Ugly beauty – title of an article reviewing Larkin's Collected Poems
A poem is a difficult thing in itself, open to many interpretations; a collection of poems, by extension, must be a still more complex thing. What then of the life of the poet who wrote them? I think sometimes we forget how wholly inadequate words really are. I find myself slinking back to the same old subjects again and again because I'm never wholly satisfied with my previous efforts. Poems are private things that we insist on putting on public display, at least that is what they are for me, and I believe that is what they were for Philip Larkin too; he wrote for himself first and foremost. In a letter to the publisher D. J. Enright, Larkin said: "I think the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art". I believe that's a fair statement. But just because a poem is a private thing we shouldn't assume it is necessarily revealing. That was made clear when Larkin's biography and letters were published after his death. Who was this man?
Any portrait of a man can only possibly be a partial affair; even a sculpture only reveals so much. The Larkin we see through his poetry is an honest snapshot of an unhappy and dissatisfied man. "Deprivation is for me what daffodils were to Wordsworth," he wrote but what was he deprived of one has to wonder. In one of the two quotes for which he will most likely always be remembered, the lines he ends 'An Arundel Tomb' with, Larkin wrote, "what will survive of us is love" and that is true if we're talking about love of Larkin; no less than three of his life's loves, Maeve Brennan, Monica Jones and Betty Mackereth (all of whom he dated at the same time), took turns watching over him as he lay on his death bed. But what of Larkin's loves?
Considering his stature as a poet Larkin's output is paltry so when Andrew Motion called his biography of Larkin, Philip Larkin, A Writer's Life, one might think he's stretching a point; I can hold his collected poems and two novels comfortably in one hand. Christ, I've written more. But the thing is, being a writer – or more often than not, not being the writer he wanted to be – was a major preoccupation with him. Only when as Larkin put it, "poetry gave up me" did he capitulate and allow Monica Jones to move in with him although they never actually married. He believed that he needed his privacy to write and strongly resisted any intrusion into that until, as he said, it was all over for him. "[H]e 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." This paints a picture of a very selfish man which he undoubtedly was, self-centred if you prefer though I see little difference there, but how many other writers and artists can you name who you say the same of? Quite a few I have no doubt. Larkin loved writing. Of that there is no doubt, though it played hot and cold with him throughout his life.
The other quote for which he will be remembered is the opening line to 'This Be The Verse': "They fuck you up, your mum and dad." I actually think it'll top the line from 'An Arundel Tomb' not simply because it has an expletive in it, although that will do it no harm and will certainly get plooky-faced school kids to sit up and pay attention, but because the sentiment is one that the vast majority of us will be able to relate to long before we start to fret about what is going to remain of us. And there is no doubt that Sydney Larkin had a lasting effect on his son as did my father on me. I had certain beliefs hammered into me as a child and I cannot turn them off. My father recommended theology to me, Larkin's father was an advocate of National Socialism. Both of these held certain classes in contempt. My father's values have been passed onto me. Most are ones I no longer subscribe to but I find it hard to sit back and enjoy my own values because I constantly have to override his.
When his Selected Letters were published in 1992, "the magnificent Eeyore of British verse" as the Daily Telegraph once called him, was revealed to be, according to Andrew Motion, "a porn-loving misogynist whose views on race, women, the Labour Party, children, mainland Europe (and most of the rest of the world) were repugnant to any fair-minded liberal person." How much of those values were imprinted on him by his father we can only guess.
I have a nagging voice inside me that tells me that homosexuality is "wrong, it's just wrong: 'You shall not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.'", and yet I regularly correspond with a number of gay writers without feeling the need to recommend a good woman to sort them out. One of my daughter's best friends is gay. She brought him over once and I clearly remember feeling uncomfortable around him (he was the first openly gay person I had ever met socially) and hating myself for that. I never told her. If she happens to read this then this will be the first she'll know about it. I get angry a lot of the time but indoctrination is hard to shake. There are lots of other things I could give as examples but you get the general idea. I just wish I was more comfortable in my own skin.
It is interesting to note that for all his right wing prejudices "homosexuality was rarely mentioned – or if it was mentioned it was usually treated tolerantly." There is certainly substantial evidence that he was at the very least sexually confused when at public school and later Oxford although there is no evidence that he acted on these impulses.
Which brings me to the second line in that poem: "They may not mean to, but they do." Neither my father nor Sydney Larkin were bad men. They were both sincere in their beliefs. Larkin dedicated The North Ship to his dad and I dedicated Living with the Truth to mine. Despite all his failings I cannot say that, human frailties aside, he didn't live his life by his beliefs. And I expect Larkin could say the same. In fact he went into a panic when it was suggested after his father's death that he had been a member of 'The Link', a pro-Nazi organisation, but he could find no evidence in his paperwork to that effect. He couldn't dispute the fact though that his father, until 1939 at least, "had a statue of Hitler on the mantelpiece [at home] which at the touch of a button leapt into a Nazi salute." I never had that to live down, thank God. Larkin, in turn, gave pride of place on his desk at Hull to a framed photograph of Guy the Gorilla – go figure.
One can react in one of two ways to one's upbringing: one can embrace it or one can reject it. Or I suppose there is a third, and I would expect more popular option, we can cherry pick.
The big question is, I suppose, can we separate Larkin the poet from Larkin the man? Personally I can. As soon as we pick up a poem by any poet we begin to take ownership of it. We want to make it our own. I personally don't give a toss about where Larkin was – or what his mindset was – when he penned 'Mr Bleaney', the poem is mine now. I actually know very little about the poem's history. It was a poem he completed soon after he arrived in Hull; he was living in Holby House, a student residence in Cottingham, a large village on the northern edge of the city. Bleaney was originally Gridley. His landlady was Mrs Dowling. And he had a miserable time there describing the place as "not suitable: small, bare floored and noisy: I feel as if I were lying in some penurious doss-house at night, with hobos snoring and quarrelling all around me." None of that matters to me. I feel no burning desire to go on a pilgrimage there to try and capture the moment for myself.
Have you ever seen films set in the nineteen-fifties? If you have then it's a little easier to understand where many of his prejudices come from. There's nurture, nature and society. This was before TV, glossy magazines and people holidaying abroad. He was born into a black and white world where coloured people were really an unknown quantity, more feared than looked down on, which is perhaps where Britain differs from America, nevertheless, bigotry was still very widespread. Churchill apparently favoured the slogan "Keep England White" something you'd associate now with radical right-wingers like the British National Party.
My father was ages with Larkin and I can still remember the kerfuffle when my sister simply suggested dating a … what is the politically correct term these days? … let's just call the gentleman 'a man of a coloured persuasion'. (The guy wasn't even a nice coffee-coloured mulatto – he was black as the night.) My parents weren't angry per se, rather, let's say, concerned in extremis. Nothing came of it and everyone breathed a sign of relief. Bear in mind it was 1965 before the first Race Relations Act came into force in the UK and one has to ask why such legislation was deemed necessary. Perhaps because surveys conducted in the mid 1960s revealed that four out of five British people felt that 'too many immigrants had been let into the country'.
I could go over the same ground when it comes to Larkin and my father's attitudes to women. The Equal Pay Act didn't come into force till 1963 and The Sex Discrimination Act followed in 1975. Again, simply look at the films of that time and you'll start to realise the world Larkin grew up in.
None of these arguments defend him from continuing to hold and express these views long after their sell-by dates but perhaps they explain a little why he was the man he was.
But back to the poetry. Is a sunset less beautiful if a murderer paints it? Or is a home truth less valid is a con man tells it to you? And is a poem about marriage any less moving when you realise that the guy who wrote it has been playing fast and loose with three women at the same time with not the slightest inclination of seeing any one of them right? For some of you I guess that would ruin it.
You see another side to Larkin after his father died in 1948 and his bi-weekly correspondence focuses on his mother whom he (affectionately from all accounts) referred to as, "Dearest old Creature," signing off simply as "Creature", "often drawing a sketch of himself as a whiskery seal-like animal wearing a muffler. [It seems like] this shift took place because Larkin knew Eva would find it consoling. It was a way of telling her their lives would always be cosy" and in turn "Eva Larkin wrote to her son in a 'similarly doting, similarly trivial' tone to his own letters." New collections of his letters are due out in 2010 – the 25th anniversary of his death – and it's hoped that these will present a softer side to the man.
I never wrote to my mother after my father died. I phoned once a week, every Thursday night, and I visited whenever the grass needed cutting. She didn't need more. She was a part of a very loving congregation and literally never went more than a couple of days on her own. But I did my duty and Larkin did his.
Of course how I talked and acted around my parents was quite different to how I acted with my friends. Larkin was life-long friends with the writer Kingsley Amis and their letters are positively juvenile in their content. And not simply the early ones. A future concordance of these letters will have pages-long entries for bum, cunt, sod, balls, fucking, piss, bugger, shit and turd. I never sent my friends letters – it was always phone calls – but when my best mate and I got together we reverted to the teenagers we were at school. We'd sit around drinking my home brew, smoking cigars and making up comedy tapes all of which I threw out years ago and I've hated myself for being so blinkered ever since; you shouldn't try and throw out your past. If I hadn't become self-righteous in my thirties and driven him away I'd like to imagine we'd still be making them. Grown-up-ness kinda crept up on me when I wasn't looking. And decrepitude is lurking in the wings as I write this.
Larkin did not grow old very gracefully. In the evenings, after work, at home, "he would start drinking immediately (gin and tonic first, then wine), prepare the simplest supper ('something in a tin'), talk to Monica on the telephone, then listen to jazz and write letters … until he fell asleep in his chair." In what we can trust to be one of his most autobiographical pieces, he began his poem 'Aubade' like this:
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
Short piece of 'Aubade' from the promo for
'Love Again' the life of Philip Larkin
Like most youngsters I experimented with drink but I learned very quickly that I don't have the stomach for it. Too many people close to me allowed it to get them in its sights and I was close enough to the fray to get caught in the crossfire. So I don't drink. The pills I'm on are bad enough without stirring alcohol into the mix. Besides I'm not alone. I'm quite sure it will be a different picture for me if I ever have to endure too many years by myself before my own end, not that I dwell on it. I rarely ever think about it, unlike Larkin. "In his lifetime it was generally thought that the focus of his interest was death, and that what bound his poems together were themes of mortality."
There’s another woman in Larkin's life I’ve failed to mention up till now and that is Margaret Thatcher.
"[W]hen Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government was elected to office he praised her to anyone who would listen. Ever since Thatcher had become leader of the party in 1975 he had admired her, for her looks as much has her polices. 'She has a pretty face, hasn't she,' he had written excitedly to Eva, 'I expect she's pretty tough.'" Surprisingly she was fond of his poetry and offered him the laureateship on the death of Betjeman. He declined. She was "very understanding". And a few years later, just before his death in fact, she arranged for him to be made a Companion of Honour although he proved too ill to attend the investiture.
I remember when the Tories came to power. I had been married only a few months and my wife and I were living in a privately rented flat in East Kilbride. As it happened, my best friend's girlfriend was staying with us to make getting to university easier. The morning of the election results she actually woke us up to tell us who was in. She had the kind of expression on her face that a woman has when she's just been proposed to. She was such a fervent Tory that she'd even arranged to vote by mail since she couldn't get home to cast her vote. I hadn't bothered to vote at all.
Why, I wonder, has Larkin been maligned for being a Thatcherite when the majority of the country clearly wanted the Tories in power and her in charge? It beats me.
When I read Larkin's biography – my daughter bought me a nice hard backed copy for my birthday – I cannot pretend I was surprised at a lot of what I read. Disappointed? No, not that either. Biographical or not, what kind of man did I expect to have written the kind of poems he produced? I felt the same when I read my biographies on Beckett. It was no surprise to find out he was a miserable git. I'm a miserable git.
"[F]ollowing the publication of the Letters and the Life, a few librarians removed Larkin's poems from their collections, and some critics conflated their sense of his personality with their account of the poetry to condemn its entire foundation." A typical knee-jerk reaction. But you cannot unread what you have read. You may be reading this article and this is the first you've read about the 'real' Mr Larkin. If so I make no apology for shattering any illusions you may have had. That's what illusions are there for, to be shattered. And, yet, for all that, some people still insist in air-brushing his life: Yes, okay, so we know the truth, but do we have to talk about it?
No. No, I don't suppose we do.
I'll leave the final words to John Banville. There's a link to his homage to Larkin below:
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
The Art of Poetry No. 30, Philip Larkin, The Paris Review, Issue 84, Summer 1982
'Homage to Philip Larkin' – John Banville, The New York Review of Books
'Revealingly yours, Philip Larkin', The Sunday Times, May 11, 2008
'Amis on Larkin's life, loves and letters' – an long audio panel discussion at Centre for New Writing, Manchester University
'Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life' – Vereen Bell, The Southern Review, March 22 1994
'Without Metaphysics: The Poetry of Philip Larkin' – Brother Anthony (An Sonjae). A 1992 paper written before the publication of the letters and the first biography.
'The Poet of Political Incorrectness: Larkin's Satirical Stance on the Sexual-Cultural Revolution of the 1960s' – Fritz-Wilhelm Neumann (Erfurt)
'Philip Larkin - A Stateside View' – Robert B. Shaw, Poetry Nation, No. 6, 1976
'Larkin's first interview' – John Shakespeare, Times Literary Supplement, April 1, 2009
 Philip Larkin, A Writer's Life – Andrew Motion, p 273
 Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces, 1955-82, p 47
 'Homage to Philip Larkin' – John Banville, The New York Review of Books, Volume 53, Number 3
 'The Quarrel within Ourselves', The Guardian, Friday 14 March 2008
 Leviticus 18:22, American King James Version
 Philip Larkin, A Writer's Life – Andrew Motion, p 65
 John Kenyon, Larkin at Hull quoted in Philip Larkin, A Writer's Life, p 12
 A letter to Judy Egerton, 24 March 1955 quoted in Philip Larkin, A Writer's Life, p 247
 On Commonwealth immigration, recorded in Harold Macmillan's diary entry for 20th Jan 1955 (Peter Catterall (ed.), The Macmillan Diaries: The Cabinet Years, 1950-57, p 382)
 Philip Larkin, A Writer's Life – Andrew Motion, p 177
 'From their own Correspondent', The Guardian, Tuesday 11 March 2008
 Philip Larkin, A Writer's Life – Andrew Motion, p 449
 Philip Larkin, A Writer's Life – Andrew Motion, p 291
 Philip Larkin, A Writer's Life – Andrew Motion, p 479
 'A Fanfare for the Common Man' – The Guardian, Saturday 5 July 2003