The Reading Room

A.N Wilson on Larkin

Unravelling Philip Larkin….

larkinLast night I re-watched A.N Wilson’s BBC4 documentary on the life of Philip Larkin and it prompted me to take another look Anthony Thwaite’s compilation of Larkin’s letters.

Return to Larkinland, fittingly presented by Larkin’s friend gives a remarkable insight into a poet who Wilson described as ‘Britain’s poet of everyday work’ and showed his later years as a librarian and resident of the English coastal city of Hull. Wilson shows us a man living out a reclusive life more often deeply unhappy, indifferent to public and critical acclaim and, as this book of letters would show, an obsession with soft pornography along with a marked shift to right wing politics with distinct racist overtones.

Larkin had instructed that his diaries be destroyed upon his death but thankfully these letters remain to give us a better understanding of the man very much behind the myth. The letters include some notable recipients including Robert Conquest, John Betjeman, Harold Pinter and his dear friend Kingsley Amis. Like Wilson, whose documentary set out to reset his changed opinion of Larkin, this collection of letters would change, for the worse, most people’s idea of him. Indeed it would do much to tarnish his reputation through much of the early 90s until Martin Amis, writing in The War on Cliché sought to defend Larkin and his propensity to alter his narrative according to the recipient of his letters.

Anyone who has read Zachary Leader’s excellent Letters of Kingsley Amis will know what Amis Jnr was implying. Kingsley enjoyed sharing many revealing observations with Larkin, particularly about women and more especially younger women. Larkin would have found this titillation amusing and an enjoyable distraction from the self-imposed mediocrity of his later life. The letters contained within this collection by Thwaite depict a man very much of his age and era. In a letter to his old school friend Colin Gunner in 1982, he wrote about his increasing years and the accompanying baldness, hard of hearing and ‘Falstaffian paunch’. He ends his letter by declaring it  time for his beloved G&T which, he says, he has earned for mowing the lawn and killing the weeds which was ‘more than a bloody Paki next door does; weeds swarm through the hedge. Kick ’em out’. 

Fans of Larkin will find Wilson’s documentary an invaluable insight into the mind of Larkin and the influences behind his greatest poems. The letters contained within Thwaites’ collection adds depth and clarity to a life which petered out far too early. Both the book and the programme leave the outsider with the potential for conflicting emotions about Larkin. He was two faced, selfish and depressive yet his own self-analysis pulls few punches with its bleak, dark honesty. The final letters in the book show a man clearly dying, the final, most  painful of all is to Amis which had to be dictated to and signed by his secretary. Given the presence of a ‘third party’ and his condition the letter  sorely lacks the humour and openness of those which went before. “You will excuse the absence of the usual valediction” he wrote at the end.

Both the documentary and the book are worth searching out, like so many of his generation you really cannot imagine seeing his like again.

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