LETTER from THE EDITOR

I am beginning to wonder whether we should run a small daily box on the front page, simply headed "Government decay - Latest", thereby freeing the rest of it for other news. For months I have been arguing that a Conservative revival is inevitable; that John Major, a superb campaigner who cannot be so glibly written off, and so on. But as week succeeds week of Tory self-destruction and petty mayhem, one begins to think: This lot have had it.

Reporting the resultant decay is not a particularly wholesome activity. One reader, Tony Whittaker from Surrey, accuses us of a "personal hate campaign" against John Major. No! Though not a huge admirer of the Prime Minister, I certainly don't hate him. Personally and journalistically, I'd much prefer not to be faced, day after day, with the relentless chronicle of internal Tory party decay. It is barely decent; an intrusion into deep corporate grief. At some point, readers of all newspapers are, I'm sure, going to sigh with distaste at the picture of yet another pink-faced resignee or rebel. These are not pretty sights and they don't sell newspapers. We may have to resort to putting more Howard Hodgkin paintings on the front page instead, as we did on Tuesday. The trouble is, of course, that he hasn't painted nearly enough.

Lynne Wilkins writes from Wales taking us to task for the report on the rise of the television bodice-ripper; she defends Defoe not as a sex- scene writer but as "a liberal, humane and moral writer", and decries the idea that Jane Austen's world is about tinkling teacups and honourable aristocrats. She is right on both counts, but Marianne Macdonald was referring not to the novels themselves, but to televised costume-drama adaptations of them. They are, surely, utterly different things. Austen was a hard, unsentimental reporter of her world; the idea of her stories being in "costume" would never have occurred to her. But, given TV treatment, it is idle to deny that the big houses, hats, breeches and so on are not an integral part of the modern entertainment: we are served not Jane Austen but "Jane Austen".

Defoe, perhaps, is a different matter. He wrote beautiful, clear, vigorous English and was a great inventor of forms as well as stories - the Homer of our native novel, even. But his books were part of something which has been obscured by the "Great Tradition". It is time to acknowledge that there is another central strain in the British novel, a cascade of vigorous, baggy, energetic fictions by Fielding, Smollett, Thackeray, Surtees, Kipling, John Cowper Powys and Grassic Gibbon. They form our rough, alternative, hedgerow tradition of great writing. They will, in time, make better television too.

The right-wing Christian, Anne Atkins, who has been taken on by The Daily Telegraph as an agony aunt, is starting well. Asked by a reader what to do when her son throws his Buzz Lightyear at his little sister, despite being warned that he'd be smacked, she tersely replies: ``Smack him.'' Apart from demonstrating what an effective deterrent smacking is, I find this a liberating seasonal injunction. There are so many people I've longed to smack - eminent Eurosceptic MPs, minor members of the Royal Family, Telegraph journalists, etc. Up to now, I've restrained myself - typical wet, hand-wringing liberal. No longer: if it's right to smack for throwing around Mr Lightyear, surely it's right to smack people for throwing the Prime Minister at the Chancellor too?

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