Begin afresh: Philip and Monica in later years

A life more ordinary: inside Philip Larkin's extraordinary everyday

Larkin’s correspondence with his mother put him in touch with the precious texture of the everyday, which he transformed into some of the most sublime poetry since Donne and Marvell
December 11, 2018

As the ancillary books of correspondence and commentary accumulate, our picture of Philip Larkin grows more nuanced all the time, and at this rate he will soon be as complex a character as your weird uncle, the one who thought that modern society was falling apart for lack of discipline. A new collection, Letters Home, 1936-1977, edited by James Booth, does a vital job of apprising us, if we ever thought the opposite, that Larkin’s father’s pre-war admiration for the Nazis stopped well short of staging a Nuremberg rally in the parlour, and that his mother, while undoubtedly prey to psychological frailties, was no dullard. On p483, near the end of the book, she can be found reading The Rainbow, but firm in her opinion that Sons and Lovers was its superior.

Larkin himself is only 50 at the time, but his famously febrile mother, born in 1886, is the full 80-plus years of age including mandatory doddering. Yet on p490 one of her letters mentions Hardy, Lamb and Hazlitt. We learn that Larkin’s father, as famous for being pro-Nazi as his wife is for being feeble minded, had every book by Lawrence, all in a row, and on p568 we find that he is a fan of Howards End. Why do I suddenly have trouble imagining Larkin senior dressed up as Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi youth leader who composed a formally impeccable terza rima panegyric to Hitler?

Perhaps the neurotic pallor of Larkin’s upbringing was more complex than we thought. If that possibility could be entertained, it might be a help towards realising that the mentality of one of the most subtle and inventive of modern creative lives didn’t come out of nowhere. There was history behind it: his history, his family’s history, and finally our history too. There was an arrow-shower, somewhere becoming rain.

Some time after he had committed the “arrow-shower” to paper in “The Whitsun Weddings,” the poet let on that he had got it from Olivier’s wartime movie of Henry V. Most of us needed no telling: the poetic moment and the cinematic coup were so similar in their intensity. How a critic as finely tuned as Al Alvarez could have thought Larkin’s poetry was overly genteel is a secret that Alvarez, old and ill now, will probably take with him into silence: but we can confidently say that Larkin’s verses had an awful lot of dynamism for a critic to fail to spot. (I doubt if Alvarez did miss it, actually, but he was misled by his fond theory that poetry should exact a psychological cost from the poet, and Robert Lowell’s berserk stare made the gleam in Larkin’s glasses look placid.)

In actuality, Larkin could see everything. Even the effigies on the Arundel tomb—the husband with his hand withdrawn from its gauntlet, so as to hold his wife’s hand—are moving at the speed of the light that throngs the glass, the same speed as all the things we see in the everyday world are moving into the future. The clouds above the estuary stand still only on the understanding that the Earth spins and the Sun that lights them moves through space. To think that Larkin has not incorporated all this universal energy into his poetic rhythms is to imitate the action of the clod.

Speaking for myself, in my recent role as a frail old man, Larkin’s verbal dynamism still tears me to bits. My granddaughter, who jumps everywhere like an ecstatic wallaby, jumps in just the way that his enchanted Alice jumped half a century ago, when I first read The Less Deceived, a book that did so much to teach a generation how the next world happens here, where we live now. Larkin could deal in exaltation because he knew despair; and you didn’t have to read him for long before realising that he might be stoking the despair in order to further illuminate the exaltation. His career as a poet was a brilliant job of titrating his own propensities. If I could meet him again I might dare to tell him so but you had to be careful how you praised him: when his projection mechanism was set to self-deprecation he didn’t necessarily like to be interrupted. He might even have been sincerely worried when he warned his parents that Oxford was going to give him a third-class degree. In fact it gave him a first.

With a pause to consider the likelihood that his parents must have been well used to it (“I don’t believe that your writing is ‘not any good,’ as you put it,” his mother says firmly on p565), this habit of self-belittlement needs to be borne in mind whenever he says he hates his job as a librarian at Hull University. Invariably he did it as if he loved it. There was no duty, self-imposed or not, that he would not complain about in his writings—even in his poems, the celebrations usually begin as laments—but equally there was no duty that he would ever skimp. A pose of bitching unease was part of his compliance. As often as not, his attitudes of irritated revulsion were components in a strategy of staving off the world’s enchantment. His “loaf-haired secretary” might have looked like Julie Christie.

*** As a poet and a man of letters, Larkin is bottled lightning: the man who can say it so that it stays said. Who else do we want him to be? Stewart Granger in the striped tights of Scaramouche? -Captain Marvel? The Man from Snowy River? For decades now it’s been damned foolish of us to be so fascinated by his faults, when we’ve barely made a start on appreciating his virtues. And anyway, as we should well know by now, most of his faults were cried up by himself as a polite kind of negative self-publicity. The transformative qualities of his vision—the qualities that make the cloudscape above the estuary into a baroque gallery—are the very qualities that make him an unreliable witness to his quotidian feelings. When talking about how he detests his room and its specially-chosen junk, the operative word is “chosen”: hidden in plain sight, the junk adds up to an affirmation of his freedom. In correspondence—especially when the correspondent was Kingsley Amis—Larkin enjoyed making himself out as someone prejudiced against black people. But he also wrote the greatest ever poem in praise of Sidney Bechet, and in All What Jazz—one of the best books of creative criticism in our language—the black musicians are celebrated as if arriving by the heroic ship-load on the beach at Troy. Surely the best way to deal with this infamous anomaly is to say that Larkin’s poems were for the public, whereas he thought his letters were private.

In that respect—and, to my mind, in that respect alone—the monumentally great man was a gibbering dunce. To attest a racial prejudice in such publishable form would have been folly even when Victoria was queen, and for a librarian, of all professions, to do so throughout the reign of the second Elizabeth was simply asking for it. He was lucky that she, when conferring his CBE, asked him only whether he was “still writing.” He could have answered, truthfully, that he was working on a tiny epic called “Aubade” that would help define his era and hers, but he was probably anticipating the nudge from the Pursuivant Usher in Waiting that meant “Start walking backwards now.”

Nevertheless it was a close shave. If his letters had already been published he would have found for certain that publicly expressed bigotry was infra dig. He might even have had his laureateship withdrawn. (As it happened, or failed to happen, the laureateship was never conferred, but only because he refused it.) Once his playful prejudice was out there in print, it ceased to be playful. There was almost no racial group of any size or colour that he could not be prejudiced about in a letter, but it can’t be denied that there was something twisted about the way he got his xenophobic rocks off in private: it was almost a perversion that the same man who could go on building up the collection of Labour Party documents at the Brynmor Jones Library could believe that his own words—words, his best thing, the thing for which he must have known that he was already cherished—would be forgotten.

But you need to be even sillier than he was to deduce that his poetry was, as a consequence, no good. I knew a prominent Cambridge female don, a close friend of our family, who announced that opinion at the top of her voice. As she did so, I spent a lot of time with my hand over my eyes, as a polite alternative, I thought, to sticking my fingers in my ears. My chief reservation about the diligent curative work of Anthony Thwaite and Andrew Motion, the two poets who laid the foundations of Larkin’s posthumous outline—Thwaite getting the poems together, and Motion telling the biographical story that lay behind them—is how they played into the lady’s hands by not pointing out often enough that Larkin’s private life was a sideshow; that his poetry, along with its attendant literary activities, was his real life; and that anyone who couldn’t grasp that fundamental fact shouldn’t be talking about him at all, lest they leave his true heritage at the mercy of tin-eared misrepresentation.

Tin-eared misrepresentation was exactly what happened, and we’re still escaping it. The lady I was talking about is gone now, but Tom Paulin, for example, is still alive and kicking, and until he tells us otherwise we must assume that he is still kicking Larkin. On that subject, the suave, saturnine and velvet-voiced Paulin has always needed to look into a mirror and realise the extent to which he has not been handicapped even by his blessings. As a poet, Paulin looks the part. When Larkin looked into a mirror he saw an imposter.

*** At least one of Larkin’s multiple female admirers (contrary to his own self-generated publicity, he was unsuccessful with women in the same way that Pete Sampras was unsuccessful at Wimbledon) said that to be granted his attention was the greatest thing that happened to her in her life, but in this matter Larkin was not to be dissuaded by reality. All the accumulating evidence of Larkin’s life might confirm the supposition that women fall in love through the ears, not through the eyes, but as a matter of disposition he was well protected against romantic beguilement. Monica Jones was clearly indispensable to him and speculators have wondered why, as if it were a mystery. But they haven’t thought sufficiently hard about the way he wanted to hear her opinions about a new poem and how, often enough, would accept her suggestions. Amis loathed her and even his son Martin, a more tolerant soul, found her hard to take, but the point remains that Larkin couldn’t do without her opinion. Those who deride her for her lack of academic achievement while a lecturer at Leicester—not a single publication in a learned journal: how can such things be?—are apt to forget that her critical scrutiny was vital to a great poet and is therefore implicitly present in a swathe of Larkin’s finest work stretching from year to year: another corridor of light in the palace of cloud above the estuary. On top of that, she helped him, at his request, make a bonfire of his journals, which might have been her most creation-friendly assisting act of all, when you consider what a dog’s breakfast was almost immediately made of his incidental heritage. In his role as a supreme literary figure, the last thing he needed was more old rope to hang himself with.

Those of us who laugh aloud at Monica’s stridently nutty incarnation as Margaret Peel in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim are apt to neglect her spectral presence in “The Whitsun Weddings” and a dozen other of the most magnificent poetic achievements since Donne and Marvell, but the fault is Larkin’s when it is not ours. He felt compelled to emphasise that he was alone, and perhaps to acknowledge Monica would have been like lavishing too much praise on his mother for her choice of sponge cake. Dante might have felt the same when he left his wife out of his biggest poem and directed all the love-stuff towards Beatrice. Yeats in his swan-song years sinned in the same way every time he sang. From now until doomsday, scholars will argue about whether or not great artists construct their own personalities in order to fulfil their fate, but surely the only true answer adds up to a double-yolked egg of rhetorical questions: “Why ever not?” and “Who cares?”

Larkin’s real imposture was as someone who found the banal even more banal than we do. But from this book it can soon be deduced that in his regular, sedulously uneventful letters to his mother he was not talking down to her; he was restoring his supply of the precious ordinariness that she represented. Critics and commentators have gone on for years failing to realise, even as their hair grows thin, that they themselves have never led the life of James Bond, and that they should therefore be slower to find it boring when the great poet and his almost equally non-glamorous mother get into a dialogue about the new M&S line in preserved peaches. In such exchanges, Larkin was probably just as much instigator as supplicant. When he needed the sublime he could read great literature, but to catch the more nuanced tones of everyday life he needed agents out there among the supermarket shelves, and in that respect his mother was a wizard. After burying the parachute she could blend with the local population in a trice.

Even within those parameters, he still found room for the occasional almost Kingsley-like gag: having eaten out on the night before he writes to her, he complains of the “turf-like salmon… fried in engine oil.” But mainly he wasn’t out to entertain her with comic brilliance: he was out to share her involvement in the detail of ordinary reality.

On that last point, I can recommend without reserve the action sequence on p533 where he tells her about painting his house number on the new dustbins. There are critics who are convinced that he would have been a more interesting man if, while painting the bins, he had been targeted from the air by a Spectre attack helicopter with Ernst Stavro Blofeld at the controls (“No, Mister Larkin, I expect you to die!”), but instead he was dedicated to writing poems.

Dedicated or condemned? A lot turns on that distinction. But to think him condemned, you have to believe what he says when he’s not writing poetry, and the simple truth is that you almost always can’t. In prose, he would talk for effect, and usually at the exact level of his interlocutor. Occasionally, even when writing to his mother—the most experienced interlocutor of them all, even more so than Monica Jones—his guard slips and he lets the other world, the poetic world, punch through. This from p253: “I went out to the local branch library to change my books and was overwhelmed by the soft beauty of the afternoon… outside my own miserable cramped absurd life, the world is still its old beautiful self. This morning the sun shines…”

I break off at that moment with confidence that you will be able to imagine what he tells her next. Blofeld’s helicopter diving to the attack, as part of the master villain’s plan to destroy the future of British poetry? Or, more likely, the long exchange about the ideal size of teacup is resumed. Either way, what we need to grasp is that the master poet didn’t necessarily find anything less marvellous just because it was always there. The sun, for example, was still up there being its beautiful self.

*** Mind you, he could be strange. (Voice of God: “You think he was strange? Wait till I introduce you to Michelangelo.”) Considering the immense trouble it must have taken to write Trouble at Willow Gables, his posthumously published schoolgirl stories, I myself was inclined to think its author, at least while he was hatching that one as an undergraduate, was a nut. It was the way it wasn’t pornographic that staggered me. These infants were in paradise, but from what boiling, twisting psychic ambivalence came all that finely noticed detail about a world without men?

Well, now we know: he was channelling his mother. He was cashing in on his Royal Box ticket to an opera in which women shared the leading roles. Only by historic accident can his fondness for his schoolgirl writing be taken as a perennial inhibition, a sign of imprisonment in an ambivalent mentality. In actuality, it was a vision of heaven. Eventually, if we look closely enough, we will see what he is really a victim of: the world, its vividness. We will even figure out why his accounts of the schoolgirls playing hockey have the specificity of Pope’s cataloguing of Belinda’s dressing table in The Rape of the Lock. We will figure out everything except precisely where the girls, whether sprinting on the field or lolling at its edge, got their tanned bare legs from. Bare, yes—but tanned? Come on, this is a dream England, with its set-dressing suggestion of floor-level sun-lamps.

And eventually even those conjured young females—the yearning poet’s jeunes filles en fleurs—grew old. The Old Fools: why aren’t they screaming? As an old fool myself these days, and often enough laid up in hospital when not being pampered at home, I’m prepared to say that there’s a working television set in both locations and perhaps the reason the old fools aren’t screaming is because they’ve just been watching Ernie Wise dance, and found his self-delighted, light-footed élan as enchanting as Eric’s jokes. Right there was a point I would have loved to discuss with Larkin. But I wasn’t smart enough—or wasn’t yet sick enough—to know that we can get very near the end and still be thankful to have lived. He would have said otherwise, but you couldn’t trust him.