steepholm (steepholm) wrote,


Another Sunday supplement, another article on Larkin and His Women. I wonder why they appear with such regularity? Perhaps I notice them more because one of the women concerned is my aunt, who was engaged to Larkin in the late '40s and whose image – lying face-up on short grass – graces the paper version of today's Observer article.

As the journalist Rachel Cooke observes, academia went through a very intense fit of anti-Larkinism after his death in 1985. As far as the quality of the poems is concerned it’s had to shift its ground considerably since, in the face not so much of the place they've gained in the public affection (which could have been assigned to the vulgarity of popular taste) as the fact that they are so darn good by any measure.*

The kind of stick the recently-dead Larkin received was an odd mixture. Some of it was metropolitan disdain of his choosing to live in, and write out of, provincial Hull, and doing so using traditional measures and forms. His preference for things English, and horror of going abroad (something he did maybe twice in his life), refracted into something more like xenophobia when seen from that angle. He was unabashedly right wing – a vocal admirer of Mrs Thatcher – but his father had admired Hitler, and there were plenty of people happy to insinuate that fascist politics must be genetic. Then there was his liking for top-shelf mags and the casual sexism he displayed, particularly as evidenced in his letters to Kingsley Amis. These are unattractive qualities, but the former at least might not have triggered such condemnation had he not died just when right-onnery was at its height (in 1985, Ben Elton was synonymous with alternative comedy). A decade or so later, when laddism was in vogue, it might have been a different story. Not that I care for laddism either, but less still for hypocrisy. At the very least, even if none of those who condemned him had ever surreptitiously ogled a stranger in the street, let alone masturbated with an image of one in their mind, they might have been misled by their own exemplary lives into thinking these activities less common than they are.

Not only that, the letters between Larkin and Amis seemed to me to have been wilfully misread, with no account taken of the fact that they were indulging in a long-running game of being outrageous. It's not that they didn't mean what they said, exactly – the personae they adopted were based on themselves – but they were self-caricatures, and it was perverse to read those letters as if they were the key to the "real" Larkin, cancelling out all his more generous, tender and conscientious aspects - or the fact that his cynicism accompanied and counterbalanced an intense and morbid romanticism. (Or, less high-mindedly, that he and Amis were both afraid of being caught out by the other in an attitude of sentimentality.)

I suppose I am a little parti pris. I admit it. And it's a long-standing trait: as long ago as the 1980s I was writing to the TLS taking exception to some particularly silly and self-satisfied thing Tom Paulin had said about Larkin's poetry. I'm not sure why I felt so defensive of him, though, except that his poems have populated my head for as long as I can remember; and that Larkin himself has always been spoken of with fondness by both my aunt and my mother. He felt like a kind of family possession, even a relative – a wayward, never-seen uncle, perhaps. After the break-up of their engagement, my aunt had, it's true, made a bonfire of the hundreds of letters he'd written her** (an expensive error in retrospect); but time heals, and they were on good terms again by the time he died. Mostly, though, what she and my mother both attest to is that Larkin was the funniest man they'd known, and the best company. Neither of them ever charged him with any unkindness.

So yes, it was strange to read Larkin complaining to Amis about the cost of taking my mother and aunt out for a meal on the off-chance of sex, when he could have stayed at home, wanked and saved five shillings. It wasn't kind, or even particularly witty - but neither does it mean that he saw women as good only for sex. It probably gave Amis a chuckle, which is exactly what it was designed to do. “I need a woman, honest and sincere,/ Who'll come across on half a pint of beer." Not Larkin’s words of course, but those of Wendy Cope’s Strugnell, in a collection with the telling title, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis. Perhaps there was something about Amis that made people want to make him cocoa? But then Amis disliked my aunt intensely and was jealous of her, and in his case (my admiration of Lucky Jim notwithstanding) I feel no partis pris at all.

* If I were a reception theorist, I'd so do a comparative study of the reputations of Larkin and Kipling! I just mention that, for any reception theorists who may happen by.

** Not, she insists, at the prompting of her grandfather, as Anthony Thwaite claimed in his edition of the Letters, but off her own bat, and with a grim, cathartic satisfaction.
Tags: books, family history
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