Damp-Lipped Hilary

Jenny Diski

  • Trouble at Willow Gables and Other Fictions by Philip Larkin, edited by James Booth
    Faber, 498 pp, £20.00, May 2002, ISBN 0 571 20347 7

Life is too short to read Philip Larkin’s juvenilia. Reading ‘Trouble at Willow Gables’ and ‘Michaelmas Term at St Brides’ is up there with stuffing mushrooms: there is a part of me which, as I read – or stuff – has precognition of the moment of my death and the very last conscious thought, which is the blinding awareness of the precious hours wasted on Larkin’s schoolgirl stories or mushrooms when I might have done something more positive with them such as sleeping or filing my nails. Actually, I’ve never stuffed a mushroom in my life. That much sense I’ve got. I have no idea whether James Booth has ever gone in for fancy cooking. No time probably. He has his hands full of Larkin. He is a Reader in English at Hull University, and after a false start in 1981 (Writers and Politics in Nigeria), he has devoted himself to the cause of Philip Larkin. Philip Larkin: Writer in 1992 was followed by a collection of essays, New Larkins for Old (2000); he is secretary of the Philip Larkin Society and edits its newsletter, About Larkin (it’s a joke, d’you see?). Now he has edited and introduced these mostly unfinished and unpublished fictions that have been lying around in the archive. It’s what some literary academics do for a living, I know, hanging on the every word of their chosen one, but when it comes down to scratching about at the bottom of the barrel of the 21-year-old Larkin’s doodlings during the summer after leaving university, it’s time to head for the kitchen and get the mushroom scraper out.

The trouble with making a career around Larkin is that the output is quite small, and others, Andrew Motion and Anthony Thwaite, have already picked the meat out of the life. What’s left after a couple of books of literary criticism wouldn’t amount to a serious life’s work for a mayfly. Or shouldn’t. There is, however, an unmistakable reverential quality in the scholarly apparatus. The artefacts with which the acolyte is working are so precious as to require the minutest description of their physical reality. They are relics, touched by and touching the life of an exceptional being, like a sliver of the true cross.

A typescript (recto and verso) of 16 sheets, less flimsy and of smaller size (224 x 173mm) than the paper used for ‘Trouble at Willow Gables’ . . . The title and author’s name are underlined using the red typewriter ribbon, the first letter of “WHAT” is typed over in red, and a short red line has been typed below the date. The verso of the title-page is blank; thereafter the pages are numbered in the centre at the bottom –1–, –2– etc. The essay ends at the bottom of p. 29 which is not numbered but has the final ornament ___ooOoo___, with the O and os in red. The verso of the final sheet is blank. The 16 sheets are made into a booklet by two staples a little over a centimetre in from the left edge.

We are not told what width lies between the staples. There must be some priestly secrets or the keepers of the truth would have no function at all.

The above describes the typescript of a spoof essay, ‘What Are We Writing For?’, written by Larkin in 1943 in the guise of Brunette Coleman, a lesbian writer of girls’ school stories. The entire oeuvre of Brunette Coleman (the nominal shadow of a real Blanche Coleman, an ‘all-girl’ bandleader of the day) consists of a finished 120-page novel, ‘Trouble at Willow Gables’, an unfinished sequel, ‘Michaelmas Term at St Brides’, the essay mentioned above on the glories and sorrows of writing girls’ school stories, and seven poems called ‘Sugar and Spice’:

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