Joan Smith: Padel has been bullied for her frank ambition

Share
Related Topics

Blimey, have you noticed how quickly people get on their high horse these days? A week ago, the great and the good leapt on their steeds and galloped after Ruth Padel, newly elected Oxford professor of poetry, forcing her to stand down after only nine days in the post.

Padel's offence was not admitting that she had alerted two journalists to the fact that her main rival, the poet Derek Walcott, had been accused of sexual harassment on a couple of occasions. Earlier this month, Walcott withdrew as a candidate, claiming he was the victim of a smear campaign.

It was silly of Padel to hide the fact that she'd sent the emails, but hardly a hanging offence. It isn't as if the accusations were new or had never been published; they've appeared in a book and Walcott settled out of court with a former student. But last weekend, some of Padel's erstwhile supporters had a fit of high-mindedness and started harrumphing about how she'd let them down. Padel duly resigned, admitting to "a grave error of judgement" but denying that she was responsible for a wider campaign against Walcott.

Does any of it matter? I don't suppose there are huge numbers of people who really care who holds the Oxford professorship of poetry or who could name Padel's predecessor. I certainly don't think it's the subject of heated discussions in pubs, where people are far more likely to be fulminating about MPs' expenses. But I do think there are parallels between the two controversies, and one of them is a public mood which is puritanical and uniquely unforgiving.

I know Padel slightly and invited her to join the PEN Writers in Prison Committee when I chaired it. I always found her friendly, hard-working and decent, and I'm dismayed at the way she's been vilified in the past few days.

Padel has done more than most to popularise poetry in this country, not least in a weekly column she wrote for this newspaper, and no one doubts that she would have done a brilliant job as poetry professor. She admitted she had done something wrong, had the guts to say so at a press conference and went on to appear in public at one of the country's biggest literary festivals.

In the present mood, none of that is enough. It used to be a common complaint that no one in public life ever apologises; now people spend their time doing little else, but it is only a stage in an apparently unstoppable cycle of blame, shame and humiliation.

Padel's supporters could have accepted her apology and assumed that she had learnt from a bruising experience; they might even have acknowledged, silently, that the academic world has always been characterised by the most deadly rivalries.

Ambition is not exactly unknown in Oxford and I suspect that Padel's biggest mistake was to let hers show. On the whole, men are smarter about that; I've lost count of how many times I've heard a man who was positively gagging for a big job protest that it was a burden he had decided to accept only reluctantly. I don't think it's a coincidence that this has happened to a woman, and the spectacle of the boys' club closing ranks against her isn't exactly edifying.

It's a measure of the times we live in that even the election of a rather obscure (to most of us) professor of poetry can be parlayed into a media storm. It may be that most poets would like to go back to being the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but in such a febrile atmosphere I don't hold out much hope.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

This week has shown why Yvette Cooper is the right person to lead Labour

Mary Creagh
 

Errors & Omissions: Whoever and whatever Arthur was, he wasn’t Scottish

Guy Keleny
The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea