Magazine article The Spectator

An Odd Couple

Magazine article The Spectator

An Odd Couple

Article excerpt

An odd couple FIRST BOREDOM, THEN FEAR: A LIFE OF PHILIP LARKIN by Richard Bradford Peter Owen, £19.95, pp. 272, ISBN 0720611474

When the poems of Philip Larkin came to the fore in the late Fifties, I admired his graceful colloquialism but was dismayed by his almost proselytising gloom; life wasn't given much of a chance. So I decided that he was a great Comic poet - stretching the idea of Comedy to almost Renaissance widths and depths - that he was the Les Dawson of the anthologies. This wasn't good enough as a formula, it left too much out; but it was a way of admiring while keeping at a distance.

When, three decades later, Westminster Abbey was found crammed to the walls for his memorial service, it was clear that his willed vacancies - 'the life with the hole in it' - had been welcomed into the hearts and minds of a great many; for them he had told them how it is.

Richard Bradford's account of his life and work, at least for seven-eighths of its length, suggests that the idea of Larkin the comedian is not far from the mark. His comedy is an antidote to boredom, a utilisation of it, but in Larkin's case it was at last replaced by fear. (Bradford's title is of course Larkin's description of life.)

The comedy was masochistic. Take, for instance, the places he chose to live. Like his Mr Bleaney he picked the dreariest, and then (comically) complained. When he arrived in Belfast in 1950 to take up a post as assistant university librarian, he wrote to his mother, 'Belfast is an unattractive city. Oh dear, oh dear', and his biographer adds, 'The words seem unambiguous enough, but with knowledge of Larkin's maturing temperament one detects a hint of masochistic glee.'

Richard Bradford is professor of English at the University of Ulster, author of books called Stylistics and A Linguistic History of English Poetry (also a biography of Kingsley Amis, Lucky Him), and he has an academic's gift for discerning and sorting out patterns, smelling out revealing connections. His interesting and important book, like Larkin, makes the complex seem almost simple. The most fruitful and complex of these connections, for both of them, was Larkin's friendship with Amis.

They met as undergraduates at Oxford, Amis immediately doing one of his famous sound-imitations - in this case of a cowboy gunfight, complete with ricochets - which he was to perform many, many times in the ensuing decades. Later came their famous correspondence, in turn hilarious and unlovely. In the course of it Larkin became epistolary copy-editor and almost co-author (certainly inspirer) of Amis's sprawling and uncertain manuscript of Lucky Jim. Later still Larkin said of their friendship and letters, 'I've always wanted a "fourth-form friend", with whom I could pretend things were not as I know they are - and pretend I was like him.' At this point, feeling exploited, he added, 'Now I don't feel like pretending any longer ... He doesn't like books. He doesn't like reading. And I wouldn't take his opinion on anything, books, people, places ...' This, in a letter to one of his women friends, is extraordinary. He and Amis remained friends, and confessional correspondents, for the rest of his life.

Perhaps the point was that it had never occurred to Larkin that what became Lucky Jim would ever find a publisher. …

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