Cancer survivor gets apology off 'eejit' professor

November 16, 2007

"Wrong and witless", "ham-fisted" and an "academic eejit". These are not descriptions usually applied to Steven Connor, writer, critic and broadcaster, and professor of modern literature and theory at Birkbeck College, London, writes Phil Baty .

But these were the words used by Professor Connor to describe himself after a run-in with Bob Crew, a poet and prominent cancer survivor.

Mr Crew, a survivor of mouth cancer, read a piece, Poetry of the Poisoned Mouth , at the official launch of the Mouth Cancer Awareness Campaign at the House of Commons last week.

Before the event, he wrote to Professor Connor, arguing that cancer poetry is a neglected genre and claiming that poets and academics are "chickening out" of writing such poetry. He said that it should be a field ripe for academic research.

In a reply that Mr Crew took great exception to, Professor Connor said: "I was just wondering in bed last night why there is no visible and audible community of the dying, as opposed to those who assume they're not - the loudly ubiquitous 'survivor' groups, for example."

Mr Crew complained to the master of Birkbeck, David Latchman, that Professor Connor's e-mail was "deeply insulting to cancer sufferers and survivors".

He said that cancer sufferers are "perfectly well aware that their disease can/may return" and far from being "loudly ubiquitous", they are "quietly in short supply".

In a contrite reply, Professor Connor said he could understand that the remarks could seem "very offensive", and said he wanted to "lose no time in apologising to you for being so ham-fisted".

He accepted that his line about "loudly ubiquitous" survivor groups was "a cheap swipe".

But he said he was trying to express concern that "the only mode in which it seems that experiences of age, disease and mortality can be written about, or heard of, is in terms of heroic survival".

He wanted to make the point that survivor groups "are being used to shore up a disavowal of death and disease".

"The contemporary failure to acknowledge the experience of failure (why is it compulsory to say that everyone who dies of cancer has 'lost their battle' against it?) strikes me as a needlessly cruel and even oppressive, ruling out the experiences of those who are dying and yet still have some right to be in the domain of the living and still have to find some way of being alive without shame."

He signed off: "The more I say now, of course, the more opportunity I have of showing myself to be wrong and witless on many more counts. But I have got a point, do you think?"

In a later exchange, Professor Connor concluded: "I hope you don't have too many more academic eejits to contend with."

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