Christmas lunches. They were neither rowdy nor rancorous, but quiet and contemplative. So while the frantic political world outside chased the latest fashionable emergency, 40 or so gathered together for warmth on the green baize benches and spoke of profound things: of constituencies, ancient jealousies, man's relation with the natural world and of the millennium itself.

Toby Jessel (C. Twickenham) has the perpetual air of a man who is experiencing post-hospitality highs and lows. A generous word emphasiser and saliva scatterer, he HOPED that government funds would NOT be found for 10 (wet) PINNACLES to be located from KEW to HAMPTON court.

This was followed by the lugubrious figure of Sir Michael Neubert (C. Romford), who addressed himself drily to the river. In the context of the millennium exhibition - to be held on the banks of the Thames at Greenwich - would proper attention, he asked, be paid to "the river-road interface".

This should have alarmed Mr Jessel. If millennium pinnacles are bad, what must a millennium interface be like? Would it be situated halfway along the pinnacles, between numbers five and six? "Look, my son," we will be able to tell our children, "I was there when that magnificent interface was built." Or is this simply a pompous term for what used to be known as a "bridge"?

Ancient sentiments surfaced when the brave Patrick Nicholl (drink-driving ex-minister and wearer of violent yellow ties) told the House his constituents were unhappy that "substantial sums that might be spent on Teignbridge are spent on overseas aid". It is rare indeed to hear an MP admit quite so courageously that his electors are a bunch of selfish swine who would rather splash out on more parking facilities at Toys R Us than save Africans from starvation.

Finally, the most enduring rivalry of them all was exposed when Newham's favourite urchin, Tony Banks, took on Tory toff and Church estates commissioner Michael Alison (Selby) over hunting on church lands. Did Mr Alison not recall St Luke and the five sparrows? Or Ecclesiastes "man shall not have pre-eminence over the beasts for all his vanity"?

Mr Alison's response was a model of country contempt for the town. Mr Banks could do worse, he replied, than to don hunting red in pursuit of the urban fox. Let him "sit astride an old donkey", rustle up a pack of "mangy mongrels", take an "Ouzo stirrup cup" and - presumably - begin the chase through the middens and rat-infested rookeries of east London, accompanied by cries of "garn" from barrow-boys, sundry pimps and effete cosmopolitans.

Besides, added fellow Tory Sir Patrick Cormack (whose substantial bulk, were he to join the hunt, would have to be winched medieval style on to the saddle of his horse), Mr Banks did "not know the difference between a fox and a badger". Oh yeah, country-boy? Lemme tellya. They're both on display at the animal-town interface.

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