 Rachel Cooke

Larkin’s sweetly sad dis­patches, mostly ad­dressed to his mother, reek of so­cial his­tory, and re­veal a witty, wise and grossly im­prac­ti­cal man, writes Rachel Cooke

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda -

en­joys Philip Larkin’s Let­ters Home: 1936-1977

Let­ters Home 1936-1977 Philip Larkin (edited by James Booth)

Faber, £40, pp688

Some­times, you have to won­der about the guardians of Philip Larkin’s legacy. Deep in­side James Booth’s se­lec­tion of the let­ters the poet wrote to his fam­ily be­tween 1936 and 1977 can be found what is surely one of the weird­est pho­to­graphs ever to ap­pear be­tween schol­arly hard cov­ers. Com­pris­ing three pairs of tatty socks – one lilac, one salmon, one navy blue – this mot­ley se­lec­tion of hosiery, the cap­tion in­forms us, was “re­cov­ered” from the poet’s house in Hull fol­low­ing the death of his girl­friend, Mon­ica Jones, in 2004 (oh, that word, “re­cov­ered”: what der­ring-do it im­plies). There then fol­lows, by way of an ex­pla­na­tion, a line from a note Larkin sent his mother in 1943. “I darned two pairs last Tues­day with great sat­is­fac­tion,” it reads. “Only not hav­ing any khaki wool I had to darn in grey.”

When it comes to Larkin, how­ever, I be­gin to won­der about my­self, too. The ma­jor­ity of these let­ters are ad­dressed to the poet’s mother, Larkin hav­ing writ­ten to her ev­ery week since he left home, and at least once a day in the last five years of her life. Their sub­jects in­clude con­sti­pa­tion, draught ex­clud­ers, and the en­gage­ment of Princess Anne, and on the sur­face of it, they could not be more ba­nal. Does any­one re­ally want to hear of Eva Larkin’s end­less strug­gles with chicken car­casses and dodgy tins? (“Have you got the cheese dis­posed of yet?” he asks in a let­ter of 1 Jan­uary 1955, as if cheese were a sub­stance that de­manded the wear­ing of spe­cial pro­tec­tive gear). Do we hon­estly care about her wor­ries over rain clouds, of which she had a mor­bid fear?

But I found that I did care in the end. This old, brown world of hiss­ing gas fires, strange smells on the stairs, and fil­ial duty worn like some heavy over­coat: how it hyp­no­tises. When I wasn’t cry­ing with laugh­ter – “you can’t ex­pect to en­joy your­self on hol­i­day as you do at home” is among the more Hilda Og­den-ish ad­vice Larkin dis­penses to his ma – I was of­ten close to sob­bing at the sweet­sad­ness of it all. Be­hind the belly­ach­ing and the penny-pinch­ing, the mak­ing-do and the clay-cold de­pres­sion, there is an im­men­sity of kind­ness here, and the fact that this was some­times so ef­fort­ful on Larkin’s part only makes it the more ten­der (Eva, so anx­ious she could not sleep in her own house alone, fre­quently drove her son half­way round the bend).

Though his per­sonal mis­ery may have been deep­en­ing all the while, these let­ters bring to mind not the “coastal shelf” of his most fa­mous poem, but some­thing far softer, and al­to­gether more benev­o­lent. Here, like it or not, is love. It sur­vives him, a bet­ter gar­land by far than a pile of old socks.

Booth, Larkin’s bi­og­ra­pher, has edited these let­ters su­perbly well (there are 607 in this vol­ume, a mere sliver of the ter­ri­fy­ing to­tal in ex­is­tence), even if his foot­notes are pedan­tic at times. Neatly trac­ing

the poet’s adult life from Ox­ford Univer­sity, through Welling­ton, Le­ices­ter and Belfast, where he worked in var­i­ous li­braries, and fi­nally to Hull, a pic­ture of the man slowly emerges. It’s not new, but per­haps the em­pha­sis is slightly al­tered. Larkin as we find him here is witty, wise, grossly im­prac­ti­cal, and ex­tremely mod­est, in ev­ery sense of the word.

“I’m sorry… if your old friends have found out your new ad­dress,” he writes to Eva in 1952, a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple of the way he wraps his (gen­uine, but weary) con­cern for her in a drollery she would not have no­ticed. It’s go­ing to take me a long time to put from my mind the fact that, for his 50th birth­day, he asked his sis­ter, Kitty, for noth­ing more than a plas­tic con­tainer in which he might keep grape­fruit juice. Above all, there is some­thing so painfully con­tin­gent about his life: the rented rooms, the var­i­ous tri­an­gles formed by var­i­ous women, his con­vic­tion that (as the li­brar­ian of Hull Univer­sity) he was in the wrong job in the wrong place. What part did Eva play in this sus­pended an­i­ma­tion? (Larkin’s fa­ther, Syd­ney, the city trea­surer of Coven­try, died in 1948.)

Both Jones and an­other of his lovers, Maeve Bren­nan, be­lieved that Eva got in the way of Larkin’s re­la­tion­ship with them, and at one point in these let­ters, Larkin writes ex­pressly of the fact that he must ne­glect ei­ther Eva or Mon­ica over Christ­mas, and how im­pos­si­ble this is for him.

But it’s too easy to lay his emo­tional con­tor­tions at his mother’s feet. He was deeply loved by her: a gift, how­ever claus­tro­pho­bic at times, that should have made re­la­tion­ships eas­ier, not more dif­fi­cult. “When I am in I want to be out, and when I am out I want to be in,” he writes to Eva from Belfast, of his fal­ter­ing so­cial life.

Larkin was ever un­cer­tain, that’s all, am­biva­lence stamped on his char­ac­ter like a post­mark – and why be­moan it, when it’s from this that the most mag­nif­i­cent and gen­tly shrewd of his po­ems grow? (Eva in­spired, di­rectly or in­di­rectly, sev­eral of them: Ref­er­ence Back, Faith Heal­ing, The Old Fools and the late, great Aubade, com­pleted in days, after her death in Novem­ber 1977.)

Is there po­etry in these let­ters? Not of­ten, though sev­eral poets shuf­fle and stride across them, from WH Au­den to TS Eliot. The call of a black­bird sounds “like a smooth, pol­ished sound-shape cast up on the beach of the evening”; ev­ery day ar­rives like a “newly cel­lo­phaned present”.

But he’s such a good writer that he can­not ever be bad – even when he is only tack­ling the vexed is­sue of his mother’s li­nen bas­ket (how I shrieked at the let­ter in which he care­fully thanks her for hav­ing washed a cer­tain basque, a “very worth­while” gar­ment – though not, per­haps, as loudly as when I read the foot­note in­form­ing me that said basque “must have been Mon­ica’s”).

And what so­cial his­tory is here. You can al­most smell it. This is a realm, now en­tirely dis­ap­peared, in which Louis Arm­strong plays Bridling­ton, ev­ery posh din­ner be­gins with cel­ery soup, and lit­tle girls still keep their bed­clothes in night­dress cases, as Kitty once did. It’s like vis­it­ing an­other planet – a chilly one, where the im­mer­sion heater is on only very rarely.

To or­der Let­ters Home 1936-1977 for £35.20 go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846

There is some­thing so painfully con­tin­gent about his life – the rented rooms, the var­i­ous tri­an­gles of women

Right: Philip Larkin and mother, Eva, at the Duke’s Head ho­tel, King’s Lynn, July 1971. © The Es­tate of Philip Larkin Left: Philip’s mother, Eva Larkin. His let­ters are tes­ta­ment to the deep love she gave him.

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