Writers, words and context


A chara, – John Self (“Can we really separate the writer from the words, the artist from the art?”, Arts & Ideas, July 9th) inadvertently raises a number of concerns.

In his efforts to paint the poet Philip Larkin as a racist, he quotes from a letter Larkin sent in 1970 to Robert Conquest.

“Prison for strikers,

Bring back the cat,

Kick out the n****rs,

How about that?”

Self wonders whether these “were really Larkin’s opinions or ‘just’ a tasteless racist joke between friends”, when it should have been entirely obvious to him they were neither.

The piece was titled “How to Win the Next Election” and it is clearly imagining slogans a populist politician might employ. It would be equally ridiculous to use this text as a basis for accusing Larkin of being in favour of the internment of trade unionists or the return of corporal punishment.

Apparently, once you use the wrong word, context becomes irrelevant.

Which is clear from Self’s use of asterisks even when directly quoting from Larkin while accusing him of racism.

So, did Larkin use asterisks in the original letter? Ironically, Self demonstrates a morbid fear of also being taken out of context, condemned and possibly even “cancelled”.

Somewhat bizarrely, Self then goes on to graciously say that Larkin should not be put in the same category as artists who have committed serious violent or sexual offences, such as Gary Glitter, because Larkin’s “crime was to use offensive language in private”.

This would all be funny, except Self has illustrated the extent to which artists must now self-censor in order not to commit any imagined trespass.

Where does art go from here? – Is mise,



Co Kildare.