"Never begin with undiluted praise of a subject. All you can do when the first rapture ends is hesitate, qualify and inevitably go down from the high note you struck at the start."
Let's not make that mistake, then. At the risk of another - plodding and describing - let's say that Writing to the Moment contains a selection of Tom Paulin's essays, introductions and reviews from the early Eighties until this year. That is, from the revealing "Paisley's Progress", on that extraordinary preacher, to the still-hot "T S Eliot and anti-Semitism", which latter should help "diminish the overwhelming stifling cultural authority Eliot's oeuvre has acquired".
It's all wonderful stuff, and I'm prepared to give the "complete attentive assent" the critic requires, the "act of faith . . . which can continue only if the audience's attention is held". Attention doesn't waver, but it does get dizzy and beg to sit out the next dance, because it will be another reel which will whirl it round any number of figures with whom it may not be acquainted. The average Paulin essay would fill a pub. A single page taken at random from his Introduction to the Faber Book of Political Verse assembles Marvell, Lovelace, Lewis Carroll, Hockney, Kenneth Williams, the Israelites and the Levellers. So the crack should be good. Paulin is a liberating critic, who can solve in a throwaway line the kind of problem students and bewildered young poets carry about with them. What is a tradition, and how do I know if I've got one? "Tradition is an over-used term for a continuity of attitudes." Thank you. If we want to stop, it is to have a passing remark explained, or to read again one of his leaning pile of adjectives. It can all get a bit much, and, like a warped Oliver Twist, at times we want to take back the brimming bowl and ask, please can we have some less? But who would want to lose such remarks as "Paisley . . . belongs to the dreamtime of Presbyterian aborigines - giant preachers who strode the Antrim coast long before the birth of Christ"? Paulin's frightening erudition gives the lie to his Introduction's professed love of working to commission, to deadline, to the moment. Years of solid reading must underpin "the hurry, the excitement, the rapid research and . …