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Restoring the reputation of a great

THANK you, James Booth.

The writer's biography of Philip Larkin - Life, Art and Love - is of interest not just because of his analysis of the poems (he is literary adviser to the Larkin Society) but also because of what he says about Larkin the man.

It has been hard to forget the trenchant anti-Larkin opinions that surfaced in the early 1990s after Anthony Thwaite's edition of the Selected Letters and Andrew Motion's biography.

Larkin, as we all do, behaved in different ways towards different people - in this case, his correspondents. Most of the letters in Thwaite's substantial volume were business-like, chatty, tender, or witty. Thwaite, however, observed that Larkin frequently changed his tenor and idiom to suit his recipient.

Thus in some letters to lifelong friends such as Kingsley Amis, Larkin indulged in what Thwaite described as "raucous obscenities". Yes, much of this was pretty illiberal, but it genuinely wasn't the Larkin that everyone knew. And, of course, none of it was ever intended for publication.

But some of the critical reactions were extreme. Larkin was now a "sewer under the national monument"; he was guilty of "racism, misogyny and quasi-fascist views." In a sense, this would not have mattered had the fuss would have quickly died. But to an extent it still shapes a view of Larkin as a reactionary Tory snob. A 2012 review of the Complete Poems mentioned the "vile mess" that was the Larkin in the Selected Letters.

In 2011 Martin Amis, who knew Larkin, spoke of the "simple truth that writers' private lives don't matter; only the work matters." The treachery had failed, he said; Larkin had long since been restored to his position as our best-loved poet since the war.

But even today, Larkin's reputation still needs to be burnished. And Booth, a long-time colleague, has done an impressive job in his book.

Larkin, he says, presented his correspondents with a view of himself tailored to their expectations. His negative public image was built neither on his poetry nor on the evidence of those who knew him. Commentators erred in identifying the most pungent letters with the real Larkin. The women who knew him all remember him with genuine affection. The poet was even fond of animals and children.

If Booth finally succeeds in correcting the view of Larkin and reminding us of the glories of the poetry, he will have done us all a service. And old Philip, too.

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