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First Boredom, Then Fear, by Richard Bradford

Poet saved from the puritans

The following year, when Andrew Motion's authorised biography came out, the guardians of moral purity enjoyed a second field day. The poetry was relegated to the sidelines as they thundered on about Larkin's appalling views on blacks - indeed, all other races - and women. These peccadillo-free pundits danced on his grave with a fervour that bordered on the demented. It was even suggested that Larkin's poems should not be studied in schools and universities.

Richard Bradford's elegantly written and cogently argued critical biography is an overdue corrective to that misplaced moralising. His book is founded on a deep respect for, and love of, his subject's curious greatness. He has read Larkin's often outrageous correspondence with his friend Kingsley Amis with scrupulous attention, recognising that the two men were exaggerating their prejudices for comic effect. Who could be more obscene, more Blimpish? The letters were for private consumption, with no view of publication.

Those references to "niggers" and "golliwogs", nauseating as they are, are at odds with the man who idolised Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith and wrote of Sidney Bechet that: "On me your voice falls as they say love should,/ Like an enormous yes." You can't get more appreciative than that.

Bradford never apologises for Larkin, as Motion sees fit to in his much more detailed life. He dismisses Motion's rather priggish contention that "the beautiful flowers of his poetry [are] growing on long stalks out of pretty dismal ground". Is that that ground more dismal than, say, Yeats's or Evelyn Waugh's? In his lifetime, Larkin had to weather the simplistic charges of being "suburban" and "parochial" made against his work by addled academics and inferior poets, who resented his gift of memorability. Bradford demonstrates how that gift was refined once he had found his unique voice.

It's familiar territory - his borrowings from Auden, his turning to first Yeats and then Hardy for inspiration - but Bradford charts it with many keen insights into Larkin's slow but steady growth as an artist. He is particularly interesting about Larkin's abandonment of fiction in the wake of his friend's success with Lucky Jim. Yet some of Larkin's most enduring, poems read like novels in miniature: "The Whitsun Weddings"; "An Arundel Tomb"; or "Dockery and Son", which contains the line that gives this book its title.

Larkin's women are here, freshly encountered, and his decorous friendship with Barbara Pym, whose rejected novels he persisted in admiring, shows him more courteous and considerate than the raincoated demon who popped up posthumously. His best poems get better with the passing years, funnier and more touching, while the grimly magnificent "Aubade", that terrifying meditation on mortality, might have been penned by a latterday Donne or Herbert with a sudden attack of the jitters.

Paul Bailey's 'A Dog's Life' is published by Penguin

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