Larkin and his close companion Monica Jones at John Betjeman’s funeral, 1984. Photo: Getty
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A life more ordinary: salvaging Philip Larkin’s reputation

A painstakingly diligent new biography leaves Erica Wagner feeling relieved that the poet’s pornography collection is “almost entirely lost”.

Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love 
James Booth
Bloomsbury, 532pp, £25

 

There are moments in James Booth’s fine portrait of Philip Larkin when the reader may well feel profoundly grateful that he or she is not subject to the scrutiny of such a diligent biographer – and, at least momentarily, queasy about the biographer’s task.

“Larkin’s pornography collection is almost entirely lost,” Booth writes soberly; and for all that its survival might have given us more insight into “the self-possession of bachelor auto-eroticism”, I was rather relieved, on the poet’s behalf, that it appears we have not more than the couple of images that are indeed reproduced in the final plate section here. Just occasionally, too, the lack of overtly thrilling incident in Larkin’s life leads Booth towards what feels like melodramatic overinterpretation. After his lover Monica Jones’s death, we are told, the Philip Larkin Society acquired from among his effects “a circular mirror on a metal stand, one side of which is concave, reflecting a hugely magnified image of every pore and blemish”. Booth links this mirror to an idea of Larkin’s reproachful self-scrutiny: but surely the object described might simply be called a shaving mirror?

Larkin fascinates because the life and the work can seem so much at odds. As Booth writes, the three mature collections published during the poet’s lifetime – The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974) – “established an oeuvre which gave all the appearance of perfection”. What Martin Amis called the “frictionless memorability” of Larkin’s work has made him, as Booth states plainly, “the best-loved British poet of the last century”.

Poems such as “Days”, “The Trees”, “The Whitsun Weddings”, “An Arundel Tomb”, “Dockery and Son” are, and for ever will be, an indelible feature of the English poetic landscape: English as in “English language”, but also in the way they are deeply connected to the geography and psychology of the country of Larkin’s birth, his true emotional territory. Not forgetting, of course, “This Be The Verse”, its celebrated opening couplet such an encapsulation of 20th- (and 21st-) century angst that it’s hard to believe it was written by anyone at all: it is as if the words were pre-existing, carved and revealed out of linguistic stone.

The life’s very ordinariness seems to confront this perfection. Born in Coventry, he found a job after Oxford as a librarian in Wellington; in 1955, less than a year after the institution had acquired full university status, he was appointed librarian at the University of Hull – where the author worked with him for 17 years. He was 32; he would build Hull’s library into the notable institution it is today. As Booth notes, “Larkin is virtually alone among 20th-century poets in writing in a natural, first-hand way about work in the sense of paid employment.” And then there are the arguments that have raged, since the poet’s death in 1985, about whether he was a racist, a miso­gynist, a xenophobe. Or perhaps, one might say, arguments about the extent of his racism, misogyny and xenophobia, given that even Booth – whose intention is to rescue Larkin from at least some of the accusations – must acknowledge these flaws.

The publication of his friend and executor Anthony Thwaite’s edition of the Collected Poems in 1988 began the process of demystification by abandoning Larkin’s arrangement of his own poems and working chronologically, which revealed much that the poet had chosen to omit. Thwaite’s edition of the Selected Letters (1992) exposed “the sewer under the national monument”, as Tom Paulin wrote in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement, and so did Andrew Motion’s biography, published in 1993.

Is Booth’s attempt to salvage Larkin’s reputation successful? To a large extent it is – because of its fine-grained, thoughtful focus on what is, after all, the most important aspect under consideration: the poet’s work. This is very much a literary biography and should be read with an edition of the poems to hand. Does the final couplet of “The Trees” – “Last year is dead, they seem to say,/Begin afresh, afresh, afresh” – express “ecstatic affirmation”, as it is often perceived to do? Booth offers the “less deceived” reader the notion that it might be “an imperious command, reminding us that the time will come soon enough when we are unable to respond”.

This biography is full of such wise textual analysis, and for that it should be read. Might you be glad to learn that on 3 August 1955 Larkin dyed three pairs of white socks mauve? Perhaps you might. But you will be gladder still to have cause to return to this astonishing poet’s work. 

Erica Wagner is an Eccles British Library writer-in-residence and a judge for this year’s Man Booker Prize

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue