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Books: All our slips are showing

Baffled by rubbish in the media, a major poet mocks the new philistines. D J Taylor regrets that the poet's publisher belongs in that camp, too... Play Resumed by D J Enright Oxford University Press, pounds 18, 205pp
ONE OF the most disconcerting experiences of my literary life was to find myself taking second lead in a poem by D J Enright. The piece in question - part of a sequence with the ominous title of "Hospital Journal" - finds the poet on the stairs of the London Library chatting to a younger man who, amid much polite badinage, does not realise that his companion is seriously ill. Enright, it turned out, had been suffering from a kidney tumour and could barely stand, while I wittered on about how well he looked. Mortified at first, I cheered up a bit on realising that this is how Enright works, whether as poet or essayist, and that the slightest shard of talk or print is fair game for his muse. Business, not personal.

The fragments gathered in Play Resumed (a successor to his 1995 commonplace book, Interplay) are an impressive demonstration of what might be called the centralising tendency of Enright's mind. News-paper headlines, pompous instructions on official envelopes, train announcements - all are fuel for the Enright flame, a gnomic little rumination, or series of ruminations, on time past and lost decencies, each tailed with a characteristically deft and lacerating sign-off. A typical moment comes when he reels through a list of innuendo-laden books ads ("QPD readers do it in the bath") to muse "Sex sells books. What do books sell?"

Inevitably, the principal target trailed through this accumulation of mini-chapters is rubbish: the kind of stuff that fills 80 per cent of supposedly serious newspapers and 95 per cent of terrestrial television. Coming across the "Real Life" section of a Sunday newspaper, he finds its contents consist of "the serial liaisons of people one has never heard of, fashionable restaurants here and abroad, fashion models of all sexes, the egos of meandering columnists, agony aunts". Then comes the sting. Does all this imply that the rest of the paper is unreal? "No, not exactly unreal: just not very pertinent or true to real life."

There are several points to be made about this sort of lament, which elsewhere might degenerate into costive old-blokiness. One is that it proceeds not from elitist disdain but from a kind of shocked humanism that can't fathom why a serious newspaper can waste space on the pros and cons of letting your bra strap show. Another takes in Enright's attitude to the depravities of popular culture, which deserves to be separated out from some of the other varieties on display.

To someone like John Bayley, for example, as evidenced in Iris: A Memoir, popular culture is an excuse for a kind of sumptuous posing (at least one assumes it is posing) that affects to bring back despatches from an extraordinary world which, it is assumed, the reader has never encountered. Enright's position, on the other hand, is that of the man who has kept his eye on TV and the newspapers for the last 40 years and is only now beginning to roll his eyes at some of their enticements.

This might make Play Resumed sound like the worst kind of "Why oh why" journalism. In fact, it is desperately funny, buoyed up by an habitual self-deprecating humour in which much of the irony is visited on the ironist, and ripe to be slotted into an exiguous category of casual jottings that includes Anthony Powell's journals and the notebooks of Geoffrey Madan.

Delight in its humour and humanity, though, is rather tempered by the circumstances of publication. That one of the handful of really good poets England has produced in the last 50 years - Queen's gold medal, C. Litt and all the rest of it - can be summarily sacked by his publishers (as part of Oxford's recent clear-out of its poetry list) is simply an act of cultural vandalism. It's just the sort of thing Enright likes writing about, and I look forward to reading his comments on the wraith who currently chairs the OUP finance committee.