Our House is a very very very nice House

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The Independent Online
THERE isn't going to be a column this week, because normal hostilities have been suspended as a mark of respect. In fact, there probably won't be any more columns at all, because I'm hoping we are on the threshold of a nicer, more civilised time. So I'm not going to make any more cheap points about the minister for the disabled still being mysteriously in office, despite having misled Parliament. I'm not going to be snide about 'back to basics', or ask low questions like what is that John Major for? I'm not getting involved in untimely speculation about future Labour leaders or whether the trade unions know who all those people are who used to make up their bloc votes.

Yuk. It's so boring already. It's also about as convincing as the once-pugnacious David Mellor, on the radio last week, cooing that the Conservatives had behaved so well during this difficult time that they are now universally recognised as the Nice Party. So nice are they, in fact, said Mr Polite of Putney, that they can't possibly discuss whether the minister for the disabled ought to go. You wonder whether they'd be quite so keen on niceness if they had any other big ideas.

When that other great man, Sir Matt Busby, died, football fans across Britain observed a minute's silence, then got on with the game. Football, after all, was what Sir Matt was about. John Smith, when he died, was about trying to get the minister for the disabled sacked. And all the jockeying to cash in on the death by seeming to be the nicest, most decent person in politics seems horribly sanctimonious. John Smith's decency, anyway, was rooted in ethics, consistency, an idea of community. It was a lifetime sort of thing, and there's something indecent about a pretence that anyone can have some of it if they smile a lot at their opponents.

FASHION victims no longer rush out to buy Armani with their disposable income; they no longer have much disposable income, because it's all gone on plants. Gardening has burgeoned among twenty- and thirtysomethings, so that dinner parties are dominated by discussions of hardy geraniums, and if you don't know what an alchemilla mollis looks like you might as well not be there. My sister and I have almost no conversation now beyond the relative merits of our ceanothus bushes.

Partly, of course, it's just people getting old. But Rosie Atkins, editor of the glossy magazine Gardens Illustrated, believes it's also happened because no one's moving house. Once you've done the kitchen and bathroom, there's nothing left but the garden, and you can't finish that because plants are constantly dying on you. My friend Ruth, who is in her early thirties and having a love affair with an allotment, says you soon realise it's going to take a lifetime to get it right.

Gardening is a great occupation for people who spend most of their lives in front of screens, because there are no computers or televisions in the garden. It's also great for those of us who live in what this newspaper calls No-Go Britain: pottering among your foxgloves, you forget the burglaries and the drug dealers; concentrating on the catmint, you can avoid the tower blocks. Ruth says allotments also give you a sense of community: people swap their sorrel seedlings and admire each other's rocket. If you're not careful this can lead to garden visiting, gardening clubs and not reading anything in Saturday newspapers but gardening columns.

Rosie Atkins believes part of the attraction is that gardening doesn't cost much. This is not remotely true. But where buying a dress would seem self-indulgent and vain, a lavender bush seems such an incredibly creative purchase, and so wholesome.

THERE'S been far too much carping in the past week about the Princess of Wales's pounds 160,000 grooming bill. What does Prince Charles expect? I appreciate it's difficult for most of us to see quite what we would do with eight pairs of sunglasses a year, or why anyone should spend pounds 7.50 on a tube of toothpaste when it's possible to get one for 95p, but then most of us are not princesses. And I'm afraid if you want a princess, you have to pay princess prices. Otherwise you get someone like you or me, someone who only has one tennis racquet every five years, instead of the princess's six per season, and who can't quite see the point of colonic irrigation in an age of reliable plumbing. This, unfortunately, is also the sort of person whose hair should have been cut two weeks ago, and who never has the right top clean to go with the trousers.

It's hard to believe it's entirely coincidental that the princess's pounds 780 annual perfume bill has been disclosed just as Harpers & Queen is running a story about the Duchy of Cornwall's finances. Harpers notes that the duchy is in a unique position, able to operate as a property company without any of the usual constraints such as capital gains taxes or, indeed, any taxes at all, allowing it to make pounds 4m profits last year. I dare say you can get princesses on the cheap, but then they tend to allow their toes to be sucked by strange men in public places, or marry their bodyguards. If you want a pukka princess who rescues tramps and works for the Red Cross and lunches on expensive lettuce, you probably just have to accept a pounds 1,800 a year underwear bill.

EVERYONE'S been beastly to the brigadier's wife who had such a harrowing time with milk in her scrambled eggs. The tribunal chairman muttered patronisingly about how you get these problems when you have two women in the kitchen, the brigadier said the cook's offerings were worse than his wife's mistakes, and added that she couldn't manage the cook when he wasn't there. But what was this woman doing, using a cook to make scrambled eggs? They don't take five minutes, and there are always TV dinners. And if she did have delusions of grandeur, she should have gone the whole hog, like Dame Barbara Cartland, who 'only enters the kitchen for publicity shots'. Anyway, proper upper class people grew up on nursery and boarding school food and think lasagne is supposed to be lumpy.