Keep yr gob shut

Christopher Tayler

  • The Odd Couple: The Curious Friendship between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin by Richard Bradford
    Robson, 373 pp, £20.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 84954 375 0

‘Sometimes,’ Philip Larkin wrote in a letter, ‘I think I’m preparing for a huge splenetic autobiography, denigrating everyone I’ve ever known: it would have to be left to the nation in large brass-bound boxes, to be printed when all of us are dead.’ In the event he arranged to have his diaries shredded a few days before his death in 1985. But there was enough spleen and denigration to go round in the stuff preserved by ambiguous clauses in his will, stuff let loose on the nation first in 1988 via Anthony Thwaite’s edition of the poems and then in Thwaite’s Selected Letters of Philip Larkin (1992) and Andrew Motion’s Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life (1993). In Larkin’s best poems ‘minginess of spirit’ – J.M. Coetzee’s phrase from another context – is either played for laughs or set against the poet’s ‘sun-comprehending’ side. In the life documented by Thwaite and Motion, though, it could be seen as the animating principle of everything from Larkin’s strangled sexual existence to his dislike of ‘niggers’, the poor, most other writers, other people in general and, much of the time, himself.

Kingsley Amis, the addressee of many colourful Larkin bulletins, had written to his pen pal in 1956 of the ‘feast … awaiting chaps when we’re both dead and our complete letters come out’. He was, he said, vastly amused by the debates occasioned by Motion’s biography: to be dismayed by Larkin’s spank mags and racism even in notes to his mum was, for Amis, a sign of humourless cultural Stalinism. He and Robert Conquest had also been amused by advance word of Larkin’s letters to Barbara Pym (‘I bet they were a bit different in tone from what he writes to you and me, eh?’). At the same time, he was unsettled by finding out how much Larkin had kept from him of his arrangements in Hull – principally the depth of his involvements with Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan, walk-on grotesques as far as Amis was concerned – and can’t have been pleased by hints here and there of Larkin’s reservations about the Amis works and life. In Amis’s correspondence with Conquest, and more covertly in his Memoirs (1991), there’s a feeling that Larkin’s poems, splendid though they may be, are in need of corrective piss-taking and don’t carry the weight that ‘any novel does’.

After his death, in 1995, Amis took less of a battering than Larkin had. Martin Amis’s Experience (2000) softened the prevailing image of him as the meanest drunk at the Garrick, and Zachary Leader’s biography wasn’t unkind. Amis’s ogreish ways weren’t news anyway: annoying feminists and lefties had been, for him, half the point. Since then his novels have been refloated as period pieces and his lower profile in the US has helped Brooklynites learn to see him as an alluringly cultish figure. Larkin’s afterlife, too, is going better than was feared in the early 1990s. ‘A writer’s reputation is twofold,’ he wrote in 1975: ‘what we think of his work, and what we think of him. What’s more, we expect the two halves to relate: if they don’t, then one or other of our opinions alters until they do.’ In his case, there’s been a widespread tacit decision to keep the ravening sadness and interestingly curdled love life while putting the bigotry in a more forgiving perspective. There have even been not wholly jokey ‘queerings’ of the Larkin oeuvre by way of his Sapphic schoolgirl jottings and taste for mannish women.

For Richard Bradford, however, it’s still 1993. ‘Left-leaning commentators’, in league with ‘academics and other members of the literary establishment’, are gunning for Larkin and Amis from all sides. With no Clive James or Martin Amis to stand up for the outlaw wordsmiths, the rescue operation, this time round, falls to Bradford, a professor at the University of Ulster who’s already written biographies of the Amises, father and son, plus Larkin, among others, and isn’t afraid to take the fight to the opposition. Larkin, he writes, turned everyday material into ‘poems of seemingly incongruous elegance. For this reason he is loathed. Academics hate him because he is not self-indulgent.’ Amis – who produced ‘the finest fiction … of the era’ – is picked on for similarly self-serving reasons: ‘The only comic mode now granted respect by the literati is the kind of surreal speculation on the absurdities of the intellect that finds its way into the work of Joyce, Beckett, Pinter … acceptable because it detaches comedy from anything remotely realistic and because it has more to do with smug elitism than laughter.’ Judging by his comments on Larkin’s dad’s admiration for D.H. Lawrence as well as Hitler, Bradford has brought himself up to speed on John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992).

Not liking modernism and not wanting to be taken for poncy literary types were Amis-Larkin stances too, and proudly despising Beckett, in particular, is an Amis family tradition. (Kingsley to Larkin in 1985: ‘I think it’s all to do with Mandarin vs. Vernacular was it, as Cyril C put it? You know, art novel, Pickarso, European thought, bourgeois conscience, Tuscany, Beckett, we haven’t got a television set, lesson of the master and nothing happening.’) Yet Bradford’s discipleship is less wholehearted than it first seems. Throughout his narrative of the two men’s friendship it’s clear that he prefers Larkin’s closeted artiness to Amis’s knockabout style. Sometimes, as when he writes of the young Amis being viewed as ‘almost charismatic’, apparent bitchiness turns out to be a side effect of an awkward way with words. Elsewhere he seems as appalled as any taste-shaping puritan by Amis’s boozing and shagging. And after a while it’s hard not to feel for his subjects as he wrenches their every exchange into a pattern of one-way envy and obsession. When Larkin tells Monica that a letter from Amis ‘makes me laugh’, Bradford glosses: ‘No doubt it did but it stirred other feelings too.’ That these feelings, in this instance, weren’t mentioned only shows how deep they ran.

In outline, Bradford’s story isn’t all that different from the versions available or deducible from Leader, Motion, the published letters – including Larkin’s Letters to Monica (2010) – and each man’s public writings about the other. It starts in wartime Oxford, where Amis and Larkin, as students, were brought together by the many interests they had in common: beer, jazz, literature, girls, swearing, having it in for people and doing impressions of what Bradford calls Lord David Cecil’s ‘upper-middle-class drawl’. By the standards of the time their jokes had a punk rock aspect – Amis wrote fondly years later of the days when saying ‘fuck’ counted as ‘the breaking-out of a miniature Jolly Roger’ – and many of the attitudes that congealed so unpleasantly started out as a revolt against patrician cultural pretensions. Amis, whose father worked for Colman’s Mustard, didn’t like condescending public schoolboys and used music and communism to strike back at his dad’s Tory philistinism. Larkin – whose strange father had risen to be treasurer of Coventry City Corporation, going to Nuremberg rallies and reading Ulysses in his spare time – was already a more opaque figure. Amis discouraged him from dressing like an aesthete and going on about Lawrence, as he was then prone to do, but paid obeisance to what Bradford can’t have meant to call his ‘tendentious breadth of reading’.

Amis was called up in 1942, not much more than a year after they’d met. Larkin, excused on account of the inch-thick specs, collected his First and drifted librarywards. From here on out the friendship was conducted largely by post and they fell into well-defined roles. Larkin, the girl-starved provincial librarian and equivocally comic misanthrope, cast himself as chief complainer but made a strong early showing as the ranking literary man, publishing The North Ship (1945), Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947) before he was 26. Amis seems to have taken this in his stride, being more absorbed by the many sexual opportunities that came his way even as a junior academic. Larkin got on well with Amis’s first wife, Hilly Bardwell, and Bradford wonders how much he enjoyed Amis’s regular reports on extramarital adventures. They must have been a bit discouraging, though it wouldn’t be out of character for the poet to have laughed at such descriptions as: ‘Good breasts, yes, but a bad face, narrow eyes, long nose, cheese-like skin. Her hair smells slightly of watercress.’ There was also much swapping of fieldnotes on schoolgirls, in whom both were self-consciously interested. (‘I find myself wondering what would have happened,’ Alan Bennett wrote in 1986 of Larkin’s fear of death, ‘had he worked in a hospital once a week like – dare one say it? – Jimmy Savile.’)

The writing and publication of Lucky Jim (1954) is usually depicted as a turning point in their relations, and for Bradford it’s the key to everything. Amis got most of the material from his professional life and in-laws but later said he got the germ of the novel on a visit to Larkin at Leicester University. Larkin, who supplied editorial guidance and connived in the use of Monica – aka, in Amis’s letters, ‘Money-cur’ and ‘that grim old bag’ – as a model for the manipulative Margaret Peel, can’t have been uncomplicatedly thrilled when the book made Amis rich and famous. He dropped his attempts to write a third novel, didn’t think much of some of Amis’s later books, grumbled privately about being ‘chief unpaid acknowledged gagman to Amis Inc’, and turned increasingly to Monica for advice on works in progress. Amis, in turn, was baffled by Larkin’s self-willed life of drudgery in the middle of nowhere, as he saw it, and tried intermittently to stir his old chum to greater efforts in the fields of novel-writing and seduction. They saw each other less and less often – Amis’s last visit to Larkin’s digs was in 1952 – and in the 1960s their correspondence slowed. When it picked up again, Conquest served as a kind of buffer, though as non-jolly Thatcherite gargoyles they kept the Royal Mail busy until the end.

Armed with a clutch of previously unpublished letters, Bradford goes into all this in great detail. But his handling of the evidence doesn’t inspire confidence in his overarching argument, which is that nearly everything the later Larkin did and wrote was subterraneously driven by resentment and near hatred of you-know-who. ‘He would never grow to despise Amis – there was always something implacable in the relationship that endured.’ Yet ‘Larkin would remain embittered for the rest of his life’ by ‘a sense of having his life plagiarised by his friend’. This embitterment manifested itself in many devious ways, such as Larkin’s saying in a letter to Patsy Strang: ‘The Kingsley humour I think quite unrivalled, quite wonderful.’ Bradford writes:

But, of course, he always had; Amis had been one half of a private double act. Now, however, their world was public property and Larkin’s unease is evident. ‘Apart from being funny I think it is somewhat over-simple’; ‘It’s in the general thinness of the imagination that he falls down’ … He did not add that the reason none of this occurred to him while he was spending so much time helping Kingsley rewrite the first drafts was that he had misjudged the literary world that would in a month turn his friend from a nonentity into a star.

Not seeing a need to spell out his real meaning was a major symptom of Larkin’s condition, as Monica, especially, understood: ‘While he did not make the true cause of his offence explicit, Monica would surely have realised that he was embittered by …’; ‘Although he does not proffer a full explanation, Monica would undoubtedly recognise a connection between …’ Other symptoms were more florid. In 1961, only weeks after Amis had landed a Cambridge fellowship, Larkin passed out at work: ‘The true cause of his blackout remains a mystery … but it is impossible to ignore the fact that shortly after learning of Amis’s seemingly limitless capacity to make life comply with his appetites and aspirations Larkin had succumbed to a form of oblivion.’ And it’s ‘surely something more than a coincidence’ that Larkin’s affair with his secretary, launched in 1974, coincided with sexual difficulties in Amis’s second marriage.

Bradford’s discussions of his subjects’ work call on his divinatory powers too. Sometimes this causes trouble in his relationship with the mundane. If Larkin’s poem ‘The Old Fools’ needs a biographical impetus beyond his famous dread of age and death, for example, his mother’s move to a nursing home a year before he started it might be a useful candidate. To Bradford it seems likelier that it’s an advance ‘response’ to Amis’s novel Ending Up (1974). At the other end of the spectrum, several pages are spent proving that Amis’s Stanley and the Women (1984) – about how all women are bitches – was coloured by his rancorous divorce from Elizabeth Jane Howard. Bradford’s Exhibit A, however, is ‘Letter to a Friend about Girls’ (‘After comparing lives with you for years,/I see how I’ve been losing’), which Larkin tinkered with endlessly but chose not to publish because, he said, ‘the “joke”’ – the poem is meant to rebound on the speaker – ‘was either too obvious or too subtle to be seen.’ His either/or is dead on with regard to Bradford, who reads the poem as a quarrelsome direct address to Amis, though one with poetic cover ‘so magically successful’ that the insensitive old brute was able to call it ‘an absolutely fucking marvellous idea’. Larkin’s unrecorded thoughts on this assessment are mind-read at some length in free indirect style.

What’s frustrating about all this is that Bradford isn’t merely, or only, a crank. Amis clearly is a presence in ‘Letter to a Friend about Girls’, just as Larkin really did grumble about his use of their letters and react ungraciously to his triumphs. Even some of Bradford’s esoteric interpretations could have been made to look more plausible by a less clumsy writer, and the book is hard to fault on detail. The main problem is one of emphasis: Bradford isn’t good with humour, and his narrative requirements make him put too much weight on the idea of Larkin as the surly underdog. There are few reminders that he became the kind of poet who gets asked for autographs on the train, or that he was soaking up admiration long after Amis had come to be seen as a self-caricature. If Amis took more from Larkin than Larkin did from him, maybe Larkin had more to give. Maybe there’s less rancour over Amis’s metropolitan ‘entitlement’ and more self-knowledge behind such Larkin lines as: ‘The only good life is to live in some sodding seedy city and work and keep yr gob shut and be unhappy.’ Amis didn’t fully understand his friend, but apart from Bradford, who does?

Either way, it seems unfair to rap Amis on the knuckles for telling Larkin that ‘you seem to observe women much more closely and sensitively and well lovingly ah ha well perhaps not that than I do.’ Or to detect psychic torment in Larkin’s ‘I sometimes read a poem over with a tiny Kingsley crying How d’you mean at every unclear image, and it’s a wonderful aid to improvement.’ It also seems a bit hostile to pack a study of the two sticklers with phrases like ‘sham hypocrisies’, ‘the fact … is prescient’, ‘very contemporaneous presences’ and ‘not much is said but a great deal is magnificently inferred.’ Though it’s humbling to be shown how much of the believability of literary history comes down to getting words right, Bradford ought to get a tiny Kingsley of his own. Failing that, he could consult Amis’s The King’s English (1997), which deals with the imply/infer thing pretty helpfully, then concludes: ‘If you feel you have mental room for only one of the two, stick to infer while you wait for a new head.’