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.

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