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Wounded by Un-Shrapnel

It is often casually said of Larkin’s poetry that it expresses common experience, that it has its origin in the commonplace, or even—I have seen this in newspapers—that the famous catchphrases that have been drawn from it (“What will survive of us is love,” “Books are a load of crap,” “Life is first boredom, then fear,” “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”) express a common point of view. But what strikes us most about Larkin is not the commonness but the singularity of the point of view.

It is true perhaps that the last of these quotes may command common assent. Parents do fill children with the faults they had—or so we may often feel. But the whole poem (often parodied and for many years commonly known by heart without having been consciously committed to memory) derives its notoriety from the fact that it goes much further than common consent can bear: die young, it commands, and stay childless. We wouldn’t go as far as that. Just as we wouldn’t go so far as to say that life really is first boredom, then fear. As for “Books are a load of crap,” this is what a certain character in a poem (“A Study of Reading Habits”) concludes when he finds himself unwillingly identifying with the failures in the fiction he reads. It was never remotely intended as expressing a common truth, while the beautiful “What will survive of us is love” is not a view to which Larkin assents, but an untruth identified as such—something which our almost-instinct is tempted to find almost true.

And just as the lines that have stuck in people’s heads tend not to be truths but untruths, so the “common” experiences out of which the poems grow seem on closer examination to be highly specialized. How many people do you really think allow their earnings to pile up, while reproaching themselves with a mysterious inability to spend more on themselves? Yet this is the point of departure for the poem “Money”:

Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
“Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
You could get them still by writing a few cheques.”

This attitude is surprising coming from Larkin’s provincial middle-class background, where timidity about spending money (particularly “eating into capital”) might be common, but where few (at least in my experience) would imagine that the kind of sex they wanted could be had simply by paying for it.* I know that there is an aggressive intention behind the flatness of the rhythms and the banality of the sex/cheques rhyme. Larkin’s poems do sometimes start off aggressively ugly and then pull a beautiful stunt, as this one is going to do. But it seems crass of the poet to suggest (if he is talking about himself) that if he’d only spent more on, as it were, fast cars, he would have had fabulous blondes crawling all over them. And he could have. But somehow he didn’t.

So he looks around him and sees that money has something to do with life, namely that just as you can’t save up your youth for your old age, so, however you organize your savings, they won’t have any value by the time you retire. Then comes the beautiful stunt:

I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

The scene comes at you out of nowhere, conjured by words that are poised halfway between the general and the particular. (The idea of money singing was perhaps borrowed from Auden’s poem “They.”) What sort of ornate churches—are they Gothic Revival ornate? The madness sounds baroque, but that would shift the scene abroad, whereas the slums and the canal seem English. Just enough is given to make the scene gripping, and indeed saddening. Convinced by the last stanza, one tries in retrospect to give some credence to its predecessors. Yes, you think, it must be sad to be a miser with yourself, sad to have missed out on the bubbly, the fast cars, and the floozies. Instead of running a library, you could have been prancing around in the pit stop at Monte Carlo, or cutting a dash on the slopes of Aspen.

Except that the whole reasoning is preposterous, and the whole setup, apart from the sadness, a wild misrepresentation. The money was never there, unspent, in such vast quantities as would achieve some great materialist fantasy. And as for sex, Larkin’s act was to repeat that he never got it, but the likely truth is that he got as much as he could put up with. His problem seems to have been that he didn’t want a sexual partner near enough to be a bother. But he arranged a solution to that problem in the form of a sexual partner at a distance, a nonsexual partner close by, and a magazine collection to bridge the gap. Women ministered to him. He had no reason to feel neglected.

But Larkin was sly and perverse, and the poems that issue from this perversity are full of sly tricks. “I Remember, I Remember,” one of the earliest classically Larkinesque poems (completed in January 1954), describes being on a train which stops in Coventry. The I of the poem exclaims to a friend: “I was born here.” Then he finds, looking out, that he cannot even remember which side of the station is which. He has forgotten all about Coventry. His friend asks whether this is where he “has his roots.” But the Larkin figure is thinking of all the things that never happened in his childhood, the anecdotes or significant episodes that would be the stock in trade of other people’s memoirs or novels. And when the friend says to him, “You look as if you wished the place in Hell,” he replies that he supposes it’s not the place’s fault, concluding with the celebrated line, “Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.”

Taken as an aesthetic gesture, one of the famous gestures of the Fifties, Larkin’s poem seems to say: I detest dishonesty in writing; I detest self-mythologizing; if nothing of note happened in my childhood, I’m the kind of guy who’s prepared to say so, rather than dress up non-events as events. Taken as lyric, the poem asserts its own right. It stands alone, as any lyric stands alone, to convince us, or not, on its own terms. And I for one can easily be convinced that this is what one may, in a certain mood, feel about one’s childhood: the childhood other people describe, I never had.

But when one sets the poem against the biography, it becomes, to an intriguing degree, an act of concealment. In the poem, the city of Coventry is drained of historical significance. The poet does not choose to go into the most obvious explanation for his inability to recognize the place, namely that it was under reconstruction, having been flattened in 1940 during the Blitz. Yet Coventry is clearly intended to be the actual, observed city: the men with number plates who sprint down the platform in the first stanzas are returning from having delivered cars (a typically specific, local Larkin detail, like the many little details in his novel Jill from which you can work out, if your memory is long enough, exactly where you are in Oxford). Yet the actual Coventry is deprived of its actual past.

And we might add that, if we are talking about the actual Coventry and the actual Larkin, he could have told a most striking story, that his father, the city’s treasurer, had been an admirer of Hitler, to the extent of having attended the Nuremberg rallies (this is what Larkin later told the historian John Kenyon). At home, he could have said, his father kept “a statue of Hitler on the mantelpiece, which at the touch of a button leapt into a Nazi salute,” and that he kept Nazi regalia in his office up to the outbreak of war.

Then he could have mimicked his father’s attitude in 1939, as expressed in the letter reproduced as the front endpaper of the Selected Letters: “The British govt. have started this war… Hitler has done all he could for peace… Well, all I hope is that we get smashed to Hades… Our army is useless. A.R.P? Ha ha! This is the end of civilisation…after all, man has to be superseded sooner or later…we’re only a stage in the earth’s development…a very unimportant stage, too….”

According to Andrew Motion’s 1993 biography, Sydney Larkin did not change his tune during the war. Instead, when Coventry was blitzed in 1940, he congratulated himself on his foresight in having ordered one thousand cardboard coffins the previous year, and continued to praise “efficient German administration” while disparaging Churchill.

Auden said somewhere that if you grew up as he did in Birmingham it was absurd to talk about having your roots in Birmingham. The friend in Larkin’s poem shares this sense of absurdity:

Was that,” my friend smiled, “where you ‘have your roots’?”

The answer the poem gives is that if you grow up in Coventry (not that it is necessarily Coventry’s fault), you can expect nothing to “happen” to you.

But plenty “happened” to Larkin. For two days after the bombing of Coventry, he waited in Oxford without word of his family, then set out with a friend, Noel Hughes, to find out what had happened to both of their homes. Larkin drew on this experience for one of the most important passages in Jill, describing how his friend hears the news of the Huddlesford raid, which is said to be like the Coventry raid. John Kemp asks immediately what was damaged:

Residential areas…. I expect they went for the station and factories and the centre of the city….” He looked doubtfully at John. “Do you live anywhere near the station?”

No, not at all.”

John got up, leaving his food, and went trembling out into the sun. They said a thousand people were killed outright in a raid like that, not counting the wounded and those that died afterwards. It was not possible for his parents to have escaped.

John becomes certain that his parents are dead:

It was obvious, he deserved to be punished in this way. Since leaving them, he had pushed them to the back of his mind, had sometimes felt ashamed of them, had not bothered to write to them regularly, he had done things they would have been sorry at.

He blames himself for his parents’ death. He believes they have been killed “because he treated them lightly.” So he goes back to his home filled with dread and praying they will be all right, and praying for enough strength to stand it if the worst has happened. But he finds his home intact and a note pinned to the door saying his parents have gone away. He peers into the house:

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