'Apocalypse Now' comes to Miss Marple country

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The Independent Online
I MOVED back to London from the country two weeks ago and friends keep asking: "How is it? Are you all right?" So many people yearn for a rural idyll that they don't quite believe me when I say I'm thrilled to have escaped from fields and wide blue skies.

They talk anxiously about traffic jams, dirty streets, the high levels of crime, as though none of these problems exists outside capital cities. If you want to talk authoritatively about parking problems, try living next door to a country church on a summer Saturday when there are four weddings in quick succession. A kind of fever seizes wedding guests, who will happily leave a BMW parked across your drive while they clamber onto your garden wall to video the bride's arrival.

My most recent experience of crime happened in the same village when there was a series of scary incidents in my street - and, unlike an Agatha Christie novel, not a curtain twitched and no retired colonels rushed to my rescue. Around midnight one Saturday, I saw a stranger peering through the windscreen of my car. As the radio had been stolen once before, I dialled 999 and waited nervously for the police to come.

By the time they arrived, I could hear glass smashing and I ran out to meet them. We spotted a dark figure and both policemen set off, pursuing him through the churchyard. They left behind their squad car, blue lights flashing. A second car zoomed up, two more policemen jumped out and informed me they'd called up an air strike - well, the Thames Valley police helicopter. It clattered overhead like something out of Apocalypse Now and they too disappeared into the churchyard. Moments later - the dark street by now resembled the assembly point for the advance security team for a minor royal wedding - a dog van arrived. I said something to the effect of "they went that way" and remarked on the size of the dog, a ferocious-looking Alsatian.

"But do you think he's good-looking?" one of the handlers inquired earnestly, as though we were passing the time at a country fete. I said he was handsome enough, if you like German Shepherds, and the policeman's face brightened: "There you are, Charlie" - or Jack, I wasn't taking notes at the time - "you've got an admirer." Having got this important matter out of the way, they joined the chase, followed by the local bobby on his bicycle.

What happened? Nothing. The knife-wielding maniac who had been slashing car tyres further down the street got clean away in spite of hot pursuit by seven policemen, two cars, a van, a helicopter, a bike and Charlie the police dog. And my neighbours? Hugely apologetic, they admitted that tucked away behind their thick Costwold stone walls, they hadn't seen or heard a thing.

A FOOTNOTE to this story: a couple of weeks later, I called the police out again in the middle of the night after another episode of vandalism. "We've been here before, haven't we?" one of them remarked as we stood awkwardly in my living-room at three o'clock in the morning. He was wondering, he went on, whether the incidents were connected and whether anyone had a grudge against me.

Not as far as I knew, I said, but I added that I have a minor public existence as a novelist and journalist: I'd been writing an occasional column for another newspaper. When I told him which it was, he laughed and shook his head: "Oh no, miss, nobody round here reads the Guardian." I was about to protest that I did - and the Independent, and the FT - when a point occurred to me. If I really was the only Guardian reader in that part of Oxfordshire, didn't it make me the obvious suspect? Next thing I knew he'd accuse me of persecuting myself; instead of challenging his implausible premise, I kept quiet.

NO SOONER had I returned to London than John Major resigned and I was gripped by a wild surmise; were we going to get rid of the Tories at last? Then I calmed down and realised that the atmosphere of high drama, reminiscent of a general election or even an impending coup d'etat, was wholly out of proportion.

As political correspondents gave minute-by-minute accounts of days in which nothing happened, I concluded that the outcome would probably be as boring as John Major himself. Indeed the only result of this largely bogus election, in which the real candidates were too loyal or too scared to stand, is a spectacular public demonstration of Major's unpopularity. More than a quarter of the parliamentary party preferred to vote for a robotic, staring-eyed nonentity - the Welsh Secretary, for God's sake - rather than the Prime Minister. When you hear right-wing politicians describing John Redwood as a star, you know the Tories are in deep trouble.

I THOUGHT of Redwood and Major when I saw the poster for a film which opened here last week, First Knight with the young British actress Julia Ormond. It shows a grey-haired gent in a breastplate (the PM) staring sternly ahead, while a younger bloke (Redwood) glances nervously towards him, trying to look resolute. The story is about a contest between a king and his challenger and the battle scenes were filmed, apparently, in Wales.

"Their greatest battle would be for her love", the poster announces as Ormond peers between the two male stars (Richard Gere and Sean Connery, as unlikely a pair of combatants as Redwood and Major). Ormond, like the British electorate, has obviously decided both are too old or too naff and is seeking a quick escape; the film lasts a mere two hours while our ordeal looks like going on for two more years.

ONE final word, as I'm a new girl on this block. I don't yet know what you (or the editor) expect from this column but I promise not to write about babies or cats. And here are my thoughts on Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley: Four Weddings and a Funeral is a terrible movie. Nobody with taste wears Versace. That's it.

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