Public pressures that bring out the worst in the best

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THE Today programme went to Stamford in Lincolnshire, now better known as Middlemarch, to find out what people thought about MPs who put plastic bags over their heads. Stamford's inhabitants, who are probably getting fed up with having constantly to represent middle England, were admirably uncensorious. But they were confused. They didn't know quite what to think: it was just so odd, people putting oranges in their mouths, other than to eat them. In provincial towns, they implied, they don't much go in for flex.

As George Eliot might have put it, there is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life, and provincial England probably doesn't produce that many auto-erotic asphyxiators. Parliament, by contrast, seems to produce more than its fair share - certainly if Matthew Parris is to be believed. Parris argued in the Times that there is something about the MP's job that attracts gamblers and attention- seekers, people with more bravado than emotional security, and then feeds their vanity even as it erodes their self-respect. They quickly realise that there's little that they can achieve beyond personal advancement. Crushed by decency, in Parris's phrase, the MP 'embraces hazard as a means of escape'. The reason that so many people with acronyms - MPs, JPs, DPPs and VIPs - get caught out in perilous sexual practices is that so many are at them.

It's very sad if all these P-people despise the thing they're trying to be, and have to seek refuge in some secret, increasingly bizarre inner life. The rarefied metropolitan existence of the image-conscious MP - mixing with others who themselves have an image to maintain, keeping ridiculous hours in a largely moribund institution - is a seduction into belief in one's own specialness, even while the MP knows deep down he's as base as anyone else. If Stamford is anything to go by, the country is quite tolerant and generous-spirited enough to accept the truth that MPs are not supermen. But there is a conspiracy to keep it from us. Why else was the BBC so coy about reporting the facts of Stephen Milligan's death? And why has MI5 allegedly been going through his papers? Don't they have any spies to catch?

WANSTONIA: More glamorous reporters get sent to Sarajevo. I am filing this part of the column from the independent free area of Wanstonia, which is also under siege, or about to be. Wanstonia is not exactly a big place, consisting mainly of numbers 2-12 Cambridge Park Road, Wanstead, and their front and back gardens, but it has big ideas. It wants to stop the building of the M11 link road through its territory, which it says will only increase the traffic it is designed to alleviate. Consequently it has issued a declaration of independence, asserting its right to resist the forces of infrastructural imperialism, and developed its own hospital - a hut in the back garden - and outdoor sauna, comprising bricks in a hole under some material. This is a bit muddy, so I haven't tried it.

In the last few minutes the Wanstonians have learnt that 800 police officers have been drafted in by the 'alien government of Great Britain' for their imminent eviction. There will also be security guards and bailiffs (600 people were used just to get them off the tree down the road). The Wanstonians have been digging trenches and moats, barricading upstairs rooms and constructing walkways between the roofs, and are particularly proud of their two-level treehouse. It all looks good fun, being a lookout up the tree in the night, issuing leaflets about non-violence, and I am tempted to move in permanently. Fortunately I remember just in time that I have children. But I also remember that I have rush- hour traffic rattling over the speed bumps down our street. I hope the Wanstonians win.

SOME years ago, Fay Weldon's husband, Ron, started seeing a hypnotherapist, who decided, apparently on the basis of a magazine horoscope, that Ron and Fay were incompatible. Ron and Fay have now split up, and Fay has written a novel, Affliction, which is not exactly warm towards therapists. I have every sympathy with Weldon, but I think she made a terrible mistake in countenancing Ron's therapy in the first place. What's the point of being married if your partner goes off to talk about his innermost feelings to someone else? It's simply not true to suggest that therapists have answers by virtue of being detached; they have no more answers than anyone else. (These, don't forget, are people for whom love equals neurotic dependency.) They almost certainly have fewer answers than one's wife, who isn't absolved of self- doubt by some spurious notion of professionalism. There is no state of perfection that can be salvaged from the mess of a life - and in suggesting that there is, therapists are much to blame for encouraging self-obsession, narcissism and the creeping victim culture. Fewer professionals, please, more neurotic dependency.

DELIA is one of those people, like Madonna and Maggie, who could manage with just one name. Of the three of them, in fact, Delia probably comes the closest to that god- like state in which Every Utterance Is Heeded. 'Delia says you should rub mustard into your beef fat,' people will tell you, and you do it. You don't even think, because Delia knows best, and all over Britain families are doing as Delia says. But I think I have detected the beginning of a backlash.

The first thing to say is that Delia is wrong about chips. It's so long since I cooked chips that I consulted one of my two (yes]) copies of Delia's Complete Cookery Course. She says chips take about six minutes. This wasn't what I remembered, and for good reason as it turned out. As we waited an excrutiatingly, embarrassingly long time for our chips, people got to discussing Delia disappointments. Pesto rice, said someone: doesn't work. And as for so-called Perfect Roast Potatoes . . . Most devastatingly, someone else recalled, she doesn't wear a pinny. Should we trust a woman who cooks in a silk blouse?