Instead of a Present

Alan Bennett contributes to a festschrift for Philip Larkin

My first thought was that this whole enterprise is definitely incongruous. A birthday party for Philip Larkin is like treating Simone Weil to a candlelit dinner for two at a restaurant of her choice. Or sending Proust flowers. No. A volume of this sort is simply a sharp nudge in the direction of the grave; and that is a road, God knows, along which he needs no nudging.

And why now in particular? Apparently he is 60, but when was he anything else? He has made a habit of being 60; he has made a profession of it. Like Lady Dumbleton, he has been 60 for the last 25 years. On his own admission there was never a boy Larkin; no young lad Philip, let alone Phil, ever.

Besides, why a book? He must be fed up at the sight of books. It’s books, books, books every day of his life, and now here’s another of the blighters. Why not something more along the lines of a biscuit barrel? Because that’s all this collection is, the literary equivalent of an electric toaster (or a Teasmaid perhaps) presented by the divisional manager at an awkward ceremony in the staff canteen, and in the firm’s time too. Still, any form of clock would have been a mistake. Better to have played safe and gone for salad servers or even a fish slice. I had an auntie, the manageress of a shoeshop, who every birthday gave me shoe-trees. They were always acceptable.

These are some of the reasons why I feel ill at ease in this doleful jamboree. Added to which there is the question of his name. Without knowing Mr Larkin, what do I call him? I feel like the student at a dance, suddenly partnered by the Chancellor of the University, who happened to be Princess Margaret. Swinging petrified into the cha-cha he stammered: ‘I am not sure what to call you.’ The strobe was doused in the Windsor glare: ‘Why not try Princess Margaret?’ A bleak smile from Hull could be just as disconcerting. Philip he plainly is not, though Larkin is over-familiar too, suggesting a certain fellow-footing. Being a librarian doesn’t help: I’ve always found them close relatives of the walking dead.

Of course this book is presumably not addressed to the librarian. I imagine all librarians get at 60 is piles. If they’re lucky. No, we are addressing the real Larkin, the one who feels shut out when he sees 15-year-olds necking at bus-stops. But that’s risky too: authors resent the knowledge of themselves they have volunteered to their readers, and one can never address them in the light of it without turning into a lady in a hat.

Whether as Larkin, Philip Larkin or plain Philip, his name is bound to turn up on every page of this book. Names strike more than they stroke, and I would like to think of him wincing as he reads, staggering under repeated blows from his own name, Larkin buffeted, not celebrated. I should be disappointed in him, too, did he not harbour doubts about the whole enterprise, echoing Balfour’s remark: ‘I am more or less happy when being praised, not very uncomfortable when being abused, but I have moments of uneasiness when being explained.’

It’s very gingerly, therefore, that I say my thank you. For what? Often simply because his poems happen to coincide with my own life. And, yes, I know that is what one is supposed to feel, and that is Art. But it’s not art that stood me for the two minutes’ silence on the parade ground at Coulsdon one November morning in 1952 when the Comet came looming low out of the fog, as in ‘Naturally the Foundation will bear your expenses’. Or put me in a Saturday train from Leeds on a slow and stopping journey southwards, the only empty seats reserved for a honeymoon couple who got on at Doncaster. One of the first of his poems I read was ‘I remember, I remember’, and it was this sense of coincidence, even collocation, that made me go on to read more. It isn’t my favourite among his poems, but it’s the one that made me realise that someone who admitted his childhood was ‘a forgotten boredom’ might be talking to me.

I had always had a sneaking feeling my childhood didn’t come up to scratch, even at the time; and when I began at the usual age to think there might be some question of becoming ‘a writer’ (I do not say writing) the want of this apparently essential period seemed crucial. In all the books I had read childhoods were either idyllic or deprived. Mine had been neither. In point of memories I was a nonstarter. I had not spent hours in the crook of a great tree devouring Alice or Edgar Rice Burroughs. I read (and even then patchily – I never devoured anything) Hotspur, Champion and Knock-Out, not quite the ore of art. It’s true that for a long time I too went to bed early, but most children did in those days, with no effect on the percentage turning out to be Proust. I scanned my childhood for eccentrics and found none. I had an aunt who had played the piano in the silent cinema; her music is still in the piano stool today (snap again), but there was nothing odd about her, apart from her large, elderly bust; and there was no shortage of those either.

My school was dull, too. It wasn’t old. It wasn’t new. There was not even a kindly schoolmaster who put books into my hands. I think one may have tried to, but it was not until I was 16 and a bit late in the day. Another boy had shown me Stephen Spender’s World Within World, or at any rate the bits dealing with homosexuality, the references to which (while pretty opaque by today’s standards) were thought rather daring in 1951. Spender had been befriended by the music master, Mr Greatorex, who had told young Stephen that although he was unhappy now there would come a time when he would begin to be happy and then he would be happier than most. I took great comfort from this, except that I wasn’t particularly unhappy (that was the trouble): but the thought that I was about to get the Greatorex treatment, that a master in my dull day-school had divined beneath my awkwardness the forlorn and troubled essence, produced in me a reaction of such extravagant enthusiasm and wanting to be ‘brought out’ that the master in question (who had merely suggested I might like to read his New Statesman from time to time) scuttled straight back into his shell. It was further proof that literature and life (or my life at any rate) were different things. For the time being, anyway. At Oxford I was sure it would be another story.

So to Oxford I duly went, changing stations at Sheffield and probably taking for a trainspotter that balding man at the end of the platform eating a pie. That I had still not acquired a past hit me the minute I entered the lodge of my college. It was piled high with trunks: trunks pasted with ancient labels, trunks that had holidayed in Grand Hotels, travelled first-class on liners, trunks painted with four, nay even five initials (that’s another sympathetic thing about Larkin, the bare essentials of his name). These shabby, confident trunks had stood in this lodge before. They were the trunks of fathers that were now the trunks of sons, trunks of generations. These trunks spoke memory. I had two shameful Antler suitcases that I had gone with my mother to buy at Schofields in Leeds – an agonising process, since it had involved her explaining to the shop assistant, a class my mother always assumed were persons of some refinement, that the cases were for going to Oxford with on a scholarship and were these the kind of thing? They weren’t. One foot across the threshold of the college lodge and I saw it, and hurried to hide them beneath my cold bed. By the end of the first term I hadn’t acquired much education but I’d got myself a decent, second-hand trunk.

It didn’t stop at the trunk either. Class, background, culture, accent ... all that was going to have to be acquired second-hand too. Had I read ‘I remember, I remember’ in 1955, when The Less Deceived came out, I might have been spared the trouble. Though I doubt it. Poems tell you what you know already, and I still had it to learn. Besides I didn’t read poetry. I thought I read Auden, but to tell the truth – except in the shorter poems – I never got beyond the first dozen or so lines without being completely lost. One of the good things about Larkin is that he still has you firmly by the hand as you cross the finishing line. Whereas reading Auden is like doing a parachute drop: for a while the view is wonderful, but then you end up on your back in the middle of a ploughed field and in the wrong county. I heard Auden give his inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1956. That put the tin hat on any lingering thoughts of Literature (one of my problems was that I still thought of both Literature and Life as having capital letters). Here were ‘blinding theologies of fruit and flowers’, a monogrammed set of myths and memories carried over from a bulging childhood, and not in Antler suitcases either. Obsessions, landscapes, favourite books, even (one’s heart sank) the Icelandic sagas. If writing meant passing this sort of kit inspection, I’d better forget it.

Dissolve to 1966. Life, love and literature were all long since in the lower case and I had drifted into show business. I was looking for ideas to beef up a comedy series. It was practically a clause in the BBC Charter at that time that comedy sketches should be linked only with vocal numbers. I was after something that bit classier. My producer, Patrick Garland, suggested filming poems, gave me The Less Deceived, and I read ‘I remember, I remember’. I think I had realised by then that to write one doesn’t need credentials, but I must be the only one of his readers who came to Larkin as an alternative to Alma Cogan.

If presents are in order I would like him to have that sound, part sigh, part affirmation, that I heard once in Zion Chapel, Settle, in Yorkshire, after I’d read ‘MCMXIV’. And another sound ... Reading Larkin in public, I’ve sometimes followed on with Stevie Smith’s ‘Not Waving but Drowning’:

Poor chap, he’d always loved larking
And now he’s dead.

Of course, being the sort of person he was, the poor chap would have; and half-thinking it a pun – and not inappropriate at that – one or two people in the audience mew to themselves.

He would also appreciate something my mother said. My brother had gone to Athens. She was asked where he was but could not remember. ‘It begins with an A,’ she said. ‘Oh, I know. Abroad.’

I am abroad writing this in another place beginning with A, America. He would not thank me for New York, I imagine, but if he does not feel at home here he would not feel out of place among streets like Greene and Grand and Great Jones, the cast-iron district which I see from my window. I would give him, too, any work by Edward Hopper, whose paintings could often pass as illustrations to the poems of Larkin; and in particular People in the Sun (1960).

Finally, something I saw scrawled up in the subway. On the wall someone has written: ‘Pray for me.’ Another hand has added: ‘Sure.’