FIRST THOUGHTS: Poet Phillip Larkin shown in a new light

IT is 30 years since Philip Larkin’s untimely death from cancer in 1985 at the age of 63, a death he had long predicted.

The Hull-based poet-librarian had become a ‘National Treasure’, beloved by the English for his trenchant, accessible poems, including ‘This Be The Verse’, with its famous first line, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”, referred to here as a contender for “the funniest serious English poem of the 20th century’.

But the publication of Larkin’s letters in 1992, and his official biography by fellow poet Andrew Motion in 1993 revealed that the tall, bespectacled, bald man with a reputation for gloominess and reclusiveness not only had a complicated personal life, much of it spent in a love triangle with two women, but also had a taste for pornography, and apparently racist and fascist tendencies.

He was, as Nuala O’Faolain reported when she met him, “a most attractive man”, in spite of (or because of?) the prickly, troubled character hiding behind the librarian’s specs. The pornography was relatively wholesome by today’s standards, and Booth makes it clear that the accusations of racism and fascism arose from a misreading of his private correspondence with his Oxford contemporary, Kingsley Amis, and a failure of psychological insight by his official biographer.

I always suspected Larkin was sound, and his accusers half-baked. Surely a man who could write ‘The Mower’, a short poem about the accidental death of a hedgehog that ends with the lines “…we should be careful/Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time”, could not be the vile monster described in the literary pages of the British broadsheets?

I came to Larkin’s work late, only a couple of years ago, and it has been a revelation to read this biography, just out in paperback, which is both a sympathetic account of his life and an illuminating commentary on his poetry. James Booth was a contemporary of Larkin’s at Hull University, a lecturer in the English department. He does not claim close friendship, but he is a well-qualified admirer of the work, and a founder member of the Philip Larkin Society. He went back to primary sources (in the university library that Larkin helped establish), and interviewed the main players in Larkin’s life, including his girlfriends Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan, for the record, before they died.

A key word in Booth’s account of Larkin is “misogamy”, a new word to me, meaning hatred of marriage. Larkin was no misogynist, he loved women, but his parents’ unhappy marriage had given him a lifelong horror of the institution.

There was of course more to it than that: As his “official” girlfriend, the acerbic Monica Jones, an Oxford graduate and university lecturer, observed, “You don’t like me enough to marry me.” But neither did this essentially kind man want to inflict his increasingly troubled self on a permanent partner.

While Larkin spent holidays and occasional weekends with Monica, his day-to-day companion was a pretty young library assistant, the devout Catholic Maeve Brennan, who did not believe in pre-marital sex.

James Booth’s biography is long, but wonderfully readable, its academic insights into the poetry accompanying a compelling narrative. Larkin comes across as an inspiring boss, a genial colleague, a courteous, witty companion, and a relentlessly honest man of probity. He asked for his estate to be divided equally between the Society of Authors and the RSPCA, as befits the author of some unforgettable animal poems.

Booth is to be thanked for putting the poet’s life into a fresh perspective, and for adding greatly to our knowledge of the poems’ provenance. This biography should be read slowly, alongside the Collected Poems.

* Philip Larkin, Life, Art and Love, James Booth, Bloomsbury, €13.50

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