IMAGE CREDIT: PHILIP LARKIN ESTATE
By Christopher Hitchens
The Atlantic, May 2011
Edited by Andy Ross
Letters to Monica
By Philip Larkin
Edited by Anthony Thwaite
Philip Larkin met Monica Jones at University College Leicester in autumn
1946, when they were both 24. He was the newly-appointed assistant librarian
and she was an English lecturer. These letters chronicle four decades of
Larkin's life and friendship with Miss Jones.
Philip Larkin's father was a
professional civil servant who came to admire the "New Germany" of the
1930s, attended Nuremberg rallies, and displayed Nazi regalia in his office.
Philip Larkin energetically hated the labour movement and was appalled at
the arrival of immigrants from the Caribbean and Asia. His insularity and
loathing for "abroad" were almost parodic. In consequence, the poet was
posthumously drenched in a tide of cloacal filth and petty bigotry.
Larkin once described the sexual act as a futile attempt to get "someone
else to blow your own nose for you." He maintained a distraught and barren
four-decade relationship with Monica Jones, an evidently insufferable yet
gifted woman who was a constant friend and intermittent partner until
Larkin’s death in 1985.
Larkin was a heroic consumer of pornography
and an amateur composer of sado-masochistic reveries, which he often shared
with his worldly friends Robert Conquest and Kingsley Amis. He would never
visit London without paying through the nose for titillating glossies in the
Soho quarter. He was in constant search of material featuring schoolgirls,
flagellation, and sodomy. At his death, the vast library of a hectically
devoted masturbator had to be hastily destroyed.
Letters to Monica
obliquely shows the civilizing effect that even the most trying woman can
exert on even the most impossible man. Larkin respected Miss Jones too much
to try any of his vulgar prejudices or cheaper doggerel on her. Even his
anti-libidinous propaganda could yield its warm and poetic aspect. Take this
stern epistle from 1951:
It seems to me that bending someone else to
your will is the very stuff of sex, by force or neglect if you are male, by
spitefulness or nagging or scenes if you are female. And what's more, both
sides would sooner have it that way than not at all. I wouldn't.
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather
late for me) —
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
Beatles' first LP.
Up till then there'd only been
A sort of
A wrangle for a ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.
— Philip Larkin
Philip Larkin's Hull
Few writers are more
closely associated with one place than Philip Larkin is with the city of Hull.
He worked in the
university library for the latter half of his life and wrote all his best
His writing is full of references to the city that he described
soon after his arrival as a dump.
The Larkin Trail opened in Hull on April 20, 2011.
Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth
AR There but for the grace of God ...
Amis To Edit Larkin
Standpoint, April 2011
Martin Amis defends Philip Larkin: "Larkin's life was a failure; his work
was a triumph. That is all that matters. Because the work, unlike the life,
lives on." In September, Faber will publish the Selected Poems of
Philip Larkin. The poems are chosen by Martin Amis.
trashing England. His next novel, tentatively due for publication next
February, was initially titled State of England. In much of
his fiction, England is a land of cheats, pimps, liars, murderers,
gangsters, slackers, drunks and dopes. An Amis short story published in The
New Yorker in 1996 and reprinted in Heavy Water was titled
"State of England":
Bouncing, being a bouncer — as a trade, as a calling — had the wrong
reputation. ... Bouncing wasn't really about bouncing — about chucking
people out. Bouncing was about not letting people in. That was pretty much
all there was to it — to bouncing. ... Bouncing was a mop-up operation made
necessary by faulty bouncing. The best bouncers never did any bouncing. Only
bad bouncers bounced.
Philip Larkin Poems
Selected by Martin Amis
Faber & Faber
You mean you like that poncy crap
Where some sex-besotted chap
love a kind of shopping list?
Item: two juicy tits. Get pissed!
Philip Larkin died in 1985, aged 63. In a letter of 1974 he quotes a remark
by Clive James — "originality is not an ingredient of poetry, it is poetry"
— and adds, "I've been feeling that for years." Larkin's originality is
palpable. He is instantly unforgettable.
Philip Larkin is a people's
poet. There are lines that everyone knows and everyone automatically
memorises. "They fuck you up, your mum and dad", "Sexual intercourse
began/In nineteen sixty-three", "Never such innocence again", "And age, and
then the only end of age", "What will survive of us is love". This is a
voice that is part of our language.
But Larkin is also a novelist's
poet. It is the novelists who revere him. Larkin began his career as a
writer of fiction: he had two novels behind him by the age of 25. The poems
are transparent, yet they tantalise the reader with glimpses of an
impenetrable self. This is what rivets us: the mystery story of Larkin's
soul. Today, Larkin is Britain's best-loved poet since World War II.
In the 1950s, Larkin was an occasional houseguest at the Amis household in
Swansea. As I now see it, my parents teasingly mythologised Larkin as a
paedophobe and skinflint. Kingsley loved Philip with a near-physical
In a letter to Monica Jones in 1956, Larkin wrote: "Ah,
don’t talk about our lives and the dreadful passing of time. Nothing will be
good enough to look back on, I know that for certain". He was 34.
a letter to a fellow poet in 1973, Larkin wrote: "Middle age is depressing
anyway. The things one tries to forget get bigger and bigger." He was 51.
Kingsley attacked Monica in Lucky Jim, where she is remade as the
unendurable anti-heroine. Larkin mentored Lucky Jim. In his one concession
to gallantry, he made Kingsley change the girl's name from Margaret Beale to
Margaret Peel. The real-life Monica's full name was Monica Margaret Beale
Larkin is most definitely this novelist's poet. In quality,
Larkin's four volumes of verse are logarithmic, like the Richter scale: they
get stronger and stronger by a factor of 10. My selection reflects this.
AR Perhaps this will become the first
volume of poetry in my library.