The West may be in decline, but its oldest chronicler soldiers on

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THE OLDEST writer in the world who is still writing is Nirad C Chaudhuri. This assertion can be questioned (and no doubt will be), but I can't think of anyone else of his age or older who sits down every day to write, and write not just letters to the newspapers or changes to last wills and testaments but distinguished books and journalism that always find a publisher. Next month he will be 98, and last week I drove with an Indian friend to Oxford to see him.

We arrived at his flat at what I thought was the appointed time, and rang and knocked and rang and knocked again. No response. We looked through the front window and saw a gas fire blazing in an empty sitting-room, which kindled our alarm. Mr Chaudhuri has lived alone since his wife died a couple of years back. I imagined breaking down the front door, but instead rang the bell to the flat upstairs.

A window scraped up and the head of an elderly man appeared, almost comic in its grumpiness. I explained our worry: appointment, blazing gas fire, no sign of Mr Chaudhuri.

"What do you want me to do about it?" said the man upstairs. The window scraped shut.

"Ah, England," said my friend.

We walked back to the gate and there saw the tiny figure of the world's oldest still- active writer tapping towards us up the road. He looked in the distance like one of those smart little fellows in The Wind in the Willows. In hot weather Mr Chaudhuri wears his native Bengali dress, the dhoti, but now, his walking-stick poking among the first scattering of autumn leaves, he was got up in his English rig: tweed jacket with a silk handkerchief in the top pocket, matching pink tie and shirt, and on his feet the neatest pair of trainers I have ever seen (so neat that they could have passed for Church's shoes).

He had been to the shops. We had got the wrong time. He was amused by our story and its implied concern. "You have no need to worry," he said. "Every morning at 8.15 the woman from next door comes to check that I am not dead in my bed, and returns in the evening to check that I am not dead elsewhere in the house."

We sat before the gas fire and the writer talked dispassionately about when the inevitable might occur. He thought he would reach his next birthday, four weeks away, but perhaps not the one after. I said that it would be a fine thing for him to reach his century with his fingers still tapping at his lap-top. He quoted Victor Hugo in French, words to the effect that all men live under the sentence of death, the only uncertainty being the length of the reprieve.

His new book, which he's half-way through, is his final philosophical statement on a favourite Chaudhuri theme: the decline and decay of the West. We had only to look around us, he said, to see the corruption of great institutions - Oxford and Cambridge, the Anglican Church, the BBC ("Pride and Prejudice! They have ruined it"). His eyesight is failing and he asked me to read aloud from his introduction, which I did, as the writer himself hummed his appreciation of the clarity and elegance of his own words, which he was right to do; his sentences are still as crisp and rhythmic as ever.

As he showed us out, he drew our attention to two new additions to his collection of framed prints. One was a reproduction of John Sell Cotman's watercolour of Greta Bridge in Yorkshire, the other an old British map of an obscure district, then in East Bengal and now in Bangladesh, called Kishorganj. The two are connected.

Mr Chaudhuri was born in a village in Kishorganj in 1897, and it was there as a boy that he first copied a Western painting from a schoolbook - the same Cotman picture that hangs on his wall. Around the same time news reached the village that the Tsar and his fleet had lost the Russo- Japanese war. Suddenly, for the first but not the last time in Mr Chaudhuri's long life, there was proof that the great powers of the West were not invincible.

From there it has been downhill all the way to Alison Steadman overacting Mrs Bennet.

ON TUESDAY I went to Westminster Abbey for the 50th-anniversary celebrations of the United Nations. A good crowd, some good hymns, and a fine address by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who introduced a couple of his thoughts with the exclamation "Hey!" - as in "Hey, but what about the United Nations' good work in Namibia" - as though he expected an answering punch in the air from the ladies in hats in the stalls.

Despite the archbishop's cheeriness, despite the champagne (courtesy of Glaxo) in the abbey garden afterwards, despite even the appearance of Geoffrey Howe in an astonishing suntan, an air of apology and depression seemed to hang over the occasion. "We, the peoples of the United Nations," wrote the founders in their charter 50 years ago, "are determined ... to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest." The hope has been so often confounded that 50 years later a British prime minister can attack the UN as an expensive racket and meet widespread agreement.

But it has to be said: he has a point. My own trivial hostility towards the UN has nothing to do with its breached principles and the frequent failure of its methods: whoever thought that keeping the peace and promoting social justice was going to be easy? It has everything to do with the people who work for its agencies. Not so much for their sheer quantity, or for the moral smugness of some of them, or for the fancy passports that permit them to speed through customs queues, or even for their salaries. It's the fact that they don't pay income tax. I used to see them in Mr Chaudhuri's old country - Europeans and North Americans in safari suits doling out money and advice - and wonder how it was that their moral purpose had such a blind eye for the redistribution of wealth back home.

THE INDIAN friend who went with me to see Nirad Chaudhuri is a distinguished journalist from Delhi who has the knack of asking good but odd and sometimes unanswerable questions. A few years ago on a rainy day in Finsbury Park, we tried unsuccessfully to find a shop that would sell us an umbrella.

My friend: "Why do British shops close on a Wednesday afternoon?"

Last week, as I tried to steer us through Oxford, another one out of the blue: "What percentage of the British population are Roman Catholics?"

And then, driving back down the M40, the corker: "Have you ever slept with a Parsee?"

No, I said. Had he?


We drove on towards Ruislip in a small tower of silence.