Sunday 27 June 2010

The Real Philip Larkin?

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In search of the real Philip Larkin

Twenty-five years after Philip Larkin's death, the view of the English poet as a misogynist appears unfair. A new book of letters to his long-time partner Monica Jones reveals a caring if anguished lover, while those who knew him well remember a gentle – and very witty – man

Rachel Cooke
The Observer
Sunday 27 June 2010

Most eyes, right now, are on the festival of football that is the World Cup. In Hull, though, a different kind of festival is beginning. Larkin25 is a 25-week-long celebration of the poet Philip Larkin's life and work, timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of his death. If the organisers know how apt it is to be marking the anniversary of a death rather than a birth – unlike most of us, Larkin didn't start with the death-fear at 40; it clammily took hold of him when he was still in his 20s – they are not letting on. Larkin25 is a determinedly jolly, unironic affair, and the poet it love bombs so enthusiastically would have hated it.

To be fair, lots of perfectly sensible and good things are going to happen: there will be lectures by Andrew Motion, his biographer, and Anthony Thwaite, the editor of his letters, and Tom Courtenay has already performed his acclaimed one-man show about Larkin to help raise money for the statue of the poet that will be unveiled in December at Hull's Paragon station, the starting point for the poet's train journey in The Whitsun Weddings. A box set of his favourite music, entitled Larkin's Jazz, is to be released; an exhibition of his photographs will go on display; the city has organised a walking trail, which takes in, among other places, the branch of Marks & Spencer that inspired the poem "The Large Cool Store" ("But past the heaps of shirts and trousers/ Spread the stands of Modes for Night").

But you can just imagine the yelps of horror some other ideas would have brought on: "Ogh ogh, awwghgh!" Larkin would have written to his girlfriend, Monica Jones, or to his friend, Kingsley Amis about the events for children, for instance – such as the one entitled Super Specs: "Make your own Larkin-inspired glasses with glitz and glam!" Larkin was a famous child-hater; sending him a baby photograph was, he once said, "like sending garlic to Dracula". Or the exhibition of his belongings, which includes his razors, pet toad collection and "trademark" glasses. I don't understand this "trademark" thing – Larkin didn't wear spectacles for effect; he was as blind as a bat – and I think he would have found this irredeemably gruesome.

Worst of all, Hull is to fill up with giant, brightly coloured fibreglass toads, a stunt so loopily against the spirit of the two poems that are their inspiration – "Toads" and "Toads Revisited", in which the squatting toad, impossible to shake off, is both a symbol of work and of the narrator's timid and confining personality – I find myself wondering whether their creators have actually read either one. It's all very strange, as if Ron Glum had been reincarnated as Ronald McDonald. "I'm settling down in Hull all right," wrote Larkin, to the poet DJ Enright on his arrival in the city in 1954 (he'd come to take up a job as university librarian). "Each day I sink a little further." It was, he said, "a frightful dump". But Hull, it would seem, does not bear a grudge. Just stick his face on this glossy leaflet, and we'll let bygones be bygones.

All the same, it's hard to see Larkin25 as anything other than a Good Thing. After the publication of Thwaite's Selected Letters and Andrew Motion's biography in the early 1990s, there was an outpouring of loathing for Larkin the man; a hysteria of disapproval that some feared would eventually destroy his reputation as a poet, too. Painfully, we learned of his racism, his supposed miserliness and misogyny, the juggling of his women, the porn, the booze, the wanking. The sensible critics were, of course, able to separate the work from the life; for them, the poems would sail on, serene and beautiful. But alas, sensible critics seemed, at the time, to be far too thin on the ground. Tom Paulin famously referred to "the sewer under the national monument Larkin became". Professor Lisa Jardine, having dispatched Larkin as a "casual, habitual racist and an easy misogynist", gleefully noted that "we don't tend to teach Larkin much now in my department of English. The Little Englandism he celebrates sits uneasily within our revised curriculum." And then there was cuddly old Alan Bennett. The playwright just about managed to stick up for the poems – "an armada, sparkling and intact" – but, in a long review of Motion's biography he accused Larkin of looking like a rapist and Reginald Halliday Christie, the Rillington Place serial killer. The famous Monitor arts programme in which Larkin was seen church-going gave Bennett the creeps, for the poet could have been "on the verge of exposing himself". As for the 25 volumes of his diaries – destroyed after his death by his secretary and former lover Betty Mackereth, on the instruction of Monica Jones – well, had they survived "one might have learned whether this shy, tormented man ever came close to the dock".

Two decades on and it is clear that the poems are safe. In the universities, where he continues to be taught, it is presumably understood that, as John Updike put it, the drama of his greatest poems hinges on the breaking of Larkin's crustiness, his prejudices, followed by "a generous, deep-breathing self-transcendence"; in other words, that the work has everything to do with life, and also nothing at all.

Meanwhile, outside academia, Larkin remains the most quoted, the bestselling and the most beloved of English poets. His poems – scrupulous, precise and ascendingly lovely – are true and wise: they speak to us of the big things, of birth, marriage and, above all, death. "You start by arguing in your head with those who call him minor," says the writer and poet Blake Morrison, who knew Larkin. "No, you think, as late-20th-century poets go, he is one of the best. And then you think, no, fuck it, as 20th-century poets go, he is one of the best… and that keeps on expanding all the time. He is a great poet. The problem for me, now, is getting him out of my head."

Larkin25 acknowledges this "abundance of caring" (Updike again) that Larkin's work arouses in his admirers. But it might mark the beginning of a reassessment of Larkin the man, too. Beyond noting that his private utterances were in marked contrast to his public behaviour, which was ever polite, Larkin's racism is uncomfortable and indefensible, even when you put it in the context of his times. The charges of misogyny, though, are about to start looking a whole lot more flimsy. In the autumn, Faber will publish Larkin's correspondence to Monica Jones, a selection of the surviving 7,500 pages of letters and cards he wrote to her between 1946, when they first met, and 1985, the year of his death. (Monica lived in Leicester, where she taught English at the university; she only began sharing Larkin's home shortly before he died.) These letters, discovered after her death, are highly personal and, being so great in number, they chronicle Larkin's feelings more intimately than anything we have read before. Like the Selected Letters, they catch his wit, and his abiding sadness. But they also reveal Larkin's deep love and admiration for a woman who was clever, eccentric, loud, unusual, flamboyant, opinionated and strong. In my experience, misogynists tend not to go a bundle for women with minds of their own.

It's obvious to me that it was not women Larkin hated, but the idea of marriage to one – and that seems fair enough. At his home in Norfolk, Anthony Thwaite, Larkin's friend and the editor both of the Selected Letters and of this new volume, laughs. "Yes!" he says. "Marriage: it's like promising to stand on one leg for the rest of your life, isn't it?" Thwaite believes that Larkin loved women. "His closest friends were women: Judy Egerton, Jean Hartley, his publisher. He liked Ann [Thwaite's wife, a biographer] very much. Winifred Arnott [a colleague on whom Larkin was sweet] and Ruth Bowman [his fiancée until 1950] are both still alive, and they keep the memory of him very warm. I think he was frightened of sex, but I think a lot of men are; it's a very easy thing to be frightened of."

What was Larkin like? "Charming. Rather a shy manner. Tall. Lovely smile. Lovely sense of humour. Our daughters remember him with enormous fondness. He used to call them the Chorus Line. He might have loathed children; he might have said: 'Oh, they throw food around, and worse!' But he was terribly good with them. Lucy used to do card tricks, and he'd be so impressed. I have a strong memory of Alice and Philip on their hands and knees, looking for a bagatelle ball." What was Monica like? "I was rather surprised by her at first, because she seemed… not Philip's sort. But I got to like her. Quite loud; strong opinions; very heavily made up – this slashed mouth. She was a performer. After he died, she went into an awful decline: drunk by lunchtime, piles of washing-up everywhere… And then, after she died, the letters started turning up all over the place: drawers, mattresses, sofas."

Thwaite makes me lunch and then takes me upstairs to the room where he has spent the past five years working on Letters to Monica. The page proofs are just in and, for an all-too brief time, I get to flip through them. It's tantalising. I cannot wait for publication day; the very thought of it makes my fingertips tingle. The first thing you notice are the endearments. Larkin is a seal, and she is a rabbit, a beloved "burrow-dweller", his precious "bun" (she is also a "sacred cat", and a "clever little lamb"). And the letters are often signed "Love you always."

There are plenty of dispatches from inside Larkin's head: anguished, indecisive, plaintive, and saucy (he tells her about a fantasy he has been having in which she is wearing a particular pair of black knickers, a pair with a hole in them). But there is also gossip, cricket (a mutual passion), jokes (they use a silly, shared argot: "haddock" for headache, "bogray" for buggery, and so on), an amazing bunch of first drafts ("Church Going", "Myxomatosis", "An Arundel Tomb") and, above all, book talk.

At one point, Larkin writes to her about his hero, DH Lawrence (believe it or not, Larkin used to mow his lawn wearing a DH Lawrence T-shirt) and his attitude to women. Monica's response is to the point: "What he's really asking for is a sweet old little dear, who shams yielding wifely stuff and, tough as steel underneath, deceives and manages him for his own good; a Woman's Page person, and he really deserved one." Atta girl.

I don't have much time and, in any case, I do not wish to be too much the literary burglar, so I ask Thwaite about one particular letter, in which, so I've heard, Larkin gives Monica advice about her manner – painfully honest-sounding advice. Does it really exist? "Oh, yes," he says. "I know the one." He riffles through the enormous pile of papers, and then he hands it to me. "You need to read it in context," he says. "The build-up is extremely loving."

He is right about this; Larkin, in a state about what he is shortly to do, and confessing openly that he would never be able to say it in person unless he was drunk, is at some pains to strike the right tender note. But still, what follows leaves me short of breath. "Revise, drastically, the amount you say and the intensity with which you say it," he writes. "You've no idea of the exhausting quality of yourself in full voice." He advises Monica to speak only two sentences at a time, and then to stop and await a response from whoever it is she is talking to. She should abandon altogether her "harsh, didactic voice" and use only "the soft musical one", the one he presumably knows better than most. I am sick at heart on Monica's behalf. Only then, just as he does in the poems, he seems to move on and up. "You notice that I don't say anything about what you say," he writes, the word "what" underlined.

All I can tell you, having looked through this vast manuscript, is that Larkin and Monica seem to me to have had, if nothing else, an extraordinarily frank relationship, and this suggests – doesn't it? – a certain equality. Certainly, when, at one point, Monica believes that she might be pregnant, they seem equally terrified. As he wrote to her in September 1957: "We are a queer pair, each with vast, almost complementary drawbacks." Who, I wonder, was more frightened of whom?

If you take the trouble to look, you don't even need to go to these letters (until publication day, they can be read only at the Bodleian library, Oxford) to find a different Larkin to the miserablist, misogynist, semi-recluse of popular mythology. No one is ever what one person says they are, or not entirely.

My own pilgrimage to Hull begins at the new Hull History Centre, which houses many of his papers. Here you can see Larkin's notebooks – his entire poetic output, complete with pencil workings, fills just eight slim volumes – and the thousands of letters he wrote to his mother over the course of her lifetime. But you can also look at his books, and the first thing you notice is how many of them are by women. Barbara Pym is present, of course (Larkin championed her work even after her publisher abandoned her), and his beloved Gladys Mitchell, author of Laurels are Poison and other detective novels. But so, too, are Mary McCarthy and Rosamond Lehmann, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Alison Lurie. He admired McCarthy very much. And when you flip through the hundreds of photographs Larkin left, you see that the huge majority are of this cockatoo of a woman called Monica, and in a single glance you realise what an extraordinary couple they must have made: he so soberly dressed in mackintosh and bicycle clips, and her so exquisitely and loudly turned out: extraordinary hats and wacky stockings, mannish pinstripe trousers and daringly (for the time) short skirts. Monica did not wear clothes, she wore outfits. People must have stared. No wonder Kingsley Amis loathed her, and used her as a model for the neurotic, manipulative Margaret Peel in Lucky Jim. Larkin, on the other hand, dedicated his (1955) collection, The Less Deceived, to her.

After I've finished at the archives, I go to see Jean Hartley, who, with her husband George, ran the tiny, Hull-based Marvell Press, which published The Less Deceived. Larkin25 includes a new play about Hartley's life, Wrong Beginnings, which will be staged at Hull Truck Theatre – "It's very sensationalised!" she says, looking thrilled – and to coincide with this honour, Faber has reprinted her 1989 memoir, Philip Larkin, The Marvell Press and Me.

Like Thwaite, Hartley is insistent that Larkin loved women; nor will she go along with the idea of him as a miser. When she won a place at university as a mature student, Larkin, knowing how hard-up Hartley was, opened a book account for her, and placed a fat sum in it. She is full of stories about him: the time they went to see Louis Armstrong together in Bridlington; the time Larkin arrived at a party clutching a bottle of crème de menthe. She reminds me – so unlikely seeming, this – that he thought Dylan's "Mr Tambourine Man" the best song ever written. Larkin, who once described his physique as being like that of a "pregnant salmon", hated dancing, but at departmental Christmas parties, he would be sure to ask every woman in the room to dance: cleaners, caterers, library assistants. No one was left out.

"He was the funniest man I've ever met," she says. "He could mimic anyone. He was just this fund of jokes. Visiting me and George was a nice thing he used to do after his shopping. He'd arrive on his bike, his haversack full of groceries, and he'd spend the afternoon with us. He would make forays to London, and he'd come back and tell us all about it. We were always agog."

The image of Larkin as the hermit of Hull, an image the poet encouraged, was never quite accurate. In her memoir, Hartley includes an old diary entry from 1967: "Had marvellous evening playing Armstrong, Fitzgerald, 'Mr Tambourine Man', etc. Read Rossetti, Conquest, de Vries and talked about Joyce. Reminisced. Philip gave us a poem. Left at 4am."

Hartley hopes that Larkin25, which she has helped to organise, will reflect this Larkin: the one who sometimes saw off his guests at 4am, rather than the one who used to lie awake at that hour, "the bedroom hot as a bakery", full of fear and regret ("Love Again"). She remains intensely proud of having been the unlikely first publisher of The Less Deceived. "I loved him so much as a person anyway, but the fact that the poems have become so revered and popular…" Her eyes crinkle. "It's wonderful." She wants to know if I have been to the cemetery. "I think you should: get the taxi to take you." There are, she tells me, three graves that I must see. So this is what I do.

It's a bleak spot. Flat and charmless, hard by a clogged road, Cottingham's municipal cemetery is as utilitarian – and as contemplative – as a traffic roundabout. Its low gravestones are not old; they belong, mostly, to a Godless age, and none is elaborate or beautiful – no winged angels, no lichen-covered cherubs, no trailing ivy. It's a blessing that the sun is shining. But you would no sooner use the word "dappled" of this place than you would come here to read a love letter.

I get out of the car. I know exactly what to look for; Hartley was precise. Even so, it's affecting to see this triangle of headstones for the first time. Not only are Larkin and Monica here; so, too, is Maeve Brennan. Maeve was Larkin's colleague at the Brynmor Jones Library, and saw him almost every day for 23 years; their affair, tender but sometimes agonised, lasted for 18. She died in 2003, at the age of 73. When, in 1993, Andrew Motion published his life of Larkin, thus revealing the complexities of his sexual relationships, it was Maeve, gentle and dark-eyed, who had reviewers gnashing their teeth. It was generally felt that lipsticked Monica was tough as old boots, and could look after herself. But how must Maeve, a devout Catholic, have felt when it finally became clear that, having given him the best years of her life, Larkin would not marry her; that he would never give up Monica? The brute!

The inconvenient truth, however, is that Maeve herself did not share, let alone invite, this indignation. Years later, she would tell people that knowing Larkin had been wonderful, the most enriching relationship of her life. According to Jean Hartley, Maeve and Larkin made the most jolly of couples, for all that Maeve always knew he had Monica Jones on the go elsewhere.

Anyway, the shape that these three formed in life, painfully three-pronged, they now continue in death, and perhaps indefinitely; or at least until the end of days, when no one reads poetry any more, and this spot, bone-crammed to the brim, fills up with new names, new stones – or, perhaps, with landfill, with plastic bottles and flatscreen televisions. One of these three, of course, would have predicted that very outcome. He thought it might happen in his lifetime. "It seems, just now/ To be happening very fast/ Despite all the land left free/ For the first time I feel somehow/ That it isn't going to last/ That before I snuff it, the whole/ Boiling will be bricked in…"

I go to his grave first. It is very white, rather like his face, which he once described as "an egg sculpted in lard, wearing goggles". It says: "Philip Larkin, 1922-1985, writer." There are no flowers, none of the candles and palm crosses that adorn some other headstones, only a scattering of curled, brown leaves. I can't help thinking that it is exactly the kind of grave that Larkin would have expected to end up in.

Next, a stout, grey-white stone; it's the colour (and shape) of old-fashioned underwear. This marks the resting place of Monica, who died in 2001, having lived on without Larkin, in his ugly modern house, with his tweed jacket still hanging over the back of a chair, for 16 long, miserable, drunken years. Hartley told me that after Monica's death it was left to Maeve to make sure Monica got this stone; she had no family, and a solicitor who seemed to be dragging his feet.

Last of all, I track back to a shiny, black headstone. Maeve. She is buried with another man, one she met after Larkin, and his name and dates come first. But what's this? With a start – Jean Hartley did not warn me – I see that Maeve's epitaph consists only of the last line of "An Arundel Tomb". "What will survive of us is love," it says. The engraved letters are gold, like wedding rings.

Philip Larkin died of cancer in December 1985. "I am going to the inevitable," he said to the nurse who was holding his hand. The funeral was held on a day so foggy that Kingsley Amis and his ex-wife, Hilly, mistook Newark for Doncaster, and got off their train too soon (they were rescued by Andrew Motion, who yelled at them to get back on). "The church is full," Blake Morrison recorded in his diary afterwards. "But of local people and fellow library workers, not literati. Monica doesn't show up, but has helped choose the hymns – or did Philip have all that planned?" Monica did not show up because she was too full of sorrow, and thus too full of drink; but Maeve was there, and Betty Mackereth, who, a few weeks later, would spend an afternoon in Larkin's office, pushing his diaries through the rapacious jaws of the university paper shredder.

When I get back to London, I go to see Andrew Motion; his forthcoming lecture in Hull is entitled "The Afterlife of Philip Larkin", and I want to know what he is going to say. We have a long and interesting talk. He tells me about his first encounter with the poet (they met when Motion took a teaching job at Hull University), who grinned broadly when the younger man revealed that his father was a brewer; and about his first visit to Larkin's house in Newland Park, where they judged a poetry competition organised by the Hull Daily Mail (Larkin looked forlornly at the entries, and said: "I could win this!").

"He was paternal to me," says Motion. "Very, very sweet, funny, kind, and funny again. Funniest man I've met by a mile. I often make myself laugh thinking about a letter in which he said: 'I feel like the Israelites in the desert coming across manna, and thinking: what the fuck is this?'" Later, Motion went to live in Oxford – he shared a house with his friend, the novelist Alan Hollinghurst – and Larkin would sometimes visit them. "Red letter days!" says Motion.

Motion regarded the writing of Larkin's biography as "one of the most important things I'll ever be asked to do in my life", and he still feels the same way about it now. But in that case, wasn't it ghastly having to deliver up the women, and the porn, and the racism, for all that Thwaite had prepared the way with the letters? "Of all the people I've ever met, he was the person who felt the least hesitation about revealing his personality, warts and all," Motion says. "I thought that to write an honest book would be the greatest tribute; that his spirit would respect it, and that it would come out anyway, so best not to equivocate." Writing the life, which took seven years, got him down sometimes: "I felt so responsible, and so loving of him; it bent my own life out of shape for a while." In the weeks prior to publication, however, he was consoled first by a dream he had in which Larkin presented him with a garland of hay. "I woke up, and I thought, not hay, but cut grass [the title of one of Larkin's poems]. I know it sounds silly, but it meant something to me."

And then, more bizarrely, Motion was consoled by a cassette that was sent to him by Larkin's hearing doctor, Raymond Cass, who was also a spiritualist. When Motion played the tape, above the squeaking and rushing noises, a voice very like Larkin's could be heard. The voice said that he was spending his time in the next world "tramping". What did he think of Motion's book? "Very satisfactory," said the voice.

Motion thinks Larkin's letters to Monica will deepen our understanding of the poet, though he finds their match less surprising than some. "You could see why he'd want her. She was very funny, no bullshit, sexy. I think they had fun, though by the end she was like Miss Havisham: incontinent, drunk, smoking, ash all over the manuscripts. 'He was a bugger,' she would say. 'He was a bugger, but I loved him.' She was complicated and fascinating; we used to have these very feisty conversations about Wordsworth. No wonder she was such a problem for Kingsley. But it's interesting that Larkin loved her, that he wasn't put off her."

When Motion's book was finished, Monica was enthusiastic. So, too, was Maeve. "Maeve hadn't let me read any of Larkin's letters to her, and that was a defect of the book. Then she read my manuscript, and she said: 'Is it too late? Come and see me, and I'll tell you everything.' In a dark part of my mind, I wondered whether, when they finally went to bed [Maeve's Catholicism meant that, for ages, she would not sleep with Larkin] that was an end of it. I think it probably was. On Philip's part, you see, there was this intensely romantic glamorisation of delay and yearning." His voice is very warm now. "He was a tremendously yearning person."

When I leave Motion's office, a shower has just ended and the sun has come out; the pavements shine, the horse chestnut trees drip, the air smells earthy and fresh. I find that I am smiling. It's one of those numinous, rising moments that Larkin was so good at capturing: the glum person (and this is me, often) suddenly left unaccountably happy – or if not happy (let's not get carried away) then at least able to find consolation amidst the din, and what he would have called "the funk". Golden letters in a graveyard; dripping horse chestnut trees. Life is full of these small blessings, and for all his ginny loneliness and personal despair, Larkin knew enough to celebrate them, on our behalf if not his own. We were so lucky to have him – though he is, of course, with us still.

Philip Larkin, The Marvell Press and Me, by Jean Hartley, is published by Faber Finds, price £14; to order it for £13.50 with free UK p&p go to

1 comment:

  1. I am not familiar with his work, but sounds like he had an interesting life.

    Separating the work from the personal life is something I must work on.

    I'm not sure if I will succeed.