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CRITICS are always on oath, but they're seldom asked to step into the witness box and offer an opinion to a judge and a jury. But in October 1960, a number of distinguished literary critics - Nol Annan, Helen Gardner, Graham Hough, Richard Hoggart - stood up in the Old Bailey and ex-pressed enthusiasm for the unexpurgated version of D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.

This piece of high comedy has gone down in cultural folklore. The prosecuting barrister's question to the jury - "is it a book that you would even wish your wife and your servants to read?" - was the most hilarious moment of the trial. But there were many others, like this exchange between Hoggart and the same barrister, Mervyn Griffith-Jones:

Griffith-Jones: "The life within life, the sheer warm, potent loveliness. And the strange weight of the balls between his legs! What a mystery!"... Perhaps that is enough. That again, I assume, you say is Puritanical?

Hoggart: It is Puritanical in its reverence.

Griffith-Jones: What! Reverence to the balls? Reverence for the weight of a man's balls?

Hoggart: Indeed yes.

Silly Griffith-Jones. What an enemy of freedom. This benighted lawyer was trying to hold back the 1960s! Why, he even suggested that Lawrence's novel was badly written. But as Germaine Greer was to point out much later, in Lady Chatterley are enunciated "all the great phoney lies of sexual liberation".

Lady Chatterley is a dire novel, one that reeks with a special nastiness. Lawrence hates Jews, blacks, lesbians and the Irish. There's no love in this novel, not a trace of it. Only a cold phoney sexual lyricism. And a lot of race hatred which, oddly, Greer ignored.

But what of Hoggart's contribution to the case? Is this an example of a critic making a disastrously mistaken aesthetic judgement because he wanted to assist the cause of free speech?

The first point is that Hoggart is accurate in his cultural placing of Lawrence. The second is that his answers embody one of the weaknesses of non- conformism - that relentless stream of compulsive autobiography which takes everything personally and cries me, me, me! without ceasing.

The critic ought not draw attention to his or her personal experience. The readers out there do not care what the critic had for breakfast or what social class he or she belongs to. Hoggart was seeking street cred and once more demonstrating how the English class system warps the spirit. This is the critic as a sort of unconscious Norman Wisdom. It may still go down well in Albania, but for the rest of us it's eejit talk. Background ought never to be asserted. The critic who says, "Look at me, I'm from Ballymena" is going to find only ballymeanings in texts that have become mere mirrors of the self. As James Joyce shows, there are nets of class, race, language, gender that must be struggled through, not embraced. It's fine to glimpse your own navel now and then, but don't ever gaze at it.

What a pity, though, that a huge, almost invisible subject - English nonconformist culture - was raised in the Old Bailey in a way that sounded pompous and egotistical. Apart from Val Cunning-ham's study of 19th-century novels, Everywhere Spoken Against, and a short book by Donald Davie, A Gathered Church, there is silence on this matter.

Should the critic therefore adopt a formal and impersonal style?

Yes - the critic should be cold and distant as the stars. Rigorous, without a shred of personality. The critic should have nothing for breakfast but a starvation diet of shadows and ambition. T S Eliot is one of the masters of this classical style of literary criticism. What he says of the artist in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" is also true of the critic, whose progress must be "a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality".

But after a while we're bound to find this imperson-ality arid, even sinister. Then along comes Lawrence, who cries out in his essay on Benjamin Franklin: "Anyhow, I defy you. I defy you, oh society, to educate me or to suppress me, according to your dummy standards." Direct, emphatic, spontaneous, honest - this is the dissenting style of criticism and no one is better at it than Lawrence. Its purpose is to set people arguing, to chase critical judgement in the sheer crack of people talking vehemently, hilariously, passionately. Lady Chatterley is dire, but Lawrence is an extraordinary writer who always demands a relationship with his readers. Like Greer, he forces you to take a position. For all his overweening egotism, he lacks the steely authoritarianism of Eliot. He's more like Captain Ahab - many admirers have helplessly followed him to the bottom of the ocean, but others rise like Ishmael and live to tell the tale.

What we see in Hoggart's ill-judged witness is the bubble trail of an admirer being pulled down in the huge suck of Lawrence's personality. Resist that dominance. And never seek to be ratified by any institution, either, ought to be the critic's motto.

Next week: Lingo Jingo

Richard HOGGART recalled

Examined by Mr HUTCHINSON

Q: Mr Hoggart, yesterday afternoon you expressed the view that in this book D H Lawrence was expressing a view which was virtuous and puritanical in some aspects. Do you remember?

A: Yes, I do.

Q: I want to ask you first of all, is that view of yours an original view?

A: I do not believe it is original. I do not remember where I have seen it. I think perhaps I arrived at it myself, and I'm sure other people have too.

Q: I wonder whether you could just enlarge on the reasons why you take that view of this book?

A: Yes. I am thinking, first of all, of the whole movement of the book, and the enormous insistence which Lawrence makes on arriving at relationships of integrity with whomever you are related, not only the woman with whom you are in love. This seems to me - it is my own background too - to be one of the characteristics of the English Non-Conformist Puritan tradition, and to be in striking contrast with the much more permissive attitude which one finds in most novels, very often good ones. If one looks at Lady Chatterley one is struck markedly again - it is almost as though he is saying `I will be responsible for my own conscience right to the last end'. This I take to be one element in the British Puritan conscience. It seems to me strikingly in evidence in this book.

The `Lady Chatterley's Lover' Trial, 1960