Tom Paulin

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Thomas Neilson Paulin (born 25 January 1949, Leeds, England) is a Northern Irish poet and critic of film, music and literature. He lives in England, where he is the GM Young Lecturer in English Literature at Hertford College, Oxford.

Life and work[edit]

While he was still young, Paulin's Northern Irish Protestant mother and English father moved from Leeds to Belfast and Paulin grew up in a middle class area of the city. According to Paulin, his parents, a doctor and headmaster, held "vaguely socialist liberal views". While still a teenager, Paulin joined the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League.[1]

Paulin was educated at Annadale Grammar School, Hull University and Lincoln College, Oxford. From 1972 to 1994, he worked at the University of Nottingham, first as a lecturer and then as a Reader of Poetry. In 1977, he won the Somerset Maugham prize for his poetry collection A State of Justice and later established his reputation as a literary critic with work such as Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State (1992). Recently he has championed the work of literary and social critic William Hazlitt and has taken part in a successful campaign to have Hazlitt's gravestone refurbished.

Paulin is considered to be among a group of writers from a Unionist background "who have attempted to recover the radical Protestant republican heritage of the eighteenth century to challenge orthodox concepts" of Northern Irish Protestant identity.[2]

Paulin is most widely known in Britain for his appearances on the late-night BBC arts programmes The Late Show, Late Review and Newsnight Review, where he has established a reputation not only for his acerbic judgements but also for the unusual quality of some of his language. He is also not averse to becoming involved in bad-tempered arguments with other regular guests such as Germaine Greer.

His appearances on Newsnight Review were parodied on the Adam and Joe show's Toy Review. It featured a stuffed-toy tortoise with an Irish accent called Tom Tortoise, who strongly resembled Paulin.

Following the success of the Field Day Theatre Company's tour of Brian Friel's play Translations in late 1980, the two founding directors (Brian Friel and Stephen Rea) decided to make Field Day a permanent enterprise; thus, to qualify for financial support from both the Northern Irish and the Irish governments, they expanded the governing board from the original two members to six: Brian Friel, Stephen Rea, Seamus Deane, Seamus Heaney, David Hammond, and Tom Paulin. In 2009 he translated Euripedes's Medea.[3]


Paulin was the subject of controversy in 2001 and 2002 following the publication of his poem Killed in Crossfire in the British newspaper The Observer.[4] In the poem Paulin referred to the 'Zionist SS'.

Paulin was a member of the Labour Party, but later resigned after declaring that the government of Tony Blair was "a Zionist government." Paulin stated that "Sixty members of the Labour party went on friendly visits to Israel. Blair's special envoy to the Middle East, Lord Levy, has a son who works for the Israeli government, which means that it is linked in all kinds of ways to the Zionist government in Israel."[5]

Paulin also become the subject of controversy following an interview he gave to the state-owned Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly, in which he told the newspaper that "Brooklyn-born Jew[ish]" settlers "should be shot dead" and that "they are Nazis, racists. I feel nothing but hatred for them". Paulin described what the Israeli government is doing in Palestine as "an historical obscenity." When asked how he responds to accusations of anti-Semitism that follow such descriptions, he told the newspaper: "I just laugh when they do that to me. It does not worry me at all. These are the Hampstead liberal Zionists. I have utter contempt for them. They use this card of anti-Semitism. They fill newspapers with hate letters. They are useless people." Regarding Zionism and Israel, Paulin stated "You are either a Zionist or an anti-Zionist. Everyone who supports Israel is a Zionist."[5][5]

Paulin considers his statements to be anti-Zionist; in the interview, Paulin said he "never believed that Israel had the right to exist at all."[6] In an interview with the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, he was quoted as saying "I can understand how suicide bombers feel. It is an expression of deep injustice and tragedy", and in the Jerusalem Post that "It is better to resort to conventional guerrilla warfare. I think that attacks on civilians in fact boost morale. Hitler bombed London into submission, but in fact it created a sense of national solidarity."[7][8]

Paulin subsequently claimed that his views were "distorted", although he failed to explain how. In a subsequent letter to The Independent, Paulin wrote: "I have been, and am, a lifelong opponent of anti-Semitism ... I do not support attacks on Israeli civilians under any circumstances."[9]

Paulin's statements resulted in the cancellation and subsequent reinstatement of Paulin's invitation to deliver the Morris Gray Lecture at Harvard University.[10][11][12]

At Oxford, most of Paulin's colleagues reportedly declined to comment on his remarks, and there were no protests among students or a decline in attendance at Paulin's lectures. Although there were calls of Paulin to be disciplined by Oxford, English Faculty chairman Paul Strohm stated that no action would be taken because Paulin's remarks were "not an academic issue, and therefore not a matter which the faculty would take a position on." Strom added that Paulin "has a right to speak his mind and it would be wrong if this right was curtailed because of his institutional responsibilities and affiliations. From my discussions I would also say this was the prevalent view." When asked if the university would have reacted the same way if Paulin's remarks had been directed towards blacks or homosexuals, Strohm replied "Free speech is tested to the limits when it becomes unpopular. I think academics would always defend an individual's right to speak their mind."[13]

Paulin did teach at Columbia University's English Department for one semster in 2003, before returning to Oxford. Although the University insisted that Paulin's departure was unrelated to his remarks, the New York Sun reported that "the departure of Mr. Paulin from Columbia puts to rest reports spread by other professors that he was going to be permanently hired." Regarding a potential appointment to Columbia for Paulin, the Columbia Daily Spectator published a letter from several academics who charged the university was on the "verge of offering a permanent appointment to a racist hoodlum." American journalist and author Ron Rosenbaum sharply criticised Paulin in an article published in the New York Observer.[11]

In 2002, Paulin also drew attention after a judge's ruling that his actions as moral tutor in supporting an Asian student bringing a race discrimination claim against the university were "lamentable". In a 35-page judgment, Judge Jonathan Playford stated that Paulin made an "unattractive attempt to coerce two distinguished Arabists ... to secure favourable treatment for his protégé" by threatening them with "legal action and unfavourable publicity".[9]


  • Theoretical Locations (Ulsterman Publications, 1975)
  • Thomas Hardy: The Poetry of Perception (Macmillian, 1975)
  • A State of Justice (Faber and Faber, 1977)
  • Personal Column Ulsterman Publications, 1978
  • The Strange Museum (Faber and Faber, 1980)
  • The Book of Juniper (Bloodaxe Books, 1981)
  • A New Look at the Language Question (Field Day, 1983)
  • Liberty Tree (Faber and Faber, 1983)
  • Ireland and the English Crisis (Bloodaxe Books, 1984)
  • The Argument at Great Tew: A Poem (Willbrook Press, 1985)
  • The Riot Act: A Version of Sophocles' "Antigone" (Faber and Faber, 1985)
  • The Faber Book of Political Verse (editor) (Faber and Faber, 1986)
  • Fivemiletown (Faber and Faber, 1987)
  • The Hillsborough Script: A Dramatic Satire (Faber and Faber, 1987)
  • Seize the Fire: A Version of Aeschylus' "Prometheus Bound" (Faber and Faber, 1990)
  • The Faber Book of Vernacular Poetry (editor) (Faber and Faber, 1990)
  • Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State (Faber and Faber, 1992)
  • Selected Poems 1972–1990 (Faber and Faber, 1993)
  • Walking a Line (Faber and Faber, 1994)
  • Writing to the Moment: Selected Critical Essays 1980–1996 (Faber and Faber, 1996)
  • The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style (Faber and Faber, 1998)
  • The Wind Dog (Faber and Faber, 1999)
  • The Fight and Other Writings by William Hazlitt (co-edited with David Chandler) (Penguin, 2000)
  • Thomas Hardy: Poems selected by Tom Paulin (editor) (Faber and Faber, 2001)
  • The Invasion Handbook (Faber and Faber, 2002)
  • D. H. Lawrence and "Difference": The Poetry of the Present (co-authored with Amit Chaudhuri) (Oxford University Press, 2003)
  • The Road to Inver (Faber and Faber, 2004)
  • Crusoe's Secret: The Aesthetics of Dissent (Faber, 2005)
  • Metaphysical Hazlitt: Bicentenary Essays (co-edited with Uttara Natarajan) (Routledge, 2005)
  • The Camouflage School (Clutag Press, 2007)
  • The Secret Life of Poems: A Poetry Primer (Faber, 2008)


  1. ^ "Profile: Tom Paulin", The Guardian, 23 March 2002
  2. ^ Cleary, Joe, Literature, Partition and the Nation State: Culture and Conflict in Ireland, Israel and Palestine (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p.75 ISBN 0-521-65732-6
  3. ^ "Tom Paulin – complete guide to the Playwright, Plays, Theatres, Agent" – The Playwrights Database
  4. ^ Killed in Crossfire The Observer, 18 February 2001
  5. ^ a b c 'That weasel word' Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 4–10 April 2002
  6. ^ Tom Paulin: Poetic polemicist BBC News, 15 November 2002
  7. ^ The Jerusalem Post, 14 November 2002
  8. ^ Death to Jewish settlers, says anti-Zionist poet by Sarah Hall, The Guardian, 13 April 2002.
  9. ^ a b Paulin's future at Oxford in balance after 'anti-Semitic' row by Robert Mendick, The Independent, 28 April 2002. (reprinted by
  10. ^ Tom Gross Welcome Voice? National Review Online, 12 November 2002
  11. ^ a b [1] by Ron Rosenbaum, New York Observer, 27 January 2003.
  12. ^ Poet Paulin 'banned from Harvard', BBC, 21 November 2002.
  13. ^ What are Oxford dons to make of Tom Paulin? by Peter Foster, The Daily Telegraph, 27 April 2002.

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