Amis letters to Larkin stir up censorship row: The Bodleian is sitting tight, writes Marianne Macdonald

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The Independent Online
IT IS ONE of the most respected libraries in the world, with a richly endowed archive used by literary and academic researchers from across the world. But Oxford University's Bodleian Library stands accused of censorship, after becoming embroiled in a dispute over letters by the novelist Kingsley Amis.

The library is refusing to allow Sir Kingsley's official biographer to read an important collection of letters he wrote to the poet Philip Larkin - despite having the author's permission to do so.

Sir Kingsley became best friends with Larkin after they met at St John's College, Oxford, in 1941. They corresponded from 1942, when Amis was called up for military service, until Larkin's death in 1985. Under the poet's will, the 500 Amis letters were placed in the Bodleian, where curators refuse to let them be seen while Sir Kingsley is alive.

Literary disputes are usually discreet affairs. But polite persuasion - including high-level representations on his behalf by Oxford University's Chancellor, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, Larkin's co-executor, Anthony Thwaite, and Sir Kingsley himself - has proved fruitless, so the biographer, Eric Jacobs, has gone public.

'The Bodleian has invented a rule of its own which it sets above the wishes of both writers and executors,' he wrote, in a furious attack on the library published by the Times Literary Supplement on Friday. 'The fact of a letter writer being dead is supposed of itself to protect third parties from hurt. But, of course, it does nothing of the kind.

'Larkin's own letters have been published; some are hurtful, to Sir Kingsley and no doubt to others too; the fact that Larkin is dead does not make them one whit less so.'

The author of Lucky Jim and the 1986 Booker Prize winner The Old Devils is likely to have made uncomplimentary comments to Larkin about contemporaries. The novelist Anthony Powell, a close friend of Sir Kingsley, commented: 'He can be fairly rough-edged with his tongue.'

Sir Kingsley's Memoirs, published since Larkin's death, revealed the poet himself as vulgar and tight-fisted.

The Bodleian has refused to comment publicly. Mr Jacobs said: 'I like to think they are running around crying at the thoroughly ungentlemanly intrusion into their affairs.'

The Bodleian's librarian, David Vaisey, wrote in a private letter to the biographer, however, that the library had a responsibility towards people mentioned in the correspondence 'who are not protected by copyright legislation and who had no say in the letters being in the library, let alone in the public domain'.

What could be damaging about the letters remains a mystery. The Bodleian will not elucidate, and Sir Kingsley (72 yesterday) said: 'I don't think they would cause any upset.'

The only clues come in Larkin's frank replies on topics ranging from his sex life to pet literary hates, many of which are published in The Selected Letters of Philip Larkin edited by Anthony Thwaite.

In August 1945 Larkin wrote: 'I liked what you said about the school capt. But there are people in Wellington who would really talk like that - I can think of one, a brawny young man who has just married and fucked his wife without a french letter so she is going to have a baby.'

If the Bodleian is concerned about libel, its ponderous caution is not shared by other major libraries. The Huntington in Los Angeles, which holds Sir Kingsley's archive, has given Jacobs complete access, and a British Library spokesman said: 'It is not for us to operate censorship.'

Mr Thwaite thinks that if Larkin's letters are any guide, people are unlikely to be offended. 'A lot of people were hurt because they were not mentioned, and it's very likely people would feel the same about Amis.'

(Photographs omitted)