Books Criticism: Reggae and the crack

WRITING TO THE MOMENT by Tom Paulin, Faber pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
"Never begin with undiluted praise of a subject. All you can do when the first rapture ends is hesitate, qualify and inevitably go down from the high note you struck at the start."

Let's not make that mistake, then. At the risk of another - plodding and describing - let's say that Writing to the Moment contains a selection of Tom Paulin's essays, introductions and reviews from the early Eighties until this year. That is, from the revealing "Paisley's Progress", on that extraordinary preacher, to the still-hot "T S Eliot and anti-Semitism", which latter should help "diminish the overwhelming stifling cultural authority Eliot's oeuvre has acquired".

It's all wonderful stuff, and I'm prepared to give the "complete attentive assent" the critic requires, the "act of faith ... which can continue only if the audience's attention is held".

Attention doesn't waver, but it does get dizzy and beg to sit out the next dance, because it will be another reel which will whirl it round any number of figures with whom it may not be acquainted. The average Paulin essay would fill a pub. A single page taken at random from his Introduction to the Faber Book of Political Verse assembles Marvell, Lovelace, Lewis Carroll, Hockney, Kenneth Williams, the Israelites and the Levellers. So the crack should be good.

Paulin is a liberating critic, who can solve in a throwaway line the kind of problem students and bewildered young poets carry about with them. What is a tradition, and how do I know if I've got one? "Tradition is an over-used term for a continuity of attitudes." Thank you.

If we want to stop, it is to have a passing remark explained, or to read again one of his leaning pile of adjectives. It can all get a bit much, and, like a warped Oliver Twist, at times we want to take back the brimming bowl and ask, please can we have some less? But who would want to lose such remarks as "Paisley ... belongs to the dreamtime of Presbyterian aborigines - giant preachers who strode the Antrim coast long before the birth of Christ"?

Paulin's frightening erudition gives the lie to his Introduction's professed love of working to commission, to deadline, to the moment. Years of solid reading must underpin "the hurry, the excitement, the rapid research and ... furious checking". Paulin writes his socks off. He is an urgent and passionate champion of the English dissenting tradition, which tradition was never more necessary, never more suppressed. To what the BBC calls the "British mainland", he brings an essential service. We need him to explain the Irish and Scots to the English, and them to us, and the Unionists to everyone.

He retains his Ulster sensitivity, if that's the word, to religion, but maybe he's right. Maybe the English repression of its Catholicism is vital to our understanding of contemporary Britain. There is a fascinating piece called "Shakespeare the Catholic" (ostensibly a review of Ted Hughes's Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being). They are a quite a trinity, the Bard, Hughes and Paulin. Paulin identifies a "buried national neurosis, a hang-up, that is the damage done to Catholic England by the Reformation"; a Reformation Hughes knew would be re-run under Thatcher.

For all the history and politics, it is the poets on whom he writes so well, both in this volume and his 1992 essays, The Minotaur. Not that poets float above the "real world", far from it. Here he slows a little, showing an an intelligence allied to love in his approach to say, John Clare or Elizabeth Bishop.

One couldn't come to these essays without some little knowledge of literature and history - and it's a good sign that one leaves them with a lengthy scribbled list of things to read. Increasingly, however, the essays concern the nature of criticism itself.

The critic, God love him, "is eternally uneasy, restless ... because he first has to go down to the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. Down among the mixed, difficult, nasty or exhilarating emotions, the critic has to draw an idea from hunches and from the atmosphere of the social and cultural moment. The critic is condemned to ride the roller-coaster of the Zeitgeist, but in the front not in the back coach."

Oh, please. This is the critic's putsch against the poet. But we must forgive him, because he is a poet, and personally, I'd forgive anyone who can write "Paisleyism is curiously like reggae music." What?