Critic Tom Paulin has tackled the unfairly overlooked Hazlitt in his new book. But the 'Late Review' pundit is diffident about his own work, finds Ben Rogers
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TOM PAULIN, in London for the day, has come over for tea. Early on in our conversation he talks with a gloomy relish about how little in commission and royalties he earned from Faber last year. Then he tells me he has always wanted to write a book on bad taste; that he has seen the new Julie Christie film, Afterglow, and hated it; that he cannot believe that Late Review will want his services much longer; and that he should leave in good time to get to the Barbican because he has forgotten to get money out of the bank and so can't afford a taxi. He asks to close the window - he is afraid of getting a chill. It is as if the TV in front of us has opened up and the Paulin of Late Review - the Eeyore of the airwaves - has stepped straight into my living room.

For those of you who don't watch Late Review, or read contemporary poetry, or subscribe to the London Review of Books, Tom Paulin is a Belfast poet and a critic, a lecturer in English at Oxford, who puts in a regular appearance as an idiosyncratic, curmudgeonly, sometimes outrageous, always charming pundit on BBC 2's Thursday night arts review. He sits alongside Suzanne Moore, Tony Parsons, or Allison Pearson, with Mark Lawson, the presenter. But where they all insinuate a post-modern familiarity with the wide range of films, novels, documentaries and albums discussed, Paulin conveys a sense of garrulous bemusement - the poet come down from his tower; the boy from Ireland, just off the boat.

He is tall, with a slight stoop, a rolling gait, and an oily, lilting Irish brogue. He has a reputation as a loose cannon - he likes drinking, swearing and, when egged on, shooting his mouth off. His friend Blake Morrison remembers him describing a Tibor Fischer novel as "like reading a jockstrap" - "a good description," Morrison thought, "of a certain sort of macho novel". With me, however, he is soft-spoken, hesitant, troubled. We are together to talk about his new book, The Day-Star of Liberty, which is about the early 19th-century critic William Hazlitt, the friend of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Leigh Hunt and Charles Lamb.

Paulin has published two volumes of essays, two anthologies (The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse and The Faber Book of Political Verse) and five volumes of poetry. This, though, is his first monograph for 20 years.

Your Hazlitt is doubtless a bit rusty - you should not feel too bad. In his day he was a great influence - Keats revered him - yet no one reads him now. Paulin, however, wants to rectify this. There is the Irish connection (Hazlitt's father was a Unitarian, a low church rationalist, from County Tipperary), and everything Paulin writes about is somehow about Ireland. Hazlitt was a radical and a republican, an enthusiast for Napoleon, and a courageous opponent of Britain's reactionary government; Paulin thinks the best art and criticism is always political, and identifies with a radical Anglo-Irish republican tradition, which he traces through Milton and Sidney, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, Paine and Cobbett, to Oscar Wilde and Joyce.

The affinities continue. Hazlitt's fascination for the criminal underworld, his love of physical sensual activity, of boxing, racketball and juggling, find a counterpart in Paulin's feeling for dialect and slang, his relish for Ian Paisley's inflated Protestant oratory - his taste for bad taste. Above all, Hazlitt, or so Paulin argues, sought to develop a new democratic style of journalism, a robust, fast-moving, informal prose, in which to write about both art and politics. Paulin has long been fascinated by journalism. At school he studied Swift and Orwell "and caught the naked, gritty, direct plainness of their prose".

It is in Hazlitt's pugnacious, versatile, rushed style of writing, in his ability to weave whatever quotes and memories come to hand and to make conversational connections between apparently unrelated ideas that, for Paulin, Hazlitt's greatness lies. But if Hazlitt has such gifts, why has he been forgotten? "Hazlitt is the first major critic in the English language who did not write poems or plays," and this, Paulin suggests, has meant he has been neglected by literary critics. "I am trying to argue that Hazlitt was a writer in his own right - you'd study Hazlitt as you would study Milton; that, in fact, he is a writer of centos or literary patchworks; that his essays are essentially like poems and that his style has these very subtle effects created through assonance. I am trying to break down the distinction between the critical and the creative. That is the idea of it, I think."

The new book does not make easy reading. Paulin has rejected a conventional chronological or rigidly thematic approach in favour of something more freewheeling. The result is a characteristically oblique, impressionistic, in some ways unconfident study. In the end, though, I found it well worth the effort. Paulin throws fresh light on Hazlitt's Irish connections, and the dissenting Unitarian counter-culture to which he belongs. He is good on his feeling for science and for popular culture - on his very Protestant affirmation of ordinary life. More than anything, he is excellent on Hazlitt's radical republican style. In his roundabout way Paulin builds up a persuasive case for Hazlitt as a writer of genius - one who in developing an almost Modernistic aesthetic of collage, juxtaposition, conflict, brought criticism close to life. (It is an intensely personal book, almost a dialogue, which tells you as much about Paulin as it does about Hazlitt. Blake Morrison suggests that Tom "has spent five years figuring why he likes Hazlitt so much", which is just how it reads.)

The dissenting, angry, melancholic Hazlitt is, of course, a hero. But it is probably true to say that Paulin is best known not for praising writers but burying them. Writing to the Moment (a collection of essays just released by Faber in paperback) contains memorable attacks on the maverick Irish critic and commentator Conor Cruise O'Brien, and on T S Eliot, whom he charges with anti-semitism. (He returns to fray again in The Day-Star of Liberty, where he suggests that Eliot stole his famous analysis of the "disassociation of sensibility" from one of Hazlitt's early essays.) It was Paulin who first stirred up the row over Philip Larkin's racism, ("the sewer under the national monument"). O'Brien, Eliot, and Larkin are all figures whose work he deeply admires. He just disliked the way writers can get surrounded by what he describes as an uncritical "pietas".

Are there pieces you've written, I ask, that you regret? "Well, you make mistakes and then you feel a fool." I point out that the new book has Hazlitt maintaining that a good essayist cannot be too afraid of making mistakes. "There's a certain amount of self-justification there. You just do it off the top of your head," he goes on, uncomfortably. "It's the risk you run."

Paulin's father was English, but his mother was Irish, and he was brought up in Belfast, where his father was headmaster in a grammar school which Paulin attended. Father was "strongly Protestant", but on the Left - "they were Labour Party people". They always lived in a mixed area, although school was sectarian. Everyone at home read a lot, although there was not much poetry about. "They belonged to a library, the Linen Hall, which was set up by 18th-century Presbyterians. I used to go there. There was nothing else to do but read - you know, journals like the New Statesman, the Spectator."

He went to Hull as a student in the late Sixties, although he did not need '68 to teach him rebellion. "At the age of 15, I was in this group called the Socialist Labour League. I was a Trotskyite. There was a strong Communist Party then, it was powerful among the trade unions. I can remember going to a Left demonstration on the steps of Stormont."

Now, I suggest, he is a Protestant republican - isn't that an unusual position? "If you use the word 'republican' it suggests you are in favour of violence, which I am not. My loyalties would be to constitutional nationalism, really, but I don't like the word 'nationalism' either." Okay, but whatever the description, there aren't many Protestants like you, are there? There is that gloomy relish again: "No, no, no, it's batty, a total minority, a few but very, very, very few. Hardly anybody."

At Hull he met his wife, Giti, who had grown up in North Ireland's small Indian community and now works as a schools advisor with the Oxford local authority. They have two almost grown-up children. "Against his reputation as the wild boy of literature, the one always falling down drunk at parties, he is a devoted family man," says a friend. "Even before he had kids of his own, he helped bring up two of Giti's younger siblings."

Ireland looms over everything. The conversation turns to Hazlitt's belief in innate human benevolence and Paulin offers a modern-day example from the Troubles to illustrate the point. Early on, a bomb was discovered in a school and a soldier threw himself on it to stop it injuring any children - only an innate selflessness can account for that. Is it fair to say Ireland is an obsession? "If you can remember that society before the Troubles, to see the whole thing torn about, over 3,000 people killed, God knows how many injured ... It's just something that's part of you." Will you go back? "One day, yeah."

Yet if Paulin feels a strong identification with Ireland, there is also a desire to go beyond it - a hankering after "The release of putting off // who and where we've come from". His poems are often, like his marriage, situated on borders, at check-points, or in peace conferences: "I am interested in peace talks," he admits. "I have recently been reading about the Locarno Treaty, which tried to redo Versailles ... Yes they must be fascinating things to be involved in, peace negotiations." It's 5.10pm, and he looks nervously at his watch - "Perhaps we could watch the News at 5.40? I'd just like to know what is happening in Ireland - it's worrying." (This a couple of days before the referendum, when the Unionist vote seemed to be turning against the Good Friday Agreement). From now on he looks at his watch every five minutes.

What's the best stuff you have done? "I am keen on a volume of poems called FiveMileTown" - a collection, unsurprisingly, revolving around Ireland and Protestant identity. "M'books don't travel anywhere really," he adds, after a long pause. "I guess they either don't work or they're too opaque."

Is he writing much poetry at the moment? "Not really. I've done the odd translation - Brecht and Leopardi." Does that mean you read German and Italian? "I have a mediocre 'O' level in German. I once tried to learn Italian. A hopeless linguist." What are you going to do next? "Awh, nothing. Just do some reading." He looks at his watch. "I think the news is about to start."

'The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style', pounds 22.50; 'Writing to the Moment: Selected Critical Essays', pounds 9.99; 'FiveMileTown', pounds 4.99. All published by Faber.