Maschler Pudding

John Bayley

  • À la Pym: The Barbara Pym Cookery Book by Hilary Pym and Honor Wyatt
    Prospect, 102 pp, £9.95, September 1995, ISBN 0 907325 61 0

On 23 April 1977 Philip Larkin came to lunch at Barbara Pym’s cottage in Finstock, near Oxford. She and her sister had only been living there a short while, after Pym’s retirement from her post in Fetter Lane as assistant editor of Africa; and it was Larkin’s first and, as it turned out, his only visit. After her years in the wilderness, Pym’s novel Quartet in Autumn had at last been accepted for publication: Larkin and David Cecil had independently named her as their choice of ‘most undervalued writer’ in the 75th-anniversary number of the TLS. As Pym’s diary records, they had kipper pâté to start, after sherry; and then ‘veal done with peppers and tomatoes, Pommes Anna, and celery and cheese (he didn’t eat any Brie and we thought perhaps he only likes plain food). He’s shy but very responsive and jokey. He left about 3.30 in his large Rover car (pale tobacco colour).’ The faded paint of the car looked just as she describes it; the car itself was not in fact a Rover but a very second-hand Austin, the largest model – Larkin being well over six feet tall – and was liable spontaneously to catch fire. Changing gears was not his thing, and he valued its automatic gearbox, unfortunately of an early and unreliable type. These matters are in Larkin’s letters, which take the same pleasure in small fact as Pym’s diaries. How commonplace it would be if all we could read about in that diary entry was their current books and poems, and how each was getting on with them, and what they thought about literature today. The occasion would not have been memorable. As it is, it is. And largely because of the food.

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[*] Macmillan. 256 pp., £9.99, 8 September, 0 333 64630 4.