Bloomsbury £25. Order at the discounted price of £20 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love by James Booth, book review: Jazz and casual racism

A biography of Philip Larkin doesn't shy away from acknowledging his contradictions – a fan of Louis Armstrong and Enoch Powell

WB Yeats distinguished between the writer of the poems and the "bundle of accident and incoherence" who sits down to breakfast. The task of the biographer is made problematic by the search for a coherent personality rather than what might be more accurate – an array of behaviour and attitude marked by contradiction.

As we know from experience, people often don't add up, except in books. Modern biographies are closely allied to realist novels, with all the conventions and tidyings and thematic hierarchies that implies, plus an apparatus of evidence and justification. In his poem "Who's Who" Auden proposes that "A shilling life will give you all the facts". Perhaps, but beyond that lies terra incognita.

In the case of Philip Larkin (1922-85), who receives his third full biography in James Booth's book, there has been an unusual public hunger for certainty, created in part by Anthony Thwaite's 1992 edition of Larkin's letters and Andrew Motion's Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life (1993). Larkin's opponents skewered his racist remarks, his reactionary politics and his sentimentality towards the empire. There was talk of dropping his work from reading lists. Yet Larkin's poems remain unshakeably popular. He is one of the few post-war poets to have a substantial readership, and while some might attribute that to the comfort he offers to reactionary sentiment, it represents only a tiny fraction of his work and its least distinguished and interesting aspect.

Scholars and critics have displaced the image of Larkin as a narrowly provincial writer through their exploration of his fascination with French poetry, the breadth of his reading and the imaginative complexity of his poems. He hasn't gone away, though a statue of him at Hull Paragon station shows him perpetually about to do so.

What does Booth bring to the subject? He has been a Larkin scholar and critic for many years, editor of Larkin's (pseudonymous) Brunette Coleman stories, and a colleague of Larkin's at Hull University. His grasp of this milieu, in particular the library which Larkin did so much to create (the first new university library after the war), is very strong. He provides a detailed picture of Larkin in post, especially in his dealings with the mostly female staff, who found him kind, attentive, encouraging and fun to be with on social occasions. Larkin's taste for porn is well known, but clearly he liked women, who liked him in turn. The writer Nuala O'Faolain called him "a most attractive man, sending out both a non-threatening message and a message about being more threatening than his non-threatening image made him appear."

He seems to have been built for long-term relationships but not for marriage. His ill-suited parents ("They fuck you up") scared him off it, though he was devoted to them. His mother was an anxious mouse. His father, City Treasurer of Coventry, was romantic, widely read and drawn to Fascism. A biographer's pitfall appears when Booth tries to set the record straight about the statue of Adolf Hitler that Larkin's father had on the mantelpiece. It was not, as claimed elsewhere, a foot high; neither did it have a spring-operated salute. It was a common souvenir at the time. It was only three inches high and the arm was propped up on a catch. Booth seems to be missing the point: it may have been small; it may have been commonplace but nevertheless it was Hitler.

Larkin is responsible for his own utterances, but some of the company he kept encouraged casual racism and xenophobia. Monica Jones, his long-distance girlfriend of 30 years, was openly anti-Semitic. Kingsley Amis, a friend since Oxford was latterly given to almost parodically right-wing comments, as though unable to distinguish the self from an adopted role. Larkin played along in his correspondence with them. What the three also had in common, increasingly, was drink and its attendant depression. In a letter to Jones in 1968, written after working on the preface to his collection of jazz reviews, All What Jazz? he writes: "a glass of Glenfiddich, & by God wasn't the toast 'Mr Enoch Powell'! Then jazz records to my taste, especially Armstrong…" Larkin considered Louis Armstrong one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. He writes passionately in his praise and was asked by Faber to write a biography. One of Larkin's finest poems is about the clarinettist Sidney Bechet. Booth comments uneasily: "The smooth transition of approval from Powell to Armstrong makes a comic show of [Larkin's] own self-contradiction." Nothing smooth about it, but the weird dissonance is familiar to anyone growing up in England at that time and listening to adult conversations.

Larkin's high-windowed university flat on Pearson Park in Hull was the place he did much of his best work. When he had to move in 1974 it seems a vital connection was lost. His role in the library, his ever-expanding fame and his public servant's readiness to serve on committees, absorbed time and energy he no longer had. In his early 50s Larkin reads as a much older man. The final chapters, for all the garlands and success, make grim reading, shadowed by the "unresting death" he imagined in "Aubade".

Booth is at pains to present Larkin as a poet of unique achievement, with the big set-pieces at the core – "Church-Going", "The Whitsun Weddings", "Here", "The Building" – arguing that Larkin does not repeat himself formally or thematically, that his range is wide, while his ability to bind the vernacular to imaginative transcendence has no rivals, and that despite the widespread impression that there is a typical Larkin poem he develops in ambitious and unpredictable ways. You don't have to accept all Booth's readings to assent to this. And the breadth of Larkin's human sympathy in the poems makes the racism and meanness elsewhere seem pitiable and unworthy.

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
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
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • 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.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss