Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life by Andrew Motion
Somehow serene even in their consuming sadness, beautiful poems made Philip Larkin famous while he was alive. Since his death, ugly revelations threaten to make him more famous still. This unsparing biography furthers the work begun by the Collected Poems and the Letters of revealing how much more the poor tormented genius had to hide than we ever thought. The mood is catching. By now everybody with something on him is bursting into print. Glumly we learn that he wasn’t just a racist, a wanker, a miser and a booze artist, he was also prey, in his declining years, to such nameless vices as forming a friendship with A. N. Wilson.
Larkin often said he wrote poetry out of an impulse to preserve. Unfortunately all who knew him seem to have contracted that same impulse: there is no souvenir they want to forget. The process began when Anthony Thwaite put together a posthumous Collected Poems which included all the poems Larkin had so carefully left out of his individual volumes. It was an impressive editorial feat, but the general effect was to blur the universal secret of Larkin’s lyricism by putting his personal secrets on display.
The Letters continued the process, revealing how thoroughly Larkin could indulge in racism, sexism and all the other isms when he was trying to shock his unshockable friends. To anyone who knew him, or just knew of him, it was obvious that he was talking that way merely to vent his inner demons: in his public persona he was the soul of courtesy, and until his sad last phase, when his timor mortis got the better of him, it was impossible to imagine his being rude or unfair to anyone of any colour, sex or political persuasion.
But to know him is getting harder all the time. Too much information is piling up between the public and the essential man. Andrew Motion has done a meticulous job with this biography but its inevitable effect must be to make the selfless dedication of its hero’s work seem self-seeking beyond redemption. Already it is almost too late to point out, for example, that if Larkin made racist remarks in order to be outrageous, then he was no racist. A racist makes racist remarks because he thinks they are true.
Having to argue like this means that the game is lost. No young reader will ever again read Larkin’s great tribute to the black jazz musician Sidney Bechet (‘On me your voice falls as they say love should/Like an enormous yes’) and respond to it with the pure admiration it deserves, since it so exactly registers the equally pure admiration Larkin felt for one of the great men in his life. The most that over-informed new young readers will be able to feel is that the old racist had his decent moments. The possibility will be gone to appreciate that Larkin was a fundamentally decent man; that in his poems he generously shaped and transcended his personal despair to celebrate life on our behalf; and that if he expressed himself unscrupulously in private it was his only respite from the hard labour of expressing himself scrupulously in public.
Still, it is always good to know more, as long as we don’t end up knowing less. Here are the details to prove that the picture Larkin painted of himself as a perennial loser didn’t necessarily match the way he seemed, even if it was a precise transcription of how he felt. He came up to Oxford as a shy boy with a stammer but to his fellow undergraduates he was an attractive figure, the kind of wit who makes his friends feel witty too. To the end of his life there were always people eager to crowd around him if he would only let them. Until almost the very end, Larkin was careful not to let them waste his time. He chose his loneliness. Like his diffidence, it was a wish fulfilment, at odds with the facts.
As a librarian he was a success from the start, rising with each move until, as the guiding light of the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull, he was one of the chief adornments of his profession. Since tact, judgement and self-confidence were necessary at each step, his picture of himself as a ditherer isn’t to be trusted. The rabid reactionary turns out to be an equally misleading exercise in self-advertisement. It was on Larkin’s instructions that the Brynmor Jones Library built up its Labour Archive, with the Fabian Society Library as chief treasure; why now should a rabid reactionary have done that? Well, one of the answers must surely be that if he felt that way, and even if he talked that way, he didn’t actually act that way.
It would certainly help if this possibility could be kept in mind when it comes to the question of women – the only question that really matters to the lifestyle press, whose reporters are currently having a marvellous time patronizing Larkin as a lonely, furtive, perverted misogynist utterly unlike themselves. The old women who went as young girls to borrow books from his first library remember him well for his impeccable manners and helpfulness. His first mistress, Ruth Bowman, wrote: ‘I’m very proud of you, dear Philip, and I love you very much. The fact that you like me and have made love to me is the greatest source of pride and happiness in my life.’ Fifty years later she still remembered him as ‘relaxed and cheerful, entertaining and considerate’. At a guess, it was his entertainment value that drew his women in, and his manifest stature as a great artist that kept them loyal through thick and thin.
Admittedly the thin could be very thin. There weren’t that many mistresses, but he formed the habit of keeping several on a string at once, so that a few would have looked like a lot if he had wanted to present himself as the Warren Beatty of the literary world. Instead, through his poems and every other available means of communication, he complained endlessly about being rejected by the women he wanted, accepted only by those he didn’t, and never getting enough love. This was damned ungallant of him and he was lucky to be forgiven.
It seems he almost always was. The woman to whom he did the most lying, Maeve Brennan, was annoyed enough after she found out to say that she was bitterly disappointed, but apparently still didn’t believe that she had wasted her time. Even more convincingly, Monica Jones, to whom he told most of the truth, was there till the end, although the jealousies she suffered along the way must have been almost as great as her love.
Yet his misery was real, and they loved him in spite of it, not because of it. They all had to cope as well as they could with the certain knowledge that he was even more scared of marriage than he was of death. You don’t need Freud’s help to guess that the primary lesion might have had something to do with his parents. ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’ is clearly one Larkin line that can be taken as what he thought. Andrew Motion tells us more than we knew before about Dad, who admired the Nazis, although he could scarcely have admired them for helping Germany to achieve its economic recovery in the 1920s (Motion must mean the 1930s). When young Philip confessed his shyness, Dad’s reply (‘You don’t know what shyness is’) can’t have helped with his son’s stammer. He did help, however, with his son’s reading: Dad was a well-read man.
On the evidence of this biography, a more likely source of horror at home seems to have been Mum. She could never let go of him or he of her, despite her inability to express herself in anything except platitudes. Mercifully only one fragment of one of her thousands of letters is quoted. It works like one of those revue sketches featuring Terry Jones in a headscarf talking falsetto: ‘Here we seem to have a succession of gloomy evenings. It looks as though it will rain again, like it did last night. Have at last heard from Kenneth. He has written such a long and interesting letter thanking me for the handkerchiefs. I have written to thank him…’
Somewhere back there, we can safely assume, lay the source for a feeling of failure that could overcome any amount of success. But finding out more about how Philip Larkin was compelled to solitude can only leave us less impressed by how he embraced it – the most interesting thing about the man, because it was the key to the poet. It would be obscurantist to want the work of post mortem explication stopped. But Larkin’s executors, in their commentaries, need to be much less humble on his behalf, or else they will just accelerate the growth of this already burgeoning fable about the patsy who has been overpraised for his – we have the authority of Mr Brian Appleyard on this point – minor poetry.
Andrew Motion has done something to show that Larkin chose the conditions in which to nourish his art, but not enough to insist that art of such intensity demands a dedication ordinary mortals don’t know much about. To suggest, for example, that Larkin’s last great poem Aubade broke a dry spell of three years is to ignore the possibility that a poem like Aubade takes three years to write, even for a genius. Those who revere Larkin’s achievement should be less keen to put him in range of mediocrities who would like to better themselves by lowering him to their level, matching his feet of clay with their ears of cloth.
Independent Sunday Review, 4 April, 1993