And now, in the spirit of fearlessly cutting edge, up to date blogging, some thoughts on the controversy surrounding an English poet who died 25 years ago, which itself peaked when his biography came out in the early 1990s. However, although smutty gossip…I mean, biographical interest, regarding Philip Larkin may have been at its height almost two decades ago, it’s fair to say that some of the facts regarding his private life revealed then continue to dog his literary reputation to this day and so are still of some relevance. The said facts are essentially that: (a) Larkin’s dad was possibly a Nazi sympathiser and certainly a general purpose oddball; (b) being of age and sound mind, Larkin failed to get married or have kids; (c) at one point in the mid-1970s, he had three girlfriends at once; (d) he sometimes made racist and sexist remarks and not forgetting (e) he liked porn, especially if it involved spanking.
It must be sobering to those who go on about how people in the age of Facebook and Twitter have no sense of privacy that half of this stuff wouldn’t have come out had Larkin himself not written about it in letters to all his friends, who then (presumably) chose to share all the letters with his biographer Andrew Motion. If he’d relied on phone calls and kept his trap shut, no-one would be any the wiser, especially since his principal girlfriend shredded all his diaries. To my mind, however, he isn’t best served by some of his defenders, who, faced with slurs on his character, tend to quote chunks of his poetry and argue that this shows his marvellous humanism and true modernism (or something). There are two problems with this. The first is that all literature tends to show the writer at his best; to display, as it were his nobler nature. After all, you won’t find Shelley breaking off in the middle of Ozymandias to eulogise the joys of defrauding tradesmen. There are no Dickens novels entitled "Take My Wife. Please! Because Then I Can Marry My Sister-In-Law, Who I Fancy, Instead".
The second is that, even taking this into account, Larkin’s poetry, especially some of the more memorable poems, do rather suggest that he was rather a miserable git, who only became more so with age (which is another criticism always made of him). As a personal example, the Larkin poem that always stuck in my head most is Aubade, one of the most staggeringly depressing of the lot. I particularly remember the phrase "the uncaring, intricate rented world" echoing through my head whilst walking through Hatton Garden from Farringdon Station to the place I was then working at. I left soon after, perhaps unsurprisingly. And what about This Be the Verse? Some call it irony – I suspect it was having a Nazi dad. However, in a perverse way, I think this provides is a more convincing defence of Larkin. He never pretended to be that cheerful or "well-adjusted" in his poetry anyway. Being shocked by his private life is a bit like reading Byron and then being stunned to find out that he liked womanising, swashbuckling, foreign locales and liberalism in real life too.
Indeed, the critics of Larkin tend to display an apparent ignorance of the behaviour of ordinary people, both historical and contemporary. For instance, lots of people on the Right in Britain in the 1930s were more sympathetic to the Nazis than they cared to admit later, although Papa Larkin seems to have gone rather further than most; sexism and racism were rife in the 1960s and 1970s, which were, of course, periods of mass immigration and sexual revolution. They’re not that uncommon now, even if less overt. Some of this is perhaps the genuine naivete of cloistered literary academics, who are inevitably the sort of people who end up writing poets’ biographies and may simply not get to meet many people who aren’t bien pensant literary types. Some of it, though, is a more sinister kind of deliberate hypocrisy. This is encouraged by political correctness, which was arguably at its peak as a movement when the Motion biography came out, and tends to have the effect of people remaining as racist and sexist as ever, but refusing to admit it, even to themselves, and feeling genuine shock when others are revealed to have such views. It is also encouraged by the culture of newspapers in this country, the literary supplements having been very active in covering the whole saga. I suspect that somehere at the heart of even the gentlest arts journalist lies a hard nosed tabloid hack for whom anything is permissible in pursuit of a story, particularly pretending to be shocked by behaviour that most people are not really shocked by – just nosy about.
The passage of time has further weakened some of the criticisms. With social trends heading the way they were, it was perhaps getting a bit difficult to maintain the ancient prejudice that the unmarried and childless are just weirdos outside the mainstream in the early 90s; it is getting downright impossible now. Also, a lot of the controversy preceded the wide availability of the Internet, which if it has achieved nothing else has conclusively proved that an awful lot more people than would ever publicly admit it, like porn, including Larkin’s favoured kind. It has to be said that having three girlfriends at once remains pretty deviant, though, not to mention having three girlfriends at once and remaining a miserable git. But then, if Larkin had genius, the articulation of a miserabilist world view in poetic form was part of it and that seems fair enough to me. After all, no-one writes biographies of Yeats saying: "Yeah, it’s a pity he was always going on about that Irish stuff though. He’d have been better if he was more English."