n The South Bank Show last week, I watched Felix Dennis, the magazine- publishing magnate and crack-smoking voluptuary, reading his retro-Georgian verse on his "Did I Mention the Free Wine" poetry- recital tour. Mr Dennis, who once boasted 14 mistresses, bribed audiences with premier cru claret while he declaimed his writing in a theatrical growl. What would the poet Philip Larkin have made of it?
I suspect the figure of Dennis-the-bard would have sent him into paroxysms of envy. In "The Life with a Hole In It", Larkin considers his own position:
So the shit in the shuttered chateau
Who does his five hundred words
Then parts out the rest of the day
Between bathing and booze and birds
Is as far off as ever, but so
Is that spectacled schoolteaching sod
(Six kids, and the wife in pod,
And her parents coming to stay) ...
In other words, the only compensation for his not being the smug millionaire by the pool is that he, Larkin, is not burdened with a ghastly family either. It sounds a cold comfort: he never got what he wanted, but at least he never did what he didn't want to do. So there. Thus does the most thoroughgoing bookish curmudgeon of the 20th century reflect on the phenomenon of renown.
Had Larkin been watching TV the next evening, he might have caught the BBC's Essential Poems (To Fall In Love With) in which the presenter, Daisy Goodwin, urged viewers to experience the sensuous caress of her selection as a kind of therapy for the soul. I think Larkin would have looked at her peerless brown eyes, her murmurous voice and her assurance that poems are the lexical equivalents of violet-cream chocolates, and have wondered what Ms Goodwin looked like sans clothing. The vituperation with which he'd have described to Kingsley Amis the ludicrous spectacle of Greg Wise intoning Byron's "So We'll Go No More A-Roving" would have scorched the page.
To some readers, Larkin's reputation took a fatal dive in 1992 when his Collected Letters were published, full of offhand racism and what seemed like a crypto-paedophilic interest in daytime TV shows with dancing children. To many in 2003, he's the Eeyore of English literature, a glum, endlessly complaining misanthrope and embittered woman-hater, whose unlovely habits fatally compromised the worth of his poetry. To others, such as myself, he has revealed himself, since his death in 1985, to be the most bracing post- mortem company in post- war English letters. Far from being a grumbling bore, he seems to me, more and more to take on the lineaments of a punk, a snarling rebel, a subversive shock- tactician in polite living-rooms, an outrageous anti- hero.
Not that you'd think it from the way he's currently being portrayed. At the Comedy Theatre in London, Tom Courtenay opened his one-man show this week, Pretending to Be Me, the script quarried from Larkin's own autobiographical writings, his letters and a score of poems, and delivered with charm and fine confessional relish. It's a fantastic performance, full of dancing eyebrows, buttonholing hand-gestures and self-silencing draughts of tea and whisky, but it's hard to square with the Larkin that glooms away at the back of our heads. Not just because Courtenay doesn't remotely resemble Larkin (he looks, in fact, the dead spit of Kingsley Amis, and sounds like a sprightlier Alan Bennett) but because he takes Larkin at face value - as a shambling suburbanite, a shy social tortoise in a cardigan, essaying little jokes about Ted Hughes, capering briefly to his favourite jazz tracks, letting a natural charm and sweetness peep through his howling inadequacies. You hear nothing of his relationships with women, little of his spitting disgust at human society. "This is a glorious celebration of good, old, down-to- earth and quite simply Great Britain," said the drama critic of the Daily Mirror. …