The LRB, Twitter and Craig Raine’s ‘Gatwick’

June 3rd was a strange day on Twitter. For most of it, a living poet was trending.

Unfortunately for Craig Raine, the poet in question, he was trending because a long poem of his entitled ‘Gatwick’ had appeared in the LRB and Twitter didn’t like it.

Most comments ranged from amused contempt to, well, just plain old contempt. But it wasn’t only angry feminists, as some suggested, who leapt into action. Indeed, I saw much more ridicule than anger. Many of us were merely enjoying mocking what is by no means a good poem.

Which is the point, really. Certainly there is no shortage of bad poetry in the world. I have written some of it myself. But most of it doesn’t end up in the LRB.

For those who haven’t read the poem, it falls into three sections. The first comprises just two lines, name-drops Tom Stoppard for no apparent reason, and rhymes “Gatwick” with “sick”. The second muses on an encounter at immigration control between Raine and a young woman with an MA in English poetry who Raine is delighted to find recognises him. The third involves Raine eyeing up a young Swedish woman on the bus. He notes her trainers, the size of her breasts – they are big and he likes them that way – the moles on her face, and the likelihood of her inheriting her mother’s hips.

The ‘old man looking longingly at a young woman’ genre is a well-established one but Raine adds little to it. Some of the writing has a distinct EJ Thribbish quality. One stanza in its entirety runs: “I want to say, hey / I like your moles.”

Some of it is worse.

“She glances, she frowns
she turns it upside down
so it can be read by a machine.
She stares at a screen.”

Raine made his reputation in the 1970s with poetry of acute observation and inventive, even outlandish metaphor. There is precious little of that energy here. He is nothing if not a cerebral writer, but artful banality is still banality. And sadly it is not just the writing that is banal, but also the thought. The point of the poem seems to be that Raine, as a poet and and old man to boot, can say things in writing that ordinary people would think inappropriate to say in real life.

But what does he actually have to say that is worth breaching that taboo? The things that might be interesting about these encounters – a poetry graduate working in border control, how it feels to be confronted with the beauty of youth in old age, how both propriety and time guard the borders between the young and the elderly – go unexplored.

Rather, he seems to be straying into the territory of the pensioner who feels their age entitles them to share their opinions of you and your children whether you wish to hear them or not.

But at least Raine has got people discussing poetry. If for nothing else, he is to be commended for that.

 

Please note that this piece first appeared in The Spectator online.

History Today column: Taking history out into the world

My eyes were caught the other week by a news story in Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, which reported an interview with the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Defending his country against accusations of anti-semitism, Zarif cited, among other things, the role of Cyrus the Great, who led Persia in the mid-sixth century BC, in rescuing the Jewish people from Babylon.

It’s not often that politicians reach quite so far back in history for their examples. Indeed, as a rule few politicians are much interested in history at all – even those, like George Osborne and Gordon Brown, who studied it at university. Even if that were not the case, I would have thought the gap between the Achaemenid Empire and the Islamic government of Iran was unbridgeable.

It is a reminder that history – the history of peoples, of nations, of empires, of cultures – is perhaps more salient politically now than it has been for a very long time. Across the Middle East, the nation states largely created by colonial powers in the last century are being pulled apart by social and ideological forces that long pre-date colonialism. Islamic State avowedly pursues the fantasy of an idealised Caliphate in the Arab dust; it would be laughable if it weren’t so steeped in blood. Putin’s neo-imperial Russia is looking hungrily at its old territories in Ukraine and elsewhere. Nationalist parties across Europe are on the rise, peddling dubious rhetorical tropes dressed up as calls to ancient liberties. The UK itself is straining under the force of Scottish nationalism and the national British parties’ confused and inept response.

The past is everywhere in the present. I cannot recall a time in which people have looked forward more to the past, or to an idea they have of the past that offers some kind of Utopian escape from the difficulties of the global now.

The news media is not short of political pundits and commentators to chew over the bones of these issues. But where, in the public sphere, are the historians?

Surely now more than ever we need historians to be a part of national and international debate – of public life – to provide informed insight and, perhaps more importantly, an informed doubt that challenges the pseudo-pious certainties others hold about the past. The quality of doubt is public life is at its lowest point and the media’s fondness for talking points and for facts so trite they are indistinguishable from factoids makes it difficult for individual historians to cut through. History resists simplicity, we know. But how can the public reach us – or how can we reach the public?

There is no lack of hunger for seriousness, for intellectual challenge in public life. Look at the phenomenal success of the TED talks. Why is there no forum for historians to foster and inspire debate? Is it that we are too used to talking to ourselves, in a language designed to exclude non-specialists, to engaging only with coteries of like-minded men and women focusing on ever-smaller disciplines and sub-disciplines? Or is the problem elsewhere?

For all the modish talk of public history in faculties up and down the country, there is very little actually being done at a significant public level. Most people’s idea of a public historian would probably be David Starkey. Starkey is among our finest historians but too often in his appearances on Question Time he seems cast in the role of an irascible don escaped from a minor piece by Terrence Rattigan. That is not good for anyone.

Perhaps, though, the problem is organisational, as well as cultural. Perhaps what we need is an organisation that loudly asserts and argues the value of history – an Institute of Public History or similar. It would be both think tank and bully pulpit, organising debates and talks on current issues and aggressively pushing them out into the world as TED does, across all media. It would be a platform from which historians could challenge the mendacity of politicians and the banality of media alike. It would push back against the glib simplifications that make decision-makers sleep easier at night. It would take the public seriously – and offer seriousness and intelligence in return.

After all, intelligence – in its old sense of information – is the lifeblood of a democracy. It is our duty to take our wares out into the public square. The people need us.