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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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood