The bachelor, like the prisoner, starts to fear the very change in life he wants most of all

Thoughts on the Bachelor Condition: #2 in an occasional series. (Or number 300-odd, if we assume this whole column is an ongoing meditation.)

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Thoughts on the Bachelor Condition: #2 in an occasional series. (Or number 300-odd, if we assume this whole column is an ongoing meditation on it.)

I’ve been having to read, or reread, a lot of Larkin lately, for work purposes. “Been having to” makes it sound like a penance, but it isn’t, because I’ve loved him since first exposure, and have continued to do so even when we all discovered that he made racist and sexist remarks, which was a bit of a problem, until I realised that this wasn’t going to change the wording of the poetry. (Incidentally, the recent news that Handel invested in the slave trade didn’t affect my opinion of him in the slightest, as his work always made it very clear that not only was human society organised as a hierarchy, but it was supremely desirable that this be so. I hate him. Larkin liked Handel very much, but where this gets us I don’t know. Loads of people like Handel.)

Anyway, the thing that struck me on rereading PL is that he went on about marriage much more than I remember. True, he named a whole collection The Whitsun Weddings – but so many more of his poems mention weddings and marriage, and his letters are full of agonising about the condition. (In the index of a biography by James Booth, his views are listed under “misogamy”.)

“Frightful as marriage is,” he wrote to one correspondent, who was getting married, “it’s worse if you don’t embrace it wholeheartedly.” He was never wholehearted about marriage, and the term “wholeheartedly” is correct, as it suggests his heart was both pro and anti. He weighed up the choice: on the one hand, there was the whole growing old and being alone and dying alone business, which was horrible. On the other hand, there was the complete end of privacy, and its consolations, such as his spanking magazines (which I must say, having seen a couple of reproductions in them in Booth’s biography, are indeed, as Alan Bennett guessed after the revelations that Larkin owned them came out, “as stimulating as Beowulf”).

My hunch is that Larkin had got into his routine. There was simply no way he could ever have changed. I, on the other hand, managed 19 more years of living with someone than Larkin ever did. Perhaps as the anniversary of my exile – 1 September – arrives, I am more sensitive to the issue. It’s not so much a question of remembering the date, as what the weather at that time of year is like, and tracing the emotions that arise back to their cause. (I wrote a poem when I was about 15 whose first line my English teacher was rather impressed by: “When the wind becomes more restless, so do I.” Be careful about what you consider a good lyric line, is my advice. It will come back and bite you hard on the bum.)

So now, eight years on almost to the day, I have established my own routine. To call it a routine is to dignify it. It is a matter of survival, but that doesn’t look so much to write home about when I consider my parents, well over half a century into their marriage, consoling each other with the utmost tenderness as they approach the end of their lives. It is not, unlike a wedding with its fragile assertions and not-really vows, a spectacle. It’s a private moment intended for each other. They’re at a stage when public affection is not an embarrassment or a calculation, and they do not care what others think, or have the time to wait until they are alone.

The end of my marriage was established in misery, against my inclinations and desires, and therefore, at the outset, pretty much the most awful thing that had happened to me (and I include the experience of being strip-searched in a police cell while on my first ever acid trip). The only times which have come close to that have involved the end of other love affairs. One even exceeded it, in a way, as it represented the end of the hope that the nights of sleeping alone would come to an end.

Since then, I have entertained little such hope, and I wonder if I am not becoming, like the long-term unemployed, or institutionalised prisoners, immutable. However much the prisoner hates being inside, the change of life is a challenge so enormous that few who have not shared the experience can grasp it. The Estranged Wife wrote to me the other day, saying she had laughed out loud at a column of mine – but why, she asked, do I now call her “the wife”? “To save space,” I replied, but maybe it was something a little more complicated than that. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses