Here you are talking about duck again

Mark Ford

  • Philip Larkin: Letters Home, 1936-77 edited by James Booth
    Faber, 688 pp, £40.00, November 2018, ISBN 978 0 571 33559 6

Of Philip Larkin’s many ostentatiously ‘less deceived’ accounts of family life, among my favourites is the soaring riff that concludes his introduction to All What Jazz (1970), a collection of mainly unimpressed reviews of John Coltrane, Miles Davis et al that initially appeared in the Telegraph. ‘Sometimes I imagine them,’ he muses of the readers of his monthly column,

sullen fleshy inarticulate men, stockbrokers, sellers of goods, living in thirty-year-old detached houses among the golf courses of Outer London, husbands of ageing and bitter wives they first seduced to Artie Shaw’s ‘Begin the Beguine’ or the Squadronaires’ ‘The Nearness of You’; fathers of cold-eyed lascivious daughters on the pill … and cannabis-smoking jeans-and-bearded Stuart-haired sons whose oriental contempt for ‘bread’ is equalled only by their insatiable demand for it… men whose first coronary is coming like Christmas; who drift, loaded helplessly with commitments and obligations and necessary observances, into the darkening avenues of age and incapacity, deserted by everything that once made life sweet. These I have tried to remind of the excitement of jazz, and tell where it may still be found.

The precise nature of the family dynamics that shaped Larkin’s jaundiced views on marriage and parenthood have prompted much speculation. His own most explicit attempt to link his ‘natural fouled-up’-ness to his early childhood experiences comes in what turned out to be his last significant poem, ‘Love Again’, begun in the summer of 1975 and completed – or perhaps abandoned – four years later. It was inspired, he told Maeve Brennan – a colleague at Hull University library with whom he enjoyed a long and stuttering courtship, and finally an affair – by two dreams about her in which she went off with someone else, ‘losing dreams’, he called them (‘all very silly, for how can one lose what one does not possess?’). That Brennan assumed the poem’s third word was a misprint for ‘waking’ when she was shown it after Larkin’s death speaks volumes about their relationship:

Love again: wanking at ten past three
(Surely he’s taken her home by now?)
The bedroom hot as a bakery,
The drink gone dead, without showing how
To meet tomorrow, and afterwards,
And the usual pain, like dysentery.

Someone else feeling her breasts and cunt,
Someone else drowned in that lash-wide stare,
And me supposed to be ignorant,
Or find it funny, or not to care,
Even … but why put it into words?
Isolate rather this element

That spreads through other lives like a tree
And sways them on in a sort of sense
And say why it never worked for me.
Something to do with violence
A long way back, and wrong rewards,
And arrogant eternity.

This is a poem that addresses, with extraordinary bitterness, the central question of what it was that alienated Larkin from the rest of his tribe. While the ‘wrong rewards’ and ‘arrogant eternity’ can be fairly straightforwardly interpreted as Larkin questioning the Faustian pact that he made with his art all those years ago – a pact also brooded over in earlier poems such as ‘Reasons for Attendance’ and ‘Sympathy in White Major’ – the reference to violence seems to carry a more specifically autobiographical charge. In ‘I Remember, I Remember’ he dismissed his childhood as ‘unspent’, and in ‘Coming’ as ‘a forgotten boredom’, but in this late cri de coeur it is more troublingly figured as actively damaging rather than merely dreary.

Larkin’s father, Sydney, met his mother, Eva Day, in the summer of 1906 in Rhyl in North Wales. She was twenty, and on holiday with her parents; he was two years older, and on a cycling tour. Although both were extremely shy, they were also attracted to each other as opposites sometimes are: Sydney was forceful, decisive and emotionally remote, while Eva was a hapless worrier and ditherer who found running their household, even with the help of servants, an almost impossible challenge. ‘Certainly the marriage left me,’ Larkin later observed, ‘with two convictions: that human beings should not live together, and that children should be taken from their parents at an early age.’ In a 1979 interview with Miriam Gross for the Observer, Larkin described his parents as ‘rather awkward people and not very good at being happy’, adding: ‘And these things rub off.’

Sydney loved Germany, and became a great admirer of Hitler: on 3 September 1939, two days after the invasion of Poland, he embarked on what would become a twenty-volume diary that he called ‘The Fools’ War’. In his excellent introduction to this selection of Larkin’s letters home, James Booth quotes from its first page to demonstrate the nature of Larkin Senior’s political views: ‘Those who had visited Germany were much impressed by the good government and order of the country as by the cleanliness and good behaviour of the people – both in marked contrast to our own country.’ Sydney believed that the war came about because of British ‘jealousy’ of German social and economic progress, as well as annoyance at the National Socialist Party’s successful campaigns against ‘all subversive and foreign elements, notably the communists and the Jews’. Larkin’s famed dislike of ‘abroad’ seems to have had its origins in the trips he made to Germany with his parents in the summers of 1936 and 1937, when he was in his mid-teens, trips on which Sydney initiated his reluctant son into the jolly joys of the Bierkeller, with their accordions and patriotic songs – ‘think of that,’ he later remarked, ‘for someone who was just buying their first Count Basie records!’ Perhaps the most striking of the family photos included in this book is one of Eva in patterned dress and holiday hat looking even less certain of herself than usual, on a German street festooned with Nazi flags.

It’s clear that the ‘violence’ Larkin referred to was emotional rather than physical. But his various diagnoses of his parents’ marriage suggest that open or covert antagonism was the abiding theme of their lives together: ‘When I try to tune into my childhood, the dominant emotions I pick up are, overwhelmingly, fear and boredom,’ he wrote in a notebook entry in 1953, five years after his father’s death at the age of 63, exactly the age at which Larkin would die himself. ‘I think the situation was technically his fault. His personality had imposed this taut ungenerous defeated pattern of life on the family, and it was only to be expected that it would make them miserable and that their misery would react on him. And despite the fact that my mother grew to be such an obsessive snivelling pest, I think if my father had handled her properly she would have done much better.’ The vicious circle analysed here looks forward to the near impossibility of finding ‘Words at once true and kind,/Or not untrue and not unkind’ that afflicts the couple not talking in ‘Talking in Bed’. Sydney was evidently sparing in his use of words, and trenchant when he spoke (or wrote), while Eva indulged in ‘monotonous whining monologues’ that Larkin characterised as ‘resentful, self-pitying, full of funk and suspicion’. But it was precisely the viciousness of this circle that produced its opposite in Larkin’s poetry, which combines his father’s penchant for the controlling lapidary utterance (‘Life is first boredom, then fear’; ‘What will survive of us is love’) with his mother’s emotional openness, evident in the poetry’s willingness to be – to use his own terms exactly – ‘resentful’ (‘When I see a couple of kids/And guess he’s fucking her and she’s/Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm’), ‘self-pitying’ (‘One of those old-type natural fouled-up guys’), ‘full of funk’ (‘Making all thought impossible but how/And where and when I shall myself die’) and full of ‘suspicion’ (‘But what do I feel now? Doubt?//Or age, simply. The crowd/Is young in the M1 café;/Their kids are screaming for more’). But the overall life lesson he derived from his parents’ example was simple in the extreme: ‘Man hands on misery to man./It deepens like a coastal shelf./Get out as early as you can,/And don’t have any kids yourself.’

Whatever his feelings about his parents’ marriage, and the simmering siege mentality it generated, there’s no doubting his dutifulness as a son, particularly when it came to letter-writing. Between October 1940, when he left for Oxford, and 1977, when Eva died at the age of 91, Larkin fired off a letter home at least once a week, nearly always on Sundays; and towards the end of Eva’s life he would write several times during the week too. Booth has selected six hundred or so missives out of an archive of more than four thousand, as well as a judicious smattering of the replies he received from Pop, which are laconic and formal in the extreme, and from Mop, which often reveal a finely calculated passive-aggressive streak that goes some way to explaining Larkin’s numerous letters apologising for having exploded into anger in the course of his last visit to her.

Christmases were clearly awful. Here is an extract from a letter sent in November 1971 in which he anticipates the approach of the festive season with deep foreboding:

The thought of Christmas depresses me. Please don’t go to trouble. Every year I swear I’ll never endure it again, & make you promise to be sensible, & now here you are talking about duck again, just as if I had never shouted and got drunk & broken the furniture out of sheer rage at it all. For two pins I’d stay here & have bread & cheese, & motor down on the afternoon of Christmas Day. All I want is an ordinary lunch, and no fuss. Get a good piece of beef that will last a day or two, and potatoes for baking. To hell with Christmas. Let us have peace, & not all this blasted cooking and eating (and washing up!)

Duck, in fact, seems often to have been a bone of contention. In a letter the previous year he again apologises for an outburst, and attempts to explain, perhaps more for his own benefit than for that of Eva, what the ‘psychiatrist’ he mentions here might have described as ‘unresolved issues’:

I’m afraid I was not a very nice creature when at home. I wish I could explain the very real rage & irritation I feel: probably only a psychiatrist could do so. It may be something to do with never having got away from home. Or it may be my concern for you & blame for not doing more for you cloaking itself in anger. I do appreciate your courageous struggle to keep going in the old way, and am aware of your kindnesses – I did enjoy the duck, and all the other things – but I am worried about how long you can carry on without help.

The mixture of guilt and exasperation on display here runs through many of these letters. Eva may have been an obsessive snivelling pest, but Larkin didn’t just take his filial obligations extremely seriously: he remained emotionally bound up with his mother for reasons that might well have eluded even the hypothetical psychiatrist. He was no more able than the speaker of ‘Poetry of Departures’ – ‘We all hate home’ – to chuck up everything and just clear off. What made it impossible, one keeps wondering, for him to escape the legacy of his childhood, the tentacles of ‘home’? His response to his hatred was complex and contorted, yet was also in many ways central to his concept of poethood.

*

Larkin carefully and deliberately avoided allowing his lodgings in Wellington, in Leicester, in Belfast, and finally in Hull, to be homely. In his poetry he often trumpeted his evasion of all sense of belonging, as in ‘Places, Loved Ones’: ‘No, I have never found/The place where I could say/This is my proper ground,/Here I shall stay.’ (‘Touché’, Larkin responded when his staff at the Brynmor Jones Library in Hull gave him a card inscribed with exactly these lines at a lunch to commemorate his 25th anniversary as head librarian there.) Not until 1974, when the university sold the Pearson Park flat (where Larkin had lived for 18 years, even though it was supposed to be a temporary lodging for newly arrived lecturers), did he grudgingly acquire what might be called a home, purchasing an ugly red-brick 1950s house in a Hull suburb (105 Newland Park). Was it any coincidence that in the decade he spent there he completed only a couple of poems (the melancholy self-elegy ‘Aubade’ and the savage ‘Love Again’)? Larkin may not have swaggered the nut-strewn roads, or crouched in the fo’c’sle, stubbly with goodness (as he comically figured the life of the happy-go-lucky wanderer who chucks up everything and just clears off in ‘Poetry of Departures’), but by maintaining a sense of provisionality in his various rented attics, and by keeping his successive (and sometimes simultaneous) lovers – Ruth Bowman, Monica Jones, Patsy Strang, Maeve Brennan, Betty Mackereth – at arm’s length, he managed to preserve not only the sense of freedom that was necessary for his poems, but the connection to Eva that nourished them. Booth even goes so far as to present her as his poetry’s ‘theme and muse’.

‘Poetry of Departures’ – its title a parodic reference to Baudelaire’s poésie des départs – both indulges and refuses the urge to escape, but in Larkin’s poetry of the 1940s it is merely indulged. In September 1944 he included in a letter home a copy of poem XXII of The North Ship, which presents a fantasy of just the kind mocked in ‘Poetry of Departures’:

One man walking a deserted platform;
Dawn coming, and rain
Driving across a darkening autumn;
One man restlessly waiting a train
While round the streets the wind runs wild,
Beating each shuttered house, that seems
Folded full of the dark silk of dreams,
A shell of sleep cradling a wife or child.

The protagonist here is explicitly in flight from the bourgeois nuclear unit of wife and child, and in love with the dream of what the second stanza calls ‘perpetually journeying’, as if Larkin were about to embark on the life of a Rimbaldian vagrant, freed of all possessions and always on the move. To ‘Dearest Mopcreature’ (after thanking her for sending him a flannel!) he observed: ‘You won’t quite understand it, but it is meant to describe loneliness. I think the impulse of loneliness in everyone is stronger than the impulse of love or “cosiness”. If it isn’t, it should be, because death is lonely and to death we should all orientate.’ What, one wonders, did Mopcreature make of this? In fact it was Sydney who replied the following day: Pop’s letter doesn’t get around to mentioning his son’s poem, or indeed to responding to his son’s precocious morbidity, but it does include a detailed paragraph explaining why he should have used the word ‘orient’ rather than ‘orientate’.

The poems that went into The North Ship – his first collection, published in 1945 – were written while Larkin was an undergraduate at Oxford or while he was working as a librarian in Wellington. During this same productive period he composed his two novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, as well as a series of girls’ school stories, including Trouble at Willow Gables and Michaelmas Term at St Bride’s (under the penname Brunette Coleman). It’s worth pausing to consider the diversity of styles and genres with which the young Larkin experimented, if only because the distinctively Larkinian voice that emerged in the 1950s can seem to trump the imaginative impulses that pulled in so many different directions. Larkin’s own sense that he had discovered his echt persona in poems such as ‘Spring’ (‘and me,/Threading my pursed-up way across the park,/An indigestible sterility’) or ‘Wants’ (‘Beyond all this, the wish to be alone’) – both composed in 1950 – is reflected in some of his letters to his mother, as when he describes himself, writing from Belfast, as ‘enjoying life as far as it’s my character to do so’. Occasionally the inhibitions that stifle him are played off an elated sense of the world around him that mirrors the economy of the poems, in which the reader is often made aware – or at least invited to believe – that it is because Larkin is a ‘pursed-up … indigestible sterility’ that his vision is ‘mountain-clear’. ‘Can you feel the autumn where you are?’ he asks his mother, again from Belfast, in August 1953:

It seems to hang in the air here, and sharpen my senses, and again I feel a sense of a great waste in my life. We must go again up that road to the wood where we found the scarlet toadstool and listen to the wind in the trees. I’m sure it’s beautiful at this time of year. Here the moon is large and lemon-yellow and drifts up into the sky at night like a hollow phosphorescent fungoid growth. Do you watch it?

Beneath these words is a sketch of an old creature in a mob-cap, knitting before a window that looks out onto rooftops and a full moon, as if she were comically anticipating his own great moon poem, ‘Sad Steps’ of 1968. A couple of years later, shortly after moving to Hull, Larkin finds himself unexpectedly moved by the sight of ‘clumps of Michaelmas daisies, chill blurs of mauve’, growing in a churchyard, and is driven to reflect that ‘outside my own miserable cramped absurd life, the world is still its old beautiful self.’

*

Between August 1948 and September 1950 Larkin wrote only a handful of letters to Mop, and that is because for these two years they lived together at 12 Dixon Drive, an address that would furnish the surname of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim Dixon. Was there an element of malice in Amis’s allusion? There certainly was in his portrayal of Monica Jones – full name Margaret Monica Beale Jones – as Margaret Peel (in the manuscript Margaret Beale, but altered at Larkin’s insistence) as a neurotic, needy academic. Larkin’s relationship with Monica began in the summer of 1950, and would last until his death. Like that with his mother, it might be described as resembling an uneasy truce or compromise, and Monica seems to have been aware from early on that it was Larkin’s entangled feelings about Eva that prevented him from moving beyond wary prevarication when the topic of marriage came up. ‘Don’t be robbed of your soul!’ she wrote to him in December 1954, ‘don’t live with your Mother.’ To which he cautiously replied: ‘You seem to suggest that I’ve yet to throw off my mother & grab myself primary emotional interest in a woman my own age. This may well be true – it sounds true – but it’s not a thing one can do by will power.’ In the same letter he characterises Eva as ‘nervy, cowardly, obsessional, boring, grumbling, irritating, self pitying’, but then at once thinks of the other side of the scales: ‘On the other hand, she’s kind, timid, unselfish, loving, and upset both by losing her husband early & by being seventy (next month) with both her children showing marked reluctance to live with her.’ Had Eva died in her seventies rather than in her nineties, Booth speculates in his introduction to Letters Home, would Larkin have been able to fend off Monica? Eva clearly to some extent functioned for Larkin as an excuse not to get married, though he was genuinely conflicted over the issue, which he attempted – sometimes – to confront as honestly and straightforwardly as he could: ‘Am I ultimately on her side?’ he reflects in response to Monica’s impassioned (possibly alcohol-inspired) pleas: ‘God knows! In my heart of hearts, I’m on no one’s side but my own.’

Larkin’s father died only a few months after he was diagnosed with liver cancer in early 1948. Larkin composed, but never published, a 12-line elegy, ‘An April Sunday Brings the Snow’, in which he describes himself shifting the many jars of jam Sydney had made from their garden’s plums:

Five loads – a hundred pounds or more –
More than enough for all next summer’s teas,

Which now you will not sit and eat.
Behind the glass, underneath the cellophane,
Remains your final summer – sweet
And meaningless, and not to come again.

Although Sydney’s premature death seems to have created a temporary block in the flow of Larkin’s inspiration, with nothing written for the rest of that year, something changed in late 1949, and the poems came tumbling out: those finished in 1950 (something of an annus mirabilis) include ‘At Grass’, ‘Deceptions’, ‘Coming’, ‘Dry-Point’, ‘Spring’, ‘If, My Darling’, ‘Wants’, ‘No Road’, ‘Wires’ and ‘Absences’. Indeed of the poems collected in The Less Deceived (1955), only ‘Going’ and the uncharacteristically upbeat, Lawrence-inspired ‘Wedding-Wind’ predate his father’s death. However unendurable life may have been at 12 Dixon Drive, attending to the needs of his bereaved and panicky mother was undoubtedly good for Larkin’s poetry.

After Larkin decamped to Belfast and then settled in Hull, his sister, Kitty, took over as their mother’s primary carer, an arrangement that caused much sibling squabbling over holiday dates. Terrified of thunderstorms, Mop often couldn’t bear to spend the night on her own in the house, and would seek refuge in the spare room of Kitty’s house a few streets away. By 1955 her depression had grown so acute that she underwent electric shock therapy. In his letters Larkin valiantly attempted to get her to look on the bright side of life:

Do not worry about the past: it is, after all, past, and fades daily in our memory & in the memories of everyone else. Further, it can’t touch the future unless we let it. Every day comes to us like a newly cellophaned present, a chance for an entirely fresh start. Finally, do remember that we are not very important. Hundreds of living people have never heard of us: those who died in previous years & those who will be born in the next century have no chance to, and in consequence we are silly if we do not amble in the sun while we can, before time elbows us into everlasting night & frost.

‘Begin afresh, afresh, afresh’, as the last line of ‘The Trees’ (1967) would put it. But Larkin too was involved in a lifelong battle with melancholia: ‘bloody awful tripe,’ he wrote on the manuscript of this uplifting paean to spring, as if unable to allow the poem to escape his grasp without being marked by his own self-lacerating misery.

Larkin’s assertion that no one in the next century would be interested in what he and Eva fussed about must have seemed reasonable (this letter dates from February 1952), but in the event the success of his arrogant bid for eternity has led to the appearance in print of many letters that, had he thought they would ever be published, he would surely have destroyed. (I am thinking in particular of those to Monica in which he discusses their sexual routines.) These letters home contain a number of diatribes against foreigners as well as disturbing glimpses of the racism that led to the appalled reviews of his Selected Letters in 1992. Booth quotes in his introduction from a letter of 30 July 1967, not included in his selection, in which Larkin tells Eva about a trip to London, which, he reports, was ‘full of foreigners – chinks, wops, wogs, frogs, huns, the lot – and yanks, of course. Awful, awful.’ On another occasion he recounts showing some Africans around the Hull library, ‘real fuzzy-wuzzies’. Love of animals and dislike of children are other recurrent tropes: on holiday in Sark with Monica in the summer of 1960, they were delighted to find four kittens resident in their hotel; ‘one scratched a child today,’ Larkin writes, ‘wch gave us great pleasure.’

Booth puts the best gloss he can on Larkin’s prejudices, observing that he ‘was not at ease in the racially diverse society forming itself around him in the postwar period’, and adducing his love of American jazz and his hero-worship of Louis Armstrong. Black musicians, somewhat ironically, are the crucial link between Larkin and his mother in ‘Reference Back’, which beautifully describes the ‘unsatisfactory’ nature of his relationship with her (the word occurs four times), as well as the bond that united them:

That was a pretty one, I heard you call
From the unsatisfactory hall
To the unsatisfactory room where I
Played record after record, idly,
Wasting my time at home, that you
Looked so much forward to.

Oliver’s ‘Riverside Blues’, it was. And now
I shall, I suppose, always remember how
The flock of notes those antique Negroes blew
Out of Chicago air into
A huge remembering pre-electric horn
The year after I was born
Three decades later made this sudden bridge
From your unsatisfactory age
To my unsatisfactory prime.

Notwithstanding this moment of shared pleasure in Oliver’s ‘Riverside Blues’, the ‘unsatisfactory’ was the true medium of their correspondence, the real ‘bridge’ connecting them. Larkin took a doleful pleasure in acquainting Mop with details such as the following: ‘I have washed my terylene pyjamas and hung them over the sink to dry. The seam has not come undone anymore, but they look a poor job really, & the trousers do need shortening.’ Or this:

How is your mangle, I wonder. I have started boiling handkerchiefs, for the laundry leaves them the colour of old ivory. Unfortunately when I put them to dry on the clothes rack they absorbed a yellowish stain from the wood & I had to do them again! There is a second lot cooking now. I hope I can iron the first lot satisfactorily.

Sun is shining now. I must have lunch – found a big slug in my lettuce recently!

In an interview with Ian Hamilton in 1964 Larkin expressed annoyance with reviewers of his work who complained that there was something ‘uniquely dreary’ about the experiences depicted in his poems. ‘I’d like to know how all these romantic reviewers spend their time – do they kill a lot of dragons, for instance?’ Rather than saddle up and seek out dragons, Larkin boiled handkerchiefs – twice if need be – and washed his terylene pyjamas, and worried about his mother’s mangle.