- Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life by Andrew Motion
Faber, 570 pp, £20.00, April 1993, ISBN 0 571 15174 4
‘My mother is such a bloody rambling fool.’ wrote Philip Larkin in 1965, ‘that half the time I doubt her sanity. Two things she said today, for instance, were that she had “thought of getting a job in Woolworth’s” and that she wanted to win the football pools so that she could “give cocktail parties”.’ Eva Larkin was 79 at the time so that to see herself presiding over the Pick’n’ Mix counter was a little unrealistic and her chances of winning the football pools were remote as she didn’t go in for them. Still, mothers do get ideas about cocktail parties, or mine did anyway, who’d never had a cocktail in her life and couldn’t even pronounce the word, always laying the emphasis (maybe out of prudery) on the tail rather than the cock. I always assumed she got these longings from women’s magazines or off the television and maybe Mrs Larkin did too, though ‘she never got used to the television’ – which in view of her son’s distrust of it is hardly surprising.
Mrs Larkin went into a home in 1971, a few months after her son had finished his most notorious poem, ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’. She never read it (Larkin didn’t want to ‘confuse her with information about books’) but bloody rambling fool or not she shared more of her son’s life and thoughts than do most mothers, or at any rate the version he gave her of them in his regular letters, still writing to her daily when she was in her eighties. By turns guilty and grumbling (‘a perpetual burning bush of fury in my chest’), Larkin’s attitude towards her doesn’t seem particularly unusual, though his dutifulness does. Even so, Woolworth’s would hardly have been her cup of tea. The other long-standing lady in Larkin’s life (and who stood for a good deal), Monica Jones, remarks that to the Larkins the least expenditure of effort was ‘something heroic’: ‘Mrs Larkin’s home was one in which if you’d cooked lunch you had to lie down afterwards to recover.’ Monica, one feels, was more of a Woolworth’s supervisor than a counter assistant. ‘I suppose,’ wrote Larkin, ‘I shall become free [of mother] at 60, three years before the cancer starts. What a bloody, sodding awful life.’ His, of course, not hers. Eva died in 1977 aged 91, after which the poems more or less stopped coming. Andrew Motion thinks this is no coincidence.
Larkin pinpointed 63 as his probable departure date because that was when his father went, turned by his mother into ‘the sort of closed, reserved man who would die of some thing internal’. Sydney Larkin was the City Treasurer of Coventry. He was also a veteran of several Nuremberg rallies, a pen-pal of Schacht’s, and had a statue of Hitler on the mantelpiece that gave the Nazi salute. Sydney made no secret of his sympathies down at the office: ‘I see that Mr Larkin’s got one of them swastika things up on his wall now. Whatever next?’ Next was a snip in the shape of some cardboard coffins that Sydney had cannily invested in and which came in handy when Coventry got blitzed, the Nazi insignia down from the wall by this time (a quiet word from the Town Clerk). But he didn’t change his tune, still less swap the swastika for a snap of Churchill, who had, he thought, ‘the face of a criminal in the dock’.
To describe a childhood with this grotesque figure at the centre of it as ‘a forgotten boredom’ seems ungrateful of Larkin, if not untypical, even though the phrase comes from a poem not an interview, so Larkin is telling the truth rather than the facts. Besides, it would have been difficult to accommodate Sydney in a standard Larkin poem, giving an account of his peculiar personality before rolling it up into a general statement in the way Larkin liked to do. Sylvia Plath had a stab at that kind of thing with her ‘Daddy’, though she had to pretend he was a Nazi, while Larkin’s dad was the real thing. Still, to anyone (I mean me) whose childhood was more sparsely accoutred with characters, Larkin’s insistence on its dullness is galling, if only on the ‘I should be so lucky’ principle.
As a script, the City Treasurer and his family feels already half-written by J.B. Priestley; were it a film Sydney (played by Raymond Huntley) would be a domestic tyrant, making the life of his liberal and sensitive son a misery, thereby driving him to Art. Not a bit of it. For a start the son was never liberal (‘true blue’ all his life, Monica says) and with a soft spot for Hitler himself. Nor was the father a tyrant; he introduced his son to the works of Hardy and, more surprisingly, Joyce, did not regard jazz as the work of the devil, bought him a subscription to the magazine Downbeat (a signpost here) and also helped him invest in a drum-kit. What if anything he bought his daughter Kitty and what Mrs Larkin thought of it all is not recorded. Perhaps she was lying down. The women in the Larkin household always took second place, which, in Motion’s view, is half the trouble. Kitty, Larkin’s older sister (‘the one person in the world I am confident I am superior to’), scarcely figures at all. Hers would, I imagine, be a dissenting voice, more brunt-bearing than her brother where Mrs Larkin was concerned and as undeceived about the poet as were most of the women in his life.
Whatever reservations Larkin had about his parents (‘days spent in black, twitching, boiling HATE!!!’), by Oxford and adulthood they had modulated, says Motion, into ‘controlled but bitter resentment’. This doesn’t stop Larkin sending poems to his father (‘I crave / The gift of your courage and indifference’) and sharing his thoughts with his mother (‘that obsessive snivelling pest’) on all manner of things; in a word treating them as people rather than parents. Its nothing if not ‘civilised’ but still slightly creepy and it might have come as a surprise to Kingsley Amis, in view of their intimate oath-larded letters to one another, that Larkin, disappointed of a visit, should promptly have complained about him (‘He is a wretched type’) to his mother.
‘Fearsome and hard-driving’, Larkin senior is said never to have missed the chance of slipping an arm round a secretary and though Larkin junior took a little longer about it (twenty-odd years in one case), it is just one of the ways he comes to resemble his father as he grows older, in the process getting to look less like Raymond Huntley and more like Francis L. Sullivan and ‘the sort of person that democracy doesn’t suit’.
Larkin’s choice of profession is unsurprising because from an early age libraries had been irresistible. ‘I was an especially irritating kind of borrower, who brought back in the evening the books he had borrowed in the morning and read in the afternoon. This was the old Coventry Central Library, nestling at the foot of the unbombed cathedral, filled with tall antiquated bookcases (blindstamped Coventry Central Libraries after the fashion of the time) with my ex-schoolfellow Ginger Thompson ... This was my first experience of the addictive excitement a large open-access public library generates.’ When he jumped over the counter, as it were, things were rather different though father’s footsteps come into this too: it you can’t be a gauleiter being a librarian’s the next best thing. When called upon to explain his success as a librarian, Larkin said: ‘A librarian can be one of a number of things ... a pure scholar, a technician ... an administrator or he ... can be just a nice chap to have around, which is the role I vaguely thought I filled.’ Motion calls this a ‘typically self-effacing judgment’ but it’s also a bit of a self-deluding one. It’s a short step from the jackboot to the book-jacket and by all accounts Larkin the librarian could be a pretty daunting figure. Neville Smith remembers him at Hull stood at the entrance to the Brynmor Jones, scanning the faces of the incoming hordes, the face heavy and expressionless, the glasses gleaming and the hands, after the manner of a soccer player awaiting a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area, clasped over what is rumoured to have been a substantial package. ‘FUCK OFF, LARKIN, YOU CUNT’ might have been the cheery signing-off in a letter from Kingsley Amis: it was actually written up on the wall of the library lifts, presumably by one of those ‘devious, lazy and stupid’ students who persisted in infesting the librarian’s proper domain and reading the books.
It hadn’t always been like that, though, and Larkin’s first stint at Wellington in Shropshire, where in 1943 he was put in charge of the municipal library, was a kind of idyll. Bitterly cold, gas-lit and with a boiler Larkin himself had to stoke, the library had an eccentric collection of books and a readership to match. Here he does seem to have been the type of librarian who was ‘a nice chap to have around’, one who quietly got on with improving the stock while beginning to study for his professional qualifications by correspondence course. Expecting ‘not to give a zebra’s turd’ for the job he had hit upon his vocation.
Posts at Leicester and Belfast followed until in 1955 he was appointed Librarian at the University of Hull with the job of reorganising the library and transferring it to new premises. Moan as Larkin inevitably did about his job, it was one he enjoyed and which he did exceptionally well. The students may have been intimidated by him but he was popular with his staff and particularly with the women. Mary Judd, the librarian at the issue desk at Hull, thought that ‘most women liked him more than most men because he could talk to a woman and make her feel unique and valuable.’ In last year’s Selected Letters there is a photo of him with the staff of the Brynmor Jones and, Larkin apart, there is not a man in sight. Surrounded by his beaming middle-aged assistants – with two at least he was having or would have an affair – he looks like a walrus with his herd of contented cows There was contentment here for him, too, and one of his last poems, written when deeply depressed, is about a library.
New eyes each year
Find old books here,
And new books, too,
Old eyes renew;
So youth and age
Like ink and page
In this house join,
Minting new coin.
Much of Motion’s story is about sex, not getting it, not getting enough of it or getting it wrong. For a time it seemed Larkin could go either way and there are a few messy homosexual encounters at Oxford, though not Brideshead by a long chalk, lungings more than longings and not the stuff of poetry except as the tail-end of ‘these incidents last night’. After Oxford Larkin’s homosexual feelings ‘evaporated’ (Motion’s word) and were hence-forth seemingly confined to his choice of socks. At Wellington he starts walking out with Ruth Bowman, ‘a 16-year-old schoolgirl and regular borrower from the library’. This period of Larkin’s life is quite touching and reads like a Fifties novel of provincial life, though not one written by him so much as by John Wain or Keith Waterhouse. Indeed Ruth sounds (or Larkin makes her sound) like Billy Liar’s unsatisfactory girlfriend, whose snog-inhibiting Jaffa Billy hurls to the other end of the cemetery. Having laid out a grand total of 15s. 7d. on an evening with Ruth, Larkin writes to Amis:
Don’t you think it’s ABSOLUTELY SHAMEFUL that men have to pay for women without BEING ALLOWED TO SHAG the women afterwards AS A MATTER OF COURSE? I do: simply DISGUSTING. It makes me ANGRY. Everything about the ree-lay-shun-ship between men and women makes me angry. It’s all a fucking balls-up. It might have been planned by the army or the Ministry of Food.
To be fair, Larkin’s foreplay could be on the funereal side. In the middle of one date with Ruth, Larkin (22) lapsed into silence. Was it something she’d said? ‘No, I have just thought what it would be like to be old and have no one to look after you.’ This was what Larkin would later refer to as ‘his startling youth’. ‘He could,’ says Ruth, ‘be a draining companion.’
In the end one’s sympathies, as always in Larkin’s affairs, go to the woman and one is glad when Ruth finally has him sized up and decides that he’s no hubby-to-be. And he’s glad too, of course. Ruth has Amis well sussed besides. ‘He wanted,’ she says, ‘to turn Larkin into a “love ’em and lose ’em type”,’ and for a moment we see these two leading lights of literature as what they once were, the Likely Lads, Larkin as Bob, Amis as Terry and Ruth at this juncture the terrible Thelma.
Looking back on it now Ruth says: ‘I was his first love and there’s something special about a first love, isn’t there?’ Except that love is never quite the right word with Larkin, ‘getting involved’ for once not a euphemism for the tortuous process it always turns out to be. ‘My relations with women,’ he wrote, ‘are governed by a shrinking sensitivity, a morbid sense of sin, a furtive lechery. Women don’t just sit still and back you up. They want children; they like scenes; they want a chance of parading all the empty haberdashery they are stocked with. Above all they like feeling they own you – or that you own them – a thing I hate.’ A.C. Benson, whose medal Larkin was later to receive from the Royal Society of Literature, put it more succinctly, quoting (I think) Aristophanes: ‘Don’t make your house in my mind.’ Though with Larkin it was ‘Don’t make your house in my house either,’ his constant fear being that he will be moved in on, first by his mother and then, when she’s safely in a home, some other scheming woman. When towards the finish Monica Jones does manage to move in it’s because she’s ill and can’t look after herself, and so the cause of a great deal more grumbling. With hindsight (Larkin’s favourite vantage-point) it would have been wiser to have persisted with the messy homosexual fumblings, one of the advantages of boys that they’re more anxious to move on than in. Not, of course, that one has a choice, ‘something hidden from us’ seeing to that.
Vol. 15 No. 8 · 22 April 1993
Alan Bennett’s remarkable appraisal of Philip Larkin (LRB, 25 March), touching, funny and just as it is, may perhaps bear one small qualification. Bennett writes: ‘That Hull was the back of beyond in the Fifties wasn’t simply a London opinion; it prevailed in Hull itself.’ He cites his own experience at an interview for a university job in 1959, and quotes the professor’s opening comments in support of the view that ‘a slow and stopping train southwards was some kind of lifeline.’ This may have been true of those who arrived from London, or Oxbridge. It wasn’t always the case with natives or with people who had come from regular England, or further afield. I could have introduced Bennett to plenty of people at that date, varied in age, gender and class, who had no such hankering for the slow train. Around 1959 I played in a soccer team where only three of us had ever been to London.
Larkin, of course, had reached Hull via Wellington, Leicester and Belfast. It’s not altogether news that he did harbour urges for public recognition which could not be satisfied on Humberside. But he may have come to realise that something, like nothing, can happen anywhere – in Hull as in Coventry; and one suspects that the myth of the Hermit of Hull relies on the metropolitan assumption that anyone who lives in Hull is ipso facto not quite inhabiting the real world.
For all Bennett’s wonderful human insight, and his enduring Yorkshire connections, he may not be the best equipped to deal with these facts. And, if I can say it without rudeness, the best place may not be the LRB, whose Scotland year by year turns out to consist almost wholly of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and whose awareness of normal England (the Wellington which is now Telford; Hitchin; Gainsborough; Bournemouth; Rugeley; Chelmsford, Redditch, and so on) is not always as sharp as it could be.
De Bartolo Chair in the Liberal Arts
Alan Bennett’s review of Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life by Andrew Motion takes the line of sympathy with the biographer, appreciation of the poet and – in the main – disgust or hostility towards the man. This, I imagine, will be the general reaction.
There are, however, two relationships with women which Bennett omits to analyse, and which for me stand out in the Selected Letters, throwing different lights on this complex and not altogether despicable character. The first is the friendship and, for three years, ‘passionate but intermittent affair’, as Anthony Thwaite puts it, with Patsy, the charming Roedean and Somerville-educated wife (at that time) of the second Baron Strang. Larkin, after a clandestine weekend with Patsy, refers to ‘that shadowy and furtive land we inhabit together’, and addresses her variously by a plethora of Times Valentine Day sobriquets: ‘white bear’, ‘sugarbush’, ‘valuable honey-bird’, ‘fabulous giraffe’, ‘exquisite political prisoner’. One letter from Mallaig is started in a snatched moment ‘while Monica is still dressing’. Here the crabby, misanthropic, self-pitying poet appears in the guise of a playful, infatuated, adulterous young lover. (Four days later he was addressing Winifred Arnott as ‘delicious Winifred’ and ending: ‘with you in spirit always – the breeze hot on your neck, the bramble catching your skirt’.) The other important but purely Platonic – and, for a long time, only epistolary – friendship that Bennett does not mention was that with Barbara Pym, whose work he genuinely admired (as much as he hated Iris Murdoch’s), and for whom he had a quite disinterested affection.
One must finally agree with Bennett’s opinion that the poems, ‘without which there would be no biography’, remain undamaged by the exposure of the life, just as those of Hardy and Auden do – and that this is a fair and patient account of that life. Larkin the kindly professional (another aspect of the man) wrote to a would-be woman poet of his acquaintance, ‘a poem is usually a highly professional thing, a verbal device designed to reproduce a thought or emotion indefinitely; it should have no dead parts, and every word should be completely unchangeable and immovable.’ That was the voice of the true artist.
Lyme Regis, Dorset
Vol. 15 No. 9 · 13 May 1993
I was a colleague of Philip Larkin for thirty years, from the day he arrived in Hull until he died in 1985. We were friends, although not very close. We never, for instance, ate in each other’s house, partly because my wife did not particularly like him, but more because outside our professional interests in library matters, and excluding traditional jazz and poetry, we had little in common. Until 1956 I was an active member of the Communist Party and since that date I have remained an open and committed socialist within the Marxist tradition. My especial concern for library affairs pre-dated Larkin’s arrival, and it continued throughout the Sixties and Seventies when I was among his most consistent supporters: on the campus in general, and for many years on the University Library Committee.
My closest link with him was through the development of the labour Archive. In the early Sixties, I had taken on the job of editor of a projected Dictionary of Labour Biography, and it was in the course of work on the Dictionary that I began to come across collections of papers of labour and socialist activists, and of their organisations, that needed a home and proper archival attention. At the time the University Library had only a few manuscript collections, and Larkin – whose politics were well-known – was from the beginning warmly supportive of what later, on one occasion when we were lunching together, he described as my ‘subversive’ archive. He was consistently helpful and encouraging. He financed from Library funds visits to view possible acquisitions; he never disputed the fees which sometimes were required, the negotiations for which he left to me; and it was mainly for the Labour Archive that he first engaged Norman Higson on a part-time basis.
One of my main objections to Andrew Motion’s biography (LRB, 25 March) – I have a quite large number of less important criticisms of fact and interpretation – is the misshapen and unbalanced structure of his volume. Larkin was a professional librarian. He spent more of his waking hours for thirty years on Library affairs than on any other work. He took his duties seriously, as Motion shows in the discussion of Larkin’s role in the plans for the extension of the Library; but while Motion can point to this page or that on Larkin’s professional career, the effect is disjointed and incomplete, and he fails to do justice to Larkin’s deep commitment to his professional duties. Over the years Larkin assembled a highly competent staff who almost without exception both liked him and respected him. As did his academic colleagues outside the Library. The record of libraries in British universities in the post-war decades is by no means a story of successful endeavour or of strenuous academic pressure to improve facilities. At the University of Hull Larkin developed a much superior library than was to be found in most institutions of comparable size, and it was a considerable achievement.
‘He was a selfish man much given to showing love and kindness.’ So Motion writes in the Introduction, but apart from the extraordinary efforts Larkin made on behalf of Barbara Pym, there is little evidence of Larkin’s kindness in this biography. Yet there are many examples that could, and should, have been recorded. Motion has allowed himself to be overwhelmed by his discoveries of Larkin’s private life; and much else has been missed. I suppose this is how Eng. Lit. approach their subject these days.
I find the sentiments expressed in the published letters which Thwaite selected deplorable, and I regret the attitude they represented. This is a Larkin I did not know but I cannot say that I was very surprised at what was revealed. The 20th century has been full of revelations of the contradictions and the paradoxes of the public and the private. I never thought Larkin was more than a very interesting minor poet whose work I much enjoyed. The Larkin I knew for thirty years was always polite and courteous, well-informed about the University, sometimes very funny, and consistently committed to the Library. He made a major intellectual contribution to the University of Hull, and I had great respect for him. For the Larkin I knew I do not propose to withdraw that respect.
The University, Hull
Pat Rogers’s reference to the train to Hull (Letters, 22 April) reminds me of an academic colleague who, while a lecturer at Leeds, applied for and was appointed to a post at Aberdeen University. On hearing this, a friend and lecturer at Hull University expressed astonishment. ‘Aberdeen! But it’s so far away from everywhere.’ The reply might have even occurred to Alan Bennett. ‘But it’s not far from Aberdeen.’ Strachur, by the way, is only 55 miles from Glasgow.
Vol. 15 No. 10 · 27 May 1993
Alan Bennett’s piece on Philip Larkin (LRB, 25 March) was so subtle about the impact of the art on the life (and especially Larkin’s tendency to use his ‘fall-back position as Great Poet’ as a let-out for banal everyday selfishness) that it was a surprise to see Bennett approach the question of the impact our knowledge of the life should have on our reaction to the art by citing Auden: ‘Time … will pardon Paul Claudel, Pardons him for writing well.’ The surprise is partly that forgiveness or otherwise doesn’t seem to be the issue in appraising the work, unless you think the poetry’s literary merits rest on its claim to be a peculiarly authentic piece of moral reportage, which implausibly grants to poetry as poetry a degree of innocence we have long since ceased to ascribe to prose auto-biography. (Then again, Bennett remarks that one of Larkin’s comments on his childhood ‘comes from a poem not an interview, so Larkin is telling the truth rather than the facts’, so perhaps he does believe poetry to be this innocent.) But even if forgiveness is somehow complicatedly in question, Auden’s authority is particularly suspect here, the more so since by ‘writing well’ he seeks to sidestep the most obvious objections to a quite untenable doctrine. Auden in his epitaph on Yeats resembles nothing so much as an ambitious cardinal, scheming to engineer the canonisation of a predecessor in the hope that a generation of similarly ambitious cardinals will do the same for him. In its religious form, the Great Immortality Scam nowadays attracts fewer subscriptions from intellectuals than it used to, but its secular version is alive and flourishing like the pyramid-selling operation which in more ways than one it really is. It’s not often suggested of top models, for instance, that Time will pardon them for looking beautiful, but then it’s writers and not models who set themselves up to do the pardoning. Pace Auden, it’s not Time that is ‘indifferent in a week To a beautiful physique’, but the community of writers, who naturally think writing skill and not physique should determine the distribution of forgiveness. Like the selling of indulgences, this comes to seem like quackery rather than monstrous injustice as soon as one ceases to subscribe to the metaphysics behind it.
Université des Sciences Sociales,
I must disagree with your correspondent Pat Rogers (Letters, 22 April). Alan Bennett had it spot on. Hull was the back of beyond in the Fifties and with its present timetable and pricing policies British Rail seems bent on making it that way in the Nineties. I was welcomed to Hull in 1958 (never having been more than ten miles from Liverpool in my 18 years) with the words ‘Welcome to Nowhere. Next Stop the Sea.’ This was said by a chap from Goldthorpe, wherever that was. It was also a view shared by the natives I came to know and who became my friends. It wasn’t the slow train to London that was a lifeline, it was the train to Leeds, the nearest city with some life.
What was there in Hull? Well, on Friday nights there was the Windsor Hall Jazz Club with the 2.19 Jazz Band with Lew Lewis (later, novelist Ted Lewis) on piano, and on Saturday nights there was the Students’ Union dance with the 2.19 Jazz Band and er … that was it. Perhaps Pat Rogers remembers the great excitement of 1959 (not the polio epidemic) but the opening of the Hoi Sun, Hull’s first Chinese restaurant, or maybe he was playing football at the time and missed the shock of the new?
I’m glad my old teacher John Saville (Letters, 13 May) has good things to say about Philip Larkin. Not only was he a great librarian, I know for a fact that he did many quiet kindnesses for people. Unfortunately, my contemporaries and I never knew that person. I only knew the old baldy at the issue desk, when I brought in an overdue book, telling me that there was a waiting list for it and staring through me when I pointed out that it had last been taken out seven years before. I remember the miserable bugger sitting next to me on a six-hour bus trip to Leeds organised by the Jazz Society to hear Duke Ellington, and never saying a word. I remember the curt sod’s reply to the Jazz Society’s invitation to speak: ‘Jazz died with Paul Whiteman.’ And his reply to me when I asked if he’d like to read my series of articles called ‘All What Jazz’ in the Hull University Socialist Journal Left – ‘I shouldn’t think so.’
My last encounter with the librarian occurred outside the university at the bus stop waiting for the 24. It began to rain stair-rods. Larkin put up his umbrella. Seeking shelter, and being much smaller. I edged towards him. There were only the two of us there. He looked at me. I smiled and said: ‘I did enjoy The North Ship.’ He stared down at me and said: ‘If you think you’re sharing my umbrella you’ve got another think coming.’ And with that he pressed the catch on his umbrella so that it folded down closer around his head.
At Hull, if asked about our poet, we would have instantly thought of Buddy Holly look-alike Roger McGough and his readings at the Catholic Society. If asked about our famous writer, we would have instantly, and proudly, mentioned Richard Hoggart. Being in Adult Education, he was off-campus and thus rarely seen.
I wish I had known John Saville’s Larkin and I wish the poet’s diaries had not been shredded. I have heard, from one who caught a glimpse of them, that there was a very shameful reference in them. Apparently Larkin used to sneak into Boothferry Park, his black-and-yellow hiding his face, and records this in a draft of a poem called ‘Long Tigers Days’ which begins ‘They fuck you up this football team …’
Talking of football, your reviewer Ian Hamilton (LRB, 22 April) clearly belongs in the Southern Softie Supporters’ Club. ‘Indignations in soccer,’ he writes, ‘are short-lived: they have to be.’ What is this? Part of being a fan is about long-held indignations. My longest-held indignation is about an Everton v. Bolton game in 1953 and I’m still pretty unhappy about the result of Bill Nicholson’s first game in charge of Spurs. Hamilton, being a Spurs fan, has no need to remind me of the score. Secondly, ‘to love Gascoigne, you have to love football.’ Well, to love Gascoigne, you have to love tricky alehouse footballers.
Vol. 15 No. 13 · 8 July 1993
It is a pity that the current Larkin controversy should, in your columns, have degenerated to the level of fond reminiscence and affectionate anecdote (Letters, 22 April and Letters, 13 May). Apologia conducted on such a plane is unequal to the challenge posed by Larkin’s work and disappointing as responses to Alan Bennett’s troubled piece (LRB, 25 March) and John Bayley’s spirited after-piece (22 April). For, surely, it is not a question of whether Larkin was a great librarian or ‘a very interesting minor poet’ (his competence as librarian has never been at issue, and the calculus defining him as ‘minor’ has never been articulated).
John Bayley praises the poet for being ‘shamelessly himself’ and for ‘not bringing anything in from outside when he wrote’. But Larkin’s meaning and value, even in Professor Bayley’s latest account, are established precisely through their being antithetically inscribed against views of literary production (poetic impersonality, the death of the author) which constituted the very context out of which Larkin wrote and which he was used – and is still used by Professor Bayley – to combat. Arguably, had he not, for example, been so self-consciously after Eliot, he would never have been heard of. Furthermore, specific Larkin poems only take their meaning from their negotiation with something ‘outside’. And to say that Larkin, ‘like his hero Lawrence, was shamelessly himself’, overlooks the crucial, traumatised element of self-disgust and self-doubt in Larkin, as well as eliding (as Professor Bayley’s argument requires) the very great struggle Larkin waged with Lawrence as agon. And, finally, to claim that in Larkin we find ‘language transforming the place of horror, the place of boredom’, is to be quite untrue to Larkin’s principled agnosticism about the power of poetic language to be in celebration, quite untrue to the unremitting irony and heroic negativity to which Larkin submitted art’s highest claims.
If Larkin matters as ‘the poet of personality’, we need to ask why this is. And if he is indeed the hero of an embattled individualism, we must be sure not to gloss over the evidence of quite what a difficult, dismal and finally botched career this alleged humanist had of it. And, finally, we need to interrogate rather more closely the possibility of separating the singularity of the personality from the authentic weight of the artistic achievement, and to acknowledge fully the role of institutional practices in any such critical achievement. Because Larkin ‘despised English departments’, Professor Bayley tells us, ‘they do not forgive him’. Most of Larkin’s longtime admirers have remained loyal, and many, like Professor Bayley, have been or are in English departments. As though wishing to minimise the role of institutions, and certainly advancing his claims for individualism one step further, Professor Bayley concludes by claiming that ‘everyone has their own Larkin.’ But the voice of authority immediately contradicts this apparent pluralism: ‘Andrew Motion[’s] good intentions seem to speak from beyond too great a gap in culture and time.’ The tone of the centre still claims for itself and for Larkin the last – and better – word.
University of the Witwatersrand