The Robson Press £20

IoS book review: The Odd Couple: The Curious Friendship between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, By Richard Bradford

Pedigree chums ... or how two literary old dogs finally fell out

No one could ever accuse Richard Bradford of understatement. "During a 30-year period between the mid-1950s and the 1980s, Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin produced, respectively, the finest fiction and poetry of their era," runs The Odd Couple's far from disinterested opening sentence. Having filed these claims – number two more plausible than number one – he goes on to consider the extraordinary volume of material that the Amis-Larkin relationship has generated in the past quarter-century. My own bookshelf harbours at least eight works with some bearing on the case, including three biographies of Amis, two of Larkin, two lots of selected letters and Amis's own Memoirs. Surely one can have too much of a good thing?

In fact, Bradford, fresh from a sit-down with the surprisingly large number of letters that didn't make it into Zachary Leader's edition of Amis's correspondence, or Anthony Thwaite's edition of Larkin's, makes a good argument for his 350 pages' worth of fresh exegesis. The assumptions he begins with may be well-worn, but the series of close biographical re-readings to which he subjects them take nothing for granted.

His subjects first encountered each other as undergraduates in the front quadrangle of St John's College, Oxford in May 1941. Brought together by a liking for girls (Amis always the more hands-on), books and jazz, and a hatred of cant, pretension and being told what to do, they were soon embarked on a long voyage of private fantasy and the forging of what could almost be called a joint sensibility, in which each left tangible traces in the other's work. It was Larkin who gave Amis the idea for Lucky Jim (1954) by introducing him to the Leicester University senior common room in 1947; Larkin's 1950s poems, as Bradford shows with more ingenuity than many a previous Larkin critic, often reflect his responses to an Amis novel or a revelation from Amis's increasingly louche private life.

No doubt about it, Amis and Larkin loved each other with a passion undimmed by the presence of Amis's first wife Hilly, herself a Larkin fan who would happily have followed her husband to Belfast, where Larkin acquired a library job in 1950.

After 1952, on the other hand, the power balance began to shift. Not only did Amis burlesque Larkin's long-term girlfriend Monica Jones in Lucky Jim, but much of the book turned out to have cannibalised their private world. Larkin, always touchy when his privacy was at stake, suspected that Amis was exploiting their relationship in pursuit of his own literary success. Their personal lives, meanwhile, continued to diverge: Amis's into a boozy, satyromaniacal caper in the limelight; Larkin's into quiet, provincial misanthropy.

Bradford teases all this out with considerable artfulness and great sympathy, amid a sprinkling of tiny errors. Larkin, who died in 1985, could not, a fortiori, have been interviewed on The South Bank Show in 1986, and Amis could not have reviewed Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy in 1956, the year before it was published. On the plus side, for a practising academic, Bradford has a cheeringly anti-academic style and rarely respects any of the reputations he runs up against. Mysteriously, there is life in these two old dogs yet.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
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.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor