"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Monday, 8 September 2014

War, Jaw and Grub Street Revisited

Just about to enter the sacred cloister at Wadham
It suits a certain kind of scribbler to see themselves as an heroic outsider, speaking freely, beholden to no one, unlike the footling and pedantic scholars with their smug tenure, impossible sentences and saeva indignatio or do I mean odium theologicum? (We can do the Latin too).  In reality the old tussle between Grub Street and Academe no longer works and all of us are running after the same small (diminishing?) group of serious readers.  The self-indulgence of these past quarrels is indeed a thing of the past.

These thoughts occurred to me yesterday as I dipped through the mediaeval portal of Wadham College, Oxford, to deliver a paper at the English Association conference on British Poetry of the First World War.  My subject was "How 'Anti-War' were the War Poets?" and I argued for 20 minutes that the received wisdom that the poets of WW1 were 'anti-war' was not a piece of wisdom at all and that only the true pacifists could lay claim to that label.  I see Owen and Sassoon (decorated soldiers who pressed to go back to the front) as more 'anti-heroic' in their writing than 'anti-war'.

My audience unexpectedly (for me) included the poet Michael Longley whose new collection, The Stairwell, from Cape I had just read. It was a great pleasure to meet him and to hear him tell the hall he liked my paper.  Everything was charming and well-mannered with not a hint of odium anywhere and my nervousness (even as the author of a book on the subject of WW1 poetry) at addressing the scholars soon vanished.  In subsequent sessions, however, I discovered that Jeremy Paxman was not in such a favoured position and was honorary bogeyman of the day.  Absent also was the terrible theoretical jargon (the awful intellectual puns that made one wince, the turgid half-digested philosophy from Eng. Lit. academics not trained in philosophical discourse) of a decade or so ago.  Everyone is speaking plain English again and I could understand every word.  "I know, too, how apt the dear place is to be sniffy," Matthew Arnold said of Oxford in the 19th Century but it certainly wasn't yesterday.  In fact Grub Street (as represented in my latest verse satire, Trench Feet) is more likely to be snobbish and 'sniffy', with more cold-shoulders in the average literary or publishing party in London than in this gathering of friendly and communicative academics and teachers.

During the delivery of my paper I kept hearing a frantic buzzing vibration in my pocket from my silenced mobile phone.  Later I discovered that people had been tweeting my argument as it unfolded. I hope it didn't diminish their attention.  In fact it was the Grub Street Irregulars like me who seemed to lack the audio-visual flair and I felt rather old-fashioned arriving without memory stick Power Point or handout and relying on words alone.

The conference concluded with a panel on "The Historians v. The Poets" where the consensus seemed to be that this was a phoney war and that the alleged distorting effects on public consciousness of poetic representations of it were unproven and that both poetry and history were legitimate ways of exploring what happened.  Someone suggested from the floor that poets and historians should make common cause against the real culprits: the politicians who got everyone into this mess in the first place.

4 comments:

Deb Fisher said...

I very much enjoyed your talk, and your views on Sassoon's motivation entirely coincide with my own!

Deb Fisher said...

Well, I tried to post a comment saying how much I enjoyed your talk and agreed with your views on Sassoon, but Google didn't seem to want to let me publish it. Let's try again!

Nicholas Murray said...

I am sorry, I had to put "moderation" on because in the past I have been drowned in spam. I wish they could make it easier for bona fide commenters like yourself. Maybe I'll risk lifting the "moderation" again for a bit.

Deb Fisher said...

No, don't. By leaving it on you will get twice the compliments!