Letter from the editor

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The Independent Online
It has not been a good week for people who regard literature as a cadet branch of religion; a scrappy argument over whether or not Shakespeare was responsible for a second-rate anti-Scottish play was followed by revelations of TS Eliot's impossibly juvenile, smutty and racist ''hidden verse''. After leafing through them trying to find something which gave an accurate flavour but was publishable (just) I can confirm that these Eliot verses are not earthy, humane bawdry, such as Burns produced, nor erotic. From the man who seemed in his later years to be a kind of lay archbishop, they are dreary smut.

I enjoy his ''Four Quartets'' but I've always thought Eliot an unwholesome prig and am therefore delighted to find my prejudices bolstered. Though an immensely talented and adventurous writer, he seems to me to be responsible for much that is worst about 20th-century English poetry.

His drily referential technique - ''it's all in the footnotes; and if you haven't read your Donne my writing isn't for you'' - was decadent and parasitical (those words being used properly and not merely as abuse), and designed to keep out most intelligent readers. This poetry-as- sacrament encouraged endless bores to write poetry about poetry for students. Give me Yeats or Auden any day.

Eliot helped exile poetry from public affairs and the national conversation. Something which had been an important part of national life during the lifetimes of Dryden, Pope, Byron, Browning, Kipling and the War poets retreated muttering into its private backwater. In recent decades, admittedly, poetry has been slowly returning. But we are still not at the stage where a newspaper such as The Independent turns naturally to a major poet to describe or discuss some recent event. Where are our Drydens?

Returning from the not-entirely-sublime to the everyday-ridiculous, I received a letter about our own literary pretensions from a Mr Robert French of Totnes, Devon, who clipped out some particularly striking misspellings. Some are merely embarrassing but others have a certain poetic appeal. I rather liked: ''His eyes burn coal-red. His head swivles.'' Ditto the reference to ''my sour throat'' - many of us suffer from sour throats. But most striking of all was a line about a struggling football team starting: ''Wither Blackburn?''

Having been on holiday in France, I can recommend the Atlantic beaches north of the Gironde for the unintimidating shape of French fellow-bathers. In the trendier resorts one tends to be surrounded by pencil-thin, caramel- coloured women who wear almost nothing with superb hauteur. The men are wiry and expressionless and possess, almost certainly, deeply philosophical minds. They are quite capable of sneering while fast asleep at the occasional passing British family. We Brits, admittedly, can be spotted a mile off - white, clumsy, embarrassed, wholly unchic. But now I have discovered where the ordinary French go. And ... wait for it ... they are just like us! They dress badly, sport horrible sunburn and chat cheerily to strangers. Their children howl, they build elaborate sand-castles and they are all overweight. Finding this out was the most cheering holiday discovery for many years.

Coming home,though, I have had one further morale-booster. Heading for the office yesterday, I was stopped on the stairs by my four-year-old daughter, Isabel. ''Daddy'', she asked, ''why do you always smell of champagne?'' I suspect she meant aftershave, but it made me feel better all day.

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