Meeting Mrs T

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The Independent Culture
AS SOON as Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Government was elected to office in 1979, Larkin praised her to anyone who would listen. He had admired her since she had become leader of the party in 1975, for her looks as much as her policies. 'She has a pretty face, hasn't she,' he had written excitedly to his mother. 'I expect she's pretty tough.' Now he was more vehement. Her 'great virtue', he told one journalist, 'is saying that two and two makes four, which is as unpopular nowadays as it always has been.' To another interviewer, he was even more emphatic. 'I adore Mrs Thatcher,' he said. 'At last politics makes sense to me, which it hasn't done since Stafford Cripps (I was very fond of him too). Recognising that if you haven't got the money for something you can't have it - this is a concept that's vanished for many years.'

Mrs Thatcher's higher education cuts might have made this admiration hard to sustain. Between 1981 and 1984 the government grant to universities was reduced by an average of 15 per cent. In Hull the cuts were 20 per cent: library expenditure on books was reduced by pounds 40,000 and on periodicals by pounds 30,000, while the number of staff fell by 25. Larkin felt 'like the captain of a liner steaming straight for an iceberg with the steering-wheel immovable'.

In spite of continuing to make disparaging remarks about 'mediocre degree-factories such as I inhabit', Larkin fought loyally for his colleagues, his readers and his ideals. He saved as many jobs as he could by waiting for people to become voluntarily redundant; and in Senate meetings he spoke up for the library as and when he could. Some students and lecturers, realising the difference between his beliefs and his actions, continued to regard him distrustfully. One campus magazine had described him in the mid-1970s as someone who 'judged it prudent / Never to speak to any student'. In the early 1980s he told Amis that one morning when he arrived for work he had found written on the walls of the lift: 'Fuck Off Larkin You Cunt'. 'By evening,' he said, 'the last two words had been erased by some reader of more delicate mind who still agreed with the main thesis. Felt like writing underneath: 'You Fuck Off Too - Larkin'.' In a letter to Colin Gunner, he snarled: 'You'll be glad to know that four young swine have been 'rusticated' for a year for disrupting Senate here - Socialist Workers Student Organisation - unfortunately 'rusticated' doesn't mean flogged with rhinoceros hide whips dipped in brine, but supported by you and me through taxes.'

In the spring of 1982 the Falklands War gave him a chance to comfort himself by rehearsing his prejudices. He egged on Mrs Thatcher, complaining that England was no longer reliable. 'Well,' he wrote to Colin Gunner when it was all over, 'so we have the Argies on the run. Thank God we didn't cock it up.' In October, he was invited to meet Mrs Thatcher at a dinner organised by Hugh Thomas for the Conservative Government's Centre for Policy Studies. He had been introduced to her once before, at a reception in Downing Street in 1980, and liked to tell the story that as she welcomed him she said: 'Oh, Dr Larkin, I am a great admirer of your poems.' 'Quote me a line, then,' he had replied. ' 'All afternoon her mind lay open like a drawer of knives',' she recited from 'Deceptions'. In a slightly more plausible version of the meeting, Larkin says that Mrs Thatcher misquoted the line: 'Her mind was full of knives.' 'I took that as a great compliment,' he wrote to Julian Barnes. 'I thought if it weren't spontaneous, she'd have got it right. I also thought she might think a mind full of knives rather along her own lines, not that I don't kiss the ground she treads.'

When Larkin arrived at Hugh Thomas's house in Ladbroke Grove for his second encounter with Mrs Thatcher, he felt dismayed: 'I found I was surrounded by intellectuals,' he said later - among them Stephen Spender, V S Pritchett, Tom Stoppard, Mario Vargas Llosa, Anthony Powell and Isaiah Berlin. He sat in silence for most of the meal, 'unable to think of a thing to say, and not hearing much', until the conversation turned to Germany and Mrs Thatcher complained about the Berlin Wall. 'Surely,' he said, 'you don't want to see a united Germany?' 'Well, no,' Mrs Thatcher answered, 'perhaps not.' 'Well, then,' Larkin asked her, 'what's all this hypocrisy about wanting the wall down then?'

The Prime Minister was 'pleasant enough', Larkin told friends in Hull, 'but what a blade of steel.' If this suggested their meeting had cooled his adoration (which cooled still more when she prepared to sign the Anglo-Irish agreement and 'sold Ulster down the river'), it did nothing to shift his political allegiances.