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Sunday 24 May 2009

Unsavoury sex smear campaign takes poetic licence just too far 

Ruth Padel discovered the sting in the tale after awkward details were revealed, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

I belong to The Academy, a Soho club founded by the late lamented Auberon Waugh, which bans poets from membership. The kindly, genial Bron was implacable: poets were egotistical nuisances who spread trouble and disharmony wherever they went. It would have been no use bleating to him about the delightfulness of Brendan Kennelly: in Bron's world, exceptions proved the rule.

How he would have revelled in the recent scandal over the Oxford Professorship of Poetry -- not least because it has put poet against poet, the literati at loggerheads, and has amused the general public with a bit of sexual scandal for a change.

Every five years, staff and graduates of Oxford University are allowed to vote in an election to the 301-year-old poetry chair, which pays under £6,901 per annum but has terrific prestige and a workload of only three lectures a year and an oration every second. Incumbents have included WH Auden, C Day Lewis, Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon.

Over the years some of the sisterhood have become determined that there should be a female incumbent, as others have bemoaned the absence of non-whites. So this was the year of ethnic and gender warriors.

There were three candidates: the Indian Arvind Krishna Mehrotra; the English Ruth Padel; and the Caribbean Derek Walcott. White male poets looked at the list and decided not to waste their time applying.

Enthusiastic backers of the little-known Mehrotra, who included Tariq Ali, described him as a fine poet-critic who writes valuably and urgently of a cosmopolitan network of languages and histories.

Ruth Padel had become a familiar voice on the airwaves in the year of his bicentenary discussing her great-great-grandfather, Charles Darwin, and reading from her Darwin: A Life in Poems; her supporters included Melvyn Bragg and Colm Toibin.

Derek Walcott, the front runner, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992, is a Caribbean poet who writes of the post-colonial experience with subtlety, depth and an extraordinary richness of language; he was backed by a clutch of poets, novelists and critics including Jenny Joseph, the Booker winner Alan Hollinghurst, and Hermione Lee, who described Walcott as the "professor of cool".

At the end of April, Padel's close friend, the literary columnist John Walsh, wrote in the London Independent with wonder that Walcott's fans could have forgotten "the shadows of sexual harassment allegations that have swirled around their man over the years". He gave a few unsavoury details and explained where to locate more.

More than 100 voters (mostly female) soon afterwards received an anonymous dossier, including pages about Walcott from a 1984 book, The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus. "While I was happy to be put forward for the post," said Walcott on May 15, the day before the election, "if it has degenerated into a low and degrading attempt at character assassination, I do not want to be part of it."

"It's nothing to do with me," said Padel, shrugging off a letter to the Times from academics suggesting the election be suspended because of the dirty tricks campaign.

"I can't bear what's happening to Walcott," she said as she stormed to victory.

Then two embarrassing things emerged. First was that journalists identified Walsh as Padel's ex-lover (which she did not deny), the subject of a truly embarrassing poem, Home Cooking, which tells how a lover puts honey glaze on a Sainsbury's free-range duck, "the poet then runs a fingernail down his spine", and all ends in "a f**k/the length of our kitchen table'.'

But what did for Padel was the revelation that she had sent emails to two journalists pointing out Walcott's age (79), his poor health, his residence in the Caribbean and referring them to The Lecherous Professor; she was forced by senior supporters to step down nine days after her election. Her explanation that she had been naive in passing on information in the public domain was as lame as the statement that she was passing along "in good faith, the concerns of a student who believed a professor's relations with women students were relevant to her university's appointment of a professor".

"From India where I live, these extra-literary goings-on appear more unfortunate than amusing," said Mehrotra. "I hope that some lessons are learned from this -- not least that the private lives of poets should, occasionally, be allowed to stay private."

Commentators are divided between those who agree with Mehrotra and those who side with Padel ("Oxford is a sexist little dump," said the novelist Jeanette Winterson). I incline to the former. I still feel benign about certain academics of my youth who -- though sexual pests in the manner of those unenlightened days and deserving of a good slap -- were inspiring and dedicated teachers. And I'd rather have in a poetry chair sinners like Byron or Coleridge or Dylan Thomas than mediocrities approved by Human Resources.

In The Academy, we'll be looking forward to Round II.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards