Magazine article The Spectator

Onan the Liberarian

Magazine article The Spectator

Onan the Liberarian

Article excerpt

PHILIP LARKIN, the miserable old git, has never had it so good. Sir Tom Courtenay is about to play him on stage. Faber is reissuing his Collected Poems this month. And on television there's a new and (by all accounts) sympathetic film about him, Love Again, coming up on BBC 2. (Love Again sounds as though it should star Hugh Grant, but in fact Larkin is played by the brilliant baddie from Daniel Deronda, Hugh Bonneville.) The bald, Hull-based poet who once claimed that `depression is to me as daffodils were to Wordsworth' is having his day, albeit posthumously.

The general view hitherto has been that Larkin (1922-85) was a fine poet but a creep of the first order. Of course, being character-assassinated is par for the course if you're a top poet. Ted Hughes had terrible trouble with a gruesome clique of grave-- desecrating feminist harridans, who more or less accused him of personally shoving his wife's (the poet, Sylvia Plath) head into the gas oven when she killed herself. A wouldbe Plath biographer once told me in all earnestness that she could not complete her book because Mystic Ted had put a spell on her. (Ted and Sylvia: The Movie, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, is on the way.)

Until recently, you were unlikely to hear a good word about Philip Larkin - misogynist, racist, rightist Eeyore, and the most magnificently un-PC poet of modern times. The morose university librarian who wrote some of the best lyric poetry of the last 60 years was surely the Alf Garnett of the poetry world. His letters (many written in the jazzy slang he dug) to mates like Kingsley Amis are stuffed with jokes about blacks, women, liberals and Irishmen. There is something to offend just about everyone. The BBC press release that accompanies the forthcoming film mentions the reactionary `saloon-bar' nature of his views, and, although the word 'regrettable' isn't used, you know that's what they mean.

Larkin was happy to spell out exactly where he stood. `I've always been rightwing.... I suppose I identify the Right with certain virtues and the Left with certain vices. All very unfair, no doubt. Thrift, hard work, reverence, desire to preserve - those are the virtues, in case you're wondering; and on the other hand idleness, greed and treason.' Instead of displaying solidarity with the oppressions of the working man, as modern poets are supposed to, Larkin regarded the unions as a work-shy rabble led by droning, chippy Glaswegians. Indeed, Larkin's outrageous wind-up persona makes this outwardly drab, tall, reclusive figure endlessly entertaining if you're in the mood.

He was true blue in almost every respect. His enthusiasm for mucky books was an appalling own goal for his reputation as a distinguished man of letters. He loved the toptier titles in newsagents and complained that he couldn't get sufficient filth in Hull where he worked at the university library for much of his life. When he bought himself a television, he was bitterly disappointed. `Where's all this porn they talk about? I've seen three bummes and two payres of tittes [sic] since slapping my money down. Why can't they show naked women or pros and cons of corporal punishment in girls' schools?'

It's worrying to think that today Larkin would find his house full of paedo-cops rummaging through his hard disk for spanking websites featuring teenagers in St Trinian's uniform. …

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