When the poems of Philip Larkin came to the fore in the late Fifties, I admired his graceful colloquialism but was dismayed by his almost proselytising gloom; life wasn’t given much of a chance. So I decided that he was a great Comic poet — stretching the idea of Comedy to almost Renaissance widths and depths — that he was the Les Dawson of the anthologies. This wasn’t good enough as a formula, it left too much out; but it was a way of admiring while keeping at a distance.
When, three decades later, Westminster Abbey was found crammed to the walls for his memorial service, it was clear that his willed vacancies —– ‘the life with the hole in it’ — had been welcomed into the hearts and minds of a great many; for them he had told them how it is.
Richard Bradford’s account of his life and work, at least for seven-eighths of its length, suggests that the idea of Larkin the comedian is not far from the mark. His comedy is an antidote to boredom, a utilisation of it, but in Larkin’s case it was at last replaced by fear. (Bradford’s title is of course Larkin’s description of life.)
The comedy was masochistic. Take, for instance, the places he chose to live. Like his Mr Bleaney he picked the dreariest, and then (comically) complained. When he arrived in Belfast in 1950 to take up a post as assistant university librarian, he wrote to his mother, ‘Belfast is an unattractive city. Oh dear, oh dear’, and his biographer adds, ‘The words seem unambiguous enough, but with knowledge of Larkin’s maturing temperament one detects a hint of masochistic glee.’
Richard Bradford is professor of English at the University of Ulster, author of books called Stylistics and A Linguistic History of English Poetry (also a biography of Kingsley Amis, Lucky Him), and he has an academic’s gift for discerning and sorting out patterns, smelling out revealing connections. His interesting and important book, like Larkin, makes the complex seem almost simple. The most fruitful and complex of these connections, for both of them, was Larkin’s friendship with Amis.
They met as undergraduates at Oxford, Amis immediately doing one of his famous sound-imitations — in this case of a cowboy gunfight, complete with ricochets — which he was to perform many, many times in the ensuing decades. Later came their famous correspondence, in turn hilarious and unlovely. In the course of it Larkin became epistolary copy- editor and almost co-author (certainly inspirer) of Amis’s sprawling and uncertain manuscript of Lucky Jim. Later still Larkin said of their friendship and letters, ‘I’ve always wanted a “fourth-form friend”, with whom I could pretend things were not as I know they are — and pretend I was like him.’ At this point, feeling exploited, he added, ‘Now I don’t feel like pretending any longer … He doesn’t like books. He doesn’t like reading. And I wouldn’t take his opinion on anything, books, people, places …’ This, in a letter to one of his women friends, is extraordinary. He and Amis remained friends, and confessional correspondents, for the rest of his life.
Perhaps the point was that it had never occurred to Larkin that what became Lucky Jim would ever find a publisher. At the time he himself was writing a similarly debunking novel, with his mistress as the villain (as the same woman was also a villain in Lucky Jim; Amis and Larkin truly were an Odd Couple). The success of Lucky Jim frustrated Larkin’s ambitions as a novelist; he had now to concentrate on verse. So, in a way, each created the other’s career.
Worse was to come, for Larkin: Amis’s second novel, That Uncertain Feeling, in which the central character was a provincial librarian, was based, once again, on Larkin’s letters. When Larkin complained of this cannibalisation of their private and naked correspondence, Kingsley retorted, ‘Life transmuted into Art.’ ‘But God damn it, Kingsley, my letters are art!’ — which is true. Their letters were confections in which they caricatured themselves and their opinions, pulling faces to amuse. But, as nannies say, you have to be careful, the wind might change, and you will be stuck with a permanent grimace or scowl — which, it could be said, is what happened to both of them.
Bradford describes Larkin’s love-life as having the atmosphere of an Ealing comedy. On holiday with one woman he is receiving secret letters from another — or is it from two others, one loses track — snatching them from the hotel post-rack ‘like a cormorant on a piece of bread’. He never quite lied to them, they knew what he was up to, but knew only as much as Larkin chose to tell them. One, of long standing (and sexually long-resistant) was a devout Roman Catholic, and her faith fascinated him. ‘Bollocks to her,’ growled Amis, ‘trying to get him into the church.’ Little chance; he bought an annotated Bible and read it while shaving. ‘To think that anyone ever believed any of that. Really, it’s absolute balls. Beautiful of course. But balls.’
He was always consistent, and told the truth, in his poems and to his women friends, but was it the whole truth? If Kingsley Amis used him, so did he use Kingsley. ‘I sometimes read a poem over with a tiny Kingsley crying How do you mean at every unclear image, and it is a wonderful aid to improvement.’ Nevertheless his poems do sometimes end with a blur, a suggested opening-out, even an aspiration, which good verse can earn; something which Amis’s ‘intellectual hooliganism’, as Bradford calls it, has not succeeded in blowing away. The famous ending, for example, of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’:
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
‘Little Kingsley crying How do you mean’ is still at it in his review of Larkin’s posthumous Collected Poems. ‘I for one, sadly, can make almost nothing of the sense of falling and the arrow showers.’
Indeed, how can an arrow shower (an image from Olivier’s Henry V?) become rain? Perhaps in the sense of the old Ink Spots song, ‘Into each life some rain must fall.’ Larkin chose to experience not much else but rain, and perversely to enjoy this. Then, still only in his mid-fifties, he became very frightened indeed of death, which is reasonable, as he always was — see ‘Aubade’. Perhaps the best we can do, if we think we are worthy — even if we think we are not — is to say a prayer for the old sod; if only to annoy him.