25 May, 2009Issue 9.5Review of Reviews

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Review of Reviews





“But I don’t think that’s fair”. The press has caught Ruth Padel redhanded in the “smear” campaign against Derek Walcott. (“Smear” may be a misnomer: as Katy Evans-Bush notes on the Guardian website, a “smear” is a “slanderous untruth“, and Walcott himself admitted that some of the allegations against him are true.) According to the Times, Padel sent an e-mail to journalists last month in which she said:

Some [of my] supporters add that what [Derek Walcott] does for students can be found in a book called The Lecherous Professor, reporting one of his two recorded cases of sexual harassment and that Obama is rumoured to have turned him down for his inauguration poem because of the sexual period. But I don’t think that’s fair.

Padel, who resigned from the position this week, acknowledges that she sent the e-mails, though she defended herself in a message to the Guardian. The problem for her is that even if she had nothing to do with the anonymous packages that appeared in Oxford dons’ mailboxes with photocopied passages from The Lecherous Professor, she is herself a lying professor. The Times dredges up a 12 May quote in which Padel said: “Neither they [my campaign managers] nor I mentioned Walcott’s harassment record and had nothing to do with any behind-doors operation.” Her disclaimer about “any behind-doors operation” might be true, but she clearly did mention Walcott’s harassment record.

If Walcott is looking for solace, he might find it in an homage by Clive James. James–perhaps inspired by the New York Times‘ lament on the “lost art of reading aloud“–reads his poetic paean to Walcott on the website of the Guardian and at this month’s Hay Literary Festival in Wales. (Sidenote: James’s reference to “railway station porters [who] with one impatient word rape teenage daughters” does seem like a strange way of paying tribute to a man who stands accused of sexual harrassment.) Meanwhile, Walcott does not stand alone as the honoree of an homage by a prominent poet: Douglas Hogg, who in recent weeks has also had his named dragged through the mud (or, more precisely, through the moat) is the subject of a new couplet by the recently elected poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy:

What did we do with the trust of your vote?

Hired a flunky to flush out the moat.

Duffy isn’t the first poet laureate to tackle a timely topic. Her predecessor Andrew Motion recently wrote five sonnets about climate change that will function as the libretto for Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s new symphony, slated to debut at King’s College Cambridge on 13 June. Meanwhile, the Times Literary Supplement takes a look at Motion’s new collection of poems, The Cinder Path; reviewer Peter McDonald suggests that the collection borders on bathos, but by Motion’s standards, that counts as a warm reception. When he was named poet laureate in 1999 (a position that entitles him to a “butt of sack“), one anonymous critic compared Motion’s life work to a sack of something else.

The Horrors of Train Travel. A world away from Clive James’s “railway station porters”, FT columnist Matthew Engel analyses the lesser evils of rail transport in his new book Eleven Minutes Late. The Guardian reviews Engel’s book and pines for the days when the bar on The Flying Scotsman featured 32 cocktails. (Now, its menu merely offers a “selection of Schweppes mixers”.)

The High-Flying Welshman. Meanwhile, Matthew Engel himself travels to Wales for the Hay Festival (though he doesn’t say what mode of transport he used for the journey). Engel seeks to explain how a town of 2,000 became home to 30 second-hand bookstores and an international literary festival that Bill Clinton christened as the “Woodstock of the Mind“. The story revolves around Richard Booth, who graduated from Oxford in 1961, set up a store in his family’s Welsh hometown, and soon tranformed Hay into a booklovers’ mecca. Along the way, he crowned himself king of the independent state of Hay-on-Wye and–more recently–launched a long-shot bid for European Parliament on the Socialist Labour line.

Not Feeling the Festive Spirit? The other major literary festival this past weekend was Calabash in Jamaica, and last year’s headliner (Walcott) was not in attendance. Indeed, he almost certainly wasn’t invited back. The poet who allegedly sought to seduce his female students made no attempt to seduce his Caribbean colleagues in 2008; rather, he used the occasion to lash out at the Trinidadian Nobel laureate VS Naipaul:


I have been bitten, I must avoid infection

Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.

Auden on Screen…and Auden on Screen. An Oxford professor of poetry maligning a highly respected colleague? History repeats itself, as History Boys veteran Alan Bennett notes. Bennett’s “The Habit of the Art” explores the tempestuous relationship between WH Auden (a onetime holder of Padel’s new post) and composer Benjamin Britten: after a productive collaboration in the 1930s, Auden was “crudely disparaging” of Britten’s later work. (One hopes that the aforementioned collaboration between poet Motion and composer Davies ends on a more positive note.) This week, Variety reports that the National Theatre will bring the Auden-Britten drama to cinemas across Britain as part of its NT Live programme.

Speaking of poetic homages to questionable characters, the Times Literary Supplement reveals that in the mid-1930s, Auden wrote three “peasant folk songs eulogizing [Lenin] and promoting Stalin as his political heir“. The songs were for a Russian propaganda film commissioned by Stalin to mark the tenth anniversary of Lenin’s death. The British Film Institute will present the movie and the accompanying Auden poems at an 8 June event on its Southbank stage.

Spies Like Mom? MI5 sought to prove that Auden aided Soviet spies but could never close the case. Meanwhile, two children growing up on the English countryside in the 1960s seek to determine whether their mother was a Soviet spy in Georgina Harding’s newest novel, reviewed in this week’s New York Times. In the Washington Times, David Chambers has no qualms about admitting that his grandfather was a Soviet spy, but he laments the fact that Susan Jacoby, author of Alger Hiss and the Battle for History, won’t acknowledge that new findings from the Soviet archives “seal the coffin…on Mr. Hiss’ guilt”. (ORB excoriated Jacoby for other omissions in last week’s edition.) The New Haven Independent offers an overview of the controversy sparked by Spies: The Rise and Fall of KGB in America, which claims the legendary left/liberal journalist IF Stone was in cahoots with the Kremlin. (The authors of the book—one of whom is ex-KGB himself—also present their findings in the current issue of Commentary.) Eric Alterman, writing in the Daily Beast, says that it all depends on what the definition of a “spy” is: Stone helped the KGB identify potential recruits, but he didn’t pass along secret information. Alterman looks the word up in the dictionary and decides that Stone doesn’t qualify.

A Short Dictionary of Nearly Everything. Bill Bryson, the American-born author and “accidental chancellor” of Durham University, is selling a new edition of his Dictionary for Writers and Editors. (It’s actually called Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors: the author has named it for himself. An American might say that Bryson has named it after himself, but as the Daily Mail notes, the “after” would be improprer on the British Isles.) While the Daily Mail mulls Bryson’s dictionary, the Guardian examines a fictional Daily Mail Dictionary: Guardian readers are defined as “empty-headed leftie liberal morons who don’t understand anything“.

Meanwhile, as the Guardian celebrates the silver anniversary of its media section (and celebrates the fact that it was the only quality title in the UK to increase its sales numbers last month), the New Statesman facilitates a journalistic ménage à trois like none other. Evening Standard correspondent Gideon Spanier takes out a column in the Statesman and takes up Independent managing director Simon Kelner’s charge that the Guardian uses its media section “purposely to damage their biggest commercial rival”. (The Guardian has spread speculation that the cash-strapped Indie is trying to sell itself to the Daily Mail and General Trust.) Guardian exec Emily Bell admires the Indie MD for having “the balls to be very explicit” (though as Bell knows well, media execs do not need male gonads in order to be very explicit).

A Recipe for Failure. There are two days left in the London Times‘ “Recipe Exchange“: Gordon Ramsay will pick the five best entries next week. One early entrant is historian and all-around public intellectual Simon Schama, who contributes a cheese soufflé. The Wall Street Journal takes no position on Schama’s gruyère-parmesan mixture but says that Schama’s new book, America’s Future, “is to be savored“. But the NYT‘s David Brooks says that Schama has cooked up a “gopping goo of pure pretension“. According to Brooks, Schama’s attempt at reportage is—like a soufflé gone awry—thin. Instead of getting down and dirty with the nitty gritty of modern American life, Schama ensconces himself in “the realm of enlightened High Thinking that exists where The New York Review of Books reaches out and air-¬≠kisses The London Review of Books“.

Dispatches From The Realm of Enlightened High Thinking That Exists Where The New York Review of Books Reaches Out and Air-Kisses The London Review of Books. In the NYRB, Hussein Agha (of St. Antony’s College) and Robert Malley (formerly of the Clinton administration) call for a “new language” to address Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the two-state solution may be wise, but the phrase “two-state solution” is tainted…Gary Willis looks at Lincoln’s efforts to give new meaning to the language of the Declaration. Willis concludes that Lincoln misinterpreted Jefferson, but that’s not such a bad thing after all: “Thank you, Mr. Lincoln, for doing us the favor of fruitfully being wrong

Colm T√≥ibín traces the fortunes of the two James brothers who followed Lincoln’s call to arms (Wilkie and Bob) and the two who did not (William and Henry). The two Alices—the spinster sister as well as William’s wife—figure prominently as well…Across the pond at the LRB, John Lanchester traces the fortunes of the Royal Bank of Scotland…RBS banknotes, he helpfully points out, are not legal tender in England and Wales…Wales (Jimmy) is the subject of the LRB‘s other lead article this week: the Wikipedia founder who once said that “the real struggle is not between the right and the left but between the party of the thoughtful and the party of the jerks” is himself a partisan of Ayn Rand, the philosopher-cum-novelist noted for her hostility toward philanthropy. According to LRB reviewer David Runciman (and according to Wales’s own Wikipedia page), Wales takes Rand’s objectivist philosophy quite seriously:

His first wife, Pam, was quoted in a September 2008 W magazine article as saying that Wales, because he believed altruism was evil, discouraged her from pursuing a nursing degree when they were married.

Hot-Selling Classics, and Hot-Selling Clerics. Although Ayn Rand sales are surging (The Economist attributes the spike to the recession), the Boston Globe notes that even amid Rand-a-mania, last week’s Simpsons episode—which followed the plot line of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (and which featured Jodie Foster as Maggie)—was “the least watched in Simpsons history” …And while Atlas Shrugged flies off the bookshelves in the US, a book titled Sex As You Don’t Know It is flying off the bookshelves in Poland. That might not be so surprising…except for the fact that the author has taken a vow of celibacy. (He is a Catholic priest.)

Meanwhile, The Sun summarises a new book that condenses the classics into 140-character tweets. Atlas Shrugged doesn’t make the cut (even though an online poll by Random House rated it the best novel of all time), but Ulysses (which a Random House survey of experts rated as the best novel of all time) does. The Twitter version: “Man walks around Dublin. We follow every minute detail of his day. He’s probably overtweeting.”

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