Curriculum Vital

'Reprehensibly perfect'
Philip Larkin Poems Selected by Martin Amis

Leaving aside the untimeliness and misery of it, there is something fitting in the fact that Philip Larkin’s death came on the 2nd of December, as another Christmas closed in. The quasi-Pagan season of goodwill combines three of Larkin’s greatest dislikes: social gatherings, family gatherings and expenditure. ‘On the whole I felt pretty depressed over Christmas, & spent some time labelling packages for my executors,’ he wrote to a friend post-Christmas in 1961, at the age of 39, adding that the ‘ghastly’ festival makes ‘life seem blacker & bleaker and generally more savourless.’ Two years later the pessimism had deepened: ‘And now Christmas is coming again,’ he wrote to the novelist Barbara Pym on the 7th of December, ‘as if we hadn’t enough to put up with. It’s nearly enough to extinguish the low solstitial flame of life – and will, one of these years.’ In a letter of January 1967 to the same friend he dismissed it simply as ‘vile’.

Larkin’s passing 29 years ago portended the death a quarter of a century later of one of his greatest admirers, Christopher Hitchens. The two had much in common: both died of oesophageal cancer in their early 60s after a lifetime of smoking and drinking; both were prolific writers who dominated their fields; and both dabbled in homosexuality during their younger and more rugged years before moving on to mostly unsatisfactory heterosexual relationships in middle age.

For Larkin, the most persistent failed romance was with a woman named Monica Jones. In his review of Letters to Monica, a collection of the couple’s correspondence, Hitchens describes Larkin and Jones’ four-decade relationship as ‘distraught and barren’ and the female half of it as ‘an evidently insufferable yet gifted woman who was a constant friend and intermittent partner (one can barely rise to saying 'mistress' let alone 'lover')’ and who, despite Larkin’s infrequent infidelity and unbending aversion to marriage, stayed with Larkin until his death in 1985.

Monica and marriage are two of the three Ms that stalked Larkin most consistently. Writing to number one about number two in 1966 (after his unfaithfulness had come painfully to light while the couple were on holiday) he said, ‘it’s my own unwillingness to give myself to anyone else that’s at fault – like promising to stand on one leg for the rest of one’s life.’ The ability to reduce some of man’s most cherished acts and institutions to a witty and withering analogy was one of Larkin’s greatest gifts. Sex: ‘like trying to get someone else to blow your nose for you’. Religion: ‘That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die’. Weddings: ‘The women shared / The secret like a happy funeral’. Work: ‘Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck, / And cold as snow’. Socialising: ‘Are, then, these routines / Playing at goodness, like going to church?’

The most important point to make about Larkin, though, and one that is evident in Poems Selected by Martin Amis, is that the similes – and the poems – are as often beautiful and optimistic as they are bleak and upsetting. ‘Who else’, Amis asks in his introduction, ‘takes us, and takes us so often, from sunlit levity to mellifluous gloom?’ The answer is: nobody. ‘And let it be emphasised’, Amis adds, ‘that Larkin is never 'depressing'.’

When I picked up Martin Amis’ collection of Larkin’s poems in a bookshop one day at the age of 27 I’d read neither the poet nor the collector, but had read plenty of the aforementioned Hitchens. The web of genius is as follows: Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens were best friends; the novelist Kingsley Amis, Martin’s father, was close friends with Philip Larkin. The penultimate poem of the collection, ‘Letter to a Friend about Girls’ (published posthumously, at Larkin’s request) is addressed to Amis Sr.:

After comparing lives with you for years
I see how I’ve been losing: all the while
I’ve met a different gauge of girl from yours.

Larkin, naturally, did not establish the same kind of intimacy with Amis Jr., but the two did have a priceless exchange, which Martin records in his introduction, about Larkin’s newly purchased car:

‘You should spend more, Philip. No, really. You’ve bought the car, and that’s good. Now you—’
‘I just wish they wouldn’t keep on sending me all these bills.
‘Well it costs a bit to run a car.’
‘I just wish they wouldn’t keep sending me all these bills.’

Here we have the third and final melancholy M: money.

I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
    From long French windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
    In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

Born in 1922, Larkin emerged from the penury of post-war rationing with a tendency to agonise over even the most modest outlay. It is an anguish that pervades Amis’ choices, culminating with the above, titled simply and unhappily ‘Money’.

If you, dear reader, perhaps unaware of Philip Larkin, are considering which of his books of poetry is worth the money you make ‘from wasting your life on work’ (to paraphrase ‘Self’s the Man’), I recommend this one. Far from making you ‘intensely sad’, it will leave you feeling, as Larkin writes in ‘Coming’,

              like a child
Who comes on a scene
Of adult reconciling,
And can understand nothing
But the unusual laughter,
And starts to be happy.

Questions? Comments? Contact Ross: rgrainger@educationumbrella.com


Related products and pages:

The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, chosen by Philip Larkin

English lesson plans, text guides and resources