Friday, 7 January 2011

Philip Larkin's Third Woman

Philip and Betty picnicking on the Yorkshire Moors

I was Philip Larkin's (third) bit on the side
Secretary who helped him juggle his life and girlfriends reveals her role as secret lover

By Angela Levin
7th December 2010

When Philip Larkin asked his long-time secretary Betty, at the end of an evening out, if he could come in for a cup of coffee, she initially thought that was all he wanted.

Until that point, the poet and his colleague had enjoyed a classic working relationship.

Larkin's day job was librarian at Hull University and Betty took his dictation, organised his work and stayed resolutely positive when he was feeling down.

He, in turn, appreciated her loyalty, efficiency, typing skil ls and pragmatism.

But that warm night in 1975 marked the start of a different sort of intimacy between them, one that lasted well over five years.

Close relationships between a boss and his secretary are hardly new but the closeness between the solidly reliable Betty Mackereth and the curmudgeonly Larkin was unique in that she became his secret muse.

Her vitality and essential earthiness sparked a late flourish of extraordinary poems, some of which have only just been discovered 25 years after the poet's death in 1985.

Like all great writers, Larkin had a unique voice. Few have written more authentically about England and the English, and his dark humour and acute observation made him one of the outstanding poets of the 20th Century.

He was also an expert on jazz, a talented photographer, a racist - and far more of a womaniser than his balding, bookish appearance suggested. One of his most famous poems begins with the lines:

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(Which was rather late for me) -

Between the end of the 'Chatterley' ban

And the Beatles' first LP.

Larkin, though never married, enjoyed juggling his mistresses, each of whom appealed to different aspects of his nature.

There was Monica Jones, a brilliant academic whom Larkin met at Leicester University, where he worked as librarian prior to moving to Hull.

She was his mistress from 1947 until his death. Betty describes her as Larkin's 'soul mate'.

There was also Maeve Brennan, a devout and deeply romantic Roman Catholic, who was one of Larkin's library staff in Hull. They were together from 1961, on and off, for about 17 years.

Together with Betty the different aspects of the personalities of all three women added to Larkin's life in different ways. Astonishingly, all three remained unfailingly loyal to him, despite his infidelities.

Significantly, Betty knew all about Monica and Maeve - Larkin even asked her advice on juggling his arrangements - but neither of them knew about her.

Monica and Maeve were also both devastated when they found out about each other, but met only when Larkin was on his deathbed.

The relationship between Betty and Larkin came to light with the publication of Andrew Motion's official biography of Larkin in 1993.

He'd been puzzled by some of Larkin's late poems that referred to an 'autumn' relationship.

One read:
We met at the end of the party

When all the drinks were dead

And all the glasses dirty

'Have this, that's left,' you said.

Motion came to believe there was an important third woman and eventually challenged Betty.

She admitted the truth, but has never, until now, been prepared to talk fully about the man who was her lover as well as her boss, and dominated her life for more than 25 years.

She reveals a day today side to him that shows him in a different and more intimate light.

She also explains why, after his death, she shredded and burned 30 volumes of his diaries that could have provided an invaluable archive and added so much to our understanding of this complex man.

Betty is now an indomitable, feisty, but rather deaf 86-yearold. She lives in the same family house in Cottingham, an affluent suburb of Hull, that she grew up in.

She looks a decade younger than her years and still plays golf and bridge. Betty is from an era when discretion, tact and a stiff upper lip were the order of the day, and retains a no-nonsense but humorous approach to life, with little time for the let-it-all hangout attitude of today.

Occasionally she comes across as brusque but this seems more of a personality trait than due to insensitivity or coldness.

She talks in her spacious living room, sitting in a pink velour armchair that is partly protected by a crocheted antimacassar. There are no photographs of Larkin.

Her memory of that night when her life changed remains undimmed. 'Philip drove me home after a dinner with the architects involved with the extension of the university library,' she begins.

'We had a very nice evening and when he asked me to invite him in for coffee I said, "Oh all right." That was the start of it,' she chuckles.

'I was totally surprised because there had been no hint of anything like that at all, and I had no idea that he felt about me that way.

'There was no awkwardness between us next morning at work and he told me he had carefully planned it.

'Maeve had finished with him two years earlier in 1973 and I initially wondered if he was looking around for new talent or just wanted to add another string to his bow, apart from Monica, but overall I felt overwhelmed, particularly as there was no one else on my horizon.

'I was more than 50 at the time and I thought all my liaisons were over and done with. Then this suddenly appeared and it became a new excitement in my life.

'I immediately told Philip, who was also in his early 50s, not to worry as I wouldn't tell a soul.

'I knew he would be anxious about that. I didn't want to tell anyone and, in a way, felt there was nothing to say. And until Andrew Motion came on the scene all those years later nobody knew.'

Her pragmatism seems extraordinary, but in part could be because she had no alternative.

'I always knew Monica was "the one" and his soul mate and that I was just the bit on the side.'

Didn't she mind? 'If you mind things you have to change them,' she replies quickly, 'and I was quite happy in my life. Philip was very interesting to work for and very informative about all sorts of things.'

It seems unlikely that Larkin thought of her as his 'bit on the side'. Instead, her stability and loyalty spurred him to a new period of creativity.

A recently broadcast BBC Arts documentary, Philip Larkin And The Third Woman, concentrated on the exciting discovery of new poems that were written by Larkin especially for Betty and which she only recently agreed to reveal. Was she thrilled to become his muse?

'I must say, I realised he'd written one or two,' she says pragmatically.

'There's one about new brooms sweeping clean but give me the old one . . .' she bursts out laughing. 'And another called Dear Jake, which he wrote in 1976, that seems to be very good.

'He used to show me his new poems sometimes and say, "What do you think of this?"' this?"

I am not at all academic and he knew I couldn't pass comment in the way that Monica could. But I always thought he was far more observant than a lot of people, including me.'

She had accepted the job as his secretary in 1957.

'I had no idea he was a poet as well as a librarian,' she says.

Did she find a physical quality about him from the start?

'I didn't look at my bosses for physical attraction,' she replies firmly. 'I thought the job would be interesting and as it was also only a couple of miles from my home, I could cycle there.

'Soon after I started he did an estimate of the department's budget for the following year and wondered if there was anything I thought he should put on it.

'I asked for a dictating machine and he said, "What? I cannot dictate to an inanimate object."' She roars with laughter.

'So instead I used to sit in his room watching him walk up and down thinking of what he should say. He walked so often that he used to wear out the carpet.'

Did he sometimes write his poems in the office too?

'Never,' she replies, almost shocked at the thought. 'He did that at home.'

Betty quickly became indispensable to him.

'Of course I did,' she says. 'I am an organiser, and organised the things that had to be done each day.

'I very soon felt at ease with him in that he was the boss and told me what to do and we developed a very good relationship. I understood him and he understood me.

'I always knew immediately what the day was going to bring, by the way he walked through my office into his own.

'Sometimes he would be very depressed and would sit in his room and gaze at one of the university's collection of paintings.

'Other days he would come in quite jolly. In either case I would say, "What a lovely morning," in my upbeat tone and continue to try to say cheery things.

'I remember when I first went there noticing that he had a bad stammer. It was particularly noticeable during the library committee meetings, which he hated speaking at. I would be taking the minutes and say to myself, "Come on. Get it out."

But I am pleased to say it became less of a problem once I had been his secretary for a while.'

Did he ever flirt with her during the early days?

'No,' she replies firmly.

Larkin didn't initially talk to Betty about either Monica or Maeve, but within a few years gradually began to use her as a soundingboard and someone whose advice he could rely on.

This practice started before their physical relationship began and continued right through it.

Most secretaries would feel extremely awkward hearing personal details from their boss, but Betty accepted it as part of the job.

'Larkin didn't initially talk to Betty about either Monica or Maeve, but within a few years gradually began to use her as a soundingboard and someone whose advice he could rely on''I never minded,' she says, 'and good gracious no, I was never jealous. I am a practical person. I have both feet on the ground and always try to look on the bright side of things.

'In many ways it made me feel I became almost a wife to him and someone he could speak to about all sorts of things when he got home from the office, whereas he had nobody and went home to an empty house close to the university.

'I am sure that's why he treated me as he would a wife, telling me various things and perhaps asking me to help him sort out various problems in his mind.

'Philip would go home to Leicester at the weekend to see his mother, and presumably see Monica then. Maeve entered his life in the early Sixties.'

What did Betty think of his behaviour?

'I thought he was being a typical man,' she laughs. 'Don't you find that a lot of men are like that? I think more than 50 per cent of men want more than one person, and it's something that is getting worse. Nowadays - it is footballers and cricketers. Then it was poets.

'Both women would get upset and he would say to me, "Oh dear, I spoke to Monica on the phone yesterday and she was very upset."

He suffered because of it, couldn't get himself out of the mess of the two of them and I'd try to say cheery things to him.'

Asking Betty if she feels he was entirely to blame for his situation fails to get much of a reaction.

'He did go ahead with it all,' was all she would admit. 'And each one of them hurt him in their particularly way.

'The one thing I found hard to deal with was the language he used, which at times was terrible. I remember once in the early Seventies being cross with him about something and I suddenly said, "F*** you! There. You have me saying it now."
'And then I walked out and left him to it. His view was that that word was in the English dictionary and therefore could be used, but I hated that type of language.'

She had a more relaxed attitude to his interest in pornography, which manifested itself in trips to sex shops and a fondness for girlie magazines. 'I don't know much about it, but I believe in live and let live,' she says. 'He could be quite ruthless at times about people but never to their face.'

Years before they had a physical relationship, Larkin once described her as his 'loaf-haired' secretary.

She viewed it merely as a description of her hairstyle and took no offence.

Understandable perhaps, given that Larkin had once described his own face as 'an egg sculpted in lard, wearing goggles'.

Betty, who has never married, believes Larkin chose not to marry because of his parents' uneasy relationship. Another of his best-known poems doubtless refers back to his own childhood.

They f*** you up, your mum and dad

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

He was the only son and younger child of Sydney and Eva Larkin. His father was Coventry City Treasurer and a Nazi sympathiser who kept a statuette of Hitler, which performed a Nazi salute at the press of a button, on his mantelpiece.

Sydney died before Betty became Larkin's secretary, but she is very respectful of Larkin's late mother.

'She was precise, softly spoken and always wore gloves,' she recalls. 'I thought she was a nice lady and when she came to stay with him he would have half a dozen of members of the library staff round in the evening to ease things along.

'I don't think his parents' marriage was very lovey-dovey. His father was very dictatorial and I believe the cause of Philip's stammer.

'But I also think Philip would never have married because you don't get any time to yourself. Philip treasured time and much enjoyed cycling round at weekends looking at different local churches.'

'One might imagine that once their clandestine physical relationship began they would be particularly careful to confine it to out-of-office hours, but it seems that was not the case'One might imagine that once their clandestine physical relationship began they would be particularly careful to confine it to out-of-office hours, but it seems that was not the case.

'We used to have lovely days out in the country. I would say to my deputy, "The librarian has a meeting in London tomorrow and I am going to have the day off."

We would then go for a drive and have a picnic. Afterwards I would go back to his place and later he would make me scrambled eggs, which he was very good at.'

'It wasn't at all difficult to carry on working for Philip, but both my and Philip's offices were quite closed off from the rest of the department so of course he kissed me in the office. Well, you know, why not?' she says.

'But I was never a silly teenager about it all. Nor was I in love with him. I just really liked him and got on with him very well.'

She also knew only too well that the chances of Larkin being faithful to any woman were negligible.

For about three years he was romantically involved with all three women. Was he sensitive to women physically?

'Yes,' she says. Not only did Betty have to cope with knowing she was one of three, she also had to work with Maeve, a library assistant.

'I didn't find it difficult. I didn't see her every day but we sometimes met in the common room,' she insists, although she contradicts herself somewhat with her next comment:

'To tell you the truth, I felt a bit scathing about her. I knew about her, but she didn't know anything about Philip and me so I felt a bit superior.'

In 1980 Monica became ill with shingles and, remarkably, Larkin suggested she move in to his home.

The suggestion was completely out of character for Larkin. It was the only time he and Monica lived together during their 40-year relationship and she subsequently stayed with him until he died.

His relationship with Betty, however, remained the same.

'It meant he didn't always come in to work and I would often take papers round to his house. He would greet me with a kiss and then say, "Shh. Monica is in the kitchen. Be careful."

I didn't get upset. I knew the situation and I am a very practical person.'

Larkin's belief that he would die at the age of 63, as his father did, proved to be correct.

In the summer of 1985 he was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus, which rapidly spread throughout his body.

His final days in a nursing home remained as complicated as the rest of his life, with all three women anxious to visit him.

'He told me Maeve had come to see him and said he didn't want to see her,' says Betty. 'Instead he wanted to tell Monica that he loved her.

'I took Monica to see him during the afternoon of December 1, the day before he died and while she went to talk to the doctors, I sat at his bedside. I remember it was 5.30pm and that he didn't say a word. He seemed halfway into the next world.

'Of course, it was a very upsetting time and although Monica couldn't face coming to the funeral in Cottingham Church, I went, along with other staff. Kingsley Amis, who was a friend of Philip's, was there.

'I had never met him, as they mainly corresponded and he didn't come to Hull. I remember not liking him and thinking he was bumptious.'

Monica was the main beneficiary of Larkin's will; Betty received 20 per cent of the residue. Maeve was not mentioned.

One of Larkin's final wishes was that his 30 volumes of personal diaries should be destroyed.

With her usual efficiency, Betty carried out his request and, without thinking about the historical or literary implications, went into Hull University Library and got the shredder.

'I was perfectly happy to destroy his diaries by first shredding them and then burning the remains because that is what he wanted,' she says.

'I didn't consider any onlookers' point of view. I did, however, tear off the covers which I believe are still in the university library. I have no idea what the diaries held because I didn't look at them.

'I was half-tempted to see what he really thought about me but I thought, "No. It is nothing to do with me," and carried on shredding them.

Philip could be charming and considerate, but quite ruthless in what he said about people.

'He would never be ruthless to their face, but it's another reason why I had no qualms about shredding them. I know he wouldn't have wanted anyone to find out what he really thought.'

Despite Betty's controlled demeanour there is a sense that she feels both relief and pride that her secret is out at last, and that it wasn't of her doing.

And despite her insistence that she only ever 'liked' rather than loved Larkin, he was obviously hugely important to her and she seems quietly thrilled that her significance in his life and especially in his creative work, for so long undervalued, has finally been recognised.

1 comment:

  1. As I read this I went back and forth between anger and acceptance. I find it sad that she thought it fine to be a secret, yet, she wasn't a child and knew the score.

    I think he was a user. He used women for sex and used them when he wrote.