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Wordplay, friendship, and sweet sadness: having Philip Larkin to stay

One evening in Norfolk in 1982, we discussed everything from his penchant for macaroni cheese to his poetic legacy.

By Ann Thwaite

I have been thinking about Philip Larkin a lot this year, 100 years after he was born and the year after Anthony Thwaite’s death. The names of the poet and his poet-editor, my husband, are inextricably linked, whether I like it or not.

As a young producer at the BBC, Anthony had selected Philip Larkin for a European Service programme called Younger British Poets of Today. It included two of Philip’s most loved poems, “Church Going” and “An Arundel Tomb”, both written not long before. Their close friendship began on 2 July 1958 as they took a taxi after the recording to meet Kingsley Amis for a drink. As James Booth points out in his biography of Larkin, the pair’s very different political views “never hindered their relationship”.

Anthony’s interest in Larkin had begun in 1954, when he ordered a copy of the pamphlet XX Poems from Blackwell’s in Oxford while he was still an undergraduate. Our interest increased when, in 1956, The Less Deceived arrived in Tokyo, where we were both teaching.

As a literary editor, later, Anthony published many of Philip’s poems, but he was also in the position to commission regular reviews of books he thought Philip might want to read. In the New Statesman of 14 March 1969, for instance, Larkin reviewed Christopher Ricks’s splendid edition of Tennyson’s poems: Paul Johnson, the editor at the time, thought it one of the best reviews they had ever printed. It can be read now in Required Writing, dedicated by Philip to Anthony.

Forty years ago Anthony edited a book for Faber to mark Larkin’s 60th birthday. He ended his introduction: “The work remains unassailable except by those who look for something in poetry other than the virtue of startling truth, memorability, skill and poignancy embodied in Philip Larkin’s poems.” Anthony denied his intention was to tell readers that “Larkin is really much nicer, much more normal, much more like us, than both his admirers and his detractors have established”.

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Anthony was (long before Philip’s death and the subsequent publication of his letters and Andrew Motion’s biography) facing the suspicion that many readers, who didn’t know the man, had in their heads the image of a misogynist, a miserable Scrooge reminiscent of the joyless bachelor in Larkin’s own “Mr Bleaney”. Later, worse words would be added which I will not repeat. I will instead remember with pleasure Philip’s warm friendship with RK Biswas, the Indian scholar, and his long, good relationships with women other than his lovers. We always found Philip Larkin kind, thoughtful and far more than just excellent company.

I have an almost relevant example of how letters can betray their writers. How differently men (perhaps only men) can write on the same day, what different sides of themselves they can show to different correspondents.

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When I was planning a book for Anthony’s own 50th birthday in 1980 Larkin and Amis were among the poets I had invited to contribute. Philip took particular trouble, writing out his gloomy “The View” (then unpublished), and adding at the bottom: “– but it wd have been a lot worse without you, dear Anthony.” He wrote to me: “As you can see, that goes nearly into the binding at the left. I’m afraid I’ve spoilt it… If so, send me another sheet of the splendid paper & I’ll redo it.”

He wrote this on 9 February 1980, two months before Kingsley Amis wrote to him complaining about my request: “SODDING CHEEK I thought it was.” This was published by Zachary Leader in his edition of Amis’s letters in 2000, on the page after his letter to me written on the same day. I had no idea, of course, that Amis had any such feelings when he wrote to me:

“I hope Anthony is pleased with his present. He certainly should be. What a wifely wife you are. Needless to say, nobody did anything like that for MY 50th. I expect your visits to London are pretty crammed, but it would be fun to see you both for lunch or something. Jolly good luck. Yours, Kingsley.”

I never knew Philip as well as I would have wished, and certainly not as well as Anthony did. But it pleased me that he seemed to like me and liked coming to stay with us, first in Richmond, then in Norfolk. He called the Norfolk house Mole End and took photographs of it (he was a keen photographer). Because of my enormous admiration for his poetry – my awareness that he was not just the best poet of our time but a great poet for all time – I was slightly nervous of his coming, feeling it was a bit like having Wordsworth to stay. Wordsworth had himself stayed on several occasions in the late 18th century a couple of miles up the river, at Forncett St Peter, where his uncle was rector. We took Philip there once on a wild day with rooks flying over the round flint tower and thought a poem might come of it, but it didn’t.

In 1982 I was working on my biography Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape. Gosse was himself a biographer. In 1919, when reviewing Festing Jones’s memoir of Samuel Butler, he was happy to discover that Butler, when travelling abroad, kept diarrhoea pills in the handle of his Gladstone bag. “These little things are my delight,” he wrote. In the same way, my delight is in the trivial things Philip Larkin told me on that evening in Norfolk. At the time of this visit, two of our four daughters (Alice, 16, and Lucy, 20) were at home. I wrote the following in my journal at the time.

30 March, 1982

We have Philip Larkin staying with us for a couple of nights – he asked if he could come before going on to a Librarians’ Conference at UEA. I’m rather worried about him – he seems very unfit. He is bulkier than ever – apparently it’s all drink not food. He talked a lot last night to me when Anthony and the girls were clearing up after supper. I find his life sad, his substance (or rather physical presence) sad – but he is himself so funny and sweet – such a sweet smile. His deafness is worse than ever. He now has hearing aids on each ear yet still obviously misses a great deal in general conversation, as on Sunday night when Malcolm and Elizabeth [Bradbury] came to supper – and also Joanna Motion (Andrew is in New York).

He talked to me of his domestic routines. He makes his bed too early each day, while his bath is running, probably before it’s aired, but he can’t bear to have it to do later. He does everything really except actual cleaning. He’s never had a washing machine. He sends everything very extravagantly (as he admits: 48p a shirt) to the laundry, the last individual in Hull to do so, along with the orphanages and the restaurants, he says.

In the evening (having often had only a sandwich for lunch) he makes himself something hot – maybe macaroni cheese or risotto. He can make a macaroni cheese in twenty minutes and then drink two gins and tonic while it cooks. Sometimes he makes too much and then has it the next night as well. Another couple of nights a week he’ll have tinned or frozen “rubbish” – probably a stew, not fish; he doesn’t care much for fish. If only satsumas went on all the year. That’s what he likes afterwards. So easy to peel.

Anthony took him off for the day yesterday in the Golf. He couldn’t fit in the Spitfire. His head touched the roof. In our dining room he has to go more or less on all fours. At one point he got down on the living-room floor full length looking for a metal ball Alice had lost (from the maze game). Unfortunately he didn’t have the pleasure of finding it, as she did herself… Edwin and Liz [Brock] came in and we played the Dictionary Game, which he seemed to enjoy. Philip particularly liked the true definition of falsism: “a platitude that is not even true”. Edwin and he found they shared a common love of Cyril Connolly, and he read out that marvellous passage from “Ninety years of novel reviewing” or whatever, about all the things one should not put in novels. Lucy talked to him about [his novel] Jill at the meal. He was only a little older than she is when he wrote it: 21. “In the marvellous freedom after going down from Oxford” – presumably meaning with no essays to write or prescribed books to read. I wonder if he might write another novel when he retires.

Apparently, though early retirement is so much in the air, they don’t want Philip to leave. He has moments of thinking he’d like to – but I think he needs the toad, the yearly frame. What would he do anyway? He said it would be unlikely he’d write another novel. The pressure wouldn’t be there – that’s what makes one write, it’s not the time available. “Of course it helps to be gloomy.”

Philip is thinking of making Anthony his literary executor, which makes sense. The awful thing is that we may not be talking of some far-off time as Philip really doesn’t seem likely to live to a good old age.

Philip died, aged 63, less than four years later. Of course I wished I had written after each of his earlier visits –and asked better questions. When Philip died, he left Anthony and Andrew Motion “not only to deal with my publishers as I would myself”, but also “in general to look after my interest and my good name”. The latter has proved more difficult than Philip had imagined. But the poems remain “unassailable”, as Anthony said – the work of a great poet and of someone we knew as a lovable man.

This article is part of a series in which writers reflect on Larkin’s life, work and legacy to mark the centenary of his birth. Read the other contributions here.