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Tom Paulin, The FT Weekend

“I think I’ve had all my arguments. I suppose I’m nearly 60, maybe I’ve grown up. Belatedly.”

The muddy waters of the Isis slope past the end of Paulin’s quiet Oxford street. His house is Victorian, with a bay window, neatly paved front garden, trim bushes and shiny front door. Paulin, 58, shoeless and amiable, leads me into an elegant interior of well-matched furniture and rugs. He says Giti, his wife of 35 years, chooses the furniture. In the drawing room, Paulin seats me by the fire.  He sits on a chaise longue, one arm over his crossed legs, the other stretched out on the seat.

His sometimes explosive, acidic appearances as a critic on Newsnight Review have brought fame but are a sideline to Paulin’s career as an academic, author and poet. The GM Young Lecturer in English at Hertford College, Oxford since 1994, he has written eight collections of poetry, from A State of Justice (1977, winner of the Eric Gregory Award) to The Road to Inver (2004, shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize); edited five anthologies of poetry and prose; put his own poetic spin on translations of Sophocles and Aeschylus; been a director of ‘Derry’s cross-sectarian Field Day Theatre Company; and written six volumes of literary criticism.

This month sees the publication of an engaging seventh. The Secret Life of Poems analyses 45 poems by 45 writers, from Shakespeare to Muldoon. Metre is examined, images illuminated, surprising interpretations offered. Paulin argues, for example, that Keats’s Ode To Autumn is codedly political, with redcoat soldiers and the Peterloo Massacre lurking behind the poem’s poppies and harvests.

My freshly-printed copy of The Secret Life of Poems is the first he has seen. He bends over it, leafing through, gripped, murmuring, “God that’s amazing…It’s a nice cover…. Yes…Great lot of permissions…”

How, I ask, did he choose the 45 poems? “They were ones I was interested in and thought I had something to say about,” he says, enthusiastically. “Like Ode To Autumn, where I tried to put a different position. I wanted to write a book which would be about the DNA structure of poetry. The way poets talk about poetry in terms of rhythm and metre and cadence. I had the idea of writing what I hoped would be a kind of handbook [on poetry].”

His early poetry was haunted by Ireland’s Troubles: ‘the hill quarries / Echoing blasts over the secured city; / Or, in a private house, a Judge / Shot in the hallway before his daughter / By a boy who shut his eyes as his hand tightened’ (Under The Eyes). Conflict also dominates his much later The Invasion Handbook, the first volume of a planned poetic trilogy on the Second World War.

Does conflict attract him as a subject?

“I haven’t thought about it consciously. Paul Klee [the artist] when he was in the German army, was in charge of a petrol dump on an aerodrome. When one of their planes crashed, he’d cut the canvas off the fuselage and do a painting on it. And I suppose that’s what we [Northern Irish poets, including Heaney and Muldoon] were doing.”

Paulin’s later, free verse poems can be hard, but rewarding, work. “I wish I could write lyrical poems but I just write the way they come. You do what you can. You go through periods when you don’t write. I haven’t written a poem for about a year and a half. You just have to hope something will turn up.”

He doesn’t enjoy giving readings of his poems,  worrying people won’t like them. “Or not understand them. Should write more clearly I suppose. But it’s too late now. Well, we’ll see.” He smiles.

This Paulin, self-critical, uncertain, is a long way from Newsnight Review’s Mr Angry. Since appearing on its forerunner, Late Review, Paulin has wielded the critical machete without fear of older establishment figures (‘He should never have been allowed near a paintbrush, absolutely awful,’ on David Hockney) or current ones (‘I am not interested in the bits and pieces that make up this man’s attempt at imagination,’ on Turner Prize-winner Douglas Gordon).

But what really makes Paulin so entertaining a critic is his unpredictability. Mike Leigh’s revered play Abigail’s Party is dismissed as ‘middle-class anxiety mocking the aspirational working class’; the Star Wars films are ‘an extraordinary epic about the American Republic… Take the Jedi, they represent the American Constitution’; the comedy Auf Wiedersehen, Pet is ‘a work of genius…national folklore being created in front of your eyes’.

What attracted him to appearing on television? “I thought it would be fun. You meet lots of bright young people, you see all sorts of things you wouldn’t have seen. You find yourself alone practically in a Manet exhibition or a Jackson Pollock exhibition.”

Have his appearances affected how academics and students treat him? “I haven’t a clue, I haven’t noticed it at all.” What about the cultish attention he attracts, such as the Blackburn band Tompaulin, and the puppet-critic Tom Tortoise on The Adam and Joe Show? “I don’t think about it. I just do the programme, yeah. It would be bad if you took yourself seriously.”

Paulin smiles often, particularly at himself, but his conversation about almost anything other than literature or Northern Ireland has to be coaxed. I try. What is Tom  Paulin’s own secret life like? “All I do is read books, really. I worry about that sometimes. I don’t seem to have a hobby or anything.” He does get out. “I work in the Bodleian a lot and I often meet friends there and go off for coffee and lunch.”

How about family life? Paulin’s wife is from Strabane, a member of Northern Ireland’s small Sikh community. They met as students at Hull University and have two sons Michael, 27, and Niall, 26. Why doesn’t any of that appear in his poems?

“I’ve not been able to manage the lyrical or the domestic much.” In poetry anyway. “I do most of the cooking. I’m kind of domestic, untidily so.”

Paulin was born in Leeds in 1949 into a middle class family that moved to Northern Ireland (his mother’s home) when he was four. What was his childhood like?

“There is a sort of extended family quality to Belfast. It was very stimulating growing up there, especially in the 1960s. My parents were Northern Ireland Labour Party people. We read The Guardian and The New Statesman, listened to the BBC. The house was full of books. We didn’t get a television until That Was The Week That Was started. There was nothing to do but read.”

When did the poetic urge strike? He becomes more animated. “I had a very good English teacher called Eric Brown. He bought in the record which had Robert Frost reading  After Apple Picking. I had a book called Modern Poets and Poetry, a very dear great aunt gave it to me when I was 16 or 17. I got interested in Frost’s use of the vernacular. He taught you to respect the way people around you spoke.”

I ask more about his parents.

“Well, my father was the headmaster of Annadale Grammar School and my mother was a doctor.” This is all he says at first, and what he says about his brothers has to be teased out.

“One brother is dead. I have one brother. The other died of cerebral palsy. We’d go and visit him and you’d feel sad for him because there was real intelligence, just buried very deep. He was my youngest brother. He died in 1974. It was a great sadness.”

In 1967, he began reading English at Hull. “It was a great shock coming to England. I found it very traumatic, just being in a different place. Everyone seemed very sophisticated.”

Even in Hull?

“Oh yeah,” he smiles. “Very intimidating. More confident, yeah.”

Paulin’s sentences often end with “yeah”, like a tutor’s approving tick. His voice is unhurried, his words considered with a poet’s discrimination, the syllables often stretching at the end of phrases for emphasis.

After Hull came a BLit at Lincoln College, Oxford. His poetry was encouraged by fellow student and poet Douglas Dunn but it was after Oxford that his literary career really began. “When I got a job in 1972 in Nottingham [as university lecturer], I started trying to write [poetry] seriously. I used to get up at seven o’clock and write for an hour before breakfast, then go and teach.” He stayed for 22 years, arriving back at Oxford in 1994.

Paulin has always provided his family with salaried stability but thinks slightly less of himself for it. “I always feel freelance writers are leading a heroic life. I think that is the real writer’s life. On the other hand, it’s good to have another job. It gives you something to do.” He smiles. “You meet people. And I love teaching. I’ve got lots of friends here.”

Another Oxford poet-academic, Craig Raine, has a work, Flying To Belfast, in The Secret Life of Poems. Did he discuss it with Raine?

“Not at all, not in the least, no. We fell out about my Faber Book of Political Verse in the 1980s.” The gist of the disagreement, he says, was that Raine objected to the inclusion of Milton in the book. “He said Milton wasn’t a political poet. Things were really wrecked by that.” But Paulin still included Raine’s poem in his new book?

“Oh indeed. Well, I admire the poem very much.”

Politics is never very far away with Paulin. His own are unaligned left. An opponent of the invasion of Iraq, he says, “I belong to the minority that wants a European superstate. I think it would redress the balance a bit, between America and the rest of the world.”

His political views have occasionally sent Paulin lurching into controversy. On Newsnight Review in January 2002, in a verbal tussle with Germaine Greer, he called the Bloody Sunday paratroopers ‘rotten racist bastards’. In April of that year, in an interview with Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper, Paulin said Israel’s Brooklyn-born Jewish settlers ‘should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists.’ Paulin has said his words were distorted and has long attacked anti-Semitism, but there was a storm of letters in the press.

I ask him about the controversy. Arms and legs firmly crossed, he says, “Och, that was years ago, I’ve nothing to say about that.”

Is he sure?

“Och it’s so long ago,” he smiles.

What about his Bloody Sunday comments. Were they premeditated?

“No, it just came into my head. I used to be rather intemperate but that’s gone.” And of being part of Britain’s dissenting tradition, he later says, “I think I’ve had all my arguments.”

What caused this change? “I don’t know, I suppose, you know I’m nearly 60, maybe I’ve grown up.” He pauses, adds jovially, “Belatedly. I think it’s a phase you go through. Some longer than others.”

He sounds relieved that the phase is over. And indeed the controversial, vitriolic critic is at odds with Paulin in person, the family man who is friendly and thoughtful, even asking if I mind him smoking in his own home. It is when he perceives injustice, or empty or mean-minded work, that the lid flies off. Perhaps the key to Paulin is that he included Raine’s work in The Secret Life Of Poems despite their falling out: he is so besotted with language and culture it overrides many of the gripes and vanities that preoccupy most of us.

Paulin had put on boots for the photographs. They went well with his trousers and shirt. Does Giti chooses his clothes, as she does the furniture?

He smiles sheepishly. “Yeah.”

Otherwise, would he just put on anything?

“That’s right, yeah.”

12 January 2008

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