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