Philip larkin

Extremes of passion: What Will Survive of Us, by Howard Jacobson, reviewed

There is not going gently into that good night, and then there is teetering into it on spiked-heel boots while strapped into a leather corset in search of clandestine kicks among like-minded fetishists. If it sounds an exhausting and chilly way to spend an evening, well, it is. At least, that’s how it feels to Sam Quaid, the middle-aged playwright who is beset by misgivings – he himself is dressed in ‘the more chicken-hearted guise of a fallen Quaker who had never seen the sun’ – but gamely determined to accompany his lover, Lily. Where is Sam’s obeisance going to lead him, or Lily? Here is where the novel becomes

Too many tales of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle

A book about hedgehogs is not the obvious next step for Sarah Sands, the former editor of Radio 4’s flagship news programme Today, and before that editor of the Evening Standard. But then Sands has had a rough time of it lately. In The Hedgehog Diaries, she recounts the death of her father, Noel, the news broken to her by her brother, Kit Hesketh-Harvey, who had to climb through a window of her Norfolk house to do so since she wasn’t answering her phone. Hesketh-Harvey, who was a writer and performer and a great favourite of the King, died not long afterwards of heart failure. Julian Sands, the actor made

Andrew Motion pays tribute to his poetic mentors

Andrew Motion has previously published a memoir of childhood, In the Blood (2006), but this new book focuses on his becoming a poet, his search for mentors and subsequent writing life. Motion, a country boy, has a Words-worthian bent, and talks about the pull of evocative recollections, already hardening when he entered adulthood, as ‘equivalent to the songs of the Sirens’, explicitly ‘spots of time’. He is, as one might expect, good on poetry’s general appeal – ‘ it prizes compression and distillation in a world of deliquescence’ – and perceptive on the root cause of its lure for him. The appeal of ‘falling in love with a dead man’

Larkin at 100: a tribute (1985)

This piece is taken from The Spectator’s fully digitised archive. There are many ways of judging poets. One sure test of their personal appeal is how many lines of their poetry you can remember. Not only can I remember a lot of Larkin, I find that it has sunk very deep, and become part of my private language. This is true both of his funny stuff – My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps To come and waste their time and ours… and also the jokey sadness of What else can I answer When the lights come on at four At the end of another year? Give

The intense Englishness of Philip Larkin

The English language has a curious feature, called the phrasal verb. It consists of a plain verb plus a preposition; to go up, to get over, to find out. They are quite often more vivid than their simple synonyms – to ascend, to recover, to discover. New ones are constantly being thought up; they are also totally irrational – get on with or get off with? Most serious writers spend a lot of time thinking about them. One day, the story goes, the poet Philip Larkin was challenged by his secretary at work. She had discovered a cache of pornography in his office cupboard. ‘But what’s it for?’ she asked.

Hell is an English train journey

Delayed, on Southern Rail Home From the Hill is a 1987 documentary by Molly Dineen about Hilary Hook, an elderly colonel who after a life in Kenya and the Far East retires to a nasty flat in England. Poor old Hilary has never had to prepare his own food and now, in his twilight years, he can’t even open a can of soup. He is horrified by Britain, its culture and bad weather. When I first saw Molly’s superb film as a young man it struck a chord. Some 35 years later, on a brief visit to England from Kenya, I can almost hear and feel myself becoming Hook. It’s

Letters: We’re all still paying for the financial crash

Don’t blame the banks? Sir: Kate Andrews struggles to disentangle the causes of the developing cost-of-living crisis (‘Cold truth’, 19 March), with the fallout from Brexit, Covid and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine all vying for responsibility. She forgets the financial crash of 2008, when a few irresponsible banks and building societies dragged this country into a financial abyss. The jury is still out on the effect that the Bank of England’s remedy of quantitative easing has since had on inflation and wealth inequality. We are all still paying the price for this disaster, as will be the next couple of generations. After 2008, successive governments paid for the bailout of

This be the curse: Philip Larkin’s big problem

In matters of sex, Philip Larkin was late getting away. On his 23rd birthday, he wrote defeatedly to Kingsley Amis: ‘I really do not think it likely I shall ever get into the same bed as anyone again because it is so much trouble, almost as much trouble as standing for parliament.’ His 2014 biographer, James Booth, adds that Larkin was ‘still effectively a virgin… [and] Amis was puzzled that his friend failed to follow through his pursuit of sexual satisfaction’. There is no join-the-dots explanation for what Larkin called the ‘sex-fear and auto-erotic fantasies’ that beset him all his life. But in the centenary of his birth, it’s time

We Lumas have the weight of the world on our shoulders

In the introduction to an anthology of his jazz record reviews, the poet Philip Larkin imagines his readers. They’re not exactly full of the joys of spring. He describes them as ‘sullen fleshy inarticulate men… whose first coronary is coming like Christmas’. Loaded down with ‘commitments and obligations and necessary observances’ they’re drifting helplessly towards ‘the darkening avenues of age and incapacity’. Everything that once made life sweet has deserted them and their only solace is the memory of the music they once loved. I first read that passage 35 years ago and didn’t think it would apply to me one day. Admittedly, the men Larkin conjures up are more

My clairvoyant GP

‘Willie or bum?’ I said to Catriona on the motorway. Everything in my recent medical career has been introduced via the former: cameras, cutters, stents. I naturally assumed it would be the same choice of pathways for exploring and snipping off three pieces of my liver. At the wheel, Catriona laughed at my idiocy and explained where my liver was and that there was not a pathway from it to either of those entrances. ‘They’ll go straight in through the side with a needle,’ she said. ‘Ow,’ I said. While I undressed in front of her, the admissions nurse scanned my written forms. ‘Anglais? I only take cash,’ she said,

An unsuitable attachment to Nazism: Barbara Pym in the 1930s

Novelists’ careers take different paths, and sometimes don’t look much like careers at all. It’s true that some start publishing between 25 and 35, and write a novel respectably every two or three years until they die, like Kingsley Amis. Others don’t start until they are 60, like Penelope Fitzgerald, or stop abruptly without warning, like Henry Green, or write one novel and no more, like Harper Lee. Inspiration, or interest, comes and goes, and both the audience and the industry will have their wilful way with creativity. The ultimate aim of a novel, to be read with pleasure decades after its creator’s death, is reached in tortuous ways. Who

A lesson in survival from pre-21st century Marks & Spencer

When I wrote last week about business-to-business pain-sharing for survival, I was naturally thinking first about UK companies. I say ‘naturally’ because in every aspect of this crisis, ­national interest has, as it were, trumped trans­national co-operation. That’s particularly the case where medical supplies are concerned — as in the US President’s attempt to stop the Minnesota-based manufacturer 3M exporting respirator masks to Canada. But wider questions about global supply chains have been brought into focus by one vivid case: the wipe-out of fashion orders from factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam, whose operatives — low-paid but lifted by their jobs out of greater poverty — are the flagbearers of

Church visitors’ books

I am memorialised twice in my village church. Not in some premature lapidary way, but in the visitors’ book. The first time was with my toddler, when I wrote her name down. Some years later I showed her that scribbled evidence and inked us in again. There we were, here we are. I always sign these modest manuscripts, with their columns for date, name, address and comments, and I’m always touched by the commonplaces: ‘So peaceful.’ ‘Thank you for being open.’ ‘Beautiful.’ Sometimes the signatories are far from home; tourists who stumble in, or those searching out forebears. On a recent trip to Ludlow, in pursuit of A. E. Housman,

The upsides of dementia

My 91-year-old father-in-law has always had a terror of hospitals. This dates from his time as a Royal Marine when, just after the second world war, he was infected with polio by a contaminated needle. The first he knew of it was when a visiting dignitary came on board ship and he was unable to lift his arm in salute. Ever since, he made it very clear that he doesn’t want to go to a hospital under any circumstances, ever. But last week he was admitted to A&E with a high temperature and I didn’t fret for one moment that he’d be alarmed. Why? He’s got late-stage dementia. He’s forgotten

They tuck you up

I first came across Philip Larkin’s poem ‘This Be the Verse’ when I was 18 in the late 1970s. You know the one: ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad/ They may not mean to, but they do…’ I was working as a volunteer in a care home for physically handicapped adults in Camden, north London. I had dropped out of school without doing my A levels. When I visited my parents over Easter, my father was angry about my newly acquired pierced ear and earrings: ‘What does it say about who you’re associating with? You’ve really upset your mother.’ Seething, I returned to London and conveyed to the

Telling tales | 29 November 2018

Germaine Greer described biographers as ‘vultures’. I prefer to think of myself as a version of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade: vultures hunt by instinct but the two private investigators went after secrets with deliberate foolhardy masochism. It’s human nature to want to know more about the writers we admire — but what you discover isn’t always pleasant. Most recently, I completed a life of Ernest Hemingway. It was a joy to write mainly because after reading thousands of unpublished letters I felt relieved at having been spared an encounter with the living ‘Papa’. I knew of his reputation as a fibber but I was astonished to find that from

They fill you with the faults they had

You attempt to write a review with a stiff dose of objectivity, but it’s hard not to start with a degree of fondness for an anthology put together by a magician who has performed in North Korea. Dale Salwak also has a sideline as a professor of literature at Citrus College in Los Angeles, and Writers and their Mothers is a collection of 22 pieces he has edited, by novelists, poets and literary critics, some biographical and analytical, some autobiographical. In his introduction, Salwak makes reference to an assertion by Georges Simenon that writers are ‘united in their hatred of their mothers’, an assertion, I’d suggest, that tells you much

Hull’s a poppin’

In early January, recommended its top 15 destinations for 2017. In 12th spot, just above Montreal, Croatia and Japan, was Hull. And if you’re tempted to opt for a snooty chuckle at this point, my advice would be to go to Hull — because, judging from my recent experience, even on a cold January weekend, the place is buzzing with a hugely infectious, if still slightly bashful, sense of rediscovered civic pride. ‘I’ve lived here for 50 years,’ one man told me, ‘and this is the greatest thing that’s happened to the city in my time.’ The ‘this’ he’s referring to is, of course, Hull’s status as the UK

Show me the Monet

Philip Larkin once remarked that Art Tatum, a jazz musician given to ornate, multi-noted flourishes on the keyboard, reminded him of ‘a dressmaker, who having seen how pretty one frill looks, makes a dress bearing ninety-nine’. If you substitute paintings of flower-beds and dappled sunlight for chromatic keyboard runs, something similar is true of the new blockbuster at the Royal Academy, Painting the Modern Garden. That, however, is only half the verdict on this curious affair. It is a show that feels a bit overblown — like a visit to an enormous Victorian conservatory — but contained inside it is another, triumphantly successful exhibition that is inspiring, exalting and almost

Shock and awe in Coventry, 14 November 1940

On 14 November 1940, at seven in the evening, the Luftwaffe began to bomb Coventry. The skyline turned red like an eclipse of the sun as clouds of cinders, lit red by the blaze, floated down over the great West Midlands city. Coventry seemed to have been hit by a meteorite. The mile-high roar of magnesium incendiary flames created a firestorm in which over 554 people died and twice as many were wounded. Life as Coventrians had known it, lived it and loved it, came to an end that Thursday night. Hitler’s first Blitz on an English city had taken the inhabitants by complete surprise. In the space of 11