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.

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
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.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project