Alas! Deceived

Alan Bennett

  • 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.

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