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.