Are Dover's cliffs still white?

THE OXFORD BOOK OF EXILE Ed. John Simpson Oxford University Press, £17.99 Robert Fisk on a bewilderingly varied anthology of diaspora and displacement

Anthologies are a bit like an Arab mezze, something for every taste - a rich, unending cocktail of chickpeas and fried chicken, of homus and shish taouk, of tabouleh and tahina, of cheese pastries and onions and kebab washed down with plenty of Arak. The principle of the mezze, of course, is that you never finish the meal, and you would no more read an anthology from cover to cover than you would eat a mezze all the way from pistachio nuts to coffee. Which is why reviews of anthologies are intrinsically unfair.

Forced to read Kafka, Virgil, Churchill and the Dalai Lama, Gauguin and the Duke of Windsor, Trotsky, Spinoza, De Gaulle, Larkin, Wittgenstein and the Pilgrim Fathers at a single sitting requires a unique appetite which perhaps only a journalist such as John Simpson possesses. No sooner has Josephus recorded the Jewish suffering at the hands of Titus than we are following the Prophet to Medina and Scottish convicts to Botany Bay. "As to the enemy, I used them like nettles, and squeezed them . . . soe [sic] hard that they could seldom sting," reports Cromwell's Sir Richard Cox from Ireland, "having, as I believe, killed and hanged no less than three thousand of them, whilst I stayed in the County of Cork. . ." Scarcely do we have time to swallow this monstrosity than we are listening to Oscar Wilde's lamentations of social boycott in the Boulevard St Germain. You ask yourself whether John McCarthy, Somerset Maugham, Germaine Greer and Ovid really should be in the same volume.

John Simpson is an old friend of mine, a lonely, rather tall - slightly swelling, see back cover portrait - figure whose good grace is balanced by a judiciously short temper, a passionate democrat with a nose for hypocrisy. I can imagine him interviewing Dostoevsky as he languishes in Dresden while escaping his Russian debts: "But Fyodor, do you think anyone will believe what you are telling me?" I have spent many hours with Simpson in Belfast and the Gulf, in Sarajevo and Beirut, often at Christmas time; because he himself is something of an exile, his ear always attuned to the quiet purr of the London taxi waiting to take him to Heathrow before dawn.

Perhaps journalism created Simpson's broad brush. He includes in his anthology not only the classic exiles - the Jews of Europe, the post-1917 Russian emigrs, the Irish Wild Geese - but what he calls "refugees from bad weather, or bad cooking". I am a little troubled by this technique. It provides a way of turning exile into something else; at times, as I digested this mezze of tragedy and despair, I wondered if it might not be re-titled the Oxford Book of Unhappiness or the Oxford Book of Depression.

I found myself uneasy, too, about the methodology employed. We read, appalled, the words of Rivka Yosselevska as she describes the mass graves into which the Nazis had thrown the Jewish dead and dying. "Blood was spurting from the ground in many places, like a well of water, and whenever I pass a spring now, I remember the blood which spurted from the ground, from that grave." But doesn't it belittle the unique evil of the Holocaust to include Casanova and Bertie Wooster in the same work?

And just as we may criticise what is here, we mourn what is missing. If the dispossession of the Navajos merits a place, why not the Armenian Holocaust of 1915? If Ezra Pound may speak of exile, why not Kahlil Gibran? If John Reith's 1939 "exile" from the BBC is worthy of inclusion, why not the million pieds noirs of 1962 Algeria? If Prospero, why not Zhivago? If Bonnie Prince Charlie, why not Robert the Bruce? Does Cambodia not demand a quotation, or the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda, the Sudeten Germans or the Poles of Brest Litovsk or the hundreds of thousands exiled from their homes in John Simpson's current stomping ground, Bosnia?

Even the treatment of Palestine seems curiously muted. I searched in vain for I F Stone's account of the Holocaust victims arriving by boat off the coast of Haifa: "As the light increased and the sun rose, a cry ran over the ship, `It's Eretz Israel.' We saw Mount Carmel ahead of us and Haifa sleeping in the morning sun below us. . . The refugees cheered and began to sing the Hatikvah. . . People jumped for joy, kissed and hugged each other on the deck." Equally in vain, I looked for Ghassan Kanafani's description of the Arab exodus, the inevitable sequel to the arrival of Stone's Jewish refugees: "The men began to hand in their weapons to their officers. . . When our turn came, I could see the rifles and guns lying on the table and the long queues of lorries, leaving the land of oranges far behind and spreading out over the winding roads of Lebanon. Then I began to weep, howling with tears. As for your mother, she eyed the oranges silently. . ." Instead, Simpson gives us two mediocre Palestinian poems.

But anthologies also provide an intensity of emotion that forces a redefinition of words. Here, Kerensky identifies exile as stasis, a form of timelessness, Robinson Crusoe as self-awareness, Sir Richard Burton (the explorer) as comfort, Flaubert as mental inertia, Trotsky as something absurd. Offered an ever more restrictive asylum in Germany, the latter notes that "at first it was reduced to the right of residence under special circumstances, then to the right of medical treatment, and finally to the right of burial. I could thus appreciate the full advantages of democracy only as a corpse." And here is the English poet Edward Thomas - in perhaps the anthology's most moving passage - saying goodbye to his wife for the last time, before returning to die in the trenches in 1917. "He took me in his arms, holding me tightly to him, his face white, his eyes full of a fear I had never seen before. My arms were round his neck. `Beloved, I love you,' was all I could say. `Jenny, Jenny, Jenny,' he said, `remember that whatever happens, all is well between us forever and ever.'' And hand in hand we went downstairs and out to the children, who were playing in the snow."

You would have to have a heart of stone to remain unmoved by this, though I suspect Simpson still hankers, even in Bosnia at Christmas, for simpler fare. Exile though he is, I can imagine him reading Kipling's "The Broken Men" in a dingy upstairs room in the Sarajevo Holiday Inn with more emotion than he would care to let on: "Ah God! One sniff of England -/ To greet our flesh and blood -/ To hear the traffic slurring/ Once more through London mud!/ Our towns of wasted honour -/ Our streets of lost delight!/ How stands the old Lord Warden?/ Are Dover's cliffs still white?" At the end of the meal, that - as Catullus might have said - is sugar round the cup.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album