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

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.