Philip Larkin: Let­ters Home 1936-1977, edited by James Booth, Faber & Faber, £40

Belfast Telegraph - - REVIEW -

t is a touch­ing im­age, from a by­gone age, to think of Philip Larkin com­pos­ing thou­sands of let­ters and cards to his fam­ily, al­ways writ­ing with his favourite foun­tain pen. The habit started when he was a 14-yearold school­boy, with a post­card from Ger­many to his sis­ter Kitty, and con­tin­ued un­til he was a world-renowned poet, send­ing mail to his 91-year-old mother in a nurs­ing home.

Much of his pro­lific cor­re­spon­dence has been pub­lished be­fore but a new book, Philip Larkin: Let­ters Home 1936-1977, fea­tures pre­vi­ously un­seen mail to his fam­ily. These let­ters shed new light on the poet who wrote the much-quoted first line: “They f*** you up, your mum and dad.”

There are odd­i­ties ga­lore to glean from the 607 let­ters se­lected for the book (out of more than 4,000 that he sent), in­clud­ing the ad­mis­sion from the tra­di­tion­al­ist that he hap­pily sat in a first-class train seat while the “slack” guards missed the fact that he had only paid for a sec­ond-class ticket. And who would have imag­ined that portly old Larkin was once so com­pet­i­tive at squash that he de­vel­oped blis­ters all over his hand?

The tone of the let­ters changed over 40 years, al­though the sense of play­ful­ness ev­i­dent in the Ox­ford un­der­grad­u­ate is still hap­pily ev­i­dent in the older celebrity li­brar­ian of the Univer­sity of Hull. Larkin de­scribed his fa­ther Syd­ney and mother Eva as “shy and in­hib­ited” and was self-aware enough to ad­mit that “I re­alise that I con­tain both of them”. As a whole, they present a more lov­ing fa­mil­ial re­la­tion­ship than would be sug­gested by his fa­mous This Be the Verse poem or his sour re­mark that he never left his home with­out a sense that he was walk­ing into a “cooler” and “saner” at­mos­phere.

Af­ter grow­ing up in Coven­try, where Syd­ney was the city trea­surer be­fore and dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, Larkin won a place at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford’s St John’s Col­lege in Oc­to­ber 1940. Mum and dad may have filled him with the faults they had, but they of­ten fi­nan­cially bailed out their un­der­grad­u­ate child, an­swer­ing his plea for clothes (“send some un­der-clothes please”) and for money (“this seems a good time to warn you I am down to my last £3”). Touch­ingly, his mother also sent him lots of lilies to brighten up his room.

Larkin was a stu­dent when the hard­ships of war af­fected ev­ery­day life. His de­scrip­tions of his culi­nary ex­pe­ri­ences dis­played a youth­ful gift for bit­ing wit. He kept his par­ents up-to­date with news about the ined­i­ble por­ridge made with sour milk, and how he was sub­sist­ing on “weird pots of fish paste”. Food anec­dotes con­tin­ued for the next four decades, in­clud­ing his wry ob­ser­va­tion that Shred­ded Wheat “is rather like eat­ing a bird’s nest”.

Larkin used nu­mer­ous pet names for his par­ents, in­clud­ing My Dear Pop, Pop & Mop, Dear fam­bly, My dear Mrs Larkin, Dear­est Mop crea­ture, Dear Crea­turely Mop — but never plain old mum or dad. In Novem­ber 14, 1941, 13 months into his English lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture de­gree, Larkin’s home city of Coven­try was shat­tered by a Nazi blitz that killed 554 peo­ple. His dad stayed all night at his post in the coun­cil build­ing and Larkin wrote to his “dear Pop” to ask plain­tively, “what is hap­pen­ing in the world?”

Around this time, Larkin praised his fa­ther’s “pow­er­ful style” of let­ter writ­ing. “You sound ut­terly de­tached, cold, im­per­sonal,” the 20-year-old son told the 57-year-old fa­ther. The aspir­ing poet shared some of his fa­ther’s po­lit­i­cal views. Larkin told him of the “Com­mu­nist ag­i­ta­tion” at Ox­ford and how he re­sisted be­ing “bad­gered to join the Labour Club”.

Syd­ney held crudely anti-Semitic views and a dis­mal as­pect of this col­lec­tion of in­ti­mate let­ters is the ca­sual racism ev­i­dent in his son. Larkin told his mother that Enoch Powell’s speeches about im­mi­gra­tion showed that he should be the leader of the Con­ser­va­tive Party. Larkin also wrote about his pho­bia re­gard­ing Lon­don, in­clud­ing the bizarre reve­la­tion that it was down to a fear of “West In­dian & Pak­istani germs hop­ping on me in the tubes”. All this poi­son seems at odds with a man who had a life­long love of jazz and re­spect for black mu­si­cians.

Al­though psy­cho­analysing peo­ple af­ter they’re dead can be facile, it’s fair to say that the let­ters re­veal a man who was full of con­tra­dic­tions. The stu­dent who wrote home to say he would not be play­ing sport at Ox­ford — “I’ve got no team spirit so what the hell’s the good of join­ing teams” — en­joyed play­ing for the St John’s Col­lege hockey side. The same poet who turned down an OBE in 1968 ac­cepted a CBE a few years later. Larkin could be af­fec­tion­ate and gen­er­ous, and mean-spir­ited and cruel. His de­scrip­tions of the phys­i­cal flaws of strangers were as cor­ro­sive as they were imag­i­na­tive. One col­lege of­fi­cial was called a “toad-like man”. A li­brar­ian who an­noyed Larkin was branded “an ob­jec­tion­able lit­tle man like a con­sti­pated bank clerk”.

The Larkins were sim­ply not very so­cia­ble peo­ple, the poet ad­mit­ted. When his mother, who lived the last 29 years of her life as a widow af­ter Syd­ney’s death in 1948, ad­mit­ted she was lonely, Larkin told her that “a few hours of any­one is al­ways enough for me”. This vague dis­quiet with hu­man­ity some­times boiled over into out­right mis­an­thropy. In 1958, while liv­ing above Bill and Janet Duf­fin and their fam­ily in Hull, he re­vealed to his mum how much he hated them. “The squeal­ing of the lit­tle girls, the deeper im­be­cil­i­ties of Duf­fin him­self... I should like to hurl tear-gas bombs down the chim­ney.”

As an avid reader, his mother en­joyed hear­ing his ac­counts of meet­ing fa­mous writ­ers. Larkin was com­pli­men­tary about George Or­well, whom he de­clared “very nice” af­ter meet­ing him in 1943 at Ox­ford’s English Club. But woe be­tide any an­noy­ing writer with phys­i­cal im­per­fec­tions. “Dy­lan Thomas is an in­cred­i­bly small and tou­sled, grubby Welsh­man,” Larkin wrote. “His face is round with a com­i­cal snubby nose, fat cheeks, in­cip­i­ent dou­ble chin and two flabby lips.” Larkin found it “hard go­ing” talk­ing to EM Forster and dis­missed him as “a toothy lit­tle aged Billy Bunter”.

Larkin also ex­pressed more per­sonal con­cerns, such as the re­turn of his child­hood stam­mer while at col­lege or light-hearted ac­counts of his “non-act­ing bow­els”. When he was 30, his mother was still chid­ing him about sleep­ing in too late.

The cor­re­spon­dence af­ter Syd­ney’s death from liver can­cer at t 63 was full of pain. “I spend so much time won­der­ing how you are,” he wrote. She was lonely and suf­fered men­tal health prob­lems, ac­cord­ing to Larkin. In June 1955, he praised her bold de­ci­sion to see a psy­chi­a­trist. “I ex­pect if he pro­poses shock ther­apy he won’t see your arse for dust,” he said with trade­mark gal­lows hu­mour. She did, in fact, un­dergo elec­tric shock treat­ment at a Leices­ter hos­pi­tal that spe- cialised in “ner­vous prob­lems” and her cor­re­spon­dence to Larkin re­vealed it had left her “shaky and sick”. She was still able to write to her son and tell him: “I feel very proud to know you are now recog­nised as a fore­most English poet.”

Larkin knew that he too was vul­ner­a­ble to men­tal health prob­lems. See­ing a poster for the Sa­mar­i­tans in Hull prompted a can­did let­ter to his mum. “I’ve felt fairly de­pressed re­cently for no very good rea­son. I think one is stamped with a par­tic­u­lar kind of char­ac­ter, like a but­ter-pat hav­ing a cow or leaves stamped on it and just has to strug­gle away with it.”

Larkin was never re­ally open about his love life, though. He was eva­sive about his two-year en­gage­ment to teenager Ruth Bow­man (1948-1950) and ref­er­ences to Mon­ica Jones, his muse and mis­tress over four decades, tended to be per­func­tory and un­re­veal­ing.

His mother loved the flow of home­made birth­day cards and let­ters, some of which con­tained sen­ti­men­tal po­ems com­posed for her (pub­lished for the first time in the book). Hun­dreds of the let­ters con­tained his own witty car­toons. Larkin’s pow­ers of de­scrip­tion sparkled through­out his cor­re­spon­dence, whether he was writ­ing about a trip to Paris or the es­planade at Car­rick­fer­gus. “The sky was like an enor­mous bruise,” Larkin wrote about a rainy au­tumn day in Belfast.

In­evitably, the let­ters to­wards the end are more for­lorn. Larkin had his own health wor­ries by the mid-1970s (he weighed 15 stone and wished “I hadn’t got such a dou­ble chin”) and there were times when he had to apol­o­gise for hav­ing lost his tem­per in phone calls. Yet the ten­der­ness he felt about the woman who had bro­ken a hip, and reluc­tantly had to live in a care home, was ob­vi­ous. “There isn’t a soul about, I do wish there was,” she wrote sadly.

In one of his last vis­its, be­fore her death in Novem­ber 1977 at the age of 91, they watched Lau­rel and Hardy on TV — the same co­me­di­ans she’d taken him to see at the cin­ema as a young boy. “Wasn’t it funny?” he noted touch­ingly in one of his fi­nal post­cards. The most mov­ing let­ter, how­ever, is also the most life-af­firm­ing. When his mother was at a re­ally low ebb in Fe­bru­ary 1952, dwelling on thoughts about her dead hus­band, Larkin wrote with ad­vice about life.

“Do not worry about the past: it is, af­ter all, past and fades daily in our mem­ory & in the mem­o­ries of ev­ery­one else,” he wrote. “Fur­ther, it can’t touch the fu­ture un­less we let it. Ev­ery day comes to us like a newly cel­lo­phaned present, a chance for an en­tirely fresh start ... we are silly if we do not am­ble eas­ily into the sun while we can, be­fore time el­bows us into ever­last­ing night & frost.” Jack Reacher is the world’s dead­li­est boy scout: prac­ti­cal, moral, knows the lie of the land and how to make do. Usu­ally with his mas­sive fists.

Past Tense is back-to-ba­sics Reacher, fu­elled by those fists. He sets out on an epic road trip, but gets no fur­ther than the small New Eng­land town where his fa­ther was born.

A twin plot sees a young Cana­dian cou­ple break down near the spook­i­est mo­tel since Psy­cho.

Their “hosts” turn jail­ers: but why are they hold­ing them? And who are the mys­te­ri­ous guests?

A rat­tling good read. By Ak­waeke Emezi, Faber & Faber, £10 A child, Ada, is born in Umuahia in Nige­ria “slick and louder than a vil­lage of storms” and, as the spir­its which in­habit her and nar­rate her story state, it is clear she will go mad.

These Og­banje ‘godlings’ al­ter­nately pro­tect her and serve their own ends, with a strange logic to their point of view, which sheds an un­fa­mil­iar light on Ada’s tri­als and con­flicts as she grows up and leaves for col­lege in the US.

But the ef­fect is also dis­tanc­ing, es­pe­cially as the bal­ance shifts, the spir­its grow stronger and events turn darker.

A bold de­but, in­spired by the author’s own ex­pe­ri­ence. By Ma­rina Ben­jamin, Scribe, £9.99

Re­view by Dan Brotzel

In this slight mem­oir, writ­ten as a se­ries of con­nected notes, Ma­rina Ben­jamin med­i­tates with great per­sonal thought and feel­ing on the con­di­tion of un­wanted wake­ful­ness.

But this is no self-help guide, or even a med­i­cal primer. As well as a very per­sonal ac­count, it is also a very idio­syn­cratic cul­tural his­tory of sleep­less­ness, a po­etic med­i­ta­tion on what we lose and what we gain from these un­willed en­coun­ters with brute night.

I like the book best when it is scor­ing the scratchily dis­cor­dant melodies of noc­tur­nal thought, or evok­ing with foren­sic vivid­ness the many dif­fer­ent shades of dark­ness.

Pro­lific let­ter-writer: Philip Larkin and (in­set) with his muse andmis­tress Mon­ica Jones

Re­view by Lucy Whet­man

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