Another look: Philip Larkin – Life, Art and Love
Review: James Booth draws on a knowledge of first-hand and archive sources unlikely to be matched by any future chronicler of the poet’s life and work
Philip Larkin and Monica Jones Image courtest of the Philip Larkin estate Supplied by Hull History Centre.
Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love.
This must be the first biography I’ve read that comes with a catalogue reference for a lock of pubic hair. Going through Philip Larkin’s house in Newland Park, in Hull, in 2001, after the death of Monica Jones, James Booth and his fellow members of the Larkin Society find “a small translucent envelope containing petals of a pressed dog rose, now brown, together with a lock of pubic hair”.
This relic, now preserved in Hull History Centre, might strike some as a metaphor for Larkin’s eventful afterlife since his death, in 1985. All too many in the intervening years have turned from Larkin’s legacy, so passionately harvested, with something like disgust, after the damage done by the Selected Letters of 1992 and Andrew Motion’s biography, the following year. If Lisa Jardine and other naysayers had won the day Larkin might have been ushered out of view entirely, left to moulder in the dark with that lock of pubic hair.
The effort Larkin’s detractors put into misreading the poet still seems extreme in its wrong-headedness. Having decided they didn’t care for the tone of his letters to Kingsley Amis and other blokey friends, the Larkin baiters decided these attitudes were writ large in his poetry, too.
But if Larkin the racist, misogynist poet is a chimera, scarcely any less bad is Larkin the national teddy bear, Larkin the “quintessentially” English poet. As Booth is at pains to point out, in this lively and entertaining biography, a less quintessentially English poet could hardly be imagined. Larkin is a poet of marginal spaces, of empty hotel lobbies and eroding, deserted coastlines. The Importance of Elsewhere, his exquisite homage to five happy years in Belfast, is a mini manifesto against a poetry of rooted or nationalist attachments.
The poet’s path from prewar Coventry, where he was born in 1922, to Belfast and then Hull gave him plenty of grounds for rejecting rooted attachments: the claustrophobic home life, the difficult relationship with his mother, his stammer and physical self-consciousness, his outsider’s social anxiety at Oxford. Once ensconced in Hull, in 1955, he began the complex series of relationships traced by James Booth in reverent detail.
Although this side of his life is often reduced to a bawdy slapstick, a kind of Carry On Up the Brynmor Jones Library, it was full of psychological complexity and uncomfortable choices for the poet. Booth argues that Monica Jones, although outwardly the brashest and most confident of Larkin’s companions, was racked with insecurity, and sank faster and more comprehensively into alcohol dependency and dysfunction, a descent on which she expected Larkin to accompany her. An unexpected heroine appears in the figure of “loaf-haired” Betty Mackereth, subject of some recently discovered late love poems.
Booth stresses the toll on Larkin of his multiple commitments, although one might also diagnose large amounts of willed helplessness in Larkin’s endless complaints about his dilemma. Booth further argues that Larkin to some extent had “created” Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan, but the poet makes a comically inexpert Pygmalion. Was he simply exploiting them?
As Booth records, it is remarkable how collectively protective of his memory they were, for all their frustrations. But Larkin’s sexuality was a peculiar beast. He sounds out Amis on the possibility of Amis providing nude photographs of his wife Hilly; Amis reports that Hilly is game but asks whether Larkin would like “some of us together”. Meeting Anthony Thwaite for the first time, he breaks the ice by taking out a pornographic magazine. Bluff exterior and vulnerable inner man perform a remarkable pas de deux.
A central aim of Larkinite revisionism has been to restore the proper separation between the poet and his more misleading, Eeyorish public pronouncements (“Foreign poetry? No!”). This is entirely commendable, but the poet didn’t always make it easy. When he edited The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, in 1973, Larkin omitted David Jones and Samuel Beckett and had to be prodded into including Hugh MacDiarmid. Donald Davie was rightly aghast. His love of jazz, too, foundered on the modernist rocks of Davis, Coltrane and Parker. The polemical introduction to All What Jazz earned him “the biggest clobbering I have experienced”, he wrote. “And he deserved it,” judges Booth.
Booth’s book differs from Andrew Motion’s in a number of key ways. Motion relied heavily on Monica Jones, not an impartial witness in these matters, as a source on Larkin’s other women, in ways that significantly skewed the record. Motion also misunderstood the dynamic of the Larkin- Amis friendship: for Booth, the saloon-bar register of the letters to Amis is a way of humouring his cruder, philistine friend, and sparing him artistic intimacies that could only have gone over his head.
One abiding mystery of Larkin’s poetic life is why the muse so cruelly deserted him and whether Larkin mightn’t have been in some way complicit in this desertion. One minute, in the 1960s, he is zipping around the countryside on his bike and writing the masterpiece that is Here, the next he is a bloated alcoholic in serious creative decline.
With its wistful vision of youthful pleasures lost, or more correctly never experienced in the first place, High Windows reads like the poem of an old man. In fact Larkin was a mere 45 when he wrote it. For some the “slow dying” that is life leaves “nothing to be said”, but what should Larkin have done? He might have tried a Poundian avant-garde phase, started translating from the Chinese, or moved to Grimsby – anything to reawaken his slumbering talent. That he did not do so is testimony to how loyal the poet was to his singular vision, but it is not without a painful dimension too.
“If plan A isn’t working try plan B” would seem a basic piece of artistic wisdom, but for Larkin there was plan A and plan A only. When it failed, and his poetry began to dry up, he was left to contemplate the slow shutdown described in The Winter Palace: “It will be worth it, if in the end I manage / To blank out whatever it is that is doing the damage.”
The 1,000-page Leviathan of Geoffrey Hill’s Collected Poems comes with its own baggage of neuroses about late style, but some happy medium must exist between logorrhoea and aphasia.
Having knocked around Hull a fair bit myself – I worked there with James Booth – I was sorry not to see more on its more spit-and-sawdust side, and the flourishing culture of Hull poets that came in Larkin’s wake. On both counts Larkin kept a slightly wary distance.
Booth’s protectiveness towards his subject extends not just to vindicating the poetry but to offering a sympathetic hearing to ugly private touches (“the paki next door”) one would have thought beyond debate by now, but largely interpreted here as “performative” gestures. As a literary biography, though, Booth’s book is much closer to the work than Motion’s was, and draws on a knowledge of first-hand and archive sources unlikely to be matched by any future biographer.
The essential for a poet, TS Eliot wrote, was not to live in a beautiful world but to see past beauty and ugliness to “the boredom, the horror, and the glory”. Flinch as we might from his sorry end, Booth’s fine biography suggests Larkin was a textbook case.