Stranger than Fiction

By Midge Raymond,

  Filed under: Events, News

A little drama out of Oxford to start off the week, from The Guardian: Ruth Padel, the first woman in more than 300 years to be elected to Oxford University’s chair in poetry, resigned after admitting she tipped off journalists about sexual harassment allegations surrounding Derek Walcott, who was also being considered for the post.

The Guardian article notes the sadness surrounding Padel’s resignation (“It would not have happened to a man,” said poet Jackie Kay; “Oxford is a sexist little dump,” said novelist Jeanette Winterson) — while a NY Times story reports that this scandal has exposed “a culture of jealousy and mean-spirited connivance at sharp odds with the university’s public posture of academic tolerance and reason.”

And yet another article, in the Telegraph, makes the point that, really, what poet isn’t a little scandalous? Dylan Thomas, for example, “drank like a drain, begged and stole from friends, fought with his wife in public, had affairs, and on at least one delightful occasion is said to have defecated on a host’s floor.” TS Eliot wrote “lines that could be construed as racist, and others as anti-Semitic.”

And it doesn’t end there: “Byron: womaniser. Coleridge: drug fiend. Pound: fascist sympathiser. Yeats: snob. Crane: alcoholic. Keats: smackhead. Kipling: imperialist. Hughes: another womaniser. Poe: married a 13 year-old. Verlaine: jailed for shooting one of his friends. Lawrence: pervert. Betjeman: had a bit of a temper on him, apparently. And don’t let’s get started on John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. The booze, the sexually transmitted diseases, the mistresses, the page boys…”

To me, the real story is Padel, who seems to have felt, despite her obvious merits, the need to taint her main rival (ultimately causing him to withdraw from consideration), rather than letting the vote happen (the Times reports that Padel not only noted Walcott’s sexual harassment allegations but also “noted Mr. Walcott’s age, claimed that he was in poor health and pointed out that he lived in the Caribbean, not Britain” — and that she condemned the very reports she instigated: “it seems horrible, this anonymous campaign”).

Kay and Winterson both said this wouldn’t have happened to a man — but should it have happened at all? The allegations in Walcott’s past might have surfaced eventually — or not — but at least Padel would have won or lost the post honestly. Clearly she had no choice but to resign — and she left, as novelist Rose Tremain told the Guardian, “a moral question here – and I think it is unanswerable.”

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