There's a kind of decency in being dismal

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The Independent Online

They bleep you up, your mum and dad. Infuriating, to hear that anthem of youth bowdlerised for youth's sake the other night, the one false move in an otherwise exemplary telly biog of the poet Larkin. Blame the watershed. No swearing before the watershed. But they fuck you up, your mum and dad, isn't swearing. The line has become iconic now, passed beyond offence into familiarity and consolation, like daffodils. It is incantatory. It helps to say it. And it shifts the burden of profanity from you to them. They fucked you, you didn't fuck them. Not forgetting the "up", that jaunty preposition which somehow affirms that if you must be fucked, it is better to be fucked up than down.

What they know instinctively, the generations for whom Larkin's lugubriousness has been a liberation, a light in darkness, is that the devilish caesural comma on which the line rocks, works not only to pass the blame but also the obscenity. Mum and dad - if there are any swear words in this poem, those are they. The fucked-up cosiness of mum and dad. As for bleeping before the watershed - that, too, is swearing, considering the obscenely mindless pap they otherwise don't mind serving you at that time.

They bleep you up, the BBC. Except that this was Channel 4. But let's not split hairs. They all bleep you up.

Good to be, reminded, in that case, that not every programme-maker is a moron, that not every script is illiterate, and that even the most taciturn poet is better telly than that archetypal Butlin's Redcoat to whom all television presenters and personalities have been reduced. Contrary to orthodox opinion, it is more interesting, even on the box, to see someone thinking than jigging, and also contrary to orthodox opinion, the medium likes words.

Anyway, let's not complain. There the programme was. Witty in its dismalness, ashenly appreciative, and therefore in accord with the spirit of its subject. When the definitive history of human unhappiness comes to be written, Philip Larkin will have a chapter of his own. Not a big chapter - that would be self-defeating, for he was a man who eschewed all ideas of bigness for himself. I think of the pessimistic philosopher in Conrad's Victory, uneasy and embittered, caught between nihilism and ambition, but not without greatness of a sort, "for he was unhappy in a way unknown to mediocre souls".

Larkin's greatness is even more equivocal. Nothing mediocre about the poetry, and yet its distinction - like the distinction of Larkin's life - lies in the degree to which it embraces the mediocre. The film located this nicely in all the mediocre corners of England, the sky as white as clay, which Larkin, in a spirit of soul-destroying punitiveness - as though returning a black joke with one still blacker - chose to habituate. His was an English sensibility through and through, and English of a particular time, somewhere between the spiritless heroes of Orwell's novels and Tony Hancock's suburban malcontent.

I have a soft spot for it myself, and wish that I had been more dismal in my own endeavours. There is good manners in it, for one thing, since not to be happy is a kindness to other people. And there is intelligence in it too, a decency of the mind which is becoming rarer as we all chase riches and fulfilment in the belief that they are our basic deserts. Larkin didn't seem to think he deserved anything very much, beyond what he had. And if he spent most of his days and half his nights fearing death - "Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare" - I confess myself hard-pressed to understand why anyone should think this odd. Like so many Horatios to Larkin's Hamlet his critics sound, opining that his "arid interrogations" of "how/And where and when I shall myself die" are evidence of his considering "too curiously". No, faith, not a jot, I say. Not to be eyeballing death or engaging it in constant colloquy is not to be alive.

Whether I am grateful to Ian Macmillan's documentary for being reserved in the matter of Larkin's reputed anti-Semitism and racism and the rest, I cannot decide. Maybe the more notorious of his critics such as Tom Paulin and Lisa Jardine were invited to repeat their infamous misjudgements and with uncharacteristic wisdom declined, or maybe Ian Macmillan didn't think they merited a repeat. But as the odour of those charges still lingers, and seeing as we were treated to a tape of Larkin and his girlfriend pissed and singing about niggers, I suspect it might have been worth airing a little of the self-righteousness that passes as criticism in professorial circles.

It was Lisa Jardine, in case you have forgotten, who led us to understand that Larkin was now off the syllabus, on account of his being a "casual, habitual racist and easy misogynist". And Tom Paulin - here's an irony - who spoke of "the sewer under the national monument Larkin became", that sewer flowing with "racism, misogyny and quasi-fascism".

Professors Jardine and Paulin have been taken to task enough times about their failure to grasp the rudiments of criticism - that ideology is not literature, that attitude is not art, that misogyny is not a critical term, and that the man is not the poet. But even in their reading of the man they lack insight. In Larkin, as in his friend Kingsley Amis, a wilful intolerance of new attitudes prevailed, as it always will in those whose ear for falsity and sanctimoniousness is acute. That they will then, between themselves, make light of the fashionable pieties, be as rude as children, or as offensive as the proletariat they also despise, is too obvious to need stating. They played with the idiocies of their time, and if that gave offence to academics of the heart-on-the-sleeve variety, more fool the academics. And more fun.

As for them, the professors of the proprieties, they may bleep the poet all they like. "Words as plain as hen-birds' wings/Do not lie."

Or die.