Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Football, sex and poetry

  • 02 June 2009
The British newspapers have suddenly become interested in poetry. It's not a passion for scansion that's occupying them, however, but the much more reliable subject of sex and celebrity. It proves that sex scandals can make celebrities out of the most unlikely figures, even poets.

In the last few months Derek Walcott and Ruth Padel had been vying for the position of professor of poetry at Oxford University. It is a role second only to the laureateship in terms of status, and much less onerous. The professor gives a series of public lectures on poetry, is treated to a round of port and beef from the colleges, and escapes having to write the kind commemorative verse which blights those poets anointed by the Crown.

Previous holders of the Oxford professorship include Matthew Arnold, W. H. Auden and Seamus Heaney, but in its 300-year history the post has never been held by a black man or a woman of any hue. But, like the American Presidency, this latest election seemed destined to make history with one of those choices.

Walcott, a 1992 Nobel Prize Laureate from St Lucia in the Caribbean, had been the frontrunner. But last month, as university members were preparing to cast their ballots, accusations emerged that he had sexually harassed two students in the USA.

In 1982 a student at Harvard alleged that after she rejected a sexual advance from Walcott he gave her a low grade. She complained to university officials, who ordered Walcott to apologise.

A second instance was cited from Boston University, where in 1996 Walcott was sued for sexual harassment. The claim was later resolved out of court.

Walcott withdrew his name from the race, refusing to comment on the allegations but condemning the 'low and degrading attempt at character assassination'. On 16 May Padel was elected the new Oxford professor of poetry.

But, much to the delight of the tabloids, the scandal was not yet over. It was revealed that Padel had emailed journalists alerting them to the accusations made against Walcott.

Last Monday Padel resigned with an apology and the obligatory media mea culpa via a press conference, albeit with something of a politician's disingenuousness in claiming, 'Nothing I have done caused Derek Walcott to pull out of the election and I wish he had not'. The prestigious position now stands vacant.

Besides the grim comedy that sex scandals