Letting rip for love's sake

Thursday Book: REFERENCE BACK: PHILIP LARKIN'S UNCOLLECTED JAZZ WRITINGS, 1940-84 EDITED BY RICHARD PALMER AND JOHN WHITE UNIVERSITY OF HULL PRESS, pounds 19.99

"OH FOR Christ's sake, one doesn't study poets! You read them and think: `That's marvellous, how is it done, could I do it?... First and foremost, writing poems should be a pleasure. So should reading them, by God." Thus, unmistakably, Philip Larkin, interviewed by The Paris Review in 1982. By this time he was writing very little. His last substantial poem, the magnificent, terminally bleak "Aubade", had appeared five years earlier and since then poetry seemed to have abandoned him.

Strong as ever, though, were the flashes of celebratory conviction, lit by nostalgia and perhaps a residual spark of hope. No poet is more sure of his ground than the poet who can't feel it moving under him any more. What he knows is that his vanished inspiration "is for others undiminished somewhere". I don't believe that Larkin was resigned to his own silence, but if he was then the resignation certainly seemed to intensify his expressions of belief in the pleasure principle and his impatience with the swank of obscurity in all the arts.

When jazz came up in that same interview, the predictable question "Why do you mistrust the new?" was prompted by that well-known introduction to the collection of his Daily Telegraph record reviews, All What Jazz?. After a brief reprise of his familiar views on the ugliness of "modernism" and the wrecking of jazz through bebop's shift from the diatonic to the chromatic scale, the apparently disenchanted enthusiast again let rip in the name of love: "If I sound heated on this, it's because I love jazz, the jazz of Armstrong and Bechet and Ellington and Bessie Smith and Beiderbecke. To have it all destroyed by a paranoiac drug-addict made me furious. Anyway, it's dead now, dead as Elizabethan madrigal singing. We can only treasure the records. And I do."

Poor old anorak Larkin, might be the impression given to anyone who had not read the reviews. There he is, alone with his gramophone, muttering an embittered mantra - Picasso, Pound and paranoiac Parker - as he puts on another vinyl, four beats to the bar and no messing. Glorious Storyville, shameful Birdland.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as this marvellously readable gathering of jazz-book reviews, reports to publishers and other items reminds those of us who never fell for the image of Larkin as a lugubrious square - any more than we did for his claim in All What Jazz? that, as a record reviewer, he had set out to be the equivalent of those "old whores who had grown old in the reviewing game by praising everything".

This was surely mischievous self-deprecation. As Alan Plater says in his foreword to Reference Back, Larkin was "a grown-up critic in the true sense of the word, seeing praise as a crucial area of responsibility". While this is evident throughout the book, he can never bring himself to surrender entirely to the uncritical responses of fellow jazz writers, or overlook their lumpen prose.

Typical is his reservation about The New Yorker's mainly admirable Whitney Balliett. While relishing his gift of making his style as vivid as the music (so often Larkin's own achievement), he becomes impatient with the "reportage school of criticism" Balliett represents. "He has no blind spots. As Arnold Bennett said of Eddie Marsh, he's a miserable fellow, he enjoys everything."

As an informed enthusiast, with the courage of his own blind spots, Larkin has an engagement with the music rather than a scholarly detachment or a fan's gush. He doesn't study jazz, he listens to it then writes, whether about its practitioners or its chroniclers, with wit, eloquence and judgement.

Reference Back is so full of good things that the editors enticingly devote a page of their introduction to a mini-anthology of those "glancing blows, thrown away en passant", as Alan Plater calls them. It is these, however short, that will delight the general reader. They show the "poet at work" and often involve a literary cross-over explained, where necessary, in the exemplary notes. One of my favourites comes in the review of a book of jazz photographs where "Mr Condon's growing resemblance to Miss Ivy Compton-Burnett" is noted. Pure Mr Alan Bennett, that.

This is a treasury to relish; an essential addition to the Larkin canon. When it comes to the cut-off point, the arrival of what he finds the "new inherently hostile Negro in-music of the Forties", it is impossible not to see Larkin's response (as in a 1969 review of two books by the then Leroi Jones) as that of the old-fashioned jazz lover for whom "what was happy entertainment is now harsh didacticism". But his engagement even here is honest, intelligent, culturally aware and far from the mouldy- fig, back-to-the-Delta scorn one sometimes feels his detractors would like it to be.

John Mole

Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Jess Glynne is UK number 1

music

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
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
  • 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.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    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