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Homage to Philip Larkin

As well as slightly misquoting Jardine, Bradford may be overstating matters—at no point does the professor even hint at a desire to ban Larkin’s work. Yet her 1992 article, the brave new multicultural worldism of which is already outdated, has sinister undertones. A cool anathema by a hot-eyed zealot, it varies in tone between that of the ineffable Miss Pratt, head of Beardsley School in Nabokov’s Lolita—whose school “does believe very strongly in preparing its students for mutually satisfactory mating and successful child rearing”—and of a Ministry of Culture spokeswoman in one of those hopeless pre-1989 Soviet Bloc satellites.

She dismisses the poems—“Actually, we don’t tend to teach Larkin much in my Department of English”—for not engaging with “everyday discriminations, everyday assumptions of white British superiority” and for the fact that the values she thinks he celebrates sit uneasily “within our revised curriculum, which seeks to give all of our students, regardless of background, race or creed, a voice within British culture.” By this criterion, much of the work of Shakespeare, to name but one dead white British male, would be banished from the curriculum. She closes her polemic by declaring that “for the sake of the new, forward-looking, plural and multicultural British nation, we must stop teaching the old canon as the repository of authentically ‘British values’ and as a monument to a precious ‘British way of life.’” One thinks immediately of that famous photograph of Larkin taken by Monica Jones in 1962 at Coldstream on the Scottish–English border; the poet is seated by a stone marker bearing the legend ENGLAND over which, just before the picture was taken, he had, according to Jones, urinated. So much for the “British way of life.”

Clive James, discussing the reaction to the letters by the London-based black American playwright Bonnie Greer—“In her view, there was no need to worry about Larkin the racist, because Larkin the poet was not very good anyway”—states the case with his accustomed grace and succinctness, though it is not entirely a case for the defense:

Philip Larkin really was the greatest poet of his time, and he really did say noxious things. But he didn’t say them in his poems, which he thought of as a realm of responsibility in which he would have to answer for what he said, and answer forever. He also thought there was a temporary and less responsible realm called privacy. Alas, he was wrong about that. Always averse to the requirements of celebrity, he didn’t find out enough about them, and never realized that beyond a certain point of fame you not only don’t have a private life any more, you never had one.10

Bradford’s biography is a competent if somewhat pedestrian and in places sketchy affair. The author is professor of English at the University of Ulster, and has written, among other things, a biography of Kingsley Amis. On the very first page of First Boredom, Then Fear one’s trust in his authority in the matter of Larkin’s work, if not his life, is shaken when he quotes Seamus Heaney writing of Larkin’s as the “not untrue, not unkind” voice of postwar England and fails to recognize that Heaney is quoting from Larkin’s poem “Talking in Bed.”11

Bradford’s initial intention seems to have been to erect a spirited defense of Larkin against those who would confuse the politics of the man with the aesthetics of the artist, and in his opening pages he curls a disdainful lip at Paulin, Jardine, et al., but soon he is dismissing the pro-Larkinists as well, writing that to claim that “a writer’s prejudices are separable from and irrelevant to their [sic] literary achievement, is charitable but both demonstrably invalid and impossible to maintain.” His preferred defense is to point to Larkin’s myriad-mindedness:

He played different roles for different people. The personae selected for particular scrutiny and condemnation are, post-1992 [the year the Letters were published], the ones which accord with the image of him as a loathsome archetype of Englishness. There are many others, and all are curious combinations of candour, exaggeration and self-parody. Just as significantly, why should we assume that our appreciation of his poems will be tarnished by our knowledge of Larkin as alien from our, in Martin Amis’s words, “newer, cleaner, braver, saner world.”

Rereading the letters now, one finds it difficult to see why at the time of publication so much was made of the misogynistic and misanthropic aspects of them. Larkin had never sought to hide his views, though as might be expected his expression of them in public was far milder than in the correspondence. Anyone who reads his poems “Vers de Société”12 or “Homage to a Government” or “Take One Home for the Kiddies” will be left in little doubt about Larkin’s views on society, politics, and the human—and animal—condition. In interviews he delighted in disappointing his interviewers’ liberal expectations of what “a poet” should be and think and profess: “I’ve always been right-wing. It’s difficult to say why, but not being a political thinker I suppose I identify the Right with certain virtues and the Left with certain vices. All very unfair, no doubt.”

In Bradford’s terms, what Larkin is presenting here is the acceptable—depending on your politics—face of the Little Englander who loves cricket and warm beer and distrusts change and foreigners. The same face can frequently be glimpsed peering out from the poems, but there it wears an impish and highly ironical smile—has there ever been a funnier serious poet than Larkin?—while in the letters the smile is turned into a leer so horrible that it seems less the grimace of a bigot than a mischievously fashioned Halloween mask.

Perhaps the single most shocking revelation in the published correspondence comes in a throwaway admission in a letter to another friend, the historian Robert Conquest. Larkin had been commissioned by the Countess of Dartmouth, head of a government working party set up to report on “The Human Habitat.” The result was “Going, Going,” an elegy for all that would soon be lost of the England that the poet claimed to love—“The shadows, the meadows, the lanes/The guildhalls, the carved choirs”—which the committee, when the poem was delivered, found too strongly expressed for its taste. After the poem’s publication a report appeared in the satirical magazine Private Eye to the effect that the countess had prevailed upon Larkin to cut a particularly biting stanza, a request to which Larkin had acceded. Larkin hotly denied the cut. However, in a letter to Conquest on May 31, 1972, Larkin writes:

Have you seen this commissioned poem I did for the Countess of Dartmouth’s report on the human habitat? It makes my flesh creep. She made me cut out a verse attacking big business—don’t tell anyone.
The offending lines13 were quietly restored when the poem was published in the volume High Windows—but still.

3.

Although Bradford seems intent on providing a corrective to Andrew Motion’s Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, he too, like Motion before him, grows increasingly pursed of lip as his narrative progresses. Bradford’s book is far less detailed than that of his predecessor, but it does place welcome emphases on matters that Motion for all his comprehensiveness glided over perhaps too lightly. In particular, Bradford’s portrait of Larkin’s father is far more interesting and, one suspects, more fair, than Motion’s. Sydney Larkin, an accountant by profession, was a remarkable man, a self-righteous authoritarian and a keen admirer of the Nazis—he kept on the mantelpiece in the family home a miniature statue of Hitler which made a Nazi salute when a button was pressed, which reminds one of Philip’s giving pride of place on his desk at Hull to a framed photograph of Guy the Gorilla. But Larkin père was also a man of culture and wide reading who encouraged his son’s literary bent.

Larkin did seem to feel uneasiness when the subject of his father was raised, and in a 1979 interview, for instance, he was purposely bland: “My father was keen on Germany for some reason: he’d gone there to study their office methods and fallen in love with the place.” Larkin’s mother was a highly strung and somewhat unstable person, to whom nevertheless he was devoted throughout her long life. In Motion’s book there is a remarkable photograph of Eva Larkin circa 1970, sitting relaxedly in an armchair over the back of which her son leans, wearing a look of mingled animosity, defensiveness, and desolation; on the reverse of the picture Larkin had written: “Happy As the Day is Long.”

By now Larkin’s life story is well known. He was born in Coventry in 1922, the second of two children14 ; the delivery was nearly a month late, the baby weighed almost ten pounds, and, ironically, in view of Larkin’s later emblematic baldness, “had luxuriant black hair.” As a boy he was cripplingly shy, and had a bad stammer which stayed with him until he was well into his thirties.15 After schooling in Coventry he went to Oxford, where he was unhappy until he met fellow student Kingsley Amis, whose jokes and impersonations lightened his days, but whose forceful personality and high ambition oppressed him, according to Bradford.

Larkin started out as a novelist, and had written two novels by the time he was twenty-five. However, the enormous, instant success of Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954), which took at least some of its inspiration from the author’s friendship with Larkin, seems to have discouraged Larkin so comprehensively that he abandoned his ambitions to go on writing fiction and turned to poetry instead. In 1982 he told The Paris Review: “I wanted to ‘be a novelist’ in a way I never wanted to ‘be a poet,’ yes. Novels seem to me to be richer, broader, deeper, more enjoyable than poems.” From the start, then, the act of making poetry was for Larkin tainted with the bitter taste of failure, which makes his poetic triumph all the more remarkable. Or does it? As he famously declared, “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.”

He became a librarian almost by chance. In his account of it, the war was on and

I was sitting at home quietly writing Jill when the Ministry of Labour wrote to me asking, very courteously, what I was doing exactly. This scared me and I picked up the Birmingham Post and saw that an urban district council in Shropshire wanted a Librarian, so I applied and got it.

After the grim years in deepest Shropshire he moved to another grim location, when in 1950 he secured a position as under-librarian at Queen’s University in Belfast. If Larkin ever “found” himself, then it was in Belfast, of all places, that the happy discovery was made.16 He was temporarily free of his family, and among the college staff he made friends who opened for him new vistas of freedom and fulfillment. In particular he was taken with Patsy Strang, née Avis—later she would marry the poet Richard Murphy—the wife of a lecturer in the philosophy department. Larkin was fascinated, Motion writes, by the “food- providing, drink-pouring, dog-loving, occasionally pipe-smoking ‘tall, rather gawky brunette’ Patsy Strang,” and they embarked upon an affair which, one surmises, offered Larkin his first real glimpse of what could be had beyond the spiritual and sensual limits which his background, and his own cramped personality, had imposed upon him.

Patsy was one of the many women whom Larkin depended upon, or exploited, including Monica Jones, his most enduring love, who at various times had to share him with Maeve Brennan, Larkin’s colleague at Hull, and his secretary Betty Mackereth. Larkin vacillated between his women, lying to all of them, as he ineptly sought to conceal from each of them his true feelings for the others. It is hard not to judge him harshly for his behavior in these affairs of the heart, but the evidence remains that all of his women, no matter how badly he treated them, remained loyal and loving to the very end—when he was dying, of cancer of the esophagus, they would sometimes encounter each other at his bedside17—which is surely a testament to his worth as a man, for these were strong, self-respecting women who saw him for what he was, and accepted it.

All this, of course, is incidental to what matters, which is the poetry. We do not judge Shakespeare’s plays because he willed to Anne Hathaway his second-best bed, or Gesualdo’s music because he murdered his wife. In time, when the dunces have been sent back to their corners, what will remain is the work. For all his careful posing as the homme moyen, Philip Larkin was a poet to the tips of his nerves. When the muse virtually deserted him in the mid-1970s—he wrote only a handful of poems after those collected in High Windows, published in 1974, although that handful included his final masterpiece, “Aubade”—he made light of it, saying that he had lost the ability to write poems in the same way that he had lost his hair, but in reality he was devastated, and much of the pain and rage of his final decade is surely directly attributable to this loss. Probably no one in that dunces’ corner appreciates the ghastliness of the predicament of an artistic genius who can no longer produce art. There was much ugliness in Philip Larkin’s character, but what mattered most to him was beauty, and the making of beautiful objects. In this lay his greatness.

And, pace Eliot, Larkin was—is—a great poet. Poems such as “The Whitsun Weddings,” “Show Saturday,” “The Old Fools,” “Church Going,” these are the epics of our time. Yet for anyone who has not yet read this wonderful poet, it might be best to begin not on those peaks, but with, for example, the tiny poem “Cut Grass,” one of the most nearly perfect lyrics in the language, plangent with the sense of summer’s loveliness and the finality of dusty death:

Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death
It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,
White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer’s pace.

Or the heartbreakingly tender “Faith Healing,” a poem that no true misogynist could have written:

Slowly the women file to where he stands
Upright in rimless glasses, silver hair,
Dark suit, white collar. Stewards tirelessly
Persuade them onwards to his voice and hands,
Within whose warm spring rain of loving care
Each dwells some twenty seconds.
Now, dear child,
What’s wrong, the deep American voice demands,
And, scarcely pausing, goes into a prayer
Directing God about this eye, that knee.
Their heads are clasped abruptly; then, exiled
Like losing thoughts, they go in silence; some
Sheepishly stray, not back into their lives
Just yet; but some stay stiff, twitching and loud
With deep hoarse tears, as if a kind of dumb
And idiot child within them still survives
To re-awake at kindness, thinking a voice
At last calls them alone, that hands have come
To lift and lighten; and such joy arrives
Their thick tongues blort, their eyes squeeze grief, a crowd
Of huge unheard answers jam and rejoice—
What’s wrong! Moustached in flowered frocks they shake:
By now, all’s wrong. In everyone there sleeps
A sense of life lived according to love.
To some it means the difference they could make
By loving others, but across most it sweeps
As all they might have done had they been loved.
That nothing cures. An immense slackening ache,
As when, thawing, the rigid landscape weeps,
Spreads slowly through them—that, and the voice above
Saying Dear child, and all time has disproved.

  1. 10

    It is worth staying with James a moment longer. He goes on to say that to treat properly the question of the artist’s right to privacy against his public responsibility, that question would need to be raised in class. “Ideally it would be a literature class in which race relations might occasionally be discussed, but the rule of dunces may soon ensure that it will be a race relations class where literature is occasionally discussed, and only as evidence for the prosecution.”

  2. 11

    Nothing shows why

    At this unique distance from isolation

    It becomes still more difficult to find

    Words at once true and kind,

    Or not untrue and not unkind.

  3. 12

    Which opens thus:

    My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps

    To come and waste their time and ours: perhaps

    You’d care to join us? In a pig’s arse, friend.

  4. 13

    On the Business Page, a score

    Of spectacled grins approve

    Some takeover bid that entails

    Five per cent profit (and ten

    Per cent more in the estuaries): move

    Your works to the unspoilt dales

    (Grey area grants!)

  5. 14

    His sister, Catherine (Kitty), is largely ignored both by Motion and Bradford; if she is anything like Larkin, she is probably glad to have been passed over.

  6. 15

    Until I grew up I thought I hated everybody, but when I grew up I realized it was just children I didn’t like. Once you started meeting grown-ups life was much pleasanter. Children are very horrible, aren’t they? Selfish, noisy, cruel, vulgar little brutes.”

  7. 16

    Returning to England in 1955 he wrote, in the significantly titled poem “The Importance of Elsewhere,” of his nostalgia for Belfast’s

    …draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint

    Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,

    The herring-hawker’s cry, dwindling….

    And made the point that, in England,

    Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.

  8. 17

    Maeve Brennan, in her memoir The Philip Larkin I Knew, wrote of visiting him one day in hospital at the same time as Monica Jones: “Philip reached out to me in a passionate embrace. Deeply embarrassed I froze under the hostile stare of Monica, who was sitting on the opposite side of the bed.”

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