The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: Dead poet's society

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The Independent Online
YOU WILL have noted by now that the letters of my old friend and quaffing partner Philip Larkin are soon to see the light of day. A word in your ear, if I may.

The old curmudgeon was a dear friend of mine, exchanging letters with me at least every five or six years. 'The Librarian seeks to remind W Arnold that the book(s) listed below is/are now overdue' reads one of my most treasured missives from Philip. 'If not returned within 7 (seven) days a statutory fine will be imposed. No further reminder will be sent.' A veritable gem, surely?

As one of the board of Faber, I was keen as mustard to see as much of his unpublished writing in print as soon as poss, preferably with learned introductions by yours truly] Few people knew Philip as well as I. I saw him once for a cup of coffee on Crewe station in the late 1970s, and a further three times before his death in 1985: twice in the offices of Faber and once on the dread goggle-box.

At first I was saddened to see that his last will and testament seemed to suggest a disinclination to publish any further jottings. 'I direct that all unpublished writings and diaries and texts and manuscripts in any form whether or not published at the date of my death and in my possession at the date of my death shall be destroyed unread.' Truth to tell, there was some consternation among the board that we should be forced to deprive the reading public of so many literary gems. Such was my upset, indeed, that I reached into my breastpocket for my pipe, and took a score of deep puffs whilst contemplating our moral dilemma.

As always, the pipe did the trick. On a second, closer reading, we began to realise that this passage seemed to hint very strongly ('unpublished writings . . . shall be . . . read') that the poet was in fact calling for the urgent publication of all his jottings, whatever their so-called 'quality'. Between us, we literary executors and board members agreed that all letters from the Baneful Bard should be rounded up ready for publication. 'Philip would, I have no doubt, thank us for our discreet, sensitive and above all imaginative interpretation of his last will and testament,' I concluded, offering everyone a medium-dry sherry from the Faber decanter.

Soon, Larkin letters were arriving by the proverbial bucketload, and sterling stuff they were too, demonstrating yet again that inestimable poet's marvellously maudlin yet perceptive humour. Soon, I was keeping a private list of some of the choicer plums: Larkin on Seamus Heaney - 'Gombeen Man'; on Proust - 'old Froggy'; on T S Eliot - 'goes on a bit'; on the Queen - 'coarse'; on Jane Austen - 'buxom wench'; on Shakespeare - 'bearded nancy-boy'.

Delicious] Needless to say, when a Larkin letter arrived containing a witty reference to my old friend Sir Kingsley Amis, I telephoned him tout suite with the news. 'Marvellous stuff, Kingers]' I exclaimed, 'Larkin called you - wait for it] - 'that old Bore'] Wonderful, eh?' Oddly enough, at that very moment the line went dead. But I have no doubt that, as always, dear old Kingers saw the funny side.

But discretion must sometimes be employed to save a deceased author from himself. A few months ago, just as we were assembling the final draft of the finished manuscript, a couple of late Larkin letters came in. By chance, they both made pointed reference to myself, his long-standing friend and literary mentor. In the first, he wrongly described me as 'that stupid tart, Arnold', and in the second, he referred in passing to 'a pompous twat called Wallace Arnold'.

As I say, sometimes a deceased author must be saved from himself. The ill-judged, dirty-minded and intemperate nature of those two hastily written letters - never, incidentally, intended for publication - stood seriously to damage Larkin's reputation as a writer and poet. I thus had no hesitation in seeing to their destruction, as Philip would have wished. As I have long maintained, the wishes of an author must be paramount, particularly when he also happens to be a very dear friend.