May 2001 Journal

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Poets and purveyors of fiction

In 1952 Emanuel Litvinoff wrote a poem entitled To TS Eliot. It was not a homage, but a settling of accounts by a younger practitioner of the craft of poetry with an aberrant master. The line ‘I share the protozoic slime of Shylock/ A page in Der Stürmer’ indicates its thrust. It threw back into the elder poet’s face the monstrous antisemitic libels he had penned in the 1920s, and not seen fit to expunge from the postwar edition of his work. Litvinoff was scheduled to read the poem at a Sunday meeting of the Institute of Contemporary Art. Just before the start of the event, ICA Chairman Herbert Read informed him that ‘Tom’ Eliot had just arrived with an entourage. Nothing daunted, Litvinoff launched into his reading, which at first produced a shocked silence, and then pandemonium. Cries of ‘libel’ and ‘slander’ rent the air, and Herbert Read expressed himself scandalised by Litvinoff’s ‘bad form’.

All that happened almost half a century ago but plus ça change

Last month the now sprightly octogenarian Litvinoff read out his anti-Eliot philippic at a Jewish poetry launch. By strange, but fitting, coincidence, that very same week Herbert Read’s son, Piers Paul, published an open letter accusing Conrad Black (the proprietor of the Daily Telegraph and The Spectator) of pro-Zionist bias no matter how many unarmed children the Israeli army shoots.

Here, a biographical note might be called for. Herbert Read had been a man of strange contradictions. He was the respected guru of 1930s British anarchism, and managed at the same time to be intellectually close to the ultra-Conservative TS Eliot. (One wonders what their discussions about the Spanish War were like). Moreover, this eminent libertarian accepted a knighthood and had his son educated at Ampleforth, the country’s leading Catholic public school. Piers Paul Read was joined in his assault on Conrad Black by another journalist-cum-littérateur with an intensely religious upbringing: AN Wilson. Rugby-educated Wilson had spent a year in an Anglican seminary and has since dabbled in Christian theology on which he adopts a maverick stance. He is also a prolific biographer. Significantly one of his subjects was Hilaire Belloc, the Edwardian Anglo-French writer of humorous verse who harboured a Catholic-medieval prejudice against money-grubbing Jews. Altogether, Wilson has strange enthusiasms. He adores Lady Mosley, whose hem the plebeian purveyors of political correctness he deems unfit to touch. More recently he has scaled the Mount Everest of mind-boggling illogicality by likening the Americans’ postwar treatment of the convicted traitor Ezra Pound to Stalin’s despatch of Osip Mandelshtam to the Gulag.

Such is the provenance, as well as the foreground, of some of the most vociferous media critics of Israel. They, and Tom Paulin (cf our April issue), are men whose public school and Oxbridge education had spared them exposure to the grim realities of the Middle East. It might be salutary for them to compare notes with the playwright David Hare, who has actually breathed in the dust and cordite of Gaza.

next article:Painting black on black