Larkin’s ev­ery­day news of­fers a rare in­sight into his loy­alty, rage and guilt as a long-suf­fer­ing son

The Guardian - Review - - Book Of The Week - Blake Morrison

“My very dear old crea­ture,” Larkin wrote to his mother Eva in Au­gust 1968, “a man has just pre­sented me with a copy of The Let­ters of Wil­fred Owen … Most of his let­ters are to his mother! The book is 629pp long. He starts his let­ters ‘Sweet my Mother’, which takes some liv­ing up to. I like mine bet­ter – my be­gin­nings, I mean. My mother too prob­a­bly.”

James Booth’s se­lec­tion of Larkin’s let­ters home, most of them writ­ten to his mother, is 688 pages long. “Dear Mop,” the early ones be­gin – he ad­dressed his fa­ther, Syd­ney, as “Pop” but “Mop” also evoked Eva’s role as do­mes­tic drudge. His let­ters in­clude draw­ings of her as a seal-like crea­ture, of­ten wear­ing a ser­vant’s mob cap. Af­ter his fa­ther died in 1948, he be­gan ad­dress­ing her dif­fer­ently, as “My Dear Mop-Mon­stHaugh” or “Dear crea­turely one” or “My dear old crea­ture”. The draw­ings are sweetly af­fec­tion­ate and the let­ters never less than du­ti­ful; the bur­den of look­ing af­ter their wid­owed mother fell mostly on his sister, Cather­ine, but Larkin wrote to her ev­ery week­end, vis­ited reg­u­larly and, while work­ing at Le­ices­ter Uni­ver­sity in the late 1940s, lived with her for two years. He had a li­brary to run and lit­er­ary am­bi­tions to pur­sue. Still, the sub­text of the let­ters is guilt: he spent so lit­tle time with her and couldn’t help her feel less lonely.

The guilt came out as ex­as­per­a­tion and rage. The day be­fore that let­ter to Eva about Owen, for in­stance, he wrote to his lover Mon­ica Jones about how, once home, “I be­come snappy, un­grate­ful, un­gra­cious, wound­ing, in­con­sid­er­ate & even abu­sive, long­ing only to get away, mut­ter­ing ob­scen­i­ties be­cause I know she can’t hear them, re­fus­ing to speak clearly so that she can hear, re­fus­ing to make con­ver­sa­tion or evince any in­ter­est in her ‘news’ or things she has to say.” He knows what un­der­lies this – “my anger is a fight for emo­tional free­dom against the en­emy” – but the vi­o­lence of his feel­ings be­muses him nonethe­less: “Some­times I won­der if I’m fond of my mother at all.” edited by James Booth, Faber, £40

For three decades, from his mid-20s to his mid50s, un­til she died aged 91, he spent his let­ters try­ing to cheer her up and to sup­press any fil­ial un­fond­ness. A few let­ters take the form of apolo­gies, af­ter a tem­per loss at home or over the phone. Oth­er­wise, they are warm, chatty and an­o­dyne, with a fo­cus on mat­ters he thinks will in­ter­est Eva: the weather, meals, do­mes­tic chores (“Did I tell you that last Sun­day I cleaned the gas cooker?”), work, hol­i­days, his hay fever, his melan­choly (“clay-cold de­pres­sion” was some­thing he knew about, too). He tells her how much he weighs, how badly he’s done on the foot­ball pools, how hos­tile he feels to­wards im­mi­grants and what clothes he’s wear­ing, es­pe­cially his choice of socks – to darn or not to darn, he asks, know­ing she’ll have the an­swer. Oc­ca­sion­ally they dis­cuss his poems (ex­tracts from Eva’s let­ters ap­pear as foot­notes) but there is lit­tle of what makes his let­ters to friends and lovers so re­ward­ing: the jokes, anger, ob­scen­i­ties, ag­o­nies and so on.

The pre­pon­der­ance of ba­nal quo­tid­ian de­tail per­haps ex­plains why An­thony Th­waite in­cluded none of Larkin’s let­ters to his fam­ily in his 1992 se­lec­tion. Even fans who thought they could never get enough of Larkin may strug­gle to get through more than 600 pages of “I hope your sci­at­ica has gone”, “I had the plea­sure of find­ing the cheque the laun­dry sent me for that shirt they lost” or “Snow here to­day! Not very deep though”. A sam­ple of in­dex en­tries for Eva runs: “outof-date tins of salmon … neigh­bour’s dog … new elec­tric fire, cis­tern and im­mer­sion heater … light and heater in out­side lava­tory … pedal bin”. Here is such stuff as te­dium is made of. And yet the book is well worth hav­ing be­cause we see a side of Larkin lit­tle glimpsed un­til now: not the friend and lover but the de­ter­minedly loyal, long-suf­fer­ing son. Eva may have fucked him up, but he can’t hold that against her, since she was fucked up in her turn.

Larkin’s sense of “dooty” to­wards his mother was one of the rea­sons he re­mained sin­gle. If they mar­ried, he told Mon­ica, there might be pres­sure for his mother to move in with them – a ter­ri­ble prospect given her “whin­ing pan­icky grum­bling mad­den­ing man­ner”. What he’d seen of his par­ents’ mar­riage was dis­cour­ag­ing: bet­ter gloomy iso­la­tion than mar­i­tal bore­dom. “I think the im­pulse of lone­li­ness in ev­ery­one is stronger than the im­pulse of love or ‘cosi­ness’,” he told Eva at the age of 22. He fell in love sev­eral times but his en­tan­gle­ments with Jones, Maeve Bren­nan and Betty Mack­ereth weren’t some­thing to be shared with his mother. No other woman could ever dis­lodge her from be­ing The One, or so he pre­tended. “We must go again up that road to the wood where we found the scar­let toad­stool and lis­ten to the wind in the trees,” he wrote to her from Belfast

Larkin’s sense of duty to­wards his mother was one rea­son he re­mained sin­gle – if he mar­ried, there might be pres­sure for her to move in with him

Philip Larkin: Let­ters Home, 1936-1977

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