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.

This sounds plausible, and could be backed up with some fairly unappealing extracts from these once-private letters. Larkin was surprisingly alert to questions of literary-world status and to the encroachments of his rivals. No attempt to account for his lifelong unhappiness can now possibly pretend that he was not. But his ambition, as its largely dismal narrative unwinds, seems anything but Maileresque. There is no zest in it, no Tarzan-calls, no muscle-flexing self-delusion, no ... well, no ambition, really, as somebody like Mailer would define it. The yearned-for bays are withered; they may even turn out to be made of plastic – withered plastic, if this boy’s luck runs true to form. Larkin knew himself to be the champ – but he knew also that he was a small-time, local sort of champ. He was unlikely to make it in the heavyweight division, nor was he a serious contender for world titles. He was at best perhaps a bantam-weight or – ho ho ho – a cruiser. But then, God bugger me blue, what did that make all the other craps and shags – the Wains, Davies, Hugheses, for Christ’s sake? At least he, Larkin, didn’t show up for readings in a leather jacket.

‘You’ve become what I dreamed of becoming,’ Larkin wrote to Kingsley Amis at a point quite late on in their careers, seeming to mean by this that Amis was an esteemed, successful novelist and that he himself was a mere poet. But there were other ways in which he envied Amis – or rather there were other ways in which he measured himself against what Amis seemed to represent.

In a very early letter – not to Amis – Larkin finds himself brooding, as he often does, on ‘ways of life’, and he ends up contrasting two types of literary artist: there is the ‘ivory tower cunt ... who denies all human relationships, either through disgust, shyness, or weakness, or inability to deal with them’, and there is ‘the solid man with plenty of roots in everyday living by which his spiritual and mental existence is nourished’. Although Larkin would surely have guffawed later on had Amis proposed himself as an example of the second type, he knew that he, Larkin, had grown into a pretty fair example of the first. What was it that had made him stay put, miss out, cave in, while his comrade voyaged out to grasp the goodies?

‘After comparing lives with you for years/I see how I’ve been losing,’ Larkin wrote, in a poem which was not published in his lifetime but which he tinkered with for two decades. The addressee may not have been Amis but one’s guess is that it was. Even after the pair of them have become grand figures, Larkin still has the Amis model on his mind. When the Oxford Book of 20th-Century Verse clocks up sales of 85,000, this is ‘chickenfeed compared with Lucky Jim’. On the other hand, Larkin is delighted to find that his entries in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations outnumber Amis’s by five to one.

Twenty years’ worth of the Amis-Larkin correspondence has gone missing, so it is not easy to track their rivalry in detail. From what there is, though, we get the sense that Amis’s worldly success had some significant bearing on Larkin’s precocious sourness, his posture of exclusion and defeat, the sense even that without the Amis irritation Larkin may not so readily have found his subject, his unlucky Jim. At the beginning of their friendship, Larkin took it for granted that he was the more serious, the more loftily-destined of the two. On the face of it, in 1941, the two were neck and neck, a couple of randy bachelor types who didn’t give a bugger, partners in pornography, swapping smut, comparing readings on their ever-active masturbation charts, and all the rest of it. Each of them was working on a novel, and although we don’t know what Amis thought of his own work at this time (or, come to that, of Larkin’s) we are in no doubt of Larkin’s intensity of purpose.

‘I so badly want to write novels,’ he wrote (again, though, not to Amis), novels that would be ‘a mix of Lawrence, Thomas Hardy and George Eliot’. In order to achieve this aim, he is already shaping up to distance himself from enfeebling human attachments: ‘I find that once I “give in” to another person ... there is a slackening and dulling of the peculiar artistic fibres.’ As early as 1943, he is looking forward to a ‘lonely bachelorhood interspersed with buggery and strictly monetary fornication’. At this stage, such resolutions are for art’s sake and are anyway half-joking. Amis’s readiness to get sexually involved is to be envied in some ways but it also suggests a failure of essential seriousness. On the very few occasions when Larkin does address Amis solemnly, as writer to writer, the tone is close to condescending: ‘You know that the putting down of good words about good things is the mainspring of my endeavours.’

By the age of 25, Larkin had published two novels and one book of poems, with another book of poems ready, as he thought, for publication. Amis had managed but one volume of his verse; none of his fiction had appeared. Six years later, Larkin had one further publication to his credit – the privately-printed XX Poems – and Amis had come out with Lucky Jim, a novel that had its comic roots in the ribald world which he and Larkin had once shared and which (so Larkin may have thought) they had invented. Its spectacular success, coming when it did, must have been hard for Larkin to endure. Or maybe he didn’t give a toss. Come in, Andrew Motion.

It is unusual for a writer’s letters – all foreground and virtually no background – to come out in advance of a biography (Motion’s Life will be coming out next year), and the Amis connection is just one of several areas on which conjecture is rather teasingly encouraged. More familiar, perhaps, than the idea of Larkin-the-careerist is the idea of Larkin-the-depressive, but here also we have too many gaps in the life-story, too many possible crisis-points, too many relationships that are insufficiently explained. Even so, as a chronicle of ever-deepening wretchedness, this book has weight enough. From 1945, when he takes his first job as a librarian in Leicester (having already written his two novels) until his death forty years later, the pattern of complaint remains more or less the same: the job is boring, the writing is going badly or not going at all, the relationship he is in – if there is one – is dreary, futureless and guilt-inducing, the world – and England in particular – is going to pot, thanks usually to lefties, foreigners and niggers.

Pornography, cricket, jazz, gin, Mrs Thatcher and the occasional spring day provide relief but even these oases are eventually discovered to be tainted. Pornography is all very well but where – in real life – do you get to see ‘schoolgirls suck each other off while you whip them’? Test matches have to be avoided because there are ‘too many fucking niggers about’, too many ‘Caribbean germs’. Even good jazz gets boring in late middle age and the trouble with spring is that you’re supposed to like it. Gin, he’s advised, is killing him. Only Mrs Thatcher (along with D.H. Lawrence) fails in the end to disappoint, but Larkin lashes himself for having disappointed her: he refuses the offered Laureateship because, he says, he has become ‘a turned-off tap’.

Larkin stopped writing altogether in 1977, the year his mother died, and in his last years the routine misery takes on a sharper, more urgently self-loathing edge, as if the one thing that had made the rest just about possible to bear had, by withdrawing, left him exposed – to the world, and to himself – as an impostor, a grotesque: ‘In the old days, depression wasn’t too bad because I could write about it. Now writing has left me, and only depression remains’: ‘So now we face 1982, 16 stone six, gargantuanly paunched, helplessly addicted to alcohol, tired of livin’ and scared of dyin’, world-famous unable-to-write poet.’

Now and then, Larkin’s misery sounds clinical, there from the start, as when he writes that ‘depression hangs over me as if I were Iceland’ or (in 1949) that he feels as if he has been ‘doctored in some way, and my central core dripped on with acid’. At other times, of course, it comes across as Larkinesque, the act he opted for because it was so easy to perform, so ‘true to life’. What might have made a difference? In 1944, he wrote:

You see, my trouble is that I simply can’t understand anybody doing anything but write, paint, compose music – I can understand their doing things as a means to these ends, but I can’t see what a man is up to who is satisfied to follow a profession in the normal way. If I hadn’t the continual knowledge that ‘when all this bloody work is through for today I can start work again’ or ‘this half-hour is simply ghastly, but one day it will have been digested sufficiently to be written about’ – if I didn’t think that, I don’t know what I should do. And all the people who don’t think it, what do they do? What are they striving for?

The great novel never happened and perhaps Larkin recognised – and hated to recognise – how little of the true novelist’s generosity, or curiosity, of spirit he could actually muster or sustain. But he was proud of what he did write, even though it was in the nature of his gift that its appearances would be intermittent, and it is unlikely that he was all that tormented by his failure to write fiction. He may have wanted to be Kingsley Amis (now and then) but it seems doubtful that he would have wanted to swap oeuvres.

The love of a good woman? Larkin’s misogyny was well entrenched by his early twenties – all women are stupid, he would say, they make scenes, they cling, they are forever parading their ‘emotional haberdashery’, they want babies – but who knows how things might have turned out if he had been luckier in his liaisons? Or, he would no doubt have retorted, more courageous, better-looking, or more ready to fork out for endless boring dinners (with no money back when it’s all over)? In the early Fifties, there was one affair (described by the editor as ‘passionate’) which seems to have made more than the usual impact. Patsy Strang, a married woman, actually has Larkin addressing her as ‘sugarbush’ and ‘honeybear’. The episode is short-lived but the recollection of it somehow hangs over all subsequent involvements. When it ended Larkin wrote to her:

You are the sort of person one can’t help feeling (in a carping sort of way) ought to come one’s way once in one’s life – without really expecting she will – and since you did, I feel I mustn’t raise a howl when circumstances withdraw you, however much I miss you – it would be ungrateful to fortune, if you see what I mean ... do you? At least, that’s what I try to feel! But oh dear, oh dear! You were so wonderful!

There is no other moment quite like this in the book. To turn the screw, Patsy Strang died – of alcoholic poisoning – in 1977, two months before old Mrs Larkin died. This was, of course, the year of Larkin’s ‘retirement’ from writing poetry, and the year, too, in which he finally completed the poem ‘Aubade’: ‘the good not done, the love not given, time/torn off unused’.

Postscript. Patsy Strang, we learn, was the only person who got to read Larkin’s notorious journals, the ones that were destroyed, on his instructions, at his death. In Larkin’s letters of 1975, though, he speaks of ‘my old diaries (which I am now destroying)’ and again ‘I am all right but not writing anything, except slowly boiling down my diaries: the idea is that I shall then burn them. I’m on 1940 at the moment.’ Does this mean that the journals shredded after his death were actually digests of the originals perused by Strang?