Joan Smith: Padel has been bullied for her frank ambition

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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.

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