Philip Larkin


Philip Larkin

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.

Annus Mirabilis

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) —
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

Up till then there'd only been
A sort of bargaining,
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 poems there.
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
— Philip Larkin

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.

Amis is 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
Makes love a kind of shopping list?
Item: two juicy tits. Get pissed!
— Martin Fagg

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 passion.

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.

In 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 Jones.

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.