Bugger me blue

Ian Hamilton

  • The Selected Letters of Philip Larkin edited by Anthony Thwaite
    Faber, 759 pp, £20.00, October 1992, ISBN 0 571 15197 3

There is a story that when William F. Buckley Jr sent a copy of his essays to Norman Mailer, he pencilled a welcoming ‘Hi, Norman!’ in the Index, next to Mailer’s name. A similar tactic might happily have been ventured by the publishers of Philip Larkin’s Letters: the book’s back pages are going to be well-thumbed. ‘Hi, Craig,’ see page 752, you ‘mad sod’; ‘Hi, John,’ see page 563, you ‘arse-faced trendy’; ‘Hi, David,’ see page 266, you ‘deaf cunt’, and so on. Less succinct salutations will be discovered by the likes of Donald Davie (‘droning out his tosh’), Ted Hughes (‘boring old monolith, no good at all – not a single solitary bit of good’) and Anthony Powell, aka ‘the horse-face dwarf’. There is even a ‘Hi, Ian’: he calls me ‘the Kerensky of poetry’. Not too bad, I thought at first. Alas, though, the book’s editor advises me that Larkin almost certainly meant to say Dzerzhinsky, or somebody – some murderer – like that. He had probably misread a communication from Robert (The Great Terror) Conquest.

Anyway, it is already pretty clear that one of the chief excitements of this publication will be in finding out who has been dumped on, and how badly. Few well-known names escape the Larkin lash and although Anthony Thwaite seems in this area to have been abundantly forthcoming, we can surmise that he must have done some toning down. After all, this is merely a Selected Letters and there are over three hundred [...]’s sprinkled throughout.

Apart from Thwaite himself, the few who are spared include figures like Vernon Watkins, Gavin Ewart, Barbara Pym: allies who are genuinely liked and admired but who are nonetheless junior to Larkin in talent and repute. The really big hates tend to be reserved for sizable poetic rivals. Ted Hughes is a recurrent, near-obsessive target, with S. Heaney advancing on the rails. Even John Betjeman is given a few slap-downs here and there. All in all, I think it is true to say that Larkin has not a kind word for any contemporary writer who might be thought of as a threat to his pre-eminence. Kingsley Amis seems to be the exception but actually isn’t, quite: in this complicated case, the kind words are often double-edged. And as Larkin got older, he became increasingly disposed to downgrade the literary heroes of his youth. Auden, once worshipped, becomes a ‘cosmopolitan lisping no-good’; Yeats turns into ‘old gyre-and-grumble’. Only Lawrence, Larkin’s earliest ‘touchstone against the false’, survives more or less intact.

It would be easy enough, then, to argue that – fun and games aside – the really important revelation of these letters is that Larkin, the above-it-all curmudgeon and recluse, the arch-self-deprecator, was in truth nursing a champ-sized fixation on matters of literary rank – a fixation perhaps Maileresque in its immensity and scope. The settings, we might say, are different, drabber, Hull not Brooklyn, and so on, but the ache for supremacy is much the same. Mailer, in his Advertisements for Myself, set out to annihilate the opposition, rather as Larkin seems to here. The American made a show of his megalomania; he overplayed it, with a grin. Larkin, being English, being Larkin, chose a public stance that was meant to disguise the ferocity of his ambition.

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