Though lasting literary friendships between natural rivals are not rare — Byron and Shelley, Coleridge and Wordsworth and Edward Thomas and Robert Frost spring to mind — few have been as durable as the one that began in the Front Quad of St John’s College, Oxford, one afternoon in May 1941 when a mutual friend introduced what their biographer calls ‘the odd couple’ by pointing his fingers at Kingsley Amis while imitating the sound of a gunshot.
On cue, the fair-haired freshman yelled in pain, clutched his chest and staggered back to fall on a convenient pile of laundry sacks. Philip Larkin, a deliberately conspicuous figure in drab wartime Oxford, clad in bow tie, yellow waistcoat and the city’s only pair of cerise trousers, was suitably impressed by the performance. ‘I stood silent. For the first time in my life I felt myself in the presence of a talent greater than my own,’ he later publicly recalled.
The encounter — jokey, irreverent, somewhat surreal — set the tone for a relationship that was to last — with one lengthy hiatus in the early 1960s — until Larkin’s death in December 1985, and it’s easy to see why. Though superficially so dissimilar — Amis in youth was blessed with matinee-idol looks and sexual success to match, while shy, stammering Larkin, in his own estimation, variously resembled a rapist, Eric Morecambe, and a bespectacled, balding trout — in their background, social class, interests and attitudes the pair were as alike as two peas in a pod.
Born in the same year, 1922, both were lower-middle-class Englishmen raised in quintessential suburbia. The Amis family home in Norbury, filled with mad relatives, was named ‘Borchester’, while Larkin’s ‘forgotten boredom’ of a ‘fucked up’ childhood with his Hitler-worshipping council treasurer father Sydney was spent in a Coventry house called ‘Penvorn’. Both were effectively only children (Larkin’s much older sister Kitty remains shadowy). Both had faint and feeble mothers and domineering, eccentric fathers who opened the world of books to them. Both adored jazz, yet were aggressively insular in their literary tastes and became increasingly reactionary as they aged; and both actively pursued sex and took a sniggering secret delight in smut.
Amis, alongside his two marriages to beautiful women — Hilly Bardwell, the mother of his three children, and fellow novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard — was a career adulterer who rented flats for his afternoon assignations. Larkin, despite his diffidence and disdain for living with people, so compartmentalised his life that he managed to run three relationships simultaneously. His maitresse-en-titre was a fellow literary academic, Monica Jones — cruelly called a ‘grim old bag’ by Amis — while he juggled affairs in Hull with two university colleagues, Maeve Brennan and Betty Mackereth.
As a devotee of S&M porn, Larkin included in his early fiction lesbian school stories under the pseudonym Brunette Coleman (perhaps significantly, Amis’s father, William was a lifelong employee of Colman’s mustard). And Amis reckoned his friend’s ideal job would have been as head of Roedean. Instead, Larkin’s day job was as the famously reclusive librarian of Hull university, from where he watched Amis’s metropolitan star ascend with a jaundiced and envious eye.
Politically, as well as in their artistic and sexual tastes, the odd couple were soulmates. Little Englanders both, they never had much taste for abroad, and one cannot imagine their high literary reputations here travelling well. Larkin’s aversion to travel — he said that he wouldn’t mind going to China, provided he could return the same day — may have been seeded by his father taking him to Nazi Germany as a boy;but in private he shared his old man’s racial attitudes.
Like many of his generation, Amis was a communist at Oxford — reinforced by his spell in the army in occupied Germany at the fag end of the war. By the mid-1960s, however, he had repented of the Leftist follies of his youth, and had come out as a committed Tory. Despite their militant conservatism, Bradford suggests, both men remained essentially rebels of the right — an insurrection against their fathers and the stifling narrow horizons of their upbringing which translated easily into resentment against the establishment, whether that was the stuffy academia of their youth or the new orthodoxies of the politically correct left of their dotage. They represented the revolt of the grammar school that flickered briefly between the decay of the public school and the rise of the bog-standard comprehensive.
The two men’s career paths bisected each other. Amis began as a poet, yet found fame first with Lucky Jim, the novel that brought English fiction giggling out of the cupboard of pinched, postwar austerity. Larkin tried fiction unsuccessfully before discovering his métier in his sparse but steady production of the poetry that defined late-20th-century England: rueful, introspective, plangent, agnostic, yet full of a barely suppressed rage, as his country’s decline matched his own disappointed dreams. ‘Regret. Always there is regret,’ he told Amis.
Amis gushed a prolific stream of fiction that set him alongside Waugh and Wodehouse as the greatest comic English novelist of the century, whose marriages, affairs, rudeness, raw opinions and later life as a hard-drinking clubroom curmudegon made him famous. (‘Very Kingsley Amis, very Sanderson’ was the slogan of a wallpaper ad campaign featuring him.) Yet he never again matched Jim Dixon’s first fine careless rapture.
Larkin, who deliberately steered clear of the limelight while contriving to back into it, saw his legend grow as Amis’s star slowly sank. By the end of his life he was Margaret Thatcher’s obvious choice as Poet Laureate on Betjeman’s death. He declined the honour, but typically came to regret ‘being the cause of Ted’s [Hughes] being buried in Westminster Abbey’ in his place.
Larkin’s existence was surely as sad as his mournful mien and melancholy verse suggest (‘Christ, what a life!’, marvelled Kingsley’s hedonistic son Martin, as its full horror dawned on him). Amis père certainly had more fun than his friend. But posterity rates the artistic achievement of the Hermit of Hull higher than that of the louche Lothario of London clubland.
All this is entertainingly related by Richard Bradford — who has already written biographies of both men — with commendable brio and brevity. A fine critic, he gives due weight to the work, as well as regaling us with frank, sometimes scorching details of the lives — not least the two men’s witheringly scatological assessments of their friends and enemies (‘bum’, ‘shit’ and ‘cunt’ were much-used epithets). Their friendship was conducted chiefly by post, and Bradford has quarried the correspondence for this concise dual life in letters and brought up the gems. In a globalised, electronic yet increasingly bland and colourless world, we shall not taste the salty like of these two quirky provincial Englishmen again.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 1 December 2012