Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal

Affection for Philip Larkin's work is almost universal. He is more frequently quoted than any other poet of his time: "Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three"; "What will survive of us is love"; "Never such innocence again", "The sure extinction that we travel to".

His poems evoke the widest range of moods, from the heart-warming celebration of The Whitsun Weddings to the bloody-minded zest of Toads; from the yearning of An Arundel Tomb to the despair of Aubade. His poems, each crafted to be "its own sole freshly-created universe", have lodged themselves familiarly in our minds. A single phrase or word may bring to mind a whole poem: "almost-instinct", "bright incipience", "the exchange of love", "we shall find out", "afresh". Larkin's words possess what Martin Amis has termed "frictionless memorability".

His visual image, in photographs by Fay Godwin and in innumerable caricatures, evokes a more ambiguous response. He was himself a talented photographer who constructed a deliberate record of his life as no poet had done before him. When I emptied the contents fof his house in 2001, I found "snaps" of his mother and lovers and unpublished self-portraits, some of them apparently taken by delayed action shutter-release while he was alone, anticipating the modern "selfie".

He created a sequence of photographic self-interrogations, by which, like Rembrandt, if on a more modest scale, he dispassionately recorded his development and physical decline. Some are "poetic", some lugubrious, some scathingly self-mocking. One image of 1974, clearly self-taken (the head is positioned too close to the top of the frame), seems designed to illustrate Aubade, begun in that year:

"… Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true."

Larkin was aware of the capacity of his physical appearance to generate negative responses, and attempted to control his public visual image. He wrote to Fay Godwin that he had given Faber "vehement instructions" not to use one group of her photographs, determined that "the Boston Strangler" will not reappear.' Such an image nevertheless features on the jacket of the current Selected Poems, its bleak glare lending support to Martin Amis's contention in his introduction that Larkin had "no emotions, no vital essences, worth looking back on", but "siphoned all his energy, and all his love, out of the life and into the work".

For though Larkin is one of our best-loved poets, he is also the man we love to hate. Following the publication of Anthony Thwaite's Selected Letters in 1992 and Andrew Motion's official biography, A Writer's Life, in 1993, Larkin fell spectacularly from grace. "Mr Nice tackles Mr Nasty" read the headline above an interview with Motion in The Independent. More recently, reviewers of The Complete Poems, published in 2012, declared that, moving though his poetry may be, Larkin was "a singularly unattractive man", "a vile mess". Some commentators go further, following Lisa Jardine and Tom Paulin in uncovering his "sexist and racist tendencies": "the sewer under the national monument". One reviewer declared of Archie Burnett's commentary in The Complete Poems: "The only thing we're reminded of is what a shit Larkin was in real life."

I do not assume that poets are bound to be likeable or virtuous. But, as I interviewed Larkin's surviving friends, I found myself doubting whether life and art could really have been so deeply at odds with each other. The women with whom Larkin was involved, his literary friends, his library colleagues, all rejected the Mr Nasty version. They remembered him with affection, as witty, entertaining, considerate and kind. And could it really be that the author of the heart-rending Talking in Bed, the euphoric For Sidney Bechet and the serene Here, had no emotions? It seemed that Larkin's negative public image was built neither on the evidence of those who knew him, nor on his poetry.

Read more: Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Lovely by James Booth

Jean Hartley, a friend for 30 years, was struck by his unaffected empathy: "He gave his full attention to everyone he had dealings with. I never had the feeling that he was waiting for a gap in the conversation in order to inject his own views. He seemed invariably to follow one's train of thought rather than his own." In his poems, he enters into the feelings of a Victorian rape victim, of a new-born lamb in a snowy field, of a widow weeping over her faded love songs, of an ebullient literary poseur off on a freebie. At one point, he considered as the title of his third volume of poetry, the wryly ambiguous "Living for Others".

He wrote regularly to eight long-term correspondents, presenting to each a version of himself modulated according to their expectations: brilliant jokes and prejudice for the historian Robert Conquest and the novelist Kingsley Amis; witty, lugubrious observations on life and art for the liberal-voting art historian, Judy Egerton, and the poet Anthony Thwaite; measured "Anglican" conservatism for the novelist of manners, Barbara Pym; affectionate chat for the innocent Catholic library assistant, Maeve Brennan, and his lonely widowed mother.

On the publication of his Selected Letters, this exercise in living for others led to him being accused of duplicity. His correspondents discovered that he was not the man they had taken him for. Maeve Brennan was dismayed by his four-letter words; Amis was baffled by his sentimentalism. Commentators made the mistake of identifying the most pungent, transgressive passages with the "real" Larkin. All these Larkins are real. But all have a provisional element; sometimes heavily provisional. As his creative confidence declined in his later years, for instance, his letters to Amis and his life-long lover, Monica Jones, projected for their approval a fictional version of himself far indeed from the poems he was writing at the time.

There is indeed a paradoxical relationship between Larkin the poet and Larkin the man, but it is not, as frequently represented, between fertile artist and sterile man. Rather it is that sketched in his poem Sympathy in White Major: between lonely, self-possessed artist, and loyal friend and lover, attempting, to a fault, to be all things to all men, or (more usually) women. He preserved his inviolability as an artist, by keeping even his most intimate lovers and friends at a distance. For a poet as emotionally susceptible and self-doubting as Larkin, this was a necessary strategy. But it involved a heavy burden of guilt and self-reproach. In his personal relationships, Larkin was always ready to put himself in the wrong. As John Banville has said, self-depreciation was not second but first nature to him.

In 1979, Larkin asserted: "I've always been right wing." This is not true. In a letter to Monica written a quarter of a century earlier he had insisted on his "prejudice for the left".

In a passage from a letter of 1953, published for the first time in my biography, he attempted to defuse an obscure quarrel between them: "Well dear […] even if we neither at bottom care, the fact does remain that you explode to the right & I explode to the left." Monica did, in fact, care about politics in a way he did not. But he characteristically evades the quarrel by complementing her on "making a better job" of defending her explosions than he.

He then neutralises the issue by drawing a caricature rabbit-Monica on a soapbox above a poster reading "Speed up the burrowing programme", facing a seal – Larkin, also on a soapbox, above a poster reading: "No creature comfort without work."

The exchange of love: Philip Larkin in 1946 with Monica Jones, with whom he had a 40-year relationship The exchange of love: Philip Larkin in 1946 with Monica Jones, with whom he had a 40-year relationship
The relationship with Monica Jones shows a constant negotiation between the man living for another, and the artist, intent on his vision. When Larkin first met Monica in 1946, as a colleague in Leicester University College, he was drawn by her vulnerable beauty and edgy social ineptitude. But she held rigid prejudices that stayed with her all her life. Once, at the home of Ann and Anthony Thwaite, she broke into a conversation: "What can you expect when they're Jews!" Larkin's initial reaction to her was one of empathetic identification. During the late 1940s, he worked on a novel whose centre of consciousness, Augusta Bax, is transparently based on her. In a surviving draft, Augusta complains to her visiting mother about a Jewish refugee colleague, Mrs Klein, who "isn't a lady", eats "huge goulaschy messes" on the shared kitchen table, and has recently lost her husband: "I gather the Nazis decided they could get along without him. If he was anything like her I appreciate their point of view for once."

Though the later parts of the novel were never written, it is clear from Larkin's plot outline that Augusta's callous anti-Semitism was to be dispelled as she came under the influence of Mrs Klein's American relatives, a family of '"Wonderful loving Yanks", who were to give her a job as companion to their delinquent daughter and spirit her away to the United States. Larkin kept this novel entirely secret from Monica. When he finally abandoned it in 1953, he wrote to Patsy Strang: "It should be largely an attack on Monica, & I can't do that, not while we are still on friendly terms."

In 1954, his protective feelings for Monica deepened when Kingsley Amis, jealous of this rival for Philip's affection, depicted her as the neurotic, manipulative Margaret Peel in Lucky Jim. The final seal was set on his commitment to her in 1959 when both her parents died and she fell into deep depression. After this he could never desert her. But, loyal though he was, he never fully submitted to her version of him. Monica considered the right-wing humorous magazine Punch "the backbone of England". Exploding to the left, he condemned its heartless celebration of the arrival of myxomatosis in Britain, telling her "the New Statesman would never offend in that way, and I judge them accordingly".

The famous photograph which Monica took of the poet sitting inscrutably on the boundary-sign "England" summarised for her an essential bond between them. Larkin, however, had expressed his instinctive view in an earlier letter: "My God, surely nationalism is the surest mark of mediocrity!" Apart from the commissioned poem, Going, Going (which he called "thin ranting conventional gruel"), his poetry features the word "England" only in neutral or uncomfortably ironic contexts: in I Remember, I Remember (Coming up England by a different line), The Importance of Elsewhere (Living in England has no such excuse) and Naturally the Foundation will Bear Your Expenses (O when will England grow up!). For Larkin, "elsewhere" was always more comfortable than "home".

In politics, so also in poetry. Monica, it is often repeated, suggested the key word blazon in An Arundel Tomb, and it has been assumed that she influenced his poems more widely. However, her views were crude compared with his. She was hostile towards symbolism, the source of Larkin's most sublime transcendences ("Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!") In a pattern repeated many times in the letters, he deferred to her on the surface, while ignoring her ideas in practice:

"Of course I agree with all you say about symbolism! How could I not? My mind is stodgy as usual tonight, but I know I'm with you there, like a rabbit huddled against a warm pipe outside the greenhouse on a frosty night.

"As soon as you start meaning one thing by saying another you open up a gap and the thing sounds hollow. Rabbits wouldn't understand symbolism."

But the more he proclaimed the traditionalist philistinism which Monica required of him, the more gaps between saying and meaning opened up in his poems. In Money, the poet listens to money "singing":

"… It's like looking down
From long French windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun…"

In 1964, at the beginning of his seventh workbook, he had written: "Never write anything because you think it's true, only because you think it's beautiful." Monica would have had no truck with this intense aestheticism. Like Kingsley Amis, she insisted that Larkin reduce himself to her version of him. Fortunately for his poetry, he refused to do so.

'Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love', by James Booth (Bloomsbury, £25), is out on 28 August

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album