Magazine article The Spectator

Low Jinks in the Dorm

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Jinks in the Dorm

Article excerpt

TROUBLE AT WILLOW GABLES AND OTHER FICTIONS by Philip Larkin, edited by James Booth Faber, L20, pp. 544, ISBN 0571203477

In the case of The Public versus The Late Mr Philip Larkin (to adapt Auden's essay on Yeats), the Public gets off to a spanking start. It concedes Larkin's poetic achievement but cites sundry writing, notably the Letters, as evidence of Larkin's misogyny, racism, chauvinism, onanism, Thatcher-worship and all-round political incorrectness. Now comes, from Faber no less, a weighty and scholarly edition of overt Lesbian fladge. And as if this were not enough, the cover shows a photograph of two hatted and uniformed schoolgirls inspecting each other's shoes - or are they ankles? - thereby adding a whiff of paedophilia. The Public sits down with a face like George Carman.

Aside from the silly photograph, not all of this is unfair. Andrew Motion's fine biography of Larkin dissected the poet's Manichean mix of secretiveness and narcissism. After Larkin's death, his literary trustees had to seek a court ruling in order to work out whether he wanted unpublished material preserved or destroyed, so ambiguous were his instructions. Yet the case for Larkin is that great poetry, great art generally, is always life-affirming, even when its themes are as negative and pessimistic as his own. Affirmation comes through formal ingenuity and prowess. As Larkin himself wrote of the jazzman Sidney Bechet:

While art still proceeds from the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart, some of the emotions and impulses littering the shelves, they are subject to more prejudicial thinking nowadays than they used to be. If you are in your sixties, low jinks in girls' dorms are liable to be funny and, not unimaginably, erotic. If you are in your twenties, they are liable to be, like boarding schools in general perhaps, kind of creepy and sad.

Larkin wanted to be a novelist. Indeed he is a novelist. He published two novels by the age of 25, Jill and A Girl in Winter. Their continued availability is not just attributable to his fame as a poet; it is more like a comparison between Beckett's novels and his plays. These books ensured that when Larkin gave up the ghost as a novelist (the present volume contains the unfinished A New World Symphony) he nevertheless exemplified Pound's dictum that poetry should be at least as well-written as prose. …

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