Diary - Terry Eagleton

At Chicago, airport security staff solemnly ran their electric wand over my daughter's nappy. You ca

I've just returned from a lecture trip to Norway, where I seized the chance to revisit the Arctic Circle. The tiny port of Tromso in the far north, with its magnificent fjord of a harbour, was looking as fresh, raw and vaguely Wild Western as I remembered it. It houses the most northerly university in the world, along with a statue of an extraordinarily scruffy-looking Roald Amundsen, who set off from there to the pole. There's also a sad little memorial near the harbour to the 17 or so Tromso Jews killed in the Nazi concentration camps.

Sleeping isn't easy with the midnight sun, however, so I passed the long bright nights reading John Haffenden's magnificent new biography of the poet and critic William Empson. Empson, who has a claim to be the greatest English-speaking critic of the 20th century, was a son of the hunting-and-shooting Yorkshire squirearchy who ended up as an oddball, dissident and (in his landowner-turned-poacher way) socialist.

Chucked out of Cambridge for keeping contraceptives in his college room, he charmed T S Eliot, lurched, with Dylan Thomas in tow, from one drunken escapade in Fitzrovia to another, and then he found himself teaching English studies in China, where his name is still greatly revered. He endured the most appalling conditions there with all the sang-froid of the English patrician, sleeping on a blackboard and well used to the sound of gunfire.

Every critic has his or her favourite Empson story, and here is mine. He had been invited to speak to a student society at London University and, as usual, had sunk industrial quantities of alcohol beforehand. When the chairperson finished his introduction, Empson leaned forward with grave demeanour and was sick all over his paper. It isn't the best way of winning your audience's affections, but it's an unbeatable way of holding their attention.

Ever since the London bombings, the question has never ceased to be asked. How could a group of well-educated, comfortably middle-class men perpetrate such atrocities? How could such fanaticism flourish in peaceful suburbia?

Perhaps we will never know what drove them to destroy Fallujah, set up torture camps and leave London so vulnerable to attack. What turned a nice young Harvard-educated failed oil executive into a child-killer? Was it envy of the east, one of the mighty birthplaces of science and medicine, in contrast to the barbarism of Burger King? Tony Blair seemed to have everything to live for - the prospect of a peerage, a wife with an enormous salary - and threw it all away. Did he have these hateful ideas hammered into him at Fettes or Oxford?

There are, to be sure, plenty of explanations to hand: oil, Israel, failing US hegemony, Oedipal vengeance and so on. But plenty of people run out of oil without feeling the need to attach electrodes to other people's genitals. Maybe giving explanations is just a devious way of seeking excuses. Perhaps we should simply accept that such bestial conduct is beyond the comprehension of civilised men and women, and concentrate instead on resisting this violence with all our might. Nobody wants to deport the entire cabinet. Even so, we have to ask some tough questions about whether their liberty is really compatible with our security.

I have a personal interest in these matters, because I was in Russell Square when the bus bomb went off. In fact, I was there, indirectly, because of the bomb. I'd been lecturing the previous evening to the British Psychoanalytical Society and, as luck would have it, it was the only time I'd been in London all year. By remarkable coincidence, my sister, who lives in York, was also in the square at the time, though neither of us knew of the other's presence. And my eldest son, who is a researcher for ActionAid, had passed through King's Cross Tube station 20 minutes before the bomb exploded there. Anyone who can't detect a pattern in all this must be the kind of thickie who can see nothing in The Da Vinci Code.

No need to fret about lax security in the States. I was visiting Chicago earlier in the summer, and was impressed to see the airport security staff solemnly run their electric wand over the nappy of my seven-month-old daughter. You can't fight terrorism without getting your hands dirty.

When they see that I'm a literature professor, they sometimes ask me who my favourite writer is. I never know whether this is just friendly American chit-chat or a crafty attempt to unmask me as a charlatan. I usually say Faulkner or Hemingway, just because they will have heard of them, but these days "Christopher Hitchens" might be the surest way to get in.

In Colorado these days you can pay off your car by agreeing to carry advertisements on it. The only problem is that you don't always get to choose the ads, so a born-again redneck could find himself advertising Viagra. The emotional explicitness of the Yanks continues to put us to shame. I passed a house with a sign outside reading "Divorce Sale". No doubt there's one somewhere reading "Almighty Row Auction".

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, President Hillary: can she do it?