11 JANUARY 1992, Page 6



hen I used to work at The Spectator, W the Diary, invariably written by the editor, Alexander Chancellor, was composed at the last possible minute before the paper went to press; and this column could there- fore hope to make some comments which were topical to the week's events. Since the mag was turned over to the New Technolo- gy, they seem to require copy several days in advance, so I do not know, by the time you read this, whether Mother Teresa of Calcutta will be dead or alive. This is hardly the place for an obituary of this redoubtable old lady. As I write, she is being kept alive by Californian surgeons, who have performed or arranged some- thing called angioplasty, a process which clears the coronary arteries and enables blood to reach the heart muscles. It seems a strange paradox that this woman, who we can be quite sure has no dread of death, should be kept alive artificially in this way; and even more of a paradox that someone who has lived among the poorest of the poor should be quite likely to spend her last hours in a luxurious American hospital. The excellent Times medical correspon- dent, Dr Thomas Stuttaford, suggests that by accidentally falling into the hands of American surgeons on her travels, Mother Teresa will have done a good turn to other oldies, who might otherwise have died of pneumonia when well into their ninth decade. I wonder when pneumonia was last referred to by a doctor as 'the old person's friend'. There was no irony intended by the phrase. It would be hellish if we all lived forever, and for an energetic person such as Mother Teresa there could be no grimmer fate than a protracted, doddery life of semi- convalescence. Those who love life the most have the least dread of leaving it. What a waste of money and energy flatten- ing the atheromatous plaques against 81- year-old artery walls. I believe it was P.G. Wodehouse who cheerfully protested to a doctor, 'But I like my arteries hard.'

Western visitors to Russia used to like making superior remarks about communist censorship, and deplore the fact that some of the greatest Russian novels of the 20th century, such as Doctor Zhivago, or Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle, were unavailable to Russian readers. At least there were good reasons for that. The com- munist authorities, particularly in the days of Stalin, respected the power of great liter- ature to change individual human lives. Mandelstam, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn were censored because they were genuinely dangerous to the system. But what of our own country? How do we explain the fact that one of the most remarkable 20th-cen- tury writers in English, John Cowper Powys, is not even in print? I discovered him very lately, and consider Weymouth Sands, A Glastonbury Romance, Maiden Castle and, perhaps above all, Wolf Solent as four of the greatest English novels, in their strange way almost worthy to be com- pared with Powys's idol and master, Dos- toyevslcy. Yet they aren't in print. A Powys fan who has heard of my new-found devo- tion has kindly lent me The Pleasures of Lit- erature, a great fat book of essays absolutely crammed with marvellous insights into fig- ures as diverse as Rabelais and St Paul. Powys is an untidy, long-winded writer, but he is so much more interesting than most of the literary figures now idolised. He is not without very distinguished fans: the late Angus Wilson was a devotee; John Bayley and Iris Murdoch are both deeply versed in his work. But, mention him at a 'literary' gathering where everyone has read Milan Kundera and Salman Rushdie and you receive blank stares, just as you would in the old days if you said, 'Solzhenitsyn' at the Russian Writers' Union.

'Farewell, Yvette. I shall return from Mos- cow a rich man.' Bishop Gore was once asked his opin- ion of cremation. He said that he could see nothing against it, except for the fact that all the wrong people supported it. I have found this quite a useful rule of thumb in other moral areas, such as the debate about blood sports. All my instincts suggest that there is something monstrously cruel about chasing hares, deer, foxes and otters, but the self-righteousness of town-dwellers wishing to impose their squeamish views on those who enjoy the hunt puts me on the side of preserving the ancient barbarities of the countryside. I was re-reading Belloc's The Path to Rome the other day and came upon a passage which moved me: 'Whatev- er is buried right into our blood from immemorial habit, that we must be certain to do if we are to be fairly happy.' Among such immemorial customs, Belloc lists hunting, drinking fermented liquor, travel- ling by water, dancing and choral singing. Of course, he could have added war, human sacrifice, thieving and prostitution as immemorially old human activities. But I think his instinct is right, and that the vin- dictive desire to spoil other people's plea- sure by banning blood sports is far nastier than the sports themselves.

Like many people, including the Majors, I have been wondering who will be Prime Minister by the end of the year. Will anyone bet me that it is Paddy Ashdown? The likeliest outcome of a general election in the spring will be a hung parliament which will only struggle on for a matter of months. Mr Major and his crew of high interest-rate Maastricht appeasers certainly deserve to be booted to kingdom come by the electorate, but with Mr Kinnock at the helm, it is very unlikely that the Labour Party will win much of a victory. The price which either the Tories or the Socialists will have to pay for the support of Mr Ashdown in the House of Commons will be the intro- duction of proportional representation. This would destroy the Labour Party, so they will never buy it. The electorate, bored

stiff by Mr Major and worn out by Mr Lam- ont's economic incompetence, will hardly give the Tories enough votes in a system of PR to command an outright victory over all other parties put together. In those circum- stances, the SLD could easily win enough votes in a second election to command a coalition in the House. As someone who has always voted for the Liberals in the past (except for once when I voted Welsh Nationalist), I can't quite tell why this thought depresses me so much. It is partly Ashdown's Euromania, which I deplore; partly the fact that his eyes always look half shut, as if he were peering into a blinding light.