John Walsh: 'A poke in the eye for literary criticism'

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The Independent Online

Craig Raine and Terry Eagleton are distinguished literary gents embroiled in a critical spat. It began when Eagleton reviewed – or should I say dismembered, flayed alive and danced on the twitching corpse of – Raine's first novel, Heartbreak, in the London Review of Books. He attacked the author's imagery ("plenty of stuff to keep Pseuds' Corner busy for months"), dialogue ("a notably tin ear for human speech",) and stylistic fondness for visual simile ("There is much rustling of the author's Things I Saw Today That Look A Bit Like Other Things notebook") before getting stuck into the structure. Displaying an impressive familiarity with low culture, Eagleton says "the publishers have represented [the book] as a novel, rather as Jedward are represented as singers". Ooh, you bitch.

Raine, a poet, Oxford don and editor of the literary magazine Areté, cattily responded: "I really enjoyed not reading Terry Eagleton's review, almost as much as he enjoyed not reading my novel... He is reading it with a squint – from where I have poked him in the eye in the past."

Raine is an experienced eye-poker. Areté has for years performed sleek hatchet jobs, sometimes on writers (such as Derek Walcott) whom Raine published when poetry editor at Faber. Eagleton has relished vicious fights, in the last decade, with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Amis pere et fils.

I remember both men before they were like this. In 1970s Oxford, Eagleton was a familiar figure for one reason – wearing his Bob Dylan-style forage cap, he used to stand on the corner of Broad and Holywell Streets selling copies of Red Mole, the underground magazine. He didn't sell many, but spent his time defending his position as a Catholic Marxist don to argumentative politics students. He'd published two minor works on modern literature and "new left theology" and cultivated earnest young students. I remember him as a charming fellow, who relished dispute (in his weirdly Eric Morecambe voice) and sought to synthesise ideas and convert sceptics.

Raine was a tutor at my college, where he was rigorous about students getting things right – spotting this allusion, tracing this theme, identifying that sexual image. He was stroppy, subversive and funny, but his main concern was to persuade students that literature was serious, that it contained vivid secrets to be teased out by astute analysis.

Now both men, Eagleton, 67, and Raine, 65, like to be known, above all, as professional eye-pokers, name-callers, hair-pullers and bitch-slappers. It doesn't seem quite the career peak of which either man would have dreamt.

Seasonal sounds with a transatlantic bias

Outside, the sun is scorching. Dazed-looking chaps are wandering down Kensington High Street with no tops on. Sales of straw hats are going through the roof. And those great summer songs are on everyone's lips: "Summer in the City", "Surfin' USA", "The Boys of Summer", "Dancing in the Street", "Summer Breeze", "Up On the Roof", "Summertime Blues", "Summer of '69", "Girls in Their Summer Clothes"... Marvellous. Who could deny that they sum up the season? Except that they've got sod-all to do with the English summer. They're all American. The Yanks were always miles ahead of us in rhapsodising the hot season. West-coasters wrote about beaches, sun, cars, surf and girls. East-coasters wrote about the Coney Island funfair and the boardwalk under which "the factory girls" might "unsnap your jeans", if you were lucky.

English pop music seldom dealt in either. A century after "Oh I Do Like to Be Beside The Seaside" (1907) the only other English seaside pop song that comes to mind is "Peaches" by The Stranglers, about a brace of hooligans ogling tits on the promenade. Cliff Richard's "Summer Holiday" identified the place where "the sun shines brightly" and "the sea is blue" as a mythical destination the English have seen only "in the movies". "Holidays in the Sun" by the Sex Pistols is about Belsen (cheers, guys). "Here Comes the Sun" by The Beatles is about spring. Lily Allen's bouncy "LDN" ("Sun is in the sky, oh why oh why") is a hymn to metropolitan self-delusion.

The only authentic English summer songs I can identify are "In the Summertime" by Mungo Jerry (a hymn to al fresco licentiousness), "Sunny Afternoon" by The Kinks (in which an effete aristocrat smugly considers his life of penurious luxury) and "Lazy Sunday", complete with birdsong and church bells, by the wonderful Small Faces. Oh, and that novelty song "A Day Trip to Bangor" from 1979. That's it. Have I missed one? Fuming suggestions on a (Donald McGill) postcard, please.

Leave a message after the beep of creation

The "Higgs boson" sounds so pleasingly like a thuggish naval warrant officer, doesn't it? I'm fascinated by the particle, not because I know anything about science but because the boffins trying to manufacture it at the Large Hadron Collider seem uncertain about its nature.

They're using computer programs to work out what it might look and sound like if it ever gets born. Sometimes they sound like a bunch of explorers on a Pacific island, waiting for a misshapen monster to appear over a hill.

But when I heard that some musical boffins had simulated the noise the particle makes as it comes into being, I rushed to the web-link, ears trembling with anticipation. For a few seconds there was nothing on the screen. Then a kind of grudging silence.

Then I heard this fantastic organ note, possibly F sharp, clear as a bell, decisive and thrilling. Could it be that this (I began to tremble) wondrous sound was truly the (tears filled my eyes) Original Music of Creation? Sadly no.

It was just the computer's emergency bleep telling me the site was temporarily disabled and I should try again later. Honestly. It was like ringing up God and getting an answering machine.